RICHMOND – Maine’s first mentor hunt for the public surpassed Luke Gersz’s every expectation, from the hours he spent stalking deer alongside an experienced hunter on Swan Island, to the work of field dressing the animal and butchering the wild-game meat. The 24-year-old came to the hunt a novice not expecting to shoot a deer. In the end, he got a freezer full of venison — and much more.

“It was the most meaningful thing I have done in a long time,” said Gersz, who lives in Limington.

Gersz was one of nine novice hunters who spent a clear, crisp morning earlier this month taking lessons in deer hunting from experienced hunters as part of a pilot project run by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The Department hopes to recruit new hunters to an outdoor activity that has seen a decades-long slump in participation both locally and nationally. Other states have successfully tried similar recruitment efforts. Though Maine has previously offered mentor hunts for veterans, this is the first time such a hunt has been open to the public. By all accounts, it was a success.

Though only a small group took the field on Swan Island —  a state-owned wildlife management area that has been closed to hunting for more than 50 years — seven of the nine bagged a deer. Maine Wildlife Biologist Bob Cordes said all the participants expressed an interest in hunting again. The department hopes to continue some version of the mentor hunt, Cordes said, and to share the blueprint for the event with sportsmen’s clubs and land trusts around the state to encourage those groups to hold similar hunts.

A perfect classroom

Swan Island, an undeveloped island in the rushing Kennebec River with a mix of woods and fields, proved the perfect classroom. The place has become a haven for deer, which congregate in fields in groups as large as 50; deer overpopulation can badly damage the island’s ecosystem. Also, because the island can only be reached by boat, state officials were able to close it to the public during the hunt.

IFW set up pop-up camouflage tents to serve as blinds, equipping them with special swivel chairs that let the newbies quietly pivot as they watched the woods. They tied blue ribbons on trees to demarcate 100 yards, which many hunters consider the distance of an ethical shot. And IFW game wardens, biologists and staff demonstrated hunting techniques, step-by-step, to the novice hunters.

John Pratte, left, and Bob Cordes are wildlife biologists on Swan Island, a state-owned Wildlife Management Area that this fall hosted an introductory hunt for novice hunters. The island’s large deer herd needed to be thinned, they said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Those nine hunters had been selected from a pool of 20 applicants preference was given to people between 19 to 45 years old as a way to encourage young families to take up hunting, Cordes added. The event was free for the participants — four women and five men, each of whom was encouraged to bring someone to shadow them. Before gathering on Swan Island, they were invited to three workshops on hunting skills, and they were required to demonstrate proficiency with a hunting rifle at a firing range in Gardiner.

Gersz said he was raised to love animals, so killing one “did not sit lightly on my mind.” He added that he wants to know where his food comes from – and to be more involved in foraging for it. Gersz plans to hunt for turkey this fall with his girlfriend, who shadowed his hunt, and said they will apply the lessons they learned on Swan Island.

For Rebecca Happnie-Yoder, of Old Town, the mentor hunt and 90-pound doe she shot satisfied a long-time wish to learn to hunt deer. She and her husband, who shadowed her hunt, had tried to hunt on their own but had no success. Happnie-Yoder described herself as shy, but said the partnership she formed with her mentor, Game Warden Sarah Miller, forged what she expects to be a lifetime memory.

“I learned the whole act of harvesting an animal, how to take care of the meat. You can’t get that watching a YouTube video or reading a book,” she said. “I want to teach my kids one day. It’s a beautiful way to be connected to the environment.”

The numbers

Nationally, sales of hunting licenses steadily declined between 1990 (15.8 million licenses were sold) and 2014 (14.6 million sold). The decline has been blamed on several trends: technology;  overscheduled lives, especially for young families; and the aging of fish and game clubs that once formed the heart of the hunting community. In the past four years, though, the sales of these licenses across the nation has climbed back up, to 15.6 million in 2018, the highest number in 25 years, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

That reversal may be an indication of the success of  “R3 coordinators,” whom fish and game agencies across the country have been hiring to work on the retention, recruitment and reactivation of lapsed hunters. Maine hired its first R3 coordinator last year.

Maine’s hunting license sales mirror the national trend — minus the recent upward tick. Sales of Maine’s regular resident hunting licenses, which must be renewed annually, have declined since 1993, when 181,900 were sold, to 131,400 in 2017, the most recent year for which IFW provided data; during the same period, Maine’s population increased from 1.2 million to 1.3 million. Resident lifetime licenses in Maine have grown since 2000, however, which could be dampening the sale of the annual hunting licenses.

Cordes, left and Pratte, take down a deer blind that was used for the mentor hunt. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Though the public mentor hunt is new, Maine has offered apprentice licenses since 2008, as another way to recruit new hunters. That license, which costs $26 for Mainers (and $115 for non-residents), allows someone 16 years or older who has never had a valid hunting license to hunt in the presence of a “supervisor.” The supervisor must be at least 18 and have had a hunting license for the previous three years.

Gersz and Happnie-Yoder both hope that Maine repeats its mentor hunt. Gersz said that many of his friends, both in and out of state, have expressed an interest in it, and he thinks the opportunity may have changed his own life. “It’s possible that hunting will become a yearly part of my life,” he said, “and add greatly to my lifestyle.”

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