Losing Touch With the Great Outdoors

Twenty-somethings may be great at blasting aliens out of the virtual sky, but most can't shoot a deer or hook a trout in the real world.

The number of people aged 18 to 24 who participate in hunting or fishing has been on the decline for the last decade, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Experts say the proliferation of video games, a lack of exposure to nature and a misperception of the sports have all contributed to the decline of young people stalking prey.

"There's no doubt that the demographic trend in the U.S. in terms of hunting and fishing is mirroring what is happening as a whole," said Chris Tollefson, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We are becoming far more of an urban society than a suburban society. We are losing touch with the natural world."

Only nine percent of the country's 34 million anglers are between 18 and 24, down from 13 percent a decade ago. And people in the same age bracket account for just 10 percent of the nation's 13 million hunters, down from 14 percent in 1991.

The sports don't gel well with a generation bred on Nintendo, MTV and other sensory-overloaded activities. "Hunting and fishing does require a lot of patience," Tollefson said. "It is a little out of step with the culture these days, there's no instant gratification."

American kids aren't being taught the sports as children, as many of their parents and grandparents were. And without early exposure, experts fear that many people will never experience the joy of reeling in a flapping flounder or skinning a deer.

"A large issue is [many people] do not have any way to learn how to hunt," said Floyd Thompson of the U.S. Forest Service. "The whole process of owning a gun has become almost a crime. People don't know how to shoot a gun or aim it or use it, how to stalk the animal or clean it. It's a learned sport. And fishing is similar."

But others say there is hope yet that college-aged video game addicts will eventually put away their PlayStations.

A recent party for the Urban Anglers shop in New York City was packed with young people all hooked on fly-fishing. The owner of the store, Katherine Hooper, 30, said college-aged students are too poor and too distracted to take up the sport, but most of her customers are in their late 20s and early 30s.

"The 18 to 25 age group is kind of a happy hour crowd. They're not welcomed financially into doing those sports," she said. "The typical fly-fishing rod costs $500. Hunting also is extremely expensive."

But once people get some cash in the bank and settle down, they're more inclined to pursue the sports, she said. "It's an incredible form of release from day-to-day anxieties that all of us contend with. When you're in college, you don't have this workaday world from which you'd like to be released."

David Blinken, 42, a fly-fishing guide off Long Island, N.Y., said one of the main problems with the sport is its reputation.

"The image we're all trying to break is that it's for grandpas who are retired," he said. "It's not."

In fact, several of his clients are now teaching their own parents to fish. Trevor Gibson, a 28-year-old CFO for a brokerage firm in New York City said he became obsessed with the sport 10 years ago when a friend introduced him to it — and has now taught his father to fish.

"We had a great bonding time," he said. "He caught 12 fish his first time out."

Still, the numbers speak for themselves, said Tollefson. To combat the problem, groups like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts encourage kids to explore the natural world.

"We'd certainly like to see the trend reversed," said Tollefson. "We have made a concerted effort to expand hunting and fishing opportunities and to expose kids to it through things like national fishing week."

But even those who are optimistic about the next generation's interest in the great outdoors concede that basic attitudes toward nature create a barrier to the sports.

"Part of the reason fewer people are raised with hunting and fishing is they had different ideas of what was fun to do out in nature," said Hooper. "For example, my mother wanted to go out and walk. The idea of going out and wanting to shoot birds instead of look at birds skipped her."