At 6am one day in mid-January, a trio of hunters sat cloaked in layers of camouflage, waiting for first light when they could begin shooting during what would likely be one of the final duck hunts of the year.

With an hour before the hunt could begin, their decoys already floating in the water, the particle board duck blind disguised by sheafs of reeds and grasses, Brad Brooks, Ian Malepeai and Becca Aceto passed the minutes with fowl-focused conversation.

Aceto, who began hunting only recently, said she’d hunted nearby a few days prior with decent luck. Snowflakes started to flurry, and the hunters, cautiously optimistic, hunkered down with their eyes to the sky.

Brooks, 36, has hunted at the Bruneau-area blind since he was a teenager growing up in Meridian, Idaho, the United States. Malepeai, who grew up in Pocatello, also has spent decades hunting deer, waterfowl and chukar. Both learned the tradition from their fathers, something that’s become less and less common in recent decades.

Across the United States, the number of hunters has steadily decreased in the last 50 years, thanks to urbanisation and a shift in tradition. To an extent, Idaho has bucked the trend but it’s becoming clear that something has to change – maybe the hunters themselves.

Marketing the sport

For the first time in its 120-year history, Idaho Fish and Game has a marketing department, created last year. As the department’s director, Malepeai’s task is to help hunting continue to thrive in Idaho.

“In the past, state agencies didn’t have a marketing problem,” Malepeai said. “They didn’t need to market.” That’s because existing hunters were doing the work for them. Mentoring has long been the primary way new hunters pick up the practice, just like Brooks and Malepeai did.

But rather than come to hunting largely through tradition, today’s hunters seem to be spurred by a wider selection of catalysts, according to Brooks, director of the Wilderness Society’s public lands campaign. That can be anything from a desire for adventure and new challenges to a love for the environment or gourmet game-based dishes.

Fish and Game is happy to embrace them all.

“In Idaho, we represent all hunters and all anglers in the state, and motivations vary,” Malepeai said. “We’re looking at newcomers who are moving to Idaho for the outdoors and how we can help them become Idahoan.” He said statistics show the number of people passing the practice on to their children is waning nationwide.

Duck

Brad Brooks carves the meat from one of several Mallard ducks harvested from a morning hunt earlier this year. A group of wild game foodies enjoy the smoked duck during a dinner party at his Boise, Idaho, home. Photo: TNS

Baby boomers ageing out

“Idaho has actually been able to maintain a steady level of licence numbers, but as a percentage of the population, it’s not as large as it was in the past,” Malepeai said. “Part of it is just the changing demographics of the state.” The percentage of Idaho hunters in their 50s and 60s has increased over the past 20 years, while the percentage of hunters in their teens, 20s and 30s has slightly decreased.

“We’re hoping for the best,” Malepeai said. “But the fear is the baby boomer generation is just ageing out (of hunting). Our hope is we can keep this as part of what makes Idaho great.”

Fish and Game offers a hunting passport programme as an incentive for novice hunters.

Malepeai plans to introduce a virtual reality experience that allows new hunters to mimic field-dressing a deer. He hopes it will help boost confidence for less experienced hunters.

Malepeai pointed out that if hunting and fishing numbers continue to falter, so does the agency’s ability to manage Idaho’s wildlife. Though the agency is tasked with overseeing all of Idaho’s game and non-game animals, the bulk of its funding comes from licences, tags and permits. Fish and Game gets additional revenue from taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, but the state’s share of those funds is determined by the number of licence holders in the state.

“Hunting’s trying to stay relevant in a society that’s changing,” Aceto said.

And that means welcoming all kinds.

Sustainable food

For a few years after she first moved to Stanley, Aceto had no need to hunt. She’d grown up in Ohio, part of an outdoorsy family that hiked and fished, but she hadn’t forayed into hunting. Her boyfriend at the time offered her extra game meat, as did friends and co-workers on occasion.

After the relationship with her boyfriend ended, so did the bulk of the gifted meat. Aceto’s freezer gradually emptied. She hadn’t bought meat from a grocery store in years and had become accustomed to the idea of sustainable food – the kind that didn’t come from massive farming operations.

“I realised if I wanted to continue that lifestyle, I had to do it myself,” said Aceto, who moved to Boise in 2018 to work for the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

Changing tastes

Between them, Brooks, Malepeai and Aceto took six mallard ducks during their Bruneau hunt. On the drive home, Brooks joked that he grew up thinking he didn’t like duck. His family frequently made pan-fried duck breast, he said, and he’d balked at the gamey flavour.

He’s not the only one. Searches online describe duck meat in pretty dodgy terms – calling it an “acquired taste”, tiptoeing around its “different taste” or “stronger flavour”. But Brooks’ tastes have changed wildly over the years. Now a self-described “foodie”, his hunts take on an added layer as he plans the creative or unusual dishes he’ll make with the meat he harvests. Often, he’ll prepare game feasts for family and friends, like the one he hosted at his Boise home three days after his January duck hunt.

Brooks brined several of the ducks overnight, glazed them in high-quality maple syrup and smoked them for hours, letting the thick layer of winter fat melt into the skin until the birds developed a sweet, smokey flavour akin to candied bacon. Aceto arrived with a pan of nachos piled high with ground elk. Malepeai brought whitetail deer stroganoff. Brooks’ brother Brian made elk meatballs in a hoisin-based sauce.

“I’m more adventurous with the food I put in my freezer than the food I get at the store,” Aceto said.

Much has been made of the “foodie revolution” in recent years, and it’s clear the culture has stepped into the hunting world.

After the potluck, Malepeai’s wife, Hailey, used the duck carcasses to make broth for Vietnamese pho topped with deer backstrap. From the antelope she butchered with Internet guidance, Aceto has made ramen and bahn mi sandwiches. One of Brooks’ favourite recipes is osso buco, a dish made with braised deer or elk shanks, the cross-cut bone full of marrow.

It’s a far cry from the burgers and pan-fried cuts of meat he grew up on.

For average folks, it has long been enough to make steaks, sausage and burgers. The Statesman’s archives show our most adventurous game recipe recommendation may have been venison stroganoff.

It may also be an entry point to the culture. A well-prepared meal can be a way to bring new people to the conversation, a phenomenon Brooks said is sometimes called “venison diplomacy”. “You don’t talk about the hunting part, but the food part of it,” Brooks said. “Wild game can serve a function of bringing people together in a way that’s apolitical.” – Tribune News Service/The Idaho Statesman/Nicole Blanchard