JEFFERSON CITY — Not many years ago, the conventional wisdom was that hunting was a relic of America’s pioneer past.

From the 1960s until recently, fewer people hunted every year.

Thanks to a combination of government and citizen action, some types of hunting are on the rise, while others remain stable.

Efforts to reverse the decline in hunting participation in Missouri date back to the 1990s, when biologists with the Department of Conservation began to wonder if the day might come when Missouri had too few hunters to manage populations of deer and other game animals.

The downward trend concerned biologists for other reasons, as well.

Deer hunting is a powerful economic engine, creating more than $1 billion in economic activity annually for communities and businesses, large and small. And because most Conservation Department biologists are hunters, they worried about the potential loss of treasured cultural and family traditions.

To address these concerns, the Conservation Department reduced the price of permits for young hunters, instituted special youth seasons to create mentoring opportunities, and created the Apprentice Hunter Authorization, which enables people interested in hunting to give it a try for two years before taking hunter education.

It also created hunting-skills workshops to shorten novice hunters’ learning curve. Most recently, the agency revamped its hunter-education course to make it more convenient and user-friendly.

Mentorship Is Key

Important as these measures might be, they do little to address the most important tool in hunter recruitment – mentorship.

Successful hunting requires a depth of knowledge that takes unaided beginners years to acquire. Learning from an experienced hunter shortens this learning curve dramatically.

In keeping with the Show-Me State’s long history of citizen-led conservation, individual hunters have stepped up to fill this gap.

Individual mentorship has always been the mainstay of hunter recruitment.

No one called it “mentorship” 30 years ago. Youngsters simply took up hunting because a relative or friend showed them how. That changed gradually as families became more scattered and increasingly lived in cities, rather than close to the land.

In spite of such challenges, individual hunting mentorship is alive and well in Missouri.

Creating New Traditions

Another example of joint citizen action is an annual event organized by Faron Teague and a few friends. Teague is the owner of Indian Trail Archery and Guns in Salem.

Each year during the early youth portion of firearms deer season, Teague transforms his archery shop into the local hub of activity for young hunters. They call it Deer Camp.

Teague and his friends prepare 10 gallons of venison chili. They unlock the doors around dawn on opening day and stay open until after dark, serving chili and hot dogs to everyone who brings in deer or comes to see deer others bring in. On Sunday, they repeat the ritual.

Every youngster who brings in a deer gets a photo with their deer.

“I don’t think I’ve ever told one to smile,” says Teague. “That’s one of my favorite parts of the whole thing – seeing the huge smiles on kids’ faces when they bring in their deer.”

Besides having their pictures taken, successful hunters are entered in a drawing for prizes, which are underwritten by local businesses. Last year’s prizes included a big aluminum-sided hunting blind and 50 Leatherman multi-tools.

Deer Camp just completed its fifth year. Early on, Teague and his partners provided the labor and $500 to $1,000 needed to stage the event. As the event grew, they started putting out a contribution can for those who want to help with costs.

“It’s worth every penny,” says Teague. “It’s kind of my pre-Christmas present to me. Honestly, it’s the most fun thing they’ll ever do. The kids that come in here have an excitement I lost years ago. It’s all new to them. It’s the same as when I sell a bow to a young person. I love to look in their eyes when they first shoot. When they hit the center of the target, that’s a look you’ll never see again.”

Beyond the pleasure it gives him and his band of “loafers,” Teague sees Deer Camp as an investment in the future.

“The average age of Missouri deer hunters is going up,” says Teague. “If we don’t get young people involved in our sport, we’re going to lose them.”

Do you know a boy or girl who has shown an interest in outdoor activities but whose family doesn’t hunt? Does one of your coworkers ask you about hunting? They might be waiting for an invitation.