Sydney Cottingham checks out the horizon during a duck hunt.
Jack Varnado (left) along with father, Chad Varnado, after a successful waterfowl hunting outing.
Because of his father and family, Jack Varnado will probably be a life-long waterfowl hunter and outdoorsman.
LSU students Sydney Cottingham (left) and Emily Hardegen (right) prepare for a duck hunt with Dr. Kevin Ringelman of LSU (center).

Waterfowl Hunting Has Been A Family Tradition For Many Years In Louisiana But Recruiting New Faces For The Sport Requires Updated Thinking

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information


The easiest route for young women and men to become hunters is through their family. Like a valuable heirloom handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, it’s a treasure that a parent eagerly bestows upon their child.


Chad Varnado couldn’t wait to get his son, Jack, out into a duck blind from the day he was born. Chad’s father, Victor, taught him to duck hunt at a very young age and he fell in love with the sport.


So, too, has Jack. When he was only 6, Jack knocked down his first bird, a blue wing teal, now mounted in the family’s outdoor themed man cave. The father-son combo from Denham Springs spend much of their free time in the outdoors or getting ready for the next outing. They also love to wet a hook, and Jack, now 11, partakes in fishing tournaments with the constant support of his dad.


But there’s nothing like duck hunting for them. They’ve bagged waterfowl throughout southeast Louisiana and beyond.


It’s not that Jack doesn’t enjoy other pursuits like that of other boys and girls. He’s proficient in this digital age. Loves to play baseball too.


But his eyes really light up when he tells you about the first time he harvested a greenhead. Or an alligator snapping turtle he discovered at the family’s pond across the street from their house. Or when he wants you to check out the sprig of a pintail he harvested earlier in the day.


“He loves to be outside,’’ Chad said. “And he loves hunting and fishing. So do I. I guess all fathers take great pride and pleasure in teaching their children what they love. And to see how much he loves to do what I love to do means a lot. Being in that duck blind and seeing the sun come up on a beautiful day with him is a memory I’ll have forever. We want to get limits every time we go out, don’t think we don’t. But that time together in that setting is what means so much.’’


Chad’s wife and Jack’s mother, Kelli, will tag along sometimes, too.


“It’s so much a part of what we do as a family, and I enjoy it as much as they do,’’ she said.


From the 1950s into the 1980s, families like the Varnados were numerous throughout Louisiana. Each generation would pass the love for hunting along with the skills needed down to their kids so they would continue the tradition.


But times have changed. Yes, the tradition of hunting is still a major part of the culture of Louisiana. Like the Varnados, you’ll find many Bayou State families who share and pass down the hunting tradition.


And waterfowl hunting, unlike many other forms of hunting, is more of a social sport. As Chad said, there’s more to it than just bagging a daily limit.


But as the digital age, which dawned in the middle 1990s, has grown so has the competition for time, even the time of hunters. Specializing in sports like baseball and soccer has also muscled into the time once devoted to hunting.


“When it comes to hunting, we’re competing with the other activities that young people have nowadays,’’ said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist Program Manager Eric Shanks, who oversees LDWF’s Hunter Education program. “Our society has changed. In Louisiana, we still have a very strong rural component but we are more urbanized.


“The opportunity to go out on the back 40 on the farm and do some hunting isn’t there like it used to be. There are some challenges with hunters coming in. We’re competing for time with sports, social media, video games and all the other activities that young people are involved in today.’’


The Varnados are now the exception and not necessarily the rule.


Recruiting hunters to fill the void left by aging baby boomers is difficult. Consider that in 1991, 40 million people hunted and fished in the United States. According to research from the Chase & Chase Consulting Firm, that number had dropped to 39.6 million in 2017. That would seem to be a minimal decrease. But consider that the U.S. population grew by 76 million people in the same time frame, an increase of 30 percent.


According to the research, one in 6.3 people would have been a hunter and/or angler in 1991. That number is one in 8.2 people now, an alarming drop.


Shanks said the last three years has seen decreases in the number of students taking hunter education courses in Louisiana. To put it mildly, headwinds are building rapidly for the sport of hunting.


Dr. Luke Laborde, an LSU instructor in the university’s School of Renewable Natural Resources, has done extensive research on waterfowl hunters. In 2010, in cooperation with LDWF, he began evaluating waterfowl hunter surveys to take the temperature of the sport in Louisiana and to gain a better understanding of what it would take to enhance recruitment and retention.


Certainly, harvesting waterfowl was important. But something caught his attention as he did the survey, something mentioned by Chad Varnado. The hunt experience was of the upmost importance.


“What I learned is that (harvesting birds) isn’t the kind of thing that really motivated people so much,’’ Laborde said. “It was more about the opportunity to experience a quality hunt. The deciding factor was not being crowded when they were out on a hunt.


“Being able to have time with friends and family. They wanted the opportunity to see some birds, to at least shoot some birds, but more importantly to do that in an environment that allowed them to enjoy and appreciate the outdoors and hunting experience.’’


Recruiting the Next Generation

Odds are that Jack Varnado will pass down his love of hunting to his children. But those in the hunting business know that new hunters must be mined from other sources.


The question is where.


“No one wakes up in the morning the first time and says, ‘Oh, I want to go duck hunting,’ ‘’ Laborde said. “This truly is an activity that trends in families and there are lots of fundamental skills needed and other hurdles to clear. You’ve got hunter safety, you’ve got licensing, you’ve got technical skills of being able to actually go out and set up decoys, duck calling skills, safe handling of firearms and learning appropriate camouflage techniques for greater success in luring the birds closer to you. You have obstacles, even places to hunt and possibly needing equipment, an ATV or boat, to get there.’’


So the challenge to recruit new hunters is daunting. But Laborde said there are encouraging signs.


“There are good things that are happening,’’ Laborde said. “We see nationally that for the most part, after going through a great period of consistent decline from about 1992 through 2015, that hunter numbers have leveled off. We’ve seen growth in some states.’’


Certainly, recruiting middle school and high school age students is important. There are many mentoring and education programs that work to draw in those potential hunters. One of LDWF’s gateway initiatives to hunting is the Archery in Louisiana Schools program, which teaches students target archery. The program, which is now in about 130 schools with 23,000 students participating, provides an area of focus for youth that is easily attainable for any age and teaches not only competitive archery but also arouses interest in hunting with archery equipment.


Former LSU professor Frank Rohwer, who taught wildlife conservation and management, noticed something troubling in early 2000s. About 80 percent of collegiate wildlife ecology and wildlife habitat management students, both male and female, had never been hunting before. So he required his students in the discipline to become certified through LDWF’s Hunter Education program and if they bought a license he would take them duck hunting.


In 2008, LDWF Waterfowl Program Manager Larry Reynolds joined the effort. Initially, they had the students hunt on public land with limited success. Then, after word had spread about their efforts, the Oak Grove Hunting Club in Cameron Parish became an invaluable partner in completing the hunting experience for the students. They were able to bring the students to Oak Grove for a quality hunting experience in addition to educating them on all the elements that go into waterfowl management.


“The goal was to expose the students to hunting, but it was more than that,’’ Reynolds said. “We wanted to highlight the links between hunting and conservation and enhance their understanding of habitat management in Louisiana.’’


Laborde, who came to LSU as a graduate student in 2008, got involved in the effort too. He, along with Reynolds and doctors Kevin Ringelman and Bret Collier, professors at LSU’s School of Renewable Natural Resources, now spearhead this program providing hunting experience as part of the required senior-level Wildlife Techniques class for Wildlife Ecology and Wildlife Habitat Management graduates at LSU.


The program seeks to educate future wildlife managers, with a side benefit of growing hunting participation.


They average about 30 students a year in the program, taking them hunting. Other clubs, GrayPoint, Pine Island and Pinola are also providing duck hunting opportunities. The group has added deer hunting thanks to Helena Lodge, Chip Vosburg, and Leo, Doug, and Tanner Jones. Laborde said about two-thirds of the students are females, who are key to growing the sport in this century.


Guides are used at the hunting clubs to instruct the students. And nothing goes to waste. The harvested birds are used in the following week’s lab for study of molt, plumage, internal anatomy and food habits, as well as preparing a wild game dinner for the students.


“To see the students get out, learn the sport and harvest a bird is to see a light go off in their eyes,’’ Reynolds said. “You can tell someone about the joy of duck hunting. But until they experience it, you don’t realize how fulfilling and fun it can be. They also see the social aspect of it, which is very important.’’


In addition, LSU also has the nation’s top Ducks Unlimited University Chapter.


“There’s been a lot of research done on hunter recruitment and retention,’’ Laborde said. “And one of the things we’ve learned is that it’s not that the programs for younger hunters aren’t important. But the people that are still hunting 10 years later are the ones that would predominantly have been hunting anyway. They had family members that were involved that brought them along.


“We get better retention rates for first time hunters at the collegiate level. College students have at least some degree of independence or mobility. They’ve got a circle of friends with some basic skills, money and time. Looking back at the people who have been through our program at LSU, we’ve seen many continue to hunt five years later. It’s now a very popular program.’’


The addition of these college hunters dove-tails into another group in which new hunters could possibly be found, those who are motivated by conservation. After all, there are no better conservationists than hunters.


Coastal land loss is a major concern in Louisiana. Climate change is a vital concern to many Americans. Showing the importance of how those two things affect waterfowl not only in Louisiana but throughout North America, can draw in those who may be conservation minded but don’t necessarily hunt.


“People are talking about our natural resources, the environment, sustainability, green issues,’’ Laborde said. “It’s a great time to be able to recruit people to outdoor activities. You can’t do habitat work for one species and not help a whole lot of other species. All the conservation work we do for waterfowl benefits over 900 other species that are dependent on that same habitat.’’


Shanks said he sees another potential recruitment base in the age group just beyond the collegiate student. Young professional adults are a target audience. LDWF is working to bring in this group with small game emphasis areas on some of its wildlife management areas. Small game hunting is a gateway for some to waterfowl and deer hunting.


“One of the areas where recruitment is starting to focus nationwide is on that group,’’ Shanks said. “They’re younger but they have their own resources. They’re typically no longer involved in recreational sporting activities such as baseball or soccer so they have time to invest in social and recreational activities.’’


Shanks also said this group has a keen awareness of the environment, as well as the benefits of organic foods like wild game.


“This is a demographic that is concerned with where their food comes from,’’ Shanks said. “And wild game affords them an opportunity to harvest their own organic, locally sourced food. A lot of states are focusing on capitalizing on this interest to recruit new hunters or get them hunting again if they stopped hunting during their teenage and college years.


“The good part of that is that if you’re successful there and those folks become hunters, that age is about the same time people begin to start families. The potential is there to create a whole new generation of hunters.’’


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