Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Season Opener

In the absence of cool weather or fall color, two things define the change of seasons in this part of the world: football and dove hunting.

The LSU Tigers won their season opener against Mississippi State in at 45-0 rout, which, best of all, occurred on a Thursday and left the long Labor Day weekend open for dove hunting.

I don't shoot but always notice the opening day of dove season; it's hard to miss here. I've seen hunters set up shop---blinds, dogs, blaze orange, the works---nearly in the middle of town. It's handy in the heat to hunt close to the corner quickie mart.

It's handy anyway to hunt near home. As a falconer I've had this pleasure almost everywhere I've lived. It's a strange irony of the sport that while the vast open spaces are nice places to hawk every once in a while, there is also plenty game in town and generally no restrictions to flying hawks. If you hunt often, as falconers do and must, there are a dozen common-sense reasons to hunt close.

For years the same held true for shot gunners. Steve remembers hunting woodcock in the sparse subdivisions of New England, just walking distance from home. And down here, as mentioned, dove hunters have been easy to spot along the road to Wal-Mart. But as Steve found on a more recent trip to his home woods, bird gun in plain view, the times they have a'changed.

I saw no gunners in Baton Rouge this weekend. There is no place left in town to host them. But a trip across the river to Port Allen found them out in force.

Port Allen, a tiny point of transfer for raw materials---sugarcane and petroleum---is growing. I was wrong in 2003 to predict its shrinking population to bottom out, leaving more of its choice hunting land open to me. A movie studio, of all things, 800 acres big, is going up on the north end of town. To the south, huge tracts of land are being cleared and turned into housing and industrial space at a rate that seems almost apocalyptic.

Yet Sunday, literally between the bulldozers, dozens of cammo-clad gunners staked out small territories and patches of overcast sky.

There was a black lab for every two or three men, and a jacked-up four wheel drive truck for every one. The vehicles sat along the road and crosswise in empty parking lots beside plowed fields. Men crouched behind blinds of sugarcane, or stalked along its rows or simply sat upright in the open on stools. All together, across both sides of Highway 1 just north of downtown, maybe two dozen hunters could be seen.

Above and around them, hundreds of mourning doves whirled and landed or tried to land in the newly turned earth. However many the guns killed, there seemed no shortage of birds and no particular hurry on their part to clear the area.

I was looking for a place to fly my hawk, so I didn't stop. But I wished them well, hunters and their quarry both.

Where will these guys go next year? It's likely they were citizens of Baton Rouge, not local to Port Allen. In recent years, some of them would have stayed within the city limits on opening day. Why not? All else equal, being home for supper is still the best way to build good will at home for another day of hunting.

This is where the rubber and the road meet on the downward trend in American yeoman hunting. Yesterday's AP story outlines the decline in hunters' numbers as if it's news. Everyone who hunts on his own time and own dime knows it's getting harder to do, and why. The article contains some important quotes:

"We hear concerns about land access," [New Hampshire Fish and Game Department spokeswoman, Judy Stokes] said. "People grew up hunting — you went out with your family, your uncle. And now you go back, and there's a shopping plaza or a housing development. Some of your favorite places just aren't available anymore."

National hunting expert Mark Damian Duda, executive director of Virginia-based research firm Responsive Management, says America's increasingly urban and suburban culture makes it less friendly toward the pastime.

[Duda] "...In a rural environment, where your friends and family hunt, you feel comfortable with guns, you feel comfortable with killing an animal."

Indeed, the article continues, "hunting remains vibrant in many rural states — 19 percent of residents 16 and older hunted last year in Montana and 17 percent in North Dakota, compared with 1 percent in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey."

In Baton Rouge (capital city of The Sportman's Paradise), residents are already driving west to hunt doves on opening day. Most have given up hope of hunting anything else in town and have either bought into distant deer and duck leases or got out of hunting altogether.

As the population ages, this will certainly continue. The number of people who grew up hunting will shrink to vanishing. Today's kids are otherwise distracted (and distracting to their parents), making interest and patience for hunting a near-equal problem to access. As Duda notes, knowing better than anyone the shape of the curve and of things to come, "You don't just get up and go hunting one day — your father or father-type figure has to have hunted."

So we might end up like Wayne Pacelle's pets after all, "one generation and out."


Dan & Margaret said...

I can't believe we both wrote about college football simultaneously! You, however, evolved your piece into something else, while I stayed stuck in self pity and gameday bitterness. ;-(

Henry Chappell said...

Excellent post, Matt. Changing sensibilities, lack of access, and expense raise the "hassle factor," beyond a level that many casual hunters and potential beginners can or will tolerate.

I wish I could be more optimistic.

Matt Mullenix said...

Dan there is little else going on in this town except college football. (sound of Tiger fight song ringtone...)

Henry, thanks! I'm still adding some links to the post. The trend is bad, I agree. I'm a frequent hunter but even so I'm shrinking my sport down to its smallest possible size lately. There is no other way to get it done. You really have to fight for it now.