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Delta’s U.S. Mentored Hunting Program Takes Off More than 70 Hunts Planned for Upcoming Season

Bismarck, N.D.—The seeds of John Denker’s love of waterfowling were sown when he was a young boy working as his father’s field apprentice in and around his hometown of Quincy, Illinois.

“I was affectionately called the bag boy, the kid who picked up the birds, typically a mixed bag of ducks and geese, and hauled them back to the vehicles after the hunt,” said Denker, 28. “I loved to be outside and wouldn’t sleep the night before just knowing we were going. With my Dad, I got to be one of the guys, and those early days spurred my love of waterfowling that has only grown as I’ve gotten older.”

Denker, vice chairman of the Illinois Prairie Chapter of Delta Waterfowl, is following his father’s example by passing on his love of waterfowling and its many traditions. On October 23 and 24, the Illinois Prairie Chapter, in partnership with the Clinton Lake Waterfowl Association, is putting on its first mentored youth waterfowl hunt. The weekend event will have plenty of hands-on education (hunting tactics, conservation, safety, ethics and more) and a morning hunt, after which there will be bird-cleaning demonstrations and a cookout.

“I’m worried about the trend away from waterfowling and the outdoors in general with our kids,” said Denker. “As waterfowlers and conservationists, we have to give back—in fact, it’s our obligation—and that starts with the next generation. With our youth event, we’re trying to get kids off the couch and away from their video games and into the outdoors.”

The Illinois youth hunt is one of roughly 70 mentored hunts that Delta Waterfowl chapters and volunteers are putting on across the U.S. this hunting season. The goal is to use mentors to connect kids and adults to waterfowl hunting’s rich culture and heritage—a heritage that’s loosing more and more of its constituency every year. According to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, waterfowl hunter numbers from 2001 to 2006 dropped 27 percent.

“That big of drop in hunter numbers is a conservation crisis in the making,” says Delta Senior Vice President John Devney. “The goal of our mentored hunt program is to build a bigger constituency around the issues of affecting waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. If we don’t, our heritage will suffer, plain and simple. We have to have a voice to address the critical issues facing ducks.”

Some Delta youth events have already gotten underway across the U.S. Devney said he recently attended the Third Annual Utah Delta Waterfowl youth fair at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area, organized by the Great Basin Waterfowlers Chapter. He said 263 children 15 and younger participated in the educational and skills-training event, in preparation for the state’s youth waterfowl hunting day.

“It was one amazing experience to see that many kids in one place learning about waterfowl and waterfowl hunting,” he said, noting that more than 425 people, kids and adults, attended. “It was a tremendous, tremendous event.”

While youths are the long-term solution to hunter recruitment and retention, Delta Waterfowl is also reaching out to adults and families. Last year, for example, Delta’s West Dakota Waterfowlers Chapter (Minot, N.D.) and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Becoming an Outdoors Woman program sponsored the state’s first women’s mentored waterfowl hunt and workshop. Fifteen women attended. This year’s women’s-only workshop is slated for September 26 and 27 in Minot.

“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a waterfowl hunter and I didn’t even pull the trigger,” said Delta Regional Director Scott Terning of Bismarck, who served as a mentor for the hunt.

Terning said the two-day workshop included instruction on waterfowl identification, firearms safety and shooting, hunting tactics and ethics, and waterfowl conservation, among other topics. The morning hunt was followed by instruction on bird cleaning and preparation. “We even went out scouting and explained where they can and cannot hunt,” Terning said, whose group of four women killed 13 drake mallards and three blue-winged teal. “A big part of waterfowl hunting is developing hunter-landowner relationships, and that’s something we believe was important to teach.”

Brook Johnson, a Minot State University student, attended last year’s women’s workshop and said it was a transformative experience. “It was an awesome, awesome time, and I recommend it to all women,” said Johnson, a Delta member. “You hear all this talk about preserving wetlands and grasslands and you really don’t understand why until you get out in the field and experience hunting firsthand. The women’s mentored hunt really put that into focus for me.”

Johnson said the workshop hooked her on waterfowl hunting. “I’ve already been out for the early goose season and can’t wait until the duck opener,” she said. “I’m probably going to hunt more than my guy friends.”