Hunting Heritage Program seeks mentors, apprentices
By: CLAUDETTE OLIVIER
For many deer hunters, it’s hard to top harvesting a deer on your first hunt, and for Allen Parish hunter Pam Dufour, that reality likely would not have happened without the Louisiana Hunting Heritage Program.
“The first time I went to my mentor’s was in December of 2012, and that’s when I shot my first deer, a doe,” Dufour, of Kinder, said. “Gypsy (Hanks) sat with me in the stand, and I didn’t miss. It was a nice doe.”
Launched in 2011, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries program has established a network of mentors to support and give novice hunters the skills and confidence to become independent hunters. The program works to link apprentice hunters 10 years of age or older with a mentor who is dedicated to the sport of hunting, and would like to give back to the sport and pass on the knowledge and skills necessary to be a hunter.
Hunter numbers in Louisiana and in the nation have dwindled in the last few decades, and licensed hunter numbers in Louisiana have dropped 46 percent since 1991. That year, there were 333,000 licensed hunters, and the number dropped to 293,000 in 2001 and 178,794 in 2014.
John Sturgis, program coordinator, said, “We have seen the number of people purchasing licenses decline. Things are changing. There are so many things for children to get involved in these days — electronic devices, organized sports and parents are running their children to all these different things. Most people are not bold enough to try hunting on their own.”
Today, many who have an interest in hunting may not have family or friends to introduce them to the sport, and prospective hunters also face problems including where to go, what to hunt, how to hunt, what equipment is needed, what the regulations are and how to care for carcasses.
The goal of the program is to provide an apprentice with more than just a single hunting experience, and for the individual to learn hunting, shooting and other outdoor skills so that he or she will become familiar and comfortable with hunting. Hunter safety, shooting range trips, scouting excursions and game care are just a few of the activities encouraged through the program.
“It’s a chance to make lifelong friends,” Sturgis said. “We want to produce individuals who hunt independently or with friends. There are lots of things involved in hunting — navigating, how to work a gun, scouting. We want the novices to go through all the things they need to become a complete hunter.”
“A number of novices tell us they missed hunting as a kids but still want to give it a try. They need to know where to start, they need a compass to point them in the right directions. That is what we are trying to do with the program.”
Apprentices are paired with a mentor based on location and interests, and mentors receive training, support and liability insurance coverage from department and its partners. While the department has several child and family focused hunting programs, the Hunting Heritage program is geared toward potential adult hunters.
Since the start of the program, 100 apprentices and 42 mentors have participated in the pairing experience.
“Lots of apprentices are from between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, heavily populated areas like Jefferson and Orleans parishes,” Sturgis said. “They are people who want to hunt and never had the opportunity. About 70 to 75 percent are over the age of 18, and we have had lots of apprentices over the age of 50. Sixteen percent of the applicants have been women.”
“Our mentors are scattered. The pairs don’t have to be geographically close, but it does make it easier to meet for things like visiting the shooting range and scouting.”
No mentors or novices have signed up from St. Landry Parish, but the rural parishes in the area are likely full of potential mentors.
“Most hunters are initiated into hunting by the age of 20 by a father figure in a rural environment,” Sturgis said. “In rural parishes like St. Landry, most potential hunters have a person to introduce them to the sport.”
“There is a great need for mentors. My challenge is to get enough mentors who are willing to give their time. We are seeing good success stories, and I want to produce as many as I can.”
For more information about the program, contact Sturgis at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 337-948-0255.
Sturgis’ closest success story to Eunice is Dufour’s, and he still keeps in touch with her as she continues to hunt on her own.
Dufour’s induction into the program began when she saw an advertisement for the program in a magazine, and she applied for the program in 2012.
“I contacted John, and he asked me if I was willing to travel,” Dufour said. “I said, ‘Well sure.’ I’m 56, and it’s hard to find people to match with, especially at my age.”
Dufour’s mentor, Gypsy Hanks, is actually a biologist at the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, and she is also married to LDWF biologist John Hanks.
While Dufour did grow up in a home with hunters, she never once participated in a hunting excursion.
“My dad and brother hunted,” Dufour said. “After my kids grew up, I decided it was ‘me’ time. My husband hunted off and on, but he hunts more now that I hunt, too. “We have two grown sons, and they think it is awesome that I have taken up hunting. We also have a granddaughter who just turned six. She likes to ride the four-wheeler, but I don’t think she can sit still long enough to get in the deer stand. If she can keep quiet, maybe I will let her in the deer stand soon.”
Dufour traveled to the Hanks’ home near Farmerville for the first time in 2012. While there, the novice and mentor went deer hunting together, and Dufour killed her first deer, a doe. The following January, Dufour traveled back to north Louisiana, and she helped Hanks work a deer check station on the refuge.
“She showed me how to find out a deer’s age by its teeth, and we weighed the deer at the check station,” she said. “I hunted the next day with a portable tree stand and hunting harness. Always use your harness. That is the number one rule Gypsy pounded into my head — use your harness. I learned a lot from her.”