Building hunting in a declining time

  • Hailey Malepeai stirs a pot of stroganoff made with whitetail deer while wild friends enjoy appetizers and dishes prepared for a dinner night at Brad Brooks' home, right, in Boise, Idaho, on January 18, 2019. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS) Idaho Statesman/TNS phogoraphs — Darin Oswald

  • Brad Brooks, left, and his wife Angie, not pictured, welcome fellow wild game foodies Becca Aceto, Alex Rheault and his brother Brian Brooks, right, among other hunters for a dinner night at their Boise, Idaho, home on January 18, 2019. Among various sidedishes, they enjoy smoked duck from a recent hunting trip, as well as deer stroganoff, elk nachos and meatballs. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS) Darin Oswald

  • Brad Brooks carves the meat from one of several Mallard ducks harvested from a morning hunt earlier in the week, on January 18, 2019. A group of wild game foodies enjoy the smoked duck during a dinner party at his Boise, Idaho, home. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS) Darin Oswald

  • This plate of nachos is made with ground elk meat harvested from hunting season last fall, on January 18, 2019, in Boise, Idaho. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS) Darin Oswald

  • Brined for 24 hours and slow-smoked for six hours, Brad Brooks slices through the crispy skin of Mallard duck breasts from a duck hunt just days earlier, on January 18, 2019. Each duck was coated in maple syrup and salted before cooking for a savory sweet flavor that enhances the wild game. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS) Darin Oswald

  • Wild game foodies enjoy these Asian-style elk meatball appetizers at a gathering of friends, where they share recipes, stories, and the bounty of their hunting adventures. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/TNS)

The Idaho Statesman
Published: 2/16/2019 10:20:48 PM
Modified: 2/16/2019 10:20:48 PM

BOISE, Idaho — At 6 a.m. in mid-January, a trio of hunters sat cloaked in layers of camouflage, waiting for first light, when they could begin shooting during what would likely be one of the final duck hunts of the year.

With an hour before the hunt could begin, their decoys already floating in the water, the particle-board duck blind disguised by sheafs of reeds and grasses, Brad Brooks, Ian Malepeai and Becca Aceto passed the minutes with fowl-focused conversation.

Aceto, who began hunting only recently, said she’d hunted nearby a few days prior with decent luck. Snowflakes started to flurry, and the hunters, cautiously optimistic, hunkered down with their eyes to the sky.

Brooks, 36, has hunted at the Bruneau-area blind since he was a teenager growing up in Meridian. Malepeai, who grew up in Pocatello, also has spent decades hunting deer, waterfowl and chukar. Both learned the tradition from their fathers, something that’s become less and less common in recent decades.

Across the country, the number of hunters has steadily decreased in the last 50 years, thanks to urbanization and a shift in tradition. To an extent, Idaho has bucked the trend, but it’s becoming clear that something has to change — maybe the hunters themselves.

For the first time in its 120-year history, Idaho Fish and Game has a marketing department — created last year — and as the department’s director, Malepeai’s task is to help hunting continue to thrive in Idaho.

“In the past, state agencies didn’t have a marketing problem,” Malepeai said. “They didn’t need to market.”

That’s because existing hunters were doing the work for them. Mentoring has long been the primary way new hunters pick up the practice, just like Brooks and Malepeai did.

But rather than come to hunting largely through tradition, today’s hunters seem to be spurred by a wider selection of catalysts, according to Brooks, director of the Wilderness Society’s public lands campaign. That can be anything from a desire for adventure and new challenges to a love for the environment or gourmet game-based dishes.

Fish and Game is happy to embrace them all.

“In Idaho, we represent all hunters and all anglers in the state, and motivations vary,” Malepeai said. “We’re looking at newcomers who are moving to Idaho for the outdoors and how we can help them become Idahoan.”

He said statistics show the number of people passing the practice on to their children is waning nationwide. Since 2000, the number of hunters in Idaho has only decreased about 3 percent — from 217,514 license holders in 2000 to 209,967 license holders in 2018. But the fact that Idaho’s population has grown by around 400,000 people in that same time period raises red flags.

“Idaho has actually been able to maintain a steady level of license numbers, but as a percentage of the population, it’s not as large as it was in the past,” Malepeai said. “Part of it is just the changing demographics of the state.”

The percentage of Idaho hunters in their 50s and 60s has increased over the past 20 years, while the percentage of hunters in their teens, 20s and 30s has slightly decreased.

“We’re hoping for the best,” Malepeai said. “But the fear is the baby boomer generation is just aging out (of hunting). Our hope is we can keep this as part of what makes Idaho great.”

Fish and Game offers a hunting passport program as an incentive for novice hunters. Malepeai plans to introduce a virtual reality experience that allows new hunters to mimic field dressing a deer. He hopes it will help boost confidence for less experienced hunters.

Malepeai pointed out that if hunting and fishing numbers continue to falter, so does the agency’s ability to manage Idaho’s wildlife. Although the agency is tasked with overseeing all of Idaho’s game and non-game animals, the bulk of its funding comes from licenses, tags and permits. Fish and Game gets additional revenue from taxes on hunting and fishing equipment, but the state’s share of those funds is determined by the number of license holders in the state.

“Hunting’s trying to stay relevant in a society that’s changing,” Aceto said.

And that means welcoming all kinds.

For a few years after she first moved to Stanley, Aceto had no need to hunt. She’d grown up in Ohio, part of an outdoorsy family that hiked and fished, but she hadn’t forayed into hunting. Her boyfriend at the time offered her extra game meat, as did friends and coworkers on occasion.

After the relationship with her boyfriend ended, so did the bulk of the gifted meat. Aceto’s freezer gradually emptied. She hadn’t bought meat from a grocery store in years and had become accustomed to the idea of sustainable food — the kind that didn’t come from massive farming operations.

“I realized if I wanted to continue that lifestyle, I had to do it myself,” said Aceto, who moved to Boise in 2018 to work for the Idaho Wildlife Federation.

She bought a gun.

“The first rifle I bought was completely the wrong one,” Aceto said. “I hunted very unsuccessfully my first season.”

So she bought a new rifle after hours of research and spent even more hours practicing aiming, shooting, anything to dissolve the kinds of doubts that she’d had in her first gun.

As a field biologist and former ranger in the Frank Church wilderness, Aceto was already familiar with the challenges of navigating land off the grid, but things like shooting and field dressing posed challenges. While she learned, Aceto sought out friends and colleagues to replicate the mentor relationship many hunters grew up with — something she encouraged any aspiring hunters to do.

“Ask questions, allow yourself to be unsure and be a novice,” Aceto said.

Between them, Brooks, Malepeai and Aceto took six mallard ducks during their Bruneau hunt. On the drive home, Brooks joked that he grew up thinking he didn’t like duck. His family frequently made pan-fried duck breast, he said, and he’d balked at the gamey flavor.

He’s not the only one. Searches online describe duck meat in pretty dodgy terms — calling it an “acquired taste,” tiptoeing around its “different taste” or “stronger flavor.”

But Brooks’ tastes have changed wildly over the years. Now a self-described “foodie,” his hunts take on an added layer as he plans the creative or unusual dishes he’ll make with the meat he harvests. Often, he’ll prepare game feasts for family and friends, like the one he hosted at his Boise home three days after his January duck hunt.

Brooks brined several of the ducks overnight, glazed them in high-quality maple syrup and smoked them for hours, letting the thick layer of winter fat melt into the skin until the birds developed a sweet, smoky flavor akin to candied bacon. Aceto arrived with a pan of nachos piled high with ground elk. Malepeai brought whitetail deer stroganoff. Brooks’ brother Brian made elk meatballs in a hoisin-based sauce.

“I’m more adventurous with the food I put in my freezer than the food I get at the store,” Aceto said.

Much has been made of the “foodie revolution” in recent years, and it’s clear the culture has stepped into the hunting world.

After the potluck, Malepeai’s wife, Hailey, used the duck carcasses to make broth for Vietnamese pho topped with deer backstrap. From the antelope she butchered with internet guidance, Aceto has made ramen and bahn mi sandwiches. One of Brooks’ favorite recipes is osso buco, a dish made with braised deer or elk shanks, the crosscut bone full of marrow.

It’s a far cry from the burgers and pan-fried cuts of meat he grew up on.

“I don’t think I could’ve predicted 10 years ago that food would be such a big part of the culture,” Brooks said.

Of course, there have always been hunters willing to cook creative game dishes. Boise chef Randy King published a cookbook in 2015 boasting unique game-based meals. But King and fellow Boisean Mark Owsley, chef at The Gamekeeper Restaurant, became adventurous after experience as chefs.

It may also be an entry point to the culture. A well-prepared meal can be a way to bring new people to the conversation, a phenomenon Brooks said is sometimes called “venison diplomacy.” “You don’t talk about the hunting part, but the food part of it,” Brooks said. “Wild game can serve a function of bringing people together in a way that’s apolitical.”

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