Endangered species Hunting was once a skill passed down from father to son. But today, in an increasingly suburbanized society, more and more boys are choosing not to take up arms.

December 07, 1997|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff

Fifteen feet up in the bare oak, Brandon Krantz crouches on a sheet of plywood. He shivers, his dimpled face solemn as he peers out from under the hood of his baggy orange jacket. His thin wrists bend stiffly to cradle his father's rifle.

"Move up, Brandon." His father, balanced beside him in the tree, reaches over to shift the gun higher. "You've gotta get it in your shoulder. If you see something, take your gloves off. You know where to shoot?"

Brandon knows. He has prepared all fall, in hunter safety classes, at dinner with his brothers on their farm in Frederick County. Ever since his older brother Derek brought home an eight-point buck last year, Brandon has imagined the moment: the white flash of the deer in the sight of his .30-30 Winchester, his finger on the trigger. The answer is second-nature: "Right behind the front leg," he whispers.

As the wintry gray dawn lights the trees in the distance, Mark Krantz helps his shy 11-year-old understand a man's sport. Be alert, the father tells his son, sense the wind's direction, search for the slightest movement in the woods.

For 40-year-old Mark Krantz, teaching his boys to hunt is as much a part of farming life as milking the cows and harvesting the corn. It's a family tradition. He was 12 when he shot his first quail on his father's farm, 14 when he received the rifle Brandon now uses.

But the ritual the Krantz boys share with their father is disappearing in Maryland and other suburbanized states along with dirt roads, general stores and large stretches of farmland. Fewer and fewer boys nowadays learn to hunt, a rite of passage once so sacred that schools routinely closed for opening day.

Over the past two decades, Maryland's sales of hunting licenses to youths under 16 slumped 65.9 percent, from a peak of 23,520 in 1974 to 8,017 in 1996. In Pennsylvania, junior sales fell 38.8 percent since 1976, from 168,546 to 103,080, and in California, 58.9 percent. Even in Michigan, Gail Medsen at Skip's Sporting Goods in Grayling complains: "I just don't see the youngsters. It's not as cool to be hunters from the get-go."

Of course, millions of hunters still head into the woods every fall, and some rural states like West Virginia continue to cancel classes at the start of the season. Yet nationwide, hunters are getting older, while license sales are flat or declining. It's among the young in more densely populated regions, however, that the sport is losing its appeal fastest.

More children grow up today in far-flung suburbs, accustomed to the conveniences of computers and malls, unfamiliar with country life. They go outside to rake and stack leaves, not hay. They want to ride the lawn mower, not the tractor. They practice soccer and Nintendo, not shooting a gun.

"When I was a kid, there wasn't anyone around to play with. It was either go fishing or go hunting," recalls J. Allen Swann, 52, who still farms the land where he grew up in Calvert County. "Now, I get new neighbors all the time, and they're getting farther and farther from the farms. My sons were in the minority in school: Most of the kids don't live on farms."

Far more has changed than the Maryland of Swann's boyhood. Along with new houses and stores have come new ways. Historians and psychologists point to the decline of other gender-specific rituals -- the men of a family tinkering on cars while the women baked -- and the rise of two-career households, a more pervasive anti-gun sentiment, and the greater independence of children.

"We just don't have as much emphasis on fathers initiating sons into activities that will make them men. When Dad suggests doing something, they'd rather go do something else with their peers," says Peter N. Stearns, a social historian and dean at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Some parents of the soccer generation question whether the tradition is worth preserving. To Swann and other sportsmen, hunting teaches patience, self-discipline and a respect for nature. But nonhunters often find the sport of killing animals bloody and cruel.

On Tangier Island, Va., Lonnie Moore, 43, a former crabber who works for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, used to shoot ducks. He wanted to take his boy Alex, 9, someday. But his wife won't allow it. "I hope my son never has an interest," says Carol, 35. "There's something about a duck flying in the air, and just being shot."

More than family tradition is at stake. Growing herds of white-tailed deer pose a threat to crops and as a road hazard. And state wildlife agencies lose income when sales of licenses and tax revenue from hunting and fishing equipment decline. Many states, like Maryland, are moving to attract kids to the sport by sponsoring special hunts.

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