It's been a year for house hunting, job hunting, bargain hunting ... and real hunting — the kind that requires a gun or a bow and lots of open land.
National and annual statistics have yet to be tallied, but hunters across the country are in agreement: Hunting is making a comeback. More people are grabbing their guns and heading for the woods, and it's mostly because of the recession.
Pennsylvania, New York, Montana, Wisconsin and Missouri are among the states reporting a rise in hunting license applications from last year. Sales of hunting rifles are also up in some places, and hunters are donating more deer meat to food banks, something many homeless shelters will rely on to feed struggling families over the winter.
Hunters say the main reasons for the uptick are that it supplies cheap food and rising unemployment and a slowed economy have given people more time to spend in the woods.
Once one of the country's most popular pastimes, hunting has seen a steady decline since the 1970s because of lack of recruitment, a rise in high-tech entertainment and the migration of rural families to cities.
"Everyone is so used to hearing that hunting is on the decline, that the numbers are continually bleak," said Nationial Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "If states and individual license distributors are saying their numbers are up from last year, this is a significant development and one that is very good news."
The soaring cost of food and gas over the fall sent out more hunters looking to fill up their freezers. Venison meat — which packs a significant amount of lean protein — can last a season, if processed correctly.
"I get the sense that a lot of people are actually hunting for meat and food right now, and not just for sport," says Bob Viden, who owns Bob’s Little Sport Shop with his sons in Glassboro, N.J. He said his hunting license sales are up this year.
Becky Koslovich is a 29-year-old training and development manager in Sitka, Alaska, a remote location where the cost of food and gas is always high.
"In Alaska, subsistence is a way of life, and it's the way I was raised," she said. "You put up fish in the summer and meat in the winter — and it's nice to know you don't have to rely on cattle farmers and supermarkets to feed yourself."
Unemployment has also apparently been a factor in the revival of hunting.
"A bunch of folks who have recently lost their jobs simply have more time to hunt now," Viden said.
In fact, a report by Responsive Management for the National Shooting Sports Foundation says that lack of time is the top reason a hunter becomes a lapsed hunter.
Another reason for the uptick is that hunting is good bang-for-your-buck, so to speak. As Jim Low, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation, explained, "In a time when people are trying to pinch pennies, hunting is a recreational bargain. It’s ridiculously inexpensive.
"You will pay as much for one day with the family at a professional ballgame as you will in a whole hunting season."
The coming holidays are also having an impact, as hunters are feeling particularly charitable this season. Laura Newell-Furniss, director of the Virginia-based Hunters for the Hungry, which distributes deer meat to area food banks and homeless shelters, says venison donations are up this year.
"Hunters are aware that there is a tremendous need for the deer this season," she said. "They know they have neighbors out of work, so hunters are generously giving."
But that doesn’t mean she’s no longer worried.
"We talked to a shelter the other day who said the most they’d ever served at once last year was 600 people, and that they just had 900 people come in," Newell-Furniss said. "People are struggling and the meat is invaluable."
There’s reason to believe politics is also playing a small role. A record rise in guns sales followed President-elect Barack Obama's victory last month. Some shops report that sales of hunting rifles in particular seem to follow the trend. Dave Laguercia, who owns Riverview Sales in East Windsor, Conn., said that gun sales at his shop have nearly tripled in the month since the election.
"Hunting rifles have absolutely gone up. You wouldn’t think sales would be up in a state like Connecticut, but I do a lot of Internet business and it’s that way across the country," Laguercia said. "It’s because of who we have in power and the things he’s said in the past about firearm sales."
Laura Valentine, owner of Wild Bill’s Trading Post in Rome, Ga., said, "A lot of people are coming in to buy hunting rifles to give as Christmas gifts."
But not everyone is thrilled to see the hunting bump.
Andrew Page, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, says his group is focused not on the current surge, but on the sport’s steady decline.
"We see that as heartening," Page said. "More and more Americans are shooting animals with cameras, and not guns."
He added that programs like Hunters for the Hungry don’t make hunting any more palatable.
"That’s something hunters can put out there to try to gain some public support," Page said.
Not every state is riding a hunting revenue wave, however. Georgia and Texas, which were ravaged by storms this past year, are seeing a decline. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says that hunting licenses — the most popular of which are attached to fishing licenses in license combination packages — are down because hurricanes dampened the fishing season.
But with the economy, presidential politics and the coming holidays creating something of a perfect storm, a favorite American pastime is enjoying a little extra attention this year. For enthusiasts, they’ll take any good news they can get.