RICHWOOD — John Melish grew up in Cincinnati, but all his friends were country boys who teased him about not being a hunter. He always thought it might be fun to hunt, but no one in his family knew how to teach him, and he didn’t really trust his gun-toting buddies to keep him safe.
It wasn’t until Melish saw a pair of turkey feet sticking out of the bed of his friend’s truck five years ago that he was convinced it was time to learn for himself.
"I looked at him and said, ‘You gotta teach me how to do that someday,’" said Melish, 40, of Marysville.
So Melish signed up for the first Learn 2 Hunt, a course through the Union County chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation that teaches adults how to hunt through mentoring. Now, he is among the Ohio hunters staked out in blinds and tree stands as deer gun-hunting season opens today. The season runs through Sunday, with a bonus weekend Dec. 15-16. Through mid-November, the state had sold more than 250,000 deer permits.
Learn 2 Hunt began four years ago as a way to draw more adult hunters to the sport, said Tim Soller, the chapter’s president. The course is free and open to all adults, with a focus on those who didn’t grow up hunting.
The course, which takes place in January, includes seven class sessions and a hunt. Activities include three shooting-range days, field demonstrations and a From-Field-to-Table event, where participants butcher and cook a deer together.
A lot of hunting programs are aimed at mentoring youths, but Soller said there are limits to teaching kids and teens. For one, they don’t have the same disposable income as adults. And unless they can drive, youth hunters are at the liberty of their parents or other adults taking them.
"Adults are decision-makers and youth aren’t," said John Windau, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Windau said the department is especially interested in reaching young adults — those who are out of college but don’t yet have families. The goal, he said, is to foster a new generation of lifelong hunters.
By focusing on teaching adults, there’s also the opportunity to introduce the sport to that person’s spouse, children and other family and friends in the process, Windau said.
Hopefully, he said, that will turn into in an increase in hunting licenses, which have been declining in Ohio since the 1950s. The annual budget of the Division of Wildlife within the state Department of Natural Resources is largely generated by sales of fishing and hunting licenses and permits.
This decrease in hunting licenses in Ohio mirrors a national trend. From 1991 to 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported a loss of 2.5 million hunters nationwide.
Soller said adults from all walks of life have taken the Learn 2 Hunt course, from recent college graduates to retired veterans. A 65-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis took the course a couple of years ago, Soller said. She learned how to hunt pheasant from her wheelchair.
Many of the course’s participants are parents who want to take their kids hunting, Soller said.
That’s why Anne Breneman took the course. She said her 14-year-old son, Cole, wanted to learn. Breneman, 40, of Marysville, had never picked up a gun before taking Learn 2 Hunt. She said she was scared at first, but now she loves the thrill.
The Brenemans went hunting together for the first time this year on Nov. 17 during the state’s youth-only deer hunting weekend. Melish also took out his 15-year-old daughter, Megan. Neither pair were successful that morning, but both planned to head out again later that night.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been hunting, Soller said. It’s the camaraderie and friendship that keeps people coming back for more.
"When we all get together and the hunting stories start going," he said, "it’s what keeps us together."