Hunting Is Having a Moment. Will It Last?
Adventure athletes like pro snowboarder Eric Jackson have begun to dabble in the pursuit, helping create a bridge between two previously distinct outdoor communities.
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It’s late September in Utah’s northeastern Wasatch range, and Eric Jackson is crouched on a sage-tangled hillside, bow at his feet, listening to the shrill whistle of bugling bull elk. Though Jackson is a pro snowboarder known for gravity-defying edits and backcountry descents, he’s come to the mountains this time in hopes of shooting an elk to fill his freezer with meat. He places a pocket-size reed in his mouth and lets loose a guttural call indistinguishable from the real thing, to help him home in on elk. Within seconds, a bull replies from a few hundred yards downhill.
Normally, a hunter would spring into a stalk. But Jackson sits back on his heels and swallows a belly laugh. It’s his first time calling elk during the rut, when animals are breeding and at their most receptive, and he’s bemused to get a response. “So funny! So cool!” he beams. “Honestly, I don’t care if I get an animal on this trip. I’m here to learn.” After a few back-and-forth calls, the bull moves off and downslope, likely chasing cows. Jackson continues following bugles and picking his way through crackling brush oak till dusk.
Jackson was just one of a record number of neophyte American hunters in the woods in 2022. After a decades-long decline in participation since the early 1980s, hunting license sales nationwide increased five percent between 2019 and 2020, according to a recent study by Southwick Associates, a market research firm specializing in hunting and the outdoors. That included a 25 percent increase in new hunter applications. In the seasons since, those numbers have held steady above pre-pandemic levels.
New hunters have boosted business, with sales during the pandemic booming at the premium hunting apparel brand Sitka. “Our forecasts were already up, and we made some purchasing decisions early that allowed us to meet demand when other companies were struggling with supply chains and inventory,” says John Barklow, senior product manager at Sitka, who is in Utah hunting with Jackson. “It was big.”
The growth has been industry-wide. That includes MeatEater Inc., the umbrella company that operates the eponymous Netflix series that has brought hunting as a lifestyle into the American living room, as well as the apparel brand First Lite. “Plenty of public information shows the spike in 2020. And that was a reality for us,” says Bridget Noonan, VP of Global Marketing at MeatEater, describing pandemic-time expansion across the company’s brands. “We were already on a growth track, but we definitely saw a surge, both audience and customers, who were looking to get outside, connect with the outdoors, and put meat on their table.”
Pandemic reverberations—spare time, concerns over food security, extra cash from government stimulus—drove more people, like Jackson, to try and harvest their own meat. “The pandemic was a reminder to a lot of people that the outdoors give us so much solace, whether that’s hiking, skiing, hunting, or whatever. That led to the growth,” says Land Tawney, president of the conservation and advocacy group Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA). “We’ve seen a spike of interest, driven by ‘adult-onset’ hunters and other first-timers.”
Jackson, the pro snowboarder, highlights the trend. For years, he has craved a lifestyle built around self sufficiency and the outdoors. “All I’ve wanted for a while is a little land with my own water source where I can grow food and have chickens,” he says. “And hunt. That desire to be outside and get away and be self sufficient, which was really underlined during the pandemic, is what led me to hunting.”
Jackson’s visibility as a professional snowboarder helped him land an ambassador deal with Sitka, despite his limited big game hunting experience. He was brought on in part to help promote Sitka’s expanding lifestyle wear. But the partnership is also what has presented him the opportunity for this fall 2022 hunt at Deseret Ranch in the Wasatch, one of the most prestigious elk properties in the U.S.
Perhaps the first lesson of bow hunting: it’s not easy. Jackson is a preternaturally talented outdoorsman who has spent his whole life exploring far-out wilderness, including extensive fly fishing expeditions in Canada and Alaska and plenty of duck hunting with his retrievers, Whisky and Rye. For this hunt, he has prepared meticulously, building his own arrows, and then shooting daily for a year to become confident out to 60 yards—though he’s resolved to shoot no more than half that distance here in Utah to make sure he gets a clean, deadly shot. Having guided hunts before, I can attest to the high quality of his elk calls. He even killed an elk on his first-ever hunt, in 2021, when Montana native Johnny Burford, a well-known hunter he met through connections with friends at Born and Raised Outdoors, guided him to public-land success with his bow.
And yet here at Deseret, where the elk feel as profuse as ticks in the Pennsylvania woods, it doesn’t come easy.
Night one closes with no opportunities for a shot. Days two and three play out the same: elk bugling all around, flashes of brown fur through the flicker of dying aspen leaves, but nothing close enough to merit drawing back an arrow. Jackson bumbles around a corner one morning and startles a huge bull lounging in a mud wallow 20 yards away. The next day, he calls a pair of animals to a watering hole, one after the other, but neither will come inside 80 yards. “I’m loving this. But I won’t lie. It’s so hard,” Jackson confesses.
On evening four, it seems the stars have aligned. Jackson and crew lure a giant, old bull and a small harem of cows upslope from a dark drainage toward their setup in a filtered stand of pines. One calf passes so close—three yards!—that Jackson could tackle it. The bull stops broadside at 20 yards, but there’s a branch in the way. No shot, and the animal eventually loses interest and returns the way he came.
For those who have never hunted, it’s tempting to think that modern weaponry and technology make it as easy as backcountry grocery shopping. The truth is, hunting, especially with a bow, requires so many elements to line up—the wind, the shooting lanes, the animal behavior—that it’s much more common to go home empty handed than to harvest. Fewer than 15 percent of hunters who draw elk tags bring home meat.
“I know I’m a beginner, and I need to check my expectations,” Jackson says the evening after the very close call. “But the longer a hunt goes on, the more difficult it is to stay positive, focused. It’s so mental.”
The challenge is part of the appeal, but it’s also a big barrier to entry. “It’s great to see so many new faces,” says Sitka’s Barklow. “But how long will that last after a season or two walking around without seeing an elk?” A recent study by the Council to Advance Hunting and the Shooting Sports, a not-for-profit aimed at recruiting and retaining hunters, found that though hunting license sales remained above pre-pandemic levels in 2021, they decreased 1.9 percent from the high-water mark in 2020.
Simply obtaining a hunting license is difficult. In Colorado, which has the largest elk herd in the world (280,000 head) and is widely considered to offer the best overall opportunities for hunters in the U.S. to get a permit for elk, less than a quarter of applicants in 2022 received a license. Many western states offer far lower odds. Colorado also sells over-the-counter elk licenses, allowing any hunter the chance to pursue the animals in limited areas, though the quantities and availability of these tags have also been dramatically reduced in recent years due to increased demand and the effect it has had on elk populations.
These hurdles have spurred a conversation in the hunting industry about how to retain those who discovered hunting amid the pandemic. “The pandemic brought a lot of people through the door. Now it’s our job to get them to stay,” says Barklow. Organizations including Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have upped their outreach aimed at participation. Hunter education programs, such as Artemis Sportswomen Hunt Camps, BHA’s Explore Hunting Workshops, and Wild Encore’s HuntCraft, are cropping up to help newcomers build skills and community, which BHA’s Tawney considers vital to ensuring newcomers stick around. Another approach is to try and convert enthusiasm for elk, which are sought-after but hard to pull tags for and even harder to shoot, into excitement about easier-to-draw and higher success species such as small game and waterfowl.
Sitka sees ambassadors such as Eric Jackson and Keith Malloy, a retired professional surfer and Patagonia designer who also recently joined the company, as part of its outreach. Not only do these guys have crossover to outdoor markets that the hunting world has a difficult time reaching, such as skiers, surfers, climbers, and paddlers, their appeal as new hunters is also aspirational. In bringing on Jackson, Sitka partnered with Black Diamond, another of Jackson’s primary sponsors, to create a collab snowboard collection that features its Optifade camo pattern outside the hunting industry for the first time ever. They also produced a short film, River, about Jackson’s initiation into hunting elk, which looks tailor-made for the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival. The organic food-eating, Rivian-driving, REI-shopping crowd will likely be more receptive to hunting (which has a bad reputation in some circles), if it comes from laid-back, familiar athletes who share their passions—or so the thinking seems to go.
This crossover has been a long time coming. In 2005, Sitka’s founders Jonathan Hart and Jason Hairston started the company after suffering through an Idaho elk hunt while wearing cheap cotton apparel that was then the staple of the industry. The original product development team included designers from Mountain Hardwear and Arc’teryx. Then in 2010, W.L.Gore & Associates—the company behind Gore-Tex—acquired Sitka, bringing the brand more tech and marketing firepower. Sitka sells conservation almost as hard as its own gear, which is a win-win-win: good for business, the sport of hunting, and the planet.
One looming question is whether hunting, as a pursuit with built-in scarcity, should be chasing growth at all. Part of the push is because hunting has been waning for decades, and hunters don’t want to see the knowledge and opportunity disappear forever. Part of it is also a question of driving industry growth and profits, which is simply the capitalist American way.
“You’re going to see more people at the trailheads, you’re going to have to go farther and hunt smarter to be successful,” says First Lite’s Noonan. “But the tradeoff, and we see it as a valuable one worth making, is that we are bringing more people into a community that cares for the land and is vested in conservation.”
Back in Utah, the only scarcity Jackson is worried about is his dearth of opportunities. After five days, the six other hunters in his party have shot elk, but he has come up empty. “It’s hard to be the only one who hasn’t tagged out,” he says. But he’s circumspect. “The two most important things are being in the mountains and being a good steward for this community.”
It’s Friday night, and Jackson’s hunt officially ends at 10 A.M. Saturday morning. Though he was scheduled to leave in the morning, he changes his flight home and goes back out at dawn. The morning passes like the rest of the hunt: close encounters, but no elk within shooting distance. Around 9, he and his crew begin trudging out of the canyon with empty packs. On the 800-vertical-foot climb out, a bull bugles a few hundred yards away in the trees. Jackson and team set up and begin calling, and, almost like magic, the bull beelines for them. At 20 yards, Jackson unleashes an arrow. Minutes later, the elk collapses and it’s over.
“Surreal. I thought I was going home empty-handed. So I was so grateful to walk away from that hunt having filled my freezer,” he recalls later.
Jackson left with 200 pounds of meat and picked up another 3,500 followers in the weeks following his post about the hunt. When Black Diamond posted about Jackson’s hunt and the Sitka collab, the response was as enthusiastic. Wrote one user, “Yes! Hunting and adventure athletes can coexist.”