GRAND FORKS - As a parent with a passion for sharing the outdoors with his kids, Cal Helgeson is frustrated. Given the potential challenges young deer hunters in North Dakota face after drawing their two youth deer hunting tags, he's probably not alone.
North Dakota offers a September youth antlerless whitetail season for qualifying 10-year-olds and 11- to 13-year-old hunters, along with a statewide any-deer tag (with exceptions) or an antlered mule deer tag in specific units for qualifying 13-year-olds and 14- to 15-year-old hunters. Those licenses are guaranteed, but once young hunters enter the general lottery for deer tags, they face the same long odds at getting a gun license as the rest of the population. This year, some 40,000 hunters applied for deer gun tags in North Dakota but were unable to draw a license, according to the Game and Fish Department.
That leaves archery as the only deer hunting option his family can count on, the way Helgeson sees it.
"I've bow hunted since I was a kid and in and out as I've raised my kids," said Helgeson, 44, Grand Forks, father of Hayden, 14; Alivia, 12; and Jack, 9. "I don't care if I get a (deer gun) license. But when you've got these kids who get their first youth tag and they get their first any deer tag and then it's really kind of over for them, that's extremely frustrating to me."
As deer numbers have declined-and, in turn, the number of deer gun licenses-Helgeson says he now gets a North Dakota deer gun tag every three to four years if he's lucky. And unless habitat magically reappears on the landscape-an unlikely scenario, as acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program declines and options for re-enrolling marginal land continue to decrease-that's probably the new reality for the foreseeable future on much of North Dakota's deer hunting landscape.
Which begs the question: How do you keep young hunters interested in deer hunting in North Dakota if they can't get get a license?
Unfortunately, there's no easy answer.
"My son shot a very nice buck last year as his first archery deer and was able to put that one on the wall," Helgeson said. "But gun season just seems to be such a struggle where we don't have that opportunity to be able to get these tags for these kids and keep them involved."
Fewer hunters going afield means the gun season has lost some of its luster as an event on the outdoors calendar, Helgeson says.
"You look at the Minnesota opener, that's a national holiday," he said. "People are leaving college, they're shutting down schools. North Dakota has no excitement about that anymore just because there's no hype. ... Now it's, 'Yeah, I didn't get a license again this year,' and it's almost the expectations have changed so greatly that we're losing that generation to keep these kids involved."
The ramifications of losing that generation go far beyond the loss of opportunity. The millions of dollars hunting generates for the economy and conservation also are at stake if young hunters give up on trying to get tags and turn their attention to other pursuits.
"They've done a great job to promote the youth piece of it, but you can get them involved in these youth classes and courses and whatnot, but if you don't have the opportunity for licenses, then it kind of defeats the purpose," Helgeson said. "It's the creativity of the families to be able to figure out how to keep these kids involved and the passion that our family shares so greatly."
Another way Helgeson keeps that passion burning is through annual snow goose hunting trips to Saskatchewan. Besides son Hayden, Helgeson says his daughter, Alivia, made her first Saskatchewan trip this year along with family friend Jeff Dion of Jamestown, N.D., and his son, Tommy.
The crew shot 55 geese the first day of the trip, 21 geese the second day and 20 the third day, Helgeson said. They always go the Wednesday of the North Dakota teachers convention, which gives the kids a long weekend, he said.
"It was just a great experience," Helgeson said. "The birds, I would say, were less than expected but better than average. Our first day was phenomenal; our next two days, just because we were working the same flock of birds, they didn't cooperate as well."
There's more to the trip than shooting a bunch of geese, though, Helgeson said. It's about spending time together, making memories and establishing relationships with the landowners who provide places for them to hunt.
"It's all about the experience they get to have-experience with friends and family and getting those kids out there," Helgeson said.
Those good experiences keep the kids coming back, he said.
"That's the biggest thing for me is the retention," Helgeson said. "I understand there's going to be ups and downs, and it's about the experience. But if we don't create that retention piece, we're not going to have these youth involved into a sport that has been in generations of our family."