JAMES CITY -- As autumn approaches, Ray Respress gets busy clearing paths, building tree stands and gathering gear for the upcoming deer hunting season. His routine is on hold this fall until his Flat Iron Hunt Club learns if it will have anyplace place to go.
"We don't have a contract on it to date," Respress said about the last James City tract of land that the hunt club can lease. Usually the yearly contract is firmed up by July. "We don't want to go in there and spend three or four days cutting trails and removing brush if we aren't going to have the land," he said.
The situation is a byproduct of growth, as landowners look to more tightly control their lands, often with an eye toward development. For various reasons, hunting has declined by 4% nationally in the past five years, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The tracts are drying up.
"We've lost them all," lamented Andy Priestley, owner of Headhunter's Headquarters in Toano, an official station for hunters to gauge their catch. He said at least 20 hunt clubs have disappeared in the past five years. He can count only five left in the county. His own club, Grove Kennel, disbanded seven years ago after losing its hunting tract in Stonehouse. Years ago most hunting agreements were verbal, between old friends. But as the original landowners died, the land often passed to their children, some of whom were less willing to honor the agreements.
"Who gives a damn about a $1,000 lease?" Priestley asked rhetorically, contrasting long-time familial loyalty to the millions available through development. It is a phenomenon happening all over the state, Respress said, all the more so in James City where growth continues apace. A circular effect plays out for the few tracts still left for hunting.
If leased to the highest bidder, undeveloped lands attract deep-pocket, out-of-town clubs that have been edged out of their own localities. If the property is sold, the local clubs are forced to find land somewhere else. While Flat Iron hopes to retain this tract, members know that they will only be able to hunt it one or two more years.
"It's an ongoing fight," Respress said. "It's just a matter of time."
The club has become creative in its hunt for land, placing ads in newspapers and farmer's almanacs under the heading "Land Wanted."
"We are trying to get some local land so some of the guys who don't have a lot of vacation will have somewhere local to hunt, and also to keep our membership," Respress said. Flat Iron counts itself among the fortunate, with access to property in nearby Surry County and a lease on a large tract in Charlotte County, 150 miles southwest on the North Carolina border.
The club also has an advantage in that it doesn't use dogs, instead relying on stands or "still hunting." This, along with contributions to the community, has made the club a welcome commodity in Charlotte, where landowners consistently offer up more land. The downside is that the tract is too remote.
"You don't just jump in your truck anymore and go hunting," Priestley noted. Priestley has noticed a trend of affluent people forming corporations, buying up large tracts of land and leasing stands out individually to "tourist hunters" from across the country. It started out in the West and is a new phenomenon in Virginia. Land leases continue to climb, which in turn forces for hunters to pay higher club dues. Insurance rates have also risen. Coupled with the cost of equipment and fuel, many hunters are finding that they cannot afford the sport, much less pass it on to the next generation.
"It'll end with me or maybe with the few kids I've passed it on to," said hunter Pat Gesin of Flat Iron. "Kids just aren't into it." Gesin noted that it isn't only the young who "aren't into it." "Attitudes toward hunting have changed so much," Priestley agreed, citing the rise of an Internet culture, animal-rights activism and urban development.
As dog hunting has become increasingly controversial, other hunters, including still hunters, have become marginalized. Gesin differentiated the two types of hunting as very different. The kills are cleaner with still hunting, Gesin said, because "the deer aren't doing mach 10 with the dogs behind them." Respress agreed.
"There's a false impression that we get out there and slaughter deer," he said. "It isn't so. Last year I took two deer, passed up 32, and read five books on the stand." Deer hunting offers a benefit to those who end up living in the developments that displace the hunt tracts.
"You've got to harvest the deer," Gesin said. He participates in the City of Williamsburg's annual managed hunt, where the deer population is thinned within certain neighborhoods to prevent accidents and limit property damage. Gesin estimated that 10 years ago, some stretches of Route 199 were averaging more than 60 deer/vehicle accidents a year. Those numbers are down to less than a dozen a year now. If hunting in James City has a future, Gesin said that it's in the realm of managed or contract hunts, which are often limited to bowhunting so as not to alarm nearby homeowners.
"Around here it's going to end up where there won't be any sport hunting," he said. Hunters despair of an adolescence spent in front of a monitor playing violent video games without a real-life respect for firearms. "I've always said there ought to be a law that if you've got kids, you should have to take them either fishing, hunting or to church once a month," Priestley said. "We wouldn't have the problems we have now."