Fifteen feet up in the bare oak, Brandon Krantz crouches on a sheet of plywood. He shivers, his dimpled face solemn as he peers out from under the hood of his baggy orange jacket. His thin wrists bend stiffly to cradle his father's rifle.
"Move up, Brandon." His father, balanced beside him in the tree, reaches over to shift the gun higher. "You've gotta get it in your shoulder. If you see something, take your gloves off. You know where to shoot?"
Brandon knows. He has prepared all fall, in hunter safety classes, at dinner with his brothers on their farm in Frederick County. Ever since his older brother Derek brought home an eight-point buck last year, Brandon has imagined the moment: the white flash of the deer in the sight of his .30-30 Winchester, his finger on the trigger. The answer is second-nature: "Right behind the front leg," he whispers.
As the wintry gray dawn lights the trees in the distance, Mark Krantz helps his shy 11-year-old understand a man's sport. Be alert, the father tells his son, sense the wind's direction, search for the slightest movement in the woods.
For 40-year-old Mark Krantz, teaching his boys to hunt is as much a part of farming life as milking the cows and harvesting the corn. It's a family tradition. He was 12 when he shot his first quail on his father's farm, 14 when he received the rifle Brandon now uses.
But the ritual the Krantz boys share with their father is disappearing in Maryland and other suburbanized states along with dirt roads, general stores and large stretches of farmland. Fewer and fewer boys nowadays learn to hunt, a rite of passage once so sacred that schools routinely closed for opening day.
Over the past two decades, Maryland's sales of hunting licenses to youths under 16 slumped 65.9 percent, from a peak of 23,520 in 1974 to 8,017 in 1996. In Pennsylvania, junior sales fell 38.8 percent since 1976, from 168,546 to 103,080, and in California, 58.9 percent. Even in Michigan, Gail Medsen at Skip's Sporting Goods in Grayling complains: "I just don't see the youngsters. It's not as cool to be hunters from the get-go."
Of course, millions of hunters still head into the woods every fall, and some rural states like West Virginia continue to cancel classes at the start of the season. Yet nationwide, hunters are getting older, while license sales are flat or declining. It's among the young in more densely populated regions, however, that the sport is losing its appeal fastest.
More children grow up today in far-flung suburbs, accustomed to the conveniences of computers and malls, unfamiliar with country life. They go outside to rake and stack leaves, not hay. They want to ride the lawn mower, not the tractor. They practice soccer and Nintendo, not shooting a gun.
"When I was a kid, there wasn't anyone around to play with. It was either go fishing or go hunting," recalls J. Allen Swann, 52, who still farms the land where he grew up in Calvert County. "Now, I get new neighbors all the time, and they're getting farther and farther from the farms. My sons were in the minority in school: Most of the kids don't live on farms."
Far more has changed than the Maryland of Swann's boyhood. Along with new houses and stores have come new ways. Historians and psychologists point to the decline of other gender-specific rituals -- the men of a family tinkering on cars while the women baked -- and the rise of two-career households, a more pervasive anti-gun sentiment, and the greater independence of children.
"We just don't have as much emphasis on fathers initiating sons into activities that will make them men. When Dad suggests doing something, they'd rather go do something else with their peers," says Peter N. Stearns, a social historian and dean at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Some parents of the soccer generation question whether the tradition is worth preserving. To Swann and other sportsmen, hunting teaches patience, self-discipline and a respect for nature. But nonhunters often find the sport of killing animals bloody and cruel.
On Tangier Island, Va., Lonnie Moore, 43, a former crabber who works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, used to shoot ducks. He wanted to take his boy Alex, 9, someday. But his wife won't allow it. "I hope my son never has an interest," says Carol, 35. "There's something about a duck flying in the air, and just being shot."
More than family tradition is at stake. Growing herds of white-tailed deer pose a threat to crops and as a road hazard. And state wildlife agencies lose income when sales of licenses and tax revenue from hunting and fishing equipment decline. Many states, like Maryland, are moving to attract kids to the sport by sponsoring special hunts.
At the Krantz household, Maryland's youth deer hunt, held two Saturdays before the Nov. 29 opening of the firearms season, dawns as the big day. Mark Krantz, ruddy and plain-spoken, doesn't want his boys out when the woods shimmer orange from all the deer hunters. Opening day makes him nervous, so he had Brandon and Derek up before 4: 30 a.m. on Nov. 15.
Thirteen-year-old Derek munched a strip of deer jerky and toted a new .260 Remington rifle he got with money he made selling a steer at the fair. "Good luck, Brandon," he called, heading down the hill with his father's two hunting buddies.
As Mark settled in the tree stand with his younger son, he could hardly disguise his hope that Brandon would learn to love hunting, too.
"I just want him to at least see a deer and get in a shot."
Initially, sportsmen's groups and wildlife agencies attributed the loss of young hunters to demographics alone. But the fall-off in junior licenses exceeds both adult licenses and the drop in the birth rate. In Maryland, junior licenses slid 57 percent since 1970, more than double the 21.5 percent decline in overall licenses. Meanwhile, the number of 12- to 15-year-olds decreased 14 percent.
Pro-hunting groups often downplay signs that the sport is in trouble -- which animal rights activists like to promote. Sportsmen cite surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that show hunting is attracting more women and generating more business than ever; the 1996 poll found hunters spent 43 percent more on equipment, trips and lodging than in 1991.
But privately, many in the hunting industry acknowledge they're nervous. License sales nationwide declined from 16.3 million in 1976 to 15.2 million last year. Florida's sales dropped 23.5 percent in the last decade alone, and even big hunting states like Michigan, Mississippi and Texas have seen a downturn.
At a 1993 conference on "North America's Hunting Heritage" in Pierre, S.D., Jody Enck, speaking for his research team at Cornell University, was blunt:
"Certainly without, and perhaps even with, extraordinary intervention efforts of a scale we've never seen before, hunting is going to continue to decline over the foreseeable future. Slowing the trends in hunting participation will cost big money, not just millions of dollars, but hundreds of millions."
States have begun to heed the warning, gearing up recruitment drives aimed primarily at the young for one important reason: 83 percent of hunters begin before age 19, national surveys show.
"The secret is the kids," John Rogers, deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. "You're not going to pick up some 50-something-year-old guy off the street and teach him to hunt and fish and be too successful."
Mississippi has begun a "Hunting Buddies" program to match kids from single-parent and nonhunting homes with hunters. Pennsylvania hosts "Youth Field Days," where children learn to canoe, fish and shoot a muzzle-loader. Delaware sends an archery and BB-gun trailer to community festivals. Minnesota offers a summer camp where kids learn to build a waterfowl blind, then shoot, gut and cook geese.
Maryland gives out free licenses to children who pass a hunter safety class, and promotes its youth hunts. The purpose is to stir interest in teen-agers like Alex Blazek, Matthew Berson and Nathan Johnston, all busy with friends, soccer, fall baseball, skate-boarding, orthodontist appointments and school events.
Alex Blazek, a tall, talkative 17-year-old, lives in northwestern Howard County, where the farms are giving way to $300,000 homes. He took hunter safety classes in seventh grade. Sometimes, he bikes past a public hunting ground. But he has never bothered to get his license.
"I just didn't do it. I was too busy with sports," he says.
His father wasn't disappointed. Jack Blazek used to go with the guys on four-day hunting trips to the Eastern Shore or West Virginia. Now, he would rather play golf.
"When I was younger, it seemed like a more natural thing to do," he says. "No one ever calls me and says, 'Do you want to go deer hunting?' "
Across the county in Columbia, Matthew Berson, a gangly 14-year-old with braces, wants desperately to learn the sport. But his father doesn't hunt. "We're sure he got switched in the hospital," his father teases. His mother worries that he's begging for a shotgun.
As a pre-schooler, Matthew watched Saturday morning sportsmen shows instead of cartoons. His parents promise to let him go hunting someday with his hero, a neighbor who has an antelope head and two bear skins displayed in the family room.
"I just like going out in the woods," Matthew says while looking for the "rubs" where bucks have scratched trees. He hikes behind his family's Colonial in Middle Patuxent Environmental Area, where the county has authorized a hunt to reduce the deer herd.
Nathan Johnston, a 13-year-old skate-boarder, spends his afternoons in Chestertown, practicing kick flips and grinds, the difficult curb landings. Though he lives outside the historic town on a 200-acre farm where his father hunted geese, Nathan tagged along only a few times.
"Hunting is pretty boring," Nathan says. "It doesn't take as much adrenalin."
On the day of Maryland's youth deer hunt, Samuel Johnston cheered his son Nathan on at a soccer game. Now divorced from Nathan's mother and living in Millington, Johnston finds he has fewer opportunities to hunt. Still, he hopes his son will change his mind. "I don't know how to explain it, but being in a blind with your son, talking, just one-on-one," he says. "It's unbelievable."
Hunting pollster Mark Damian Duda found no mystery to why the sport is declining in Maryland, Georgia and California but not in South Dakota and Wyoming. The explanation is the same as for inner-city decay and traffic-choked highways: suburbia.
Fewer hunters can walk out the back door to shoot a grouse, rabbit or deer. Nowadays, they must rent land, hire a guide or travel to often-crowded public grounds. The more die-hard hunters turn to big-game expeditions. Their children experience
less of what Tom Heberlein, a hunting researcher at the University of Wisconsin, describes as the "hunting mystique that becomes quite attractive" in the country where "all their cousins go out and they hear Uncle Charlie talking about the hunt."
In Maryland, 16,300 farms spanned 45 percent of the land in 1976. Today, 13,700 farms cover 34 percent of the state. Some farmers bar hunters from their land after rowdiness or accidents; Milton Wedeking posted "No Hunting" signs recently on his Carroll County farm after he found his dog Snoopy dead, shot with two arrows.
Swann, the Calvert County farmer, invites hunters, especially youths, onto his 340 acres to help check the deer population. Last summer, he had to get a special hunting permit after he lost more than $5,000 as deer stripped his soybeans and melons. "They take advantage of these subdivisions," he says, pointing to the new houses surrounding his fields.
Across North America, the white-tailed deer population has swelled, by some estimates, to more than 25 million, from a low of 500,000 after decades of unregulated hunting early in the 20th century. Deer thrive in the suburbs, full of ornamental shrubs and wooded patches beside fields. Increasingly, they're a danger on the roads: The number of deer killed from crashing into vehicles rose from 1,483 in 1988 to 3,110 in 1996. Montgomery County alone reported 1,255 accidents involving deer in 1995.
Mark Krantz hardly ever saw a deer as a boy in Frederick, and the farm he grew up on is now surrounded by houses and a mall. His own property has only a small grove to attract deer, so on the day of the youth hunt, he has driven his boys to 50 acres in nearby Libertytown. He grows grain there and has built a tree stand overlooking a field where the deer come to graze.
By 7: 30 a.m., the sun is up, but Brandon still hasn't seen a deer. He's getting restless, his toes numb, when he hears the shot in the distance: Derek has killed a seven-pointer.
Mark and Brandon climb down and hurry a half mile through the cornstalks. Derek is bent over, slicing open the buck's white belly.
"Brandon, when I got him, he rolled completely over." In his
excitement, Derek's hand slips. "You're not cutting straight," his father warns. Brandon coughs at the smell. But within moments, he's grinning and helping pull out the innards.
His father asks Brandon if he wants to come along to weigh in the deer, or stay behind with one of the adults. Brandon hesitates. "If I were hunting and hadn't gotten anything," his father says, "I'd stay out." Brandon consents, "OK." He'll hunt a little longer.
Ninety-seven miles away in Charles County, Bob Wardwell helps 22 young hunters into the comfortable tree stands on Blossom Point, an Army weapons testing base. It's the fifth year of the free youth hunt on the base.
"I'd like to see all of them get a deer and have something to take home," says Wardwell, the natural resource manager, "but if not, that's part of hunting."
Bearded and stocky, in a big orange vest, Wardwell, 44, looks like a model for the magazine North American Hunter. But he has never shot a deer himself, and he turns down every offer of fresh venison. He's a vegetarian.
His wife is an animal-lover, his close friends belong to animal rights organizations, and his sons Ben, 19, and Eric, 15, argue against the hunts. But for his job, Wardwell says, "I've kind of put aside my personal feelings." He'd rather see the over-abundant deer killed by hunters than die of starvation.
Wayne Pacelle, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, happens to know Wardwell -- and doesn't buy his rationale. Few wildlife populations are a nuisance, Pacelle says, and even deer fail to be controlled by hunting because sportsmen typically prize antlered bucks over does, which breed indiscriminately.
"Just going out and shooting animals for recreation is offensive," he says.
Even as avid a hunter as Derek Krantz once agreed. At 8, he urged his father to stop hunting, telling him: "If I don't eat the deer meat, you don't have to kill them."
His vegetarian days, though short-lived, reflect the type of cultural shift caused by suburban migration. Derek didn't learn the word "vegetarian" at home; he picked it up at school, where few of his friends and teachers live on farms or hunt.
Schools often subtly influence children to believe hunting is wrong, experts say, by lecturing on handgun violence and promoting animal rights along with environmentalism. "I'm sure a lot of schools are teaching that you don't want to kill Bambi," says Robert R. Butterworth, a child psychologist in Los Angeles.
But the schools also reflect changing attitudes toward wildlife. Conservation began with hunters, who agreed to regulation and taxes to restore populations like the deer. Since the environmental movement caught on, more nonhunters clean up streams, hike and bird-watch.
Not surprisingly, the two outdoors types often are at odds. In Maryland's Gunpowder Falls State Park, mountain bikers complain that while hunting is now allowed, their favorite trails are closed. "State parks shouldn't have hunting. It interferes with what other people want to do," says Patrick Sells, 16, a mountain-biker.
In Annapolis, 12-year-old Jennifer Shaplin protested last year against a youth bow hunt at Sandy Point State Park. She had attended a camp there and admired the deer. "They're beautiful beings," she says. Today, she's a vegetarian, and her father, who hunted as a youth, says he won't "even kill spiders. I run
around the house picking them up."
Wildlife administrators worry about the increasing number of people they see with sentimental or exaggerated views of animals. Maryland cited a man in May for keeping three deer as pets. Virginia fined a woman this month for piercing a fawn's ears.
The animals in these cases obviously did not benefit from their "caretakers." Despite all the nature films, says Lloyd Alexander, Delaware's wildlife administrator, "A lot of people don't seem to understand wildlife." But the agencies also have a more practical concern with attitudes that discourage hunting: fewer hunters translates into fewer dollars.
Josh L. Sandt, director of the wildlife and heritage division of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, is candid about the need to seek funding from other sources. "There are a lot more people who don't hunt in Maryland than do," he says, noting that less than 5 percent of the state hunts. "The vast majority enjoy wildlife."
Maryland has joined conservation groups across the nation, including the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and World Wildlife Fund, in pushing for up to a 5 percent tax on recreation equipment, from canoes to binoculars. The "Teaming With Wildlife" initiative, to be introduced in Congress as early as January, would distribute the money to help nongame species -- songbirds, chipmunks, snakes.
Still, the pro-hunting wildlife agencies and other groups aren't giving up on the sport. They've developed programs like "Becoming an Outdoorswoman" to attract more women. Texas wants to promote hunting to its growing Latino population; Florida has hired a marketing director and offers coupons on equipment.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, with a $300,000 federal grant, updated in 1994 three videos it sends to schools promoting hunting as part of wildlife management. The Fund for Animals has countered since with its own video: "What's Wrong With Hunting."
Maryland, Sandt says, should "provide an opportunity for those youngsters who do want to participate in hunting" but live in single-parent or suburban homes, or whose parents don't want to take them out on crowded opening day.
It's an experience that can help a youth mature, says Dan Rees, a therapist who teaches a course on "The Family" at Western Maryland College. He believes the "hunting ritual hasn't really been replaced" and notes it was a way for fathers to teach ."
Yet Rees, who grew up hunting in southern Ohio, never took his two sons, now 25 and 20. They lived in Columbia, and, he says, "neither expressed any interest."
By sundown, Brandon Krantz is tired and glum. No deer ventured close enough to shoot, despite all his tricks: He rubbed together antlers to create the sound of a buck fight, sat so still that the birds settled around him, even borrowed his brother's lucky hat.
"Disappointed?" his father asks. "Yeah," Brandon says softly, "I wanted to shoot one."
As they head slowly up the dark path to the truck, three deer suddenly bound across the hayfield in the distance and vanish into the woods. Brandon points the gun, then lowers it.
His brother, still flush with his own victory and excited at having spotted more deer, rubs it in. "You missed them. There were a whole bunch."
Brandon ignores him.
His father, determined to cheer him up and make him want to come back out, is reassuring. "I hunted eight years before I got a deer. Next time."
Brandon ignores him, too.
Maybe later on, once he's warmed up with a cup of hot chocolate, he'll forget the deer that got away. Maybe, as he tells his mother of the day's adventures, he'll want nothing more than to try again. Maybe 30 years from this gloomy evening, he'll return from a deer hunt comforting and encouraging his own son.
The young hunter walks alone in silence. For now, he's making no commitments.
Pub Date: 12/07/97