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Is poor duck hunter recruitment really a mystery?

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently provided some statistics on the state of young duck hunter numbers; very appropriate, since we stand on the doorstep of another Minnesota Youth Waterfowl Day, happening Saturday, Sept. 7.

This will be the 17th youth waterfowl hunt, the first one dating back to 1994.

The objective of this hunt is to introduce the sport to young people, under conditions that will help them be successful, without the competition that often accompanies the general waterfowl opener. When it is only 15-year-olds and younger who are eligible to shoot — accompanied by a non-shooting adult, of course — the competition for the most favorable hunting spots and for the local ducks is far less intense.

Not only that, but by holding the youth waterfowl hunt two weeks before the regular season opens, the early migrants, like teal and wood ducks, are almost certain to be more abundant targets.

All of which should be leading more young hunters to join the ranks of the duck hunting fraternity. But that appears not to be happening. Not only have total state duck hunter numbers continued their well-documented slide, but so have those in the age groups that one would expect to be boosted by the youth waterfowl hunt.

As a marker, duck stamp sales for 16-year-olds dropped more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2012, 34 percent for 18-year-olds and 23 percent for 20-year-olds during this period.

The number of duck hunters of all ages has declined just over 20 percent since 1996. One of the reasons cited by the DNR is the exit of many members of the baby boom generation, by retirement from the sport or by their passing. If true, then these “senior citizens” among the Minnesota duck hunter population are over-represented and have not been replaced by recruits from the following generation, those now entering middle-age.

This is the generation with the sons and daughters currently of an age when they might be influenced by an event like the youth waterfowl hunt.

This generation, the one we could expect to expose today’s youth to duck hunting, appears to be under-represented among Minnesota duck hunters. Like the post-World War I “lost generation” of Europe, we have a lost generation of duck hunters who either did not catch their parents’ fever for the sport or did not hang onto it during the many recent mediocre duck hunting years.

The DNR can point to an increased duck harvest the past couple of years, but this has occurred thanks to more liberal shooting hours, more generous bag limits and an earlier opening day, not to there being more ducks. These relaxed rules were not the norm prior to the 2011 season. Many hunters were lost to the sport during the leaner years that preceded the DNR’s current “harvest-all-we-can” management philosophy. Like the football team that doesn’t fill its stadium when it has losing seasons, one can’t fault the average Minnesota duck hunter for having found alternative autumn pursuits.

Now that Minnesota has dramatically liberalized its seasons, will dropped-out duck hunters come back? Those who have continued to hunt ducks seem to be cashing in on a notably larger harvest. But the prospect of reinstating ex-duck hunters by adding a third wood duck or another hen mallard to the daily bag, or because there are more teal to shoot with our earlier openers, is probably as a long-shot, not unlike a 60-yard shot at bluebills that won’t fly over your decoy spread. Not very good odds.

The youth waterfowl hunt is not like take-a-kid-fishing day. Duck hunting is not an activity that is picked up casually, or on impulse. It’s very gear-intensive, a lot of hard work to do well and the hours are lousy, considering that all hunting preparations must be in readiness before sunrise.

It takes a reasonably serious duck hunter to have the gear and the wherewithal to participate with a youngster in the youth duck hunt. If it’s going to happen, it’s far more likely to involve a parent than someone else who is just being noble.

That being the case, odds are good that the serious duck hunter would try to introduce his son or daughter to the sport anyway, regardless of whether there is a special youth season.

The unanswered question is whether there would be even poorer recruitment of young duck hunters if there were not a Youth Waterfowl Day.

Maybe it’s best we not try to find out.