Steve Johnston Jr. doesn't even notice the freezing rain heaving across Little Lick Creek as he scans the brushy bank from his camouflaged boat.
After an hour of spotting only a perturbed heron with his binoculars, he suddenly blurts out "duck!" Three ringnecks dart by. Mr. Johnston doesn't shoot them. Today is just a scouting mission to prepare for his favorite activity: taking his teenage sons, Tripp and Robert, hunting.
Johnston is hoping to imbue his sons with a love of hunting, a pastime slowly on the wane in many parts of America. As fewer fathers take youngsters out into the woods and more suburbanites balk at a sport they see as both dangerous and cruel, some observers predict the number of hunters in the United States could fall by as much as 50 percent in the next 20 years.
For a number of states, that's becoming a concern. Hunters keep deer populations in check and revenue from hunting licenses are key to conservation revenues. Others lament the loss of a father-son ritual that they consider as much a part of American life as the family farm.
As a result, several states - to the great dismay of animal-rights groups - are taking steps to encourage more people to sit in duck blinds and on deer stands:
• North Carolina is launching its first-ever "let's go hunting" campaign, in part as a game-management tool.
• Maine has introduced Young Hunter Days to encourage adolescents to try the sport with the help of volunteer mentors who guide them on their first outing.
• Alabama gives new hunters first access to forests at the start of deer season, so rookies can try their hand when the animals are not as wary - an attempt to lure more to the sport.
• In Illinois, game managers are holding learn-to-hunt classes for single mothers.
Even critics acknowledge that a lot is at stake for the hunting community. "Without a major reversal, the decline in hunting will mean that hunters are the next endangered species," says Heidi Prescott, national director of the Fund for Animals in New York.
Today, the average hunter is 42, male, white, and growing older. As the suburbs expand, the areas available to go hunting in are decreasing, and sportsmen have to travel farther afield to find pheasant and partridge. A new US Fish and Wildlife survey shows that the number of hunters has declined by 7 percent, to 13 million, in the past 5 years. While a few states like Alaska and Minnesota have seen slight increases, other areas are experiencing dramatic drops: Conservation officials in Georgia predict a 50 percent decline in the number of hunters by 2026.
"There are three variables to what makes a hunter: Whether their father hunted, whether they grew up in a rural area, and whether they're male," says Thomas Heberlein, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Increasingly, he says, those factors are changing. More children are growing up in cities and more are being raised by single mothers. Fathers play a key role in passing on hunting traditions, since few people take up the sport if they didn't do it as a kid.
Brad Herrin, for one, appreciates that his dad took him shooting as soon as he could walk. The 19-year-old Hereford, Ariz., hunter regularly travels across the Southwest in search of elk, deer, and quail. But few people he knows do it. "My friends aren't opposed to hunting, but they live in a big city and their dad doesn't do it, so they don't have the opportunity," he says.
Another factor contributing to disinterest in hunting is that society is seeing "changing values toward animals," says Ms. Prescott.
Safety is an enduring concern, too. In Yarmouth, Maine, for example, town officials last year placed tough restrictions on hunting in a local woodland to help protect joggers and mothers with strollers.
"The growing sentiment against firearms is a critical factor" in antihunting ordinances recently passed by six towns in Maine, says George Smith, the director of the Sportsmen's Alliance of Maine in Portland.
Hunting remains a hot political issue as well. Animal-rights groups were successful in blocking a bill in New York that would have lowered the big-game hunting age from 16 to 14. In Maryland, the Fund for Animals is lobbying for a minimum age for hunters. "If you have to be 16 to drive, 18 to vote, and 21 to drink, we think there should be some kind of minimum age for children to carry guns in the woods, for their own safety and for the safety of people in the area," says Mike Markarian, the Fund's national president.
Faced with a backlash against hunting, states such as Alabama, Virginia, Minnesota, and North Dakota have amended their constitutions to include the right to hunt and fish.
Others are doing more to promote the sport. Illinois is buying private lands slated for development to preserve as hunting grounds. The state has even set up easy access to deer stands so wheelchair-bound residents can hunt, says Carol Knowles of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Some state officials and others worry that a decline in hunting will lead to imbalances in wildlife populations.
"It used to be a big deal in Wisconsin if you went out and saw a deer or two in the woods," says Mr. Heberlein. "Now hunters come back and say, 'I saw 30 or 40 deer and I was just waiting for the big one.' "
Johnston, for his part, sees hunting as a vital part of father-son bonding. Nor does he detect a drop in interest in the sport in his area. "We had camo [camouflage] day at school a couple of weeks ago, and practically everyone came wearing some," he says.