Saturday is a big day for outdoorsmen and women; at least it should be.

No, it’s not the opening day of some season, and it’s not the day results from the any-deer permit lottery come out (that’s already occurred). Sept. 25 is National Hunting and Fishing Day, a nationwide holiday held annually on the fourth Saturday in September.

The event is intended for both celebration and education. The former is simply an opportunity to collectively celebrate our nation’s great tradition and heritage of hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation. The latter is a chance to share this celebration with nonparticipants by educating them.

“Our goal,” says Denise Wagner of Wonders of Wildlife, the Springfield, Mo., home of NHF Day, “is equipping every hunter, angler and sport shooter to more effectively communicate the conservation benefits of traditional outdoor sports.”

To gain a better understanding of the history, you need only to go back a little more than 100 years, before the turn of the last century. Wildlife conservation as we know it today was virtually nonexistent.

Sport hunters and anglers were few and far between, and far outnumbered by commercial market gunners, who killed game to supply meat for restaurants and markets, fur for the clothing industry and feathers to the millinery trade. Fishing and hunting were virtually unregulated.

Largely oblivious to the widespread unregulated harvest of fish and game, the public seemed content to dine on passenger pigeons and Atlantic salmon, and parade around in hats bearing the feathers of waders and seabirds.

Meanwhile, development was taking a heavy toll on habitat, particularly wetlands.

It’s worth noting, too, that it was common practice at the time for both amateur and professional ornithologists and artists to “collect” the birds they studied.

The results were widespread and vivid. Deer, elk, bison and antelope populations had been decimated, many teetering on the verge of extinction. Wild turkeys had been removed from much of their former range. Development, damming, pollution and abuse had destroyed the ability of rivers and streams to support healthy fish populations.

About the only folks who seemed perturbed over the widespread abuse of these national natural resources were the responsible users of the resource, hunters and anglers. They joined forces to become the first and most vocal supporters of a new concept: wildlife conservation.

Looking back, it sort of makes sense. The term “conservation” means wise use. Fish and wildlife, like water and trees are a reusable natural resource. Use them wisely and they will persist indefinitely. Abuse them and they’ll disappear.

Led by folks like fellow sportsman President Theodore Roosevelt, the first generation of conservationists called upon state and federal governments to enact laws restricting the wholesale commercial slaughter of wildlife.

They promoted a doctrine of wise, sustainable use of fish and game. They called for creation of hunting and fishing licenses and lobbied for taxes on sporting equipment, all to generate funds so state agencies could manage fish and wildlife resources. They ultimately built the foundation of the North American wildlife conservation model, a system that has been adopted around the globe.

Sportsmen have since gained strong allies from outside their ranks, particularly during the environmental movement of the 1970s, and more recently by a more educated and ecologically conscious public. But America’s hunters and fishermen still remain overwhelmingly the most numerous and important advocates for and financial supporters of wildlife conservation.

And so each year on the fourth Saturday in September we pause to acknowledge this legacy. National, regional, state and local organizations stage all manner of events and activities for experienced sportsmen and neophytes to understand and appreciate traditional outdoor sports.

The importance of this event is perhaps emphasized by the long list of noteworthy sportsmen who have lent their names as honorary chairmen. You might recognize a few, including: Terry Bradshaw, John Havlicek, Tom Seaver, Arnold Palmer, Hank Williams Jr., Robert Urich, George Bush, Louise Mandrell, Travis Tritt, Wade Boggs, Tracy Byrd and Jeff Foxworthy.

Sadly, there are those who would like to see the proud traditions of hunting and fishing go away. That’s where the education part of this day comes in.

“All of us must work together to build public understanding and appreciation for what we do,” says Denise Wagner.

Indeed we must, for if we lose hunting and fishing, with them will go not only desperately needed funding, but the expertise and ultimately the motivation for all wildlife conservation.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]