California Waterfowl Introduces Waterfowl Hunting to the Next Generation
With both hunting and wetlands facing rapid decline in California, how can we encourage, educate and recruit new hunters? The California Waterfowl Association (CWA) has found one way to do it — by hosting an annual College Hunt Camp specifically for wildlife biology students at the University of California, Davis.
Wildlife students are taught early on that hunter support is crucial to state and national wildlife programs’ conservation efforts. But even though these students may eventually work at organizations that frequently collaborate with hunters, hunting organizations and biologists who picked career paths because of their passion for hunting, many students don’t grow up with the opportunities to witness hunters’ effects on conservation firsthand.
However, while enrolled in a Biology and Conservation of Wild Birds course, I learned of the chance to apply to CWA’s Hunt Camp, an event designed to help students understand hunters’ commitment to and respect for animals and their habitat, as well as the forces that drive many of the wildlife conservation efforts we see. I had never met a hunter before, let alone touched a gun; so before that moment, it hadn’t even crossed my mind to try hunting. When the opportunity popped up, though, I knew I couldn’t pass on this once-in-a-lifetime chance.
After submitting my application, I was selected in early December of 2019, along with 14 other students, most of whom had also never hunted. Less than a month later, after completing the online hunter safety training, we found ourselves at the luxurious nearly-2,500-acre Bird Haven Ranch in California’s Upper Butte Basin.
Over the course of the three-day camp, which has been hosted since 2009, we learned about firearms use and safety, bird identification, and hunter safety and ethics. We toured the gigantic wetland, where CWA staff had previously completed conservation work, and listened to experts talk about waterfowl ecology and wetland restoration. The students split into small groups and visited several stations to practice archery and pellet shooting; and using shotguns all donated by Benelli, we practiced shooting clay targets.
Nothing could have prepared me for the first time I fired a shotgun while at one of the clay stations. I walked up to the instructor, thoroughly prepared to make a fool of myself. After listening with pounding heart while the instructor explained the process, I hoisted the Benelli up to my shoulder, took a deep breath and shouted, “Pull!” I saw the flash of orange shoot away from me, aimed and fired. The shotgun boomed, and I felt the power from the recoil. Exhilarated, I watched the clay target split into fragments mid-air. My group members cheered me on as I breathed in the delicious smell of gunpowder. OK – I could now see why people might get addicted to this.
During the weekend, we also had time to network with guests from a variety of wildlife management careers. Biologists and conservation experts from CWA, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited and the California Rice Commission had all volunteered to instruct the newbies and act as hunting guides. These people’s devotion to the outdoors was unrivaled. Seeing them so happy to give up their time and energy to speak to students made me realize that hunters don’t hunt merely because they want to fire away at something. I could sense how much they genuinely cared about conserving waterfowl and wetlands. Their level of commitment made me even more eager to experience hunting for myself to understand why it was so valuable to them.
On the last day, each student set out with their guides to leave for their duck hunt. In the marsh, my guide and I waded out to our blind in the darkness. By the time we made it there, I was breathless, and my fingers were stiff from the cold. We watched the sun slowly rise and heard the marsh magically come to life. Each time ducks passed, I would be too slow at getting myself positioned to fire, or get too excited and forget to lead, missing them all. Even when one flew in the perfect position, close enough and at an angle I should have been able to hit easily, I rushed the shot and watched it flap away unscathed. My guide and I looked at each other and laughed a little. It was so beautiful out there, and it was the closest I’d felt to nature in such a long time, that I couldn’t even get that mad. Eventually, I downed one green-winged teal, and we celebrated. We later made it back to the duck club to meet with everyone else to clean birds and swap stories.
For some reason, I had always assumed hunting didn’t take that much effort. Perhaps it was because the closest I’d ever come to duck hunting was through Super Skeet Arcade — a now-obsolete image projecting game my brother and I used to play together, where we sat in a dark room of our house and took turns shooting at projections of quacking ducks on the wall with the toy gun.
But that weekend, I quickly learned that hunting is no Super Skeet Arcade. It’s not something you casually pick up for a few minutes or hours, like the retro game that gathered dust for the next decade and a half after my brother and I returned it to the back of a closet. Hunting takes significant prep beforehand, during and after. You must practice shooting again and again at a range; obtain safety certifications, duck stamps and gear; learn to tell birds apart from each other; make it out to a hunting spot, if you can find one, while lugging your gun and accessories; and if or when you manage to shoot a bird, you must spend time plucking and cleaning the animal before you can cook and finally eat it.
It’s hard work, and I admired the passion needed to do it. The long hours. The skill. The absolute madness of hunters waking up in the dead of night, at an hour I more often go to bed at than rise at, so they can drive for miles, navigate a freezing marsh and hunker in a muddy blind to shoot at some ducks — and then willingly doing it all over again.
I was inspired and wanted to learn more about what it takes to conserve natural resources so hunters can continue doing what they love. So much so, in fact, that I spoke to contacts at the college camp, which later led to an internship with CWA’s communications team. Eventually, after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in wildlife, fish and conservation biology, I started working full-time at CWA, where I remain today, several years later.
Not all students who attend this camp will choose to hunt again, but some of them, like me, do. And even if not everyone chooses to continue with the hobby, they at least walk away with a life-changing experience that gives them more insight into why people love hunting, and why those hunters are so important to conservation. CWA hopes that opportunities like College Hunt Camp continue to succeed in sharing the organization’s passion for waterfowl and wetlands with students — the next generation of habitat and wildlife managers — while allowing them to make meaningful connections with the people who help protect California’s hunting heritage.