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The thrill of the hunt is still there, but hunting continues to fade

With his eight-point buck suspended by its legs, Terry Moody Jr. quickly and deftly cut its skin with a knife.

His uncle, David Harmon Jr., helped tug the hide off the deer's body. Together, they clipped off its legs with tree loppers and sliced off its head with a handsaw.

Skinning a deer is a skill that has been passed down through generations in their family.

"This was how I was raised," said Moody, 21. "To skin it yourself."

It's that family tradition of hunting that introduces most people to the sport. And it's what keeps them coming back.

But in the past few years, the number of people hunting has continued its decade-long decline in South Carolina. As the number of hunters has declined so have sales of shotguns and rifles in the state.

South Carolina began issuing hunting licenses in 1916. Over the years, the number of hunters rose with the state's population.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which oversees hunting and fishing in the state, issues two dozen types of licenses and permits. However, those who track the number of hunters said they count on five resident licenses to give them a fair indication of hunting trends in the state. Those licenses include:

- County, which allow small game hunting only in the county where the license was purchased

- State, which allow small game hunting in any county

- Combination, which allow hunting, fishing and big game hunting in any county

- Sportsman, which allow hunting, fishing, big game hunting in any county and on state Wildlife Management Area land

- Junior sportsman, which is the same as the sportsman license but is sold to 16- and 17-year-old state residents

Last year, the combined sales for those five licenses were 155,591, a 9 percent decline from sales in 1999, according to DNR.

At the same time, the number of FBI background checks for rifles and shotguns dropped to 65,954 in 2008, an 18 percent decrease since 1999.

The FBI said that its background checks are not an accurate representation of gun sales because it only performs the checks when guns are sold by retailers or pawn shops. Weapons sold at shows and between family members and friends are not subject to FBI background checks. But it's the best way South Carolina has to track gun sales.

The same trend is ongoing across the United States.

Every five years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a national survey to measure the number of hunters, fisherman and other outdoor enthusiasts in the country. The latest survey in 2006 found 12.5 million of the country's 298.4 million residents hunted. That was a 4 percent decline since 2001-2006 and an 11 percent decline since 1991.

The decline concerns officials at DNR.

Hunting and fishing license fees account for about a third of DNR's budget. And hunting helps with wildlife management.

KEEPING HUNTERS ACTIVE

A task force is studying ways to recruit new people to hunting and ways to keep those who already hunt involved in the activity.

"A lot of people are looking into this, trying to understand the nature of the situation," said Derrell Shipes, chief of statewide projects, research and surveys for DNR's wildlife section.

To figure out how to bring more people into the sport, officials first need to understand what keeps them away.

Research shows those reasons include the diminishing availability of land, competing children's activities and a shift to a more urban rather than rural culture.

Another problem is the lack of available land for hunting, said Tim Ivey, chief of wildlife at DNR.

Ivey and Shipes may sound like old-timers when they tell stories about their youthful days tromping through woods behind their homes. But they are correct in their observations about development gobbling up hunting lands.

"Access is a significant issue," Shipes said.

In South Carolina, hunting on public lands, known as Wildlife Management Areas, is increasing in popularity, Ivey said. Last year, DNR sold 50,420 WMA hunting permits. That was the most sold in a year since 1999, according to DNR statistics.

The bad economy is to blame, Ivey said.

"More people hunt on public lands because the price of a hunt club continues to escalate," he said.

State Sen. John Land, D-Manning, who is an avid hunter, also blamed the decline on land availability.

"Everything now is clubbed up and gated," Land said. "It's hard to hunt unless you are pretty well financed."

He should know.

Land owns a 3,000-acre hunt club with two other people in Clarendon County. He estimated he spends $35,000 a year to keep up the land, which includes paying for a caretaker. He and the other owners allow their family and friends to hunt on the property. Everyone else must keep out.

He also pays to quail hunt on preserves in the state.

But Land remembers hunting wherever he wanted as a boy. Now, it's not possible to drive into the country and turn your bird dogs loose in the first field you come across, he said.

"People come up from Florida to lease land in South Carolina," he said. "That's a good thing for the South Carolina economy. At the same time, it precludes South Carolinians from growing up in a hunting culture."

GOING OUT EARLY

Aside from hunt clubs and public land, hunters also lease land from private individuals.

Moody and his uncle lease property in Barnwell County with six other people. Each person pays $400 a year for the right to hunt on the land, Moody said. They found the land through a newspaper advertisement.

"We like to have the property to ourselves so other people don't walk in on you," Moody said.

Throughout the year, the men scout the land to look for signs of deer. Sometimes, they plant food to lure deer to an area where they want to put up a tree stand.

They also hunt squirrels, rabbits, doves and ducks on the land.

On Oct. 10, when most folks in the Midlands were preparing for that day's USC football game against Kentucky, Moody and Harmon had been in the woods for hours. They rose at 4:30 a.m. and drove from West Columbia to rural Orangeburg County. By 6:30 a.m., they were in their stand.

At 7 a.m., a seven-point buck strolled by. Moody shot him with a .270-caliber bullet from his high-powered Browning rifle. It was his first kill of the season, which lasts roughly from Aug. 15 to Jan. 1.

The two men hauled the deer out of the woods and drove it in their pickup truck to a processing facility at Phillips Plantation, near Neeses in Orangeburg County.

Sweat rolled down Moody's face as he skinned his deer and then cut its antlers off its scalp as a trophy.

"No feeling in the world can explain it," Moody said about the thrill of shooting a deer. "People who aren't introduced to it don't know what they are missing. It's as exciting to me as a football game or racing."

Most hunters are introduced to the sport by their families before they turn 20, Shipes said.

That's the case for Moody. He wasn't allowed to handle a firearm until he was 11 years old, but he followed his father and uncles on hunts from the time he was old enough to walk with them.

Moody would rather hunt than watch or play other sports. But children growing up in today's world have more activities to choose from than ever before, said Tim Ivey, DNR's chief of wildlife.

Ivey said when he was child, baseball season lasted from late spring to early summer. Now, youth baseball season runs year-round. It's the same for basketball and soccer, he said.

And, academics are more demanding, Shipes said.

"There's not much time left for hunting," Ivey said. "Even if it's just the youth who are participating in it, it takes the adults out of hunting because they've got to take the kids to these activities."

Harmon believes too many children are distracted with video games and computers, which keep them indoors.

"This day and age you don't hear of too many 9- and 10-year-olds holding guns," he said. "There's too much else going on to keep them from hunting."

After cleaning the deer, Moody and Harmon stored it in a cooler at Phillips Plantation. Moody will pay the plantation $45 to $50 to process the deer into meat for his freezer. He expected to get 70 to 80 pounds of steaks, cube steaks, stew meat and roasts.

Harmon said the deer meat is as good as anything people can buy in a store. The next deer they shoot will be made into summer sausage, Moody said.

"The hot dogs and bologna I suggest to anybody," Harmon said. "We don't buy store-bought hot dogs anymore."

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