Is the decline in fishermen and hunters finally turning around?


It is funny to me how many of my friends and family have been watching the Ken Burns’ Country Music series on PBS over the past couple of weeks, most of them not regular watchers of PBS shows. Yet, they have heard about and been watching the wonderful series. I suspect many of the regular readers of this outdoor column have been doing the same.

One of the underlying themes of the Burns’ documentary that keeps coming up over and over again is that his broad definition of county music has its roots in rural cultures, church, and the working and downtrodden. We identify with the stories told in this music and its many branches. It uses metaphors that people raised close to the land, to dirt and grime, understand.

For a lot of us today – people locked in mostly urban existences – simple things like country music, gardening, hunting, and fishing are those last connections to the land and our agrarian roots when everyone’s existence was rural and based on what the earth provided.

“Hear that lonesome whip-poor-will; He sounds too blue to fly….” sings Hank Williams.

There is a whole generation today who can’t identify the birds they might hear between rushing from the slamming front door of their home to the closing car door on their way to work. Our outdoor experience is increasingly limited. We might know the all-night singing mockingbirds, but think of them as interrupters of a good night’s sleep rather than recognize them as a sign of late spring and wildlife romance. Outdoor people love mockingbirds.

While we don’t have whip-poor-wills here in the West, we have a lot lesser nighthawks from late spring through summer, both birds are related and in the nightjar family. These birds have feather “whiskers,” roost and nest on the ground, and hunt insects at dawn and dusk and throughout the night visually with owl-like eyes. The first one’s I remember seeing were when walking back to a camp somewhere in the Sierra or Colorado after fishing a stream until dark. I was probably 11 or 12, and the birds kept flushing off the dirt two-track we walked. Carl Angel, one of my childhood fishing mentors, laughed when the first one scared me. He called them “bullbats.” It was a rural name he’d heard as a child in Kentucky, and I have to think hard to remember the name “lesser nighthawk” when I start seeing these birds on the Matthews Ranch in summer. They are still bullbats to me and a lot of other rural residents.

But all of us who spend a lot of time outdoors, interacting with what’s left of our natural landscape, understand ol’ Hank’s sentiment and the analogy. People familiar with bird calls might prefer he’d have written “hear the lonesome mourning dove….” That call has more pain and longing than a whip-poor-will. [If you don’t believe me, go to the website and listen to few recordings of both bird’s calls, then tell me I’m not right.]

A lot of trends, musical and otherwise, fade and then come back into fashion and popularity. While I fear otherwise, I hope that is true with the traditional outdoor sports. The decline in the number of fisherman and hunters, especially in California, has been steady and steep. It is alarming to aging guys like me who grew up when seemingly nearly everyone fished and many hunted. While I was at the tail end of that era, I went fishing with a teacher in junior high and hunting with one of my high school English teachers. That doesn’t – can’t – happen today. Outdoor mentors almost have to be family members today, and a lot of families are two or three generations past the time family members brought home fish and game to eat.

I know the numbers by heart, I repeat them so often: We had 850,000 hunters and 2.5 million anglers in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the state’s population was ticking up to 20 million. Today, with the state’s population ticking around 30 million, we have just over 250,000 hunters and around $1 million fishermen. More than the loss of an incredible family and cultural heritage, the decline also reflects a decline in the interest in wildlife protection, management, and enhancement and a huge loss of funding for wildlife.

If there is a glimmer this might be turning around (with – maybe – a slight uptick in sales of both fishing and hunting licenses the last year or two), it is not because of more dads and moms or aunts and uncles taking their kids fishing. It is because of a whole generation of urbanites who have become “foodies,” and shop for locally grown, organic foods. There is nothing more locally grown or organic than wild fish and game, nothing healthier.

I have been conducting where-to-go bird hunting seminars for a decade or so now, and just over that short span I am seeing more and more people who are coming to hunting without mentors. They are usually on one of two parallel tracks. First, they read about how lean and nutrient rich wild game is compared to farm-raised livestock and poultry, and they want to try it. Second, they’ve tried the vegan thing and discover they like meat-based protein too much to really give it up. So they decide to be responsible for the death and care of what they decide to eat. Since most apartments or townhomes don’t have space or tolerance for a sheep or cow in the complex, hunting on our abundance of public lands and wild game populations seems a viable, healthy option.

Without mentors to teach these people how and where to hunt, their efforts can be painful to watch as they blunder around trying to learn the nuances of pursuit, whether fishing or hunting. To their credit, they read and listen and watch everything (sadly, so much of it is bad, today), but they are not giving up and are drawn to the activities. All it takes is something like the first whirring covey of quail exploding from their feet to hook them for life. They soon realize the meals are a bonus benefit.

Watching the Ken Burns’ special has made me realize that like country music there is something timeless in fishing and hunting. A first taste, a tapping foot, and you can become a lifelong fan.


Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.

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