In November, Donny and Shelenia Henry took their twin sons deer hunting for the first time.
The Columbus residents went out to private Lowndes County land they hunt near the Alabama line and the boys — Kaleb and Kendall, both 11 — brought their rifles. Then they waited. Eventually, a buck crossed their line of sight. The only problem? Two boys, one deer. So the twins raised their guns together.
“Daddy counted down, and they both shot,” Shelenia Henry said. “And you know what? They both hit it.”
And with that, Kaleb and Kendall were indoctrinated into a tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries: A father teaches his children, who grow up and teach their children.
It is safe to say that hunting — whether crouching in a duck blind, walking a pasture for dove or sitting in a deer stand — sits near the top on most any list of Southern activities.
But federal statistics indicate it may be on the decline.
The most recent numbers from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service show that between July 2012 and June 2013, approximately 218,161 people held hunting licenses purchased from the state of Mississippi. That was the lowest total in more than a decade.
Mississippi is not alone.
“It is across the country,” Mike Piccirilli, the Southeast region’s chief of the federal Division of Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration, told The Dispatch earlier this year. “You may have some states that show a little bump … but the real issue is people don’t hunt.”
Pinpointing why the slump may be occurring is tricky business.
“What are the challenges that we face?” Tom MacKenzie, spokesperson for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Southeast region, asked. “Those are some real big picture questions.”
Wildlife experts do have some ideas, though.
The most prevalent theory: Today’s youth have many different activities to devote their time to — video games, social media, weekend sporting teams, for example.
“Kids just aren’t as interested in hunting because it does not offer the immediate fulfillment that a smart phone does,” said Steve Demarais, the Dale Arner Distinguished Professor of Wildlife at Mississippi State University. “It’s harder for mom and dad to get them interested.”
At the same time, older generations are hitting the woods less and less.
John Agricola, an Alabama-based historian who holds a masters degree in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi, said when it comes to hunting, people from the Baby Boomer generation are “aging out of trophy taking.”
Gary Dedeaux, a West Point selectman who operates two pawn shops in the Golden Triangle, said that while his businesses sell more firearms than ever, he has indeed seen a decline in people purchasing hunting rifles.
Dedeaux is 59. When he was growing up, he said, “We didn’t have a lot of options as far as things to do, but hunting was one of them.”
Another reason for the decline, experts said, may be the decline in private land open to hunters.
“Most hunting today is done on private land, especially hunting clubs,” said Ted Ownby, the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “And the old idea that most landowners are happy to have hunters on their property gets less common all the time.”
“If you don’t belong to a hunting club or own property, you don’t hunt,” he said. In West Point, he noted, there are a handful of clubs but they have very little turnover.
MacKenzie said he grew up in rural California and when he was young, going hunting meant walking out of his home into the woods with a rifle.
“I could shoot off my porch,” he said.
But urban sprawl and the emergence of suburbs has changed that.
“Now, to go hunt I’ve got to drive two hours to find good public land that’s available,” said MacKenzie, who lives in the Atlanta area.
Ownby also mentioned that modern hunting regulations have become more rigid — many different seasons, lots of enforcement — and that makes it an activity that feels more exclusive than inclusive.
“(Hunting doesn’t) give the old feeling of being free from rules and limits and problems,” he said.
Piccirilli said he believes more outdoorsmen gravitate now toward fishing than hunting for that reason.
“You have to pick and choose where you want to go and when you want to go, which makes it a little more difficult,” he said.
‘Part of being an American’
Despite the dwindling year-by-year numbers of paid license holders, hunting will likely always remain a pastime for many in Mississippi and in the U.S.
“It’s part of being an American, flat out,” MacKenzie said. “It’s what we grew up as a country being able to do because of the great lands that we have here. And it created us. It allowed us to be effective in terms of providing food on the table, to be independent.”
In 2014, Mississippians went to the polls and voted to amend the state constitution to make hunting and fishing a right in the state. Nearly 87 percent voted for the amendment.
At the same time, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks officials say their youth outreach programs, which are aimed at introducing younger generations to hunting and fishing, remain popular.
“Our hunting classes are full,” Jim Walker, spokesperson with MDWFP, told The Sun Herald newspaper last year. “Our youth hunts are sold out.”
Piccirilli praised those outreach efforts.
“The numbers would be even more drastic if the states were not actively trying to address it,” he said.
Brad Young is the executive director of the Mississippi Wildlife Federation, whose organization has 1,200 members statewide. He noted that the decline in hunting in Mississippi is not as dramatic as has been the case in other states. Young also observed that, while there may be less private land available for hunting, there is more public hunting land than ever before in Mississippi.
“Hunting is important because it is about so much than just harvest of game,” Young noted, saying it fosters an appreciation for the state’s natural resources and is an opportunity to spend quality time with friends and family.
Like the Henrys in Columbus.
The family eats the meat they take from the woods. More importantly, though, it connects the sons to their father.
After their first taste of hunting, Shelenia Henry said, her sons are hooked.
“Their dad loves it,” she said. “They love it, too.”
Former Dispatch reporter Andrew Hazzard and former intern Ginger Hervey contributed to this report.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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