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Fairfield Hunters Try to Revive a Dying Sport

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Twin sisters Jackie and Sydney O’Brien, 13, would rather hunt than play video games. They have been hunting with their dad Bill O’Brien of Fairfield since they were 5.

But reflecting county, state and national trends, they are the only kids at Fairfield Woods Middle School who take part in the sport, which is on the decline – especially among teenagers and young adults.

“Some of my friends think it's gross and disgusting and tease me that I would even shoot Bambi,” said Jackie. “But a lot of the boys think it’s cool and wish they could hunt, but their parents won’t let them.”

Jackie, an eighth-grader, is proud of bringing down her first flying pheasant during Thanksgiving weekend in November. "It’s something I’ll always remember,” said Jackie. “The kids at school think it’s cool when I wear a purple skirt with my camouflage hunting shirt.”

Sydney agreed that many kids envy them for getting to fire a gun and hunt in the wild, but they also don’t understand why the sisters do it.

“It’s fun. My friends say I don’t have a heart, but that’s not true. I love my dogs and cats. And I tell other kids the meats they eat from cows are also killed, and we eat everything we hunt. But a lot of people just don’t get it.”

Or do it anymore.

“It all comes down to being exposed to hunting, and not many kids are, like years ago,” said Bill O’Brien, who grew up in Fairfield and starting going on hunting trips with his grandfather when he was 6. “It was special being out in the woods with my grandfather and appreciating all the sights and sounds of nature. I’ve tried to pass that along to my daughters. But not nearly as many people are hunting in Connecticut as there used to be.”

In fact, there are fewer hunters in Connecticut now – 38,0000 — than in all but two states. The state has the lowest percentage of hunters per capita, 1 percent, of any state, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Its reports show there were 19.1 million hunters nationwide in 1975, but that number declined to 12.5 million by 2006. By 2025, it is projected to be 9.1 million.

Fred Frillici is president of the Fairfield County League of Sportsmen’s Clubs Inc., which includes about a half-dozen clubs representing 3,000 sportsmen. During the late 1970s, he said his group included 26 clubs with more than 7,000 members.

“Kids these days have too many distractions. They play all kinds of organized sports like soccer and are on the computer or cell phones day and night,” said Frillici, 83, who has been hunting for more than 75 years and insists he eats everything he kills. “Most kids would rather play a video hunting game than go out and actually hunt.”

But Frillici said his group is trying to revive interest in hunting through education programs and by sending a couple of preteens to Vermont every summer for a week at a hunting and fishing camp. His 12-year-old grandson, Peter Friedrich of Fairfield, who was skeptical about hunting, changed his mind after going to the camp last summer.

“It was awesome,” said Peter, whose two older brothers had also attended the camp and changed their minds, too. “At first, I didn’t want to hunt or go to the camp. But once I got there and was out in nature, everything changed. I loved being out in the woods, learning to shoot and fish.

“Most of my friends are so into anything electronic, so the thought of hunting and fishing seems weird to them,” said Peter. “Now I know how much fun it is to be out in a forest and fishing on a lake.”

Robert Crook, executive director of the Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, that includes more than 30,000 individuals and clubs across the state, said there were 125,000 hunters in Connecticut three decades ago. But that number has dwindled by about two-thirds, he said.

“Too much organized sports and video games,” said Crook. "And with all the fees, licenses and gear, hunters have to pay a lot of money, too."

Hunting advocates say the decline is ironic given that the deer population has grown to an estimated 125,000, compared with less than 20,000 during the early 1980s. They say there are also far more wild turkeys, duck and pheasant than 20 years ago.

Howard Kilpatrick, project leader for deer programs in the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said hunting regulations – both for firearms and bows – have been relaxed in recent years to help control deer and other wildlife populations.

“For the last 15 years we have liberalized hunting and expanded the hunting seasons to help control the massive increase of wildlife species that venture into and adapt so well to residential communities,” Kilpatrick said. “We would love to see more people hunting.”

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