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Bill Hilts Jr.: What is the future of hunting?

Bill Hilts Jr.: What is the future of hunting?

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Mike George

Mike George of Niagara Falls could be holding his final opening day deer as he winds down his hunting career.

It was opening day of the regular big game season of the Southern Zone. Once again, I found myself in the hills of Steuben County, a tradition that has spanned more than a century. I won’t say how many more. Most of that time was spent with family and friends in Rock Creek State Forest, Greenwood.

However, change is the one thing that is constant.

The patriarch of the Hilts clan, Bill Sr., turns 90 next month. It wasn’t fun for him anymore. Brother Rick now hunts in Niagara County and brother Dave lost a little bit of that fire and drive needed to commit for a season. Nephews Kiel Davignon and Christian Hilts were preoccupied with new jobs and life in general. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of such stories of hunting groups and camps aging out or slowly disbanding. What does the future hold for hunting? It was a question that kept me thinking about all weekend.

One of the catalysts for that future-oriented train of thought was a new book penned by local “outdoor” writer Joel Spring of Ransomville titled “At Forest’s Edge.”  It’s another outstanding collection of outdoor adventures by the Western New York scribe that focuses on a specific outdoor theme. 

“I explored the past in my book ‘The Ghosts of Autumn,’ ” Spring said. “I’ve spent a lot of time with younger hunters the last few years and became interested in what the future of hunting might look like. I think with new, young, enthusiastic hunters coming on the scene, the future of hunting is very bright.”

It doesn’t come without a little bit of hard work and sacrifice.

“Mentoring is very important,” Spring said. “Every year I try to take out new hunters, young hunters, and introduce them to pheasant hunting, deer hunting and, very often, kayak fishing. I'm very hopeful for the future of hunting.”

This year, I was a guest of the Fox camp in Hartsville, just a few miles from my Greenwood haunts. Mike “Old Buzzard” Fox and his son, Jesse of Lewiston, as well as Mike’s brother, Mark, from Youngstown were camp anchors. Mike “Bullhead” George of Niagara Falls, at age 77, was the elder statesman of the camp. Brothers Bob Saunderson of Fulton and Mike of Niagara Falls rounded out the camp this year. Mark Fox said it best when he noted that if it wasn’t for his nephew Jesse at age 17, he would be the youngest person in deer camp – at age 62.

Sitting in a tree stand opening morning, cognizant of the new half-hour before sunrise opening time, I heard rifle and shotgun blasts before sunrise. The new regulation worked, falling in line with other opening time frames from around the country. What does everyone at camp think about the future of hunting?

“It helps being able to hunt with my son, Jesse,” Mike Fox, 68, said while we were breaking bread and sharing stories in camp. “It rejuvenates me. I strongly believe that moving the big game opener from a Monday to a Saturday also hurt the hunting tradition. It hurt the local businesses, too. I’m not seeing the people in the woods that I used to.”

From a younger perspective, Jesse was quick to point out that he sees very few kids his age going deer hunting. “They are just not into it,” said the Lew-Port High School senior.

It might be Mike George’s last year of deer hunting. At least that’s what he said several times. Mother Nature seemed to be willing to grant him a special wish or two and George was going to take advantage of it. Opening morning, he didn’t get up at 4:45 a.m. as everyone else did. Instead, he rolled out of bed at 8:15 a.m. and rode up to his stand at 8:30 a.m. behind the cabin with his 4-wheeler. At 9:30 a.m., he shot a big doe, and he was back to camp by 11 a.m. getting ready for lunch.

“I think deer hunting has gotten too commercial,” George said. “It seems to be overly sophisticated with trail cameras, scents, specialty clothes and the like. It’s time for me to hang up my boots.”

The flip side could be true, too. Not everyone is tech savvy, but hunting tools like trail cameras could add a new level of interest and excitement to the next generation of high-tech hunters. Is it a good thing? The jury is still out as to the bottom line for big game hunting and what impacts they could have on the future of the popular pastime.

Bob and Mike Saunderson were having the same conversation an hour before I asked them what their thoughts were on the future of hunting.

“I just don’t see the younger hunters in the woods and we’re losing the older hunters,” Mike said. “There’s not enough people out there moving deer.”

On a side note, he bought an inexpensive camera to see whether a new scent drip was working over a mock scrape he set up near where he hunts. Not only did he find it worked, he also was amazed by the amount of deer activity going on there – even if it were all nocturnal. It didn’t help him for opening weekend. He didn’t even see a deer.

Bob Saunderson thought about growing up in the Niagara Falls area. “Kids today need to look to the outdoors for more recreational pastimes,” he said. “It’s not like when we were kids. We were outdoors all day, every day. It seems like it's tough to even get the kids out of the house.”

He said his grandson is showing interest in hunting, and he hopes to bring him along next year, taking advantage of the new 12- and 13-year-old hunting rule that was enacted in most counties.

It’s important to get junior hunters out there in the fields and forests at an earlier age. The new law allows 12- and 13-year-olds to hunt deer (except Erie and Rockland counties) with a licensed mentor at least 21 years of age and three years of hunting experience.

Some people have been critical of the new law, but if you look at the big picture, New York has fallen behind in attracting new hunters. It wasn’t until an online hunter education course became available in 2020 due to the pandemic that we saw a surge in new hunters. New York was the last state in the country that allowed 12- and 13-year-old junior hunters to pursue deer with a firearm. They could already use a gun to hunt small game, and they could use a bow to hunt deer (but not a crossbow or a firearm). Remember, that is all after passing a hunter education course and while hunting with an adult mentor.

With Christmas just around the corner, it’s a great time to pick up Spring’s book “At Forest’s Edge” as a stocking stuffer. Hopefully it will get you thinking about what you can do to ensure a brighter future for hunting. Changes are happening and we need to learn to adapt.

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