Most hunters and anglers old enough to fantasize about retiring can’t wait for that never-ending vacation so they can spend every possible hour outdoors.

Some retirees live out those recreational dreams, smugly heading for the boat ramp or tree stand each morning while younger folks mope off to work. That’s great, but those die-hards are the exception and their self-satisfaction likely won’t endure. Their endless vacation fantasies usually fade fast in retirement. In fact, those dreams often fade long before retirees start waking up every day to a blank slate.

“Retirees don’t just get up one day and quit hunting,” said Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a research group that studies outdoor recreation. “They fall out of it very slowly without realizing it. Something comes up one day and they don’t go. They shrug and figure they’ll pick it up again next week. Then it becomes next year, and all of a sudden 10 years go by and they haven’t gone. They still consider themselves hunters and fishermen, but they find it very hard to get back into the game.”

Keith Warnke supervises Wisconsin’s “Learn to Hunt” and “Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation” programs for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. He said most hunters and anglers aren’t diehards to begin with, and many overestimate their outdoor passions before testing them against the challenges unique to older folks.

“Hunters and anglers know fish and wildlife need good habitat to survive, but few people realize that hunting and fishing also require good ‘social habitats’ to thrive,” Warnke said. “Our social habitats have declined the past 30 years as our population grew overweight, stayed connected 24-7 to their work, and shifted heavily from rural to urban homes and lifestyles. Then you reach your 50s and the cascading impacts of personal and work-related issues.”

Threats to ‘Social Habitats’
Warnke said many forms of “habitat erosion” facing hunters and anglers in their 50s can’t be fixed with raffles, banquets and fundraisers. For instance:

  • They often feel handcuffed to their work. Their jobs entail greater obligations and responsibilities and their earnings are likely peaking. That makes them potential layoff targets, should their company cut staff.
  • Dad, their lifelong hunting/fishing partner, is in his late 70s to early 80s, and struggles to walk far or climb into a boat.
  • Son/Daughter, their longtime hunting/fishing partners, moved far away to work, raise families and juggle new-found obligations to their own kids, spouse and in-laws.
  • Lifelong hunting/fishing partners face similar challenges and some battle chronic health problems or terminal illnesses.
  • They no longer have access to their family’s former farm or hunting property near town. The land was sold to developers or leased to other hunters.

Dan Forster, vice president and chief conservation officer of the Archery Trade Association, said those challenges can cripple complex, gear-intensive activities like hunting and fishing, especially when compared to simpler, more convenient recreation near home like golf, tennis, running or spectator sports.

“We all wish there were simple answers, but American lifestyles are more transient, complicated and urban-based than a generation ago,” Forster said. “When Baby Boomers took up hunting and fishing from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, parents weren’t scheduling their recreation and hovering over them. And when hunters or anglers move away today, they lose their hunting access and they might need to learn how to hunt or fish an entirely new species. Unless you’re a real avid outdoorsman, you might never rebuild all those resources.”

Aging Impacts
Meanwhile, amid those external challenges, hunters and anglers in their 50s usually start feeling their age. They’ve often grown heavier and less physically fit, and few change their sedentary lifestyles and poor eating habits. In turn, they feel more vulnerable to accidents, which makes them uneasy in boats and tree stands, especially when alone.

Of course, those most likely to hunt and fish deep into old age are usually the most ardent outdoorsmen. But that group isn’t as large as once thought. A recent survey by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation found most anglers in 2017 were casual participants. Nearly two-thirds of anglers—62 percent—fished only once to 11 times annually, and only 8 percent achieved “avid” status by fishing every week or more.

Bowhunters, meanwhile, are typically considered hunting’s most avid participants. Duda’s 2018 survey for the Archery Trade Association, however, found 51 percent of bowhunters spend 15 days or less in the woods annually, and 35 percent spend 10 days or less. Only about a fourth of bowhunters—28 percent—spend 26 or more days afield.

Still, as a group, hunters in their 50s and 60s shoot lots of deer. In fact, data from Wisconsin’s firearms and archery seasons show that 57- to 59-year-old hunters shot more deer than any other age group in 2017 and 2018, just like they did when they were 47 to 49 in 2007.

Crossbow Impacts
Data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources also shows crossbows keep more hunters afield during their 50s. Crossbow hunters in their mid-40s to late 50s shot roughly twice as many deer in 2017-18 as did compound bow users in that age group.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s compound bow users in their mid-20s to early 30s shot more deer than crossbow users in those age groups. Those results reverse by the mid- to late 30s, however, when crossbow kills overtook compound kills for good.

“I don’t know where we’d be without crossbows,” said Mike Tonkovich, the Ohio DNR’s deer program administrator. “Crossbows definitely keep more Ohio hunters in the game.”

Tonkovich said crossbows help introduce many youngsters to deer hunting. Compounds then attract more interest for those 20 to 35, before crossbows surge in older age groups.

Warnke reports similar crossbow impacts in Wisconsin. His 2008 study—before crossbows were included in the state’s general archery deer season—showed bowhunting numbers declined from ages 49 to 64, but increased at ages 65 and 66 when people reached what was then the legal age for crossbow use. By age 67, declines in bowhunter numbers resumed.

When Warnke studied gun hunting participation rates in 2008, his team didn’t find significant participation declines in male hunters until age 61. In contrast, even though females are increasingly likely to hunt at earlier ages in Wisconsin, their participation rates decline significantly after age 50, or 11 years earlier than males.

Hunting’s “Perfect Storm”
Nick Pinizzotto, president/CEO of the National Deer Alliance, applauds how the hunting and fishing industries and state/federal agencies have identified many factors affecting participation rates. Still, he wonders if hunting simply benefited from a unique “perfect storm” that boosted participation in the 1970s and 1980s: booming whitetail herds and the advent of compound bows and portable treestands.

“That might have been a window in time we’ll never see again,” Pinizzotto said. “Our society has changed a lot since then, and it’s hard to duplicate or engineer ‘perfect storms.’ Those forces are usually beyond control.”

Forster said it’s nearly as difficult to “reactivate” aging hunters.

“Getting that senior patriarch back is never easy,” he said. “If they quit hunting because they lost their health, access or hunting partners, it’s tough to motivate them. Unless they really enjoy hunting alone, they’ll probably stay on the sidelines unless they find someone to mentor.”

Duda agreed.

“People go through stages in the outdoors,” he said. “Toward the end, they often try mentoring, but that’s not as easy or guaranteed as you’d assume. Not as many kids are getting recruited into hunting, so there’s fewer kids to mentor. Plus, mentoring isn’t new. Hunting and fishing are traditionally passed along through family-to-family mentoring. And yet the children of baby boomers didn’t follow their parents into those activities.”

Warnke said the challenges inherent to recruitment and reactivation leave “retention” as perhaps the most promising component of nationwide “three R’s” programs.

“A lot of the pathways that once worked for hunting and fishing don’t work as well today,” he said. “That’s why we’re working with more colleges, college students and young adults. They’re interested in sustainable food sources, and they can take themselves hunting and fishing if we can provide new pathways for them to follow.”

Feature image by Captured Creative.