By CRAIG D. REBER | Telegraph Herald

RICKARDSVILLE, Iowa (AP) — Nathan Armstrong recently shot a white-tailed deer, his first. The 14-year old Western Dubuque High School freshman was thrilled.

“It's different,” said Armstrong, of Peosta, Iowa. “It requires a lot of patience. It can be really frustrating at times, but when you do finally get a deer, it's so worth it.”

The deer was harvested near Rickardsville during the state's youth deer hunting season, the Telegraph Herald reported.

The day before bagging a deer, Armstrong also had taken to the woods but missed a shot.

“It's fun to go out there in the wild, in the woods, away from all technology,” Armstrong said. “It's nice and relaxing. It's a whole different place to be in.”

The number of hunting licenses issued in the U.S. has been fairly stagnant since about 2000, ranging from 14.5 million to 15 million annually.

Despite that consistency, the nature of hunting continues to change.

In Iowa, there were fewer paid hunting license holders in 2013 than in any year since 1958, according to statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those same stats show that the number of license holders in Illinois has been fairly stable in the 290,000 to 320,000 range for the past three decades, while the totals for Wisconsin in recent years have fallen 50,000 to 100,000 short of totals two decades prior.

Nationally, and in those three states, the vast majority of hunters head to the woods hoping to see a deer in their sights, as the percentage of those hunting for small game continues to fall.

Meanwhile, states continue to emphasize ways to attract younger people into hunting, offering incentives like holding youth hunting seasons first. Armstrong bagged his first-ever deer recently during such a season.

Despite those efforts, tri-state-area experts say they see fewer young people starting to hunt and expect overall participation to fall in the years ahead.

“We may not be seeing those numbers drop as much, compared to other states, but we are doing everything we can to provide an enjoyable experience,” said Robert Manwell, a Wisconsin DNR spokesman in Fitchburg. “Our intent is to keep hunting alive and keep our state tradition going.”

Hunting definitely is a tradition in the Lincoln family of Dubuque, one proudly carried on by patriarch Dave Lincoln.

He hunts primarily turkey, both with a bow and shotgun, from a tree stand.

“All of that at age 73,” he said, laughing good-naturedly.

His son Aaron, 46, and Aaron's son Howie, 26, also hunt regularly.

“We get Grandpa out there and up there, one way or another,” Howie said. “We're not going to let him sit at home.”

Howie, who heads the Whitetails Unlimited Dubuque Chapter, began hunting at age 12. It's one of his unabashed passions.

“I wish I could hunt deer 365 days a year,” Howie said. “But they need time to raise their young.”

However, all three Lincolns observe an overall, general decline in hunting, at least in Iowa.

The numbers in the state back up their observations. There were fewer than 230,000 hunting license holders in 2013, the lowest total in at least 55 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That total had been about 290,000 in 2008 and 2009.

Local enthusiasts and experts are quick to offer theories on what might be contributing to some of the declines.

Several mentioned mentoring.

Dave Lincoln took Aaron and Howie hunting with him, establishing a tradition.

Nathan Armstrong's dad, Michael, doesn't hunt, but other relatives taught Nathan firearm and archery skills at a young age.

“Part of it is due to no one taking them out, no one is showing them,” said Wayne Buchholtz, Mines of Spain State Recreation Area park ranger. “If there's not someone out there showing you, you just aren't going to do it.”

Megan Wisecup, hunter education administrator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, also referenced the need for that social support.

“One of the main reasons of not participating in both hunting and angling has been not having someone to go with or take them,” she said. “Sometimes, it is just simply not being asked to go.”

Locals, including Michael Armstrong, also pointed to electronics as a threat, as it increasingly grabs more attention among young people.

“I think the main reason is the attention span of youth, the video games, instant gratification, cellphone messages every 30 seconds,” he said. “How many young people do you see walking through the woods looking for a critter?”

Dave Lincoln echoed the sentiment.

“We're in a different world. It's not the same out there as when we were young,” he said.

Limited time might be the biggest reason there are fewer young hunters, others theorized.

Chuck Horn, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation officer in Fennimore, cites — without rancor — school activities.

“They encroach on weekends,” he said, adding most youngsters learn to hunt on weekends. “You've got basketball, football, volleyball. Even school-affiliated booster organizations have Sunday activities.”

It's an accepted fact of life.

“Kids are busier,” said Chad Breuer, of Bloomington, Wis., a hunter safety instructor and Grant County Outdoor Sport Alliance member. “I'm seeing more kids involved with sports in the fall. It's tying up a lot of their time, including Saturdays. They're busy with so many different activities.”

Howie Lincoln recalled that when he grew up, there were no weekend sporting events.

“Nowadays, it seems like kids are in sports activities seven days a week,” he said.

Aaron agreed. He thinks fewer young people are hunting.

“I have brothers-in-law who hunt, but their kids don't want any part of it,” Aaron said. “There's a lot of emphasis on athletics and computers. You take a kid out in the outdoors, in the elements, they'd be bored and cold. Howie and I? Each of us spend 10 to 14 hours preparing for a bow hunt.”

Adds Wisecup: “Today's youth are involved in more activities then ever, and at a much younger age then our youth 20 to 30 years ago. Youth are being forced to choose between competitive sports or lifelong sports like hunting, fishing, at a much younger age. Youth are often penalized now if they miss a practice or a game, so we are seeing more youth not participate in hunting and hunter education until they get out of school.”

Tim Fiedler, of DubuqueLand Pheasants Forever, is frustrated with the trends.

While state programs that encourage youngsters to hunt are a step in the right direction, it can be tough to even find a good spot to hunt anymore.

“Before, you would ask a farmer permission to hunt on their land,” he said. “Now, that's not the case. It's harder to track down landowners. The days of knocking on a door and asking to hunt are over.”

Breuer agrees.

“A lot of the great hunting land is gone, locked up,” he said. “Twenty years ago, you'd talk to your neighbor, ask to hunt on their property, (and) they'd say, `Go ahead.' Now, with bigger farms, people from the city are buying property and that hasn't helped. People are leasing land for hunting rights.”

The situation isn't any different in Illinois, according to Dave McCabe, 59, of Galena, who's hunted since age 14.

“It's tough to find private land to hunt on,” he said, “and what public land there is, it's heavily hunted. But for many, it's the only place for a person to go.”

Ray Miller, a retired Illinois conservation police officer, knows of a Jo Daviess County man who hunted on the same land for 45 years.

“He lost it to people who now lease it,” he said. “Now, he has to hunt on state land.”

Wisecup said Iowa is 49th in the amount of public land available, which has been a factor when it comes to opportunities to hunt. (Illinois is 44th and Wisconsin 18th).

Changes in agriculture factor in as well.

“There's a higher percentage of commodities crop farming,” Fiedler said. “That minimizes the places to hunt. “When I was growing up, there were fence rows that provided cover for upland game like pheasants. I used to drive down the road and see game. It's a different ballgame now. And the high price of hay (alfalfa) for livestock feed eliminates necessary cover as well. It's just not out there.”

Wisecup thinks the decline in pheasants over the last several years has impacted Iowa's hunting numbers.

“Pheasant hunting is a very social activity and also one that a lot of younger hunters used to get the opportunity to start out on versus jumping right in to the big game, like deer and turkey,” she said. “Availability of game definitely can correlate to the decline in hunting numbers. If hunters are not seeing game while out in the field, they are more apt to lapse or not purchase a license the following year.”

Miller agrees fewer younger people take up hunting. His theory?

“Years ago, we'd start with squirrels,” he said. “Hardly anybody hunts squirrels anymore. Deer is No. 1. There are still a lot of hunters, but few small game hunters. I'd take my daughter out with a .22 (caliber rifle), shoot nine to 10 squirrels or rabbits and graduate to deer. Now, it seems you start later in life or not at all.”

Both Iowa and Wisconsin offer programs that encourage youngsters to become involved with hunting and experiencing the outdoors.

Fiedler thinks Iowa is on the right track. He cites the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Pheasants Forever co-sponsored Hunting and Conservation Camp, designed to introduce a variety of outdoor skills to boys ages 12 to 15. Participants learn skills such as shooting, trapping, dog training, hunting (waterfowl and turkey), gun care/cleaning, game calling and conservation.

Outdoor Journey for Girls is a three-day, two-night workshop aimed at introducing outdoor skills to girls ages 12 to 15. The outdoor skills include canoeing and water safety, basic orienteering, fish and wildlife identification, archery, firearm safety and basic shooting, camping and outdoor survival, game care, fur bearers and fur harvesting, fishing and preparing the catch and hunter education certification.

The Wisconsin DNR offers the Learn to Hunt program that partners novice hunters, youth and adults, with qualified instructors and hunting mentors. The structured program introduces novice hunters to a variety of hunting experiences with game like squirrel or rabbits, dove, waterfowl, pheasant, turkey, deer and bear.

“For a while, there was a downward trend,” Horn said, adding he thinks the Learn to Hunt program has helped reverse the trend — with youngsters and adults alike.

The Grant County Outdoor Sport Alliance partners with the program that's held in counties throughout the state.

Dan Dunham, a retired Hempstead High School wrestling coach, has taught Iowa hunter safety courses for more than 35 years. He sees some resurgence in young people hunting. Like Horn, he cites the popularity of the state and public partnership for sporting programs.

“One thing we've really been stressing is hunting ethics (in hunter education classes),” he said. “It's important that kids are introduced to an ethical way to hunt and the need to practice a quick, clean kill. We also teach how to deal with landowners. The kids seem to pick all of that up pretty well.”

Hunter safety and education instructors, all volunteers, also bring state conservation officers to their classes.

“It's important to see them for the numerous responsibilities they have,” Dunham said. “They're not simply a game warden out to get them.”

Dunham also cites the growing popularity of high school trapshooting leagues in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

“There's been an upswing in the state, but it hasn't really hit Dubuque,” he said. Dunham hopes that's something school boards will address, noting some Iowa high schools award varsity letters to youngsters in trapshooting programs.

Trapshooting, Dunham said, exposes youngsters to firearms in a competitive setting with people of a similar age. It might be the foundation to pursue hunting, whether it's upland game birds like pheasant, turkeys or white-tailed deer.

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Information from: Telegraph Herald, www.thonline.com