In South Jersey, when September ends, deer hunting begins. For many, it’s more than just a sport, it’s a family tradition.
Clem Thomas has been hunting the same land in Mays Landing that he learned to hunt on when he was a boy. Perched atop a familiar tree in the woods behind what used to be his great-grandfather’s home, Thomas has spent many days sitting in silence, waiting for his shot.
“Not so much when I was a kid, (but) now it gives me a chance to get away from technology and the fast-paced stuff,” said Thomas, 37, of Mays Landing.
Although hunting is on the decline nationwide, it is still a widely popular sport, with more than 39.6 million Americans participating last year.
“Overall, hunting license sales have dropped in recent decades,” said Alfred Ivany, information and education bureau chief at the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Ivany said there are many reasons for the decline, including time, money, loss of hunting land due to urbanization. But he believes it’s mostly due to competing interests.
“Kids are involved in more activities than they were in the past,” Ivany said.
To help spur interest, Fish and Wildlife instituted its Take a Kid Hunting program in 2001, which has become very popular, Ivany said.
“Young hunters are being mentored in a way of learning that sport in a safe and controlled manner,” he said.
Ivany said hunting helps teach discipline, ethics and understanding the importance of conservation and protecting natural resources.
“If they get outside and participate in those activities, they’re more likely to become good stewards of the land they’re enjoying,” he said. “There’s a long connection there.”
That connection is not lost on Rick Fognano, of Mullica Township, whose family has been hunting for many generations, and whose 7-year-old son, RJ, is beginning to help him set bait. His youngest son, Jackson, 3, will probably be heading out soon.
“There’s things that you see out in the woods that you’ll never experience behind a desk or sitting on a couch,” said Fognano, 34.
He said hunting gives him a chance to be “a part of nature.”
“A lot of people say you’re not going hunting, you’re going thinking. It’s hard to explain,” he said.
When he was young, Fognano began hunting as soon as he legally could.
“Always growing up, my dad would bring home ducks and deer,” he said. “I remember my dad taking me out to go put deer bait out. That was my first experience. We would go for walks and set up his tree stand, and I would help him set up bait.”
Fognano still hunts with his dad, also named Rick, most recently on a trip to Nebraska, and especially during firearm week in New Jersey — the first week of December. He also hunts with his in-laws.
Fognano’s dad and grandfather chartered a gun club in Hammonton in the 1950s, and going there when he was a kid are some of his fondest memories.
Now, he brings his own sons to the club during kids’ nights, where they serve up spaghetti and meatballs with deer meat. The boys are eager to get out hunting with their father.
“Every time I put my boots on, they say, ‘Where are you going, Dad?’ They want to go. They love it. It’s something else,” Fognano said.
Thomas learned to hunt from his dad, too, who picked up hunting while living in Minnesota. While there wasn’t much talking, Thomas said it gave him a chance to bond with his father.
“It was something that we could share. It wasn’t so much you were out there chit-chatting, because the whole point was to be quiet,” he said. “You might not even be together, but you know you’re out there doing the same thing.”
Thomas said he is teaching his son all about hunting now, although he’s too young for his own license.
“He thinks it’s cool. I’m trying right now to explain what hunting’s about, why we hunt, why it’s important,” Thomas said. “I think if I do my job, he’ll want to just like I wanted to.”
He said his daughter likes that her father hunts, and if she shows interest, he will teach her how, too.
Despite the declining numbers, Thomas said he thinks deer hunting is still a popular tradition in South Jersey, but he sees it declining with future generations.
“I think that the generation after me is geared more toward virtual experiences rather than tangible, in-person experiences,” he said. “If we can put down the tablets and get out into the woods, go fishing or whatever it is, I think we’d be better off.”