After sitting at the edge of a field in the Cutchogue woods for close to two hours, you look to your right about 10 minutes before sunset — when hunting officially ends for the day — and see a pair of eyes staring at you. Your heart stops for a split second as you realize it’s what you’ve been waiting for since you got there, and he just snuck up on you without you noticing: an eight-point buck.
You freeze. No more breathing, no more moving. Your heart pounds as you lock eyes with the buck and he tries to determine what you are, beyond just a threat to his normal routine. He spends the next five minutes circling you, before snorting loudly to alert other deer in the area. Then he’s gone. You can breathe. You can move again.
That’s an experience, say some North Fork hunters, that today’s youth just aren’t getting anymore. And they hope to do something about it.
The first of October meant a lot of things to a lot of different people this year: the day the federal government failed to meet its debt obligations or the day many Americans could sign up for health coverage. For some, it was the day Major League Baseball’s postseason started.
For Adam West of Cutchogue, it was opening day of the bowhunting season in Suffolk County.
“My wife said, ‘You’re happier than on your birthday when hunting season opens,’ ” said Mr. West, who’s hunted in Idaho six times and Ohio four times, named one of his daughters Hunter and sits on the town’s deer management committee.
She was right.
Mr. West, a carpenter, grew up in Southold and said that over time, he’s seen fewer and fewer young hunters out in the fields and woods of the North Fork during hunting season. Over that time, the deer population has blossomed to the point that current Supervisor Scott Russell has called the need to cull the herd more of a pest management problem than anything else.
A few factors have contributed to a lack of new blood in the hunting population, Mr. West believes.
For one, he said, “We’ve moved further and further away from an agricultural society. We’re disjointed from where our food comes from.”
Also on the larger scale, waiting an hour and a half just to see a deer — never mind completing the task of successfully hunting and tracking it — is something many people don’t seem to have the patience for anymore, he said. And it’s never a guarantee that a hunter will see anything at all when going out.
“A lot of people want instant access to other people, to fun. We’re an instant gratification society,” Mr. West said. “And there’s no real way to do that in hunting.”
Jeff Standish, whose deer stand West used to get his very first deer, agrees. Asked if more hunting education courses — a state Department of Environmental Conservation requirement for all hunters — might help spur interest among youth, Mr. Standish said maybe. The underlying problem for many, he said, is that “they’re at home playing video games.”
Whatever local youth are doing, chances are they aren’t hunting as much. A 2009 study by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which gathered data from New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and 14 other states, reported: “Those hunting in the Northeast are considerably older, on average, than those in the rest of the country. The national hunting base is aging, with fewer young hunters filling the gaps the older hunters are creating when they no longer hunt.”
Mr. Standish, the town’s deputy director of public works, has crafted a town program that has opened more than 525 publicly owned acres to hunters. In an area where space is a limiting factor, says Mr. West — who hunted for several years in Virginia on thousands of acres of open space — finding places to hunt can be another challenge in recruiting new hunters.
Started in 2008 with 50 hunters, originally on 194 acres townwide, Southold’s deer management program has filled to capacity over the past two years, accommodating 100 hunters in 2012 and 2013. The take has risen from five deer the first year to 56 in year two and over 210 in 2012. Additionally, Southold has installed a cooler where hunters can drop off donated meat, which doubles as a DEC station for hunters to pick up extra tags.
Dave Dominy hunted on town land in the Hog’s Neck area on Tuesday and has used the program to get between six and eight deer over each of the past few seasons.
“To their credit, the town has been exceptional,” said Mr. Dominy, a native of the Washington, D.C., area who’s been hunting for close to 25 years. While he says he hunts partly for enjoyment, he also believes many hunters “don’t recognize the role they are playing out here” — and need to step up themselves to help cull the deer herd.
He said there is currently a gap between what hunters could be doing to trim the number of deer on the North Fork and what they are doing.
“There’s an opportunity for hunters to do more than they do.”
While it’s in the “very, very green stage,” Mr. Dominy, Mr. West and Mr. Standish all envision a hunting club on the horizon that would reach out and try to get the public involved in the sport.
Mr. Dominy said he has witnessed a sea change in the public perception of hunting and while many people might not necessarily be against hunting, many also aren’t jumping to take it up as a hobby. It can be expensive — a new bow can go for as much as $1,000.
And like most activities, if you’re not exposed to it, chances are you won’t take it up, which he says is why many youngsters aren’t interested in the sport. Mr. West learned to hunt from a family friend, he said. His father was just never into it.
“Maybe dads don’t have the time to take them but, unfortunately, everyone is extremely busy,” said Mr. Dominy, who’s introduced hunting to his own son, though he’s still unsure if he’ll take it up.
“I don’t see any young kids out there doing it, so I think we can make some outreach there,” he said. “Maybe we could find a spot for an indoor range. It’s better than video games.”
Mr. Standish says that younger hunters wouldn’t be the only ones who could benefit from a hunting club (not a gun club, he points out).
“It would also be about educating the hunters themselves,” he said, hosting speakers and courses to educate those in the field. In addition, he would hope to partner local landowners with hunters to further cull the herd.
Mr. West, who’s been hunting for the past 19 years, has noticed a dearth of young hunters in recent years. Like the deer themselves, he said, many seasoned hunters from points west have made their way to the North Fork during hunting season over the past few years. But he’s not seeing dads and kids.
Admitting that often, it might not be as immediately satisfying as a lot of other activities that grab younger kids, Mr. West estimates it’s about “80/20” — 80 percent of the time you’re sitting and relaxing and 20 percent it’s exciting.
“Every once in a while, you’ll see a squirrel run up a tree,” he said. “I know that’s not exactly exciting, but it can be pretty neat. It’s not something you see every day.”