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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

When my father was a youngster, hunting was more than a sport. It was part of survival. The rabbits, squirrels and doves harvested and the fish were an important dietary supplement for dad and his nine siblings growing up during the Great Depression.

By the time I came along in the mid-50s, that had already changed. Sure, we ate lots of fish dad caught and enjoyed the occasional squirrel and rabbit dinner, but we would have survived just fine on vegetables from our garden and groceries purchased at Kroger and Piggly Wiggly.

Today, the number of hunters in the United States has dropped dramatically. Data from 2017 shows about 18 million Americans are active hunters, that’s just under six percent of the population.

As Americans move away from their hunting legacy, their perception of the sport has changed markedly.

Many people believe that hunters have a blood lust. They take to the field for rabbits, deer or waterfowl because they enjoy killing. Speaking for myself, and many of people I’ve hunted with during the past decades, that simply isn’t true.

Explaining the allure of hunting to those who haven’t experienced being in the field is difficult. I’ve tried. And, in most instances, I’ve failed miserably.

Leaving for work Monday morning, I noticed something in my mailbox. My neighbor had left an essay for me to read. The treatise was his personal history of hunting. It was a compelling read that details the hunter’s constantly evolving connection to the sport.

The first line, “I stopped hunting as gradually as I started; it was not a sudden thing,” grabbed my attention.

The essay, which is regrettably too lengthy to be published in a newspaper, outlined a youngster’s fascination with guns, a child’s perception of the finality of death and a variety of experiences accumulated through a lifetime in the field.

He tells the story of friendships forged in the fields, and the unspoken connection hunters share with each other and their sport. One such story involved attending the funeral of a rabbit hunting companion, a young man killed in an oil field accident.

“For the dinner, among other things his grandma cooked was a platter of fried rabbit she had taken from the freezer. She also made gravy. Everyone agreed that was the best fried rabbit and gravy we had ever tasted,” he wrote.

And, he wrote of those long days in the woods when game is scarce.

“In fact, I came to see those times in the woods made me a better hunter. Like, how a squirrel is a good look-out; how 10 yards on either side of a path, given the wind can make a huge difference; how deer are curious and sometimes will double back on you; how ears and eyes in addition to a kind of Native American instinct all have to work together.”

Of course, there are stories of hunting with his son. My favorite includes the time a mortally wounded dove fell from the sky, directly in the game bag they were using.

The essay also traces how later life experiences change your perception toward hunting — seeing that son shipped off to a war zone and enduring the loss of a spouse.

Our relationship to hunting … it’s definitely not blood lust. It’s a complicated thing.

les.winkeler@thesouthern.com

618-351-5088

On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​

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