Meet Deer Hunters of R3 Who Were Recruited, Retained and Reactivated

June 5, 2024 By: Cole Gander

It’s no secret that participation in hunting has been on the decline since the early 1980s. Because hunters carry wildlife conservation on their shoulders, efforts to grow hunter numbers – known as Recruit, Retain, and Reactivate (R3) – are underway to address the continuing decline in participation. Are those efforts working? I’d like to introduce you to active hunters representing each of the Rs in the R3 effort.

First piloted in Athens, Georgia, in 2016 by NDA’s Director of Hunting Hank Forester and Charles S. Evans, the Georgia R3 Coordinator with the Georgia Wildlife Federation, the National Deer Association’s Field to Fork program is the leading food-focused hunter recruitment program for adults from non-hunting backgrounds and is dedicated to advancing R3 efforts. 

I had the opportunity to talk with Iuesha Wright-Crowder, David Nelson, Bill Mayberry, and Johnny Sanders, four hunters who have recently been recruited, retained, and/or reactivated through NDA’s Field to Fork program. Here are the stories of their journeys into the world of hunting.

Recruit: Iuesha Wright-Crowder

Iuesha Wright-Crowder grew up in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, where natural resources were a regular commodity, and living off of the land was a way of life. However, hunting for one’s own food was not a major part of this lifestyle, and it wasn’t until her time as a volunteer at a chronic wasting disease (CWD) sampling station during the opening weekend of Missouri’s firearms deer season that her journey into the world of hunting began. 

Iuesha Wright-Crowder harvested her first deer while hunting at an NDA Field to Fork event in Missouri.

It was here she met fellow CWD volunteer and NDA’s Southern Missouri Deer Outreach Specialist Cheyne Matzenbacher. A month later, she found herself at C7 Outfitters for NDA’s Fourth Annual Mid-Missouri Field to Fork event, and after firing a rifle for the first time at Friday’s range and enjoying educational presentations on deer biology, hunting and conservation, hunting etiquette and shot placement, Iuesha’s journey into the world of hunting was officially underway. 

“It wasn’t what I expected,” she told me with a laugh. “At home, wildlife hangs out in the backyard all the time. I didn’t realize that the deer don’t just show up when you climb in the blind for the hunt.”

Fortunately for Iuesha, the deer did show up after she climbed into the blind – it just wasn’t right away. 

“I was sitting in the blind listening to everyone else shoot, and I didn’t think it was going to happen. Then, we were suddenly surrounded by deer in all directions,” Iuesha said. “I was nervous and thought I was going to miss. Thankfully, my mentors were A1 and exactly who I needed in the blind with me during that moment. With their support and guidance, I pulled the trigger and the deer dropped in its tracks. Then my nerves really kicked in and I was shaking, but all I could think was, ‘I did it!’”

For Iuesha, attending a Field to Fork event was just the beginning of her hunting journey. “Being able to get my own food to use for consumption and having the opportunity to spend time with good company in the blind makes for a good adventure,” she said. “So, yes, I plan to continue hunting!”

Retain: David Nelson

Hunter recruitment programs can’t forget about newly recruited hunters and assume they stay engaged. Those programs should also help new hunters stay active through future programs and support networks.

David Nelson, a Talent Acquisition Specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation and father of five, had very little hunting knowledge when his son, Charles, called and asked to go after listening to the MeatEater Podcast. 

“If there is one thing I have learned in all of my years on this Earth, it is that if your son asks you to do something like that, you should always say yes,” said David. “But soon it became painfully obvious that I was unprepared and inexperienced when it came to hunting. So, after hearing about the National Deer Association’s Field to Fork program through a promotion by MeatEater, I knew I had to sign-up.”

This was just the beginning of David’s journey into the world of hunting. “It was all a great experience, but the real appeal came after the shot,” he said. “I really enjoyed the processing demonstration by the professionals, getting the hands-on experience, and learning to do that properly. Since then, we have made our own venison snack sticks and cheddar bratwursts that we get to take out of the freezer and enjoy.”

David Nelson (left) in the blind with his mentor and NDA’s Director of Hunting, Hank Forester, at an NDA Field to Fork event.

“After attending the event at C7 Outfitters, I have had the opportunity to mentor Charles, my middle son. I can’t even count the number of mornings we have sat in the blind together. My youngest son has even gone out with us. We have just made a lot of great memories that way and have plans to make even more,” David said. “Deer hunting has opened our eyes to so many more opportunities in the woods that we would have otherwise missed. It is time well spent.”

This coming fall, David will once again be back at a Field to Fork event only this time, as he will be serving as a mentor for a new hunter. Originally “recruited” through Field to Fork, he’s been retained through his ongoing involvement, additional training, and even now mentoring others in the Field to Fork program.

“I have had the opportunity to teach classes for a few different colleges and universities, so helping others learn is where I get my energy from,” he said. “I am excited for the chance to come out and be a mentor to pay it forward. I am looking forward to staying involved with the National Deer Association, continuing to hunt with Charles, and becoming involved as a mentor in the Field to Fork program.”

Reactivate: Bill Mayberry and Johnny Sanders

Upon moving into The Baptist Homes of Arcadia Valley, Bill Mayberry, 86, and Johnny Sanders, 82, assumed that their hunting days were a thing of the past. Neither could have imagined the partnership between Baptist Homes Healthcare Ministries (BHHM) and NDA that would bring the Field to Fork initiative to recruit and reactivate senior hunters at BHHM’s campuses across the state.  

“Many [senior] residents either don’t feel like they can hunt anymore or have never had the opportunity in the first place,” Bill said. “The National Deer Association and the Home have given new hope to residents here, and they couldn’t have done a better job.” 

As for his own hunting journey, Bill got his start long ago with his father. “He bought me a single-shot 12 Gauge that, at the time, my mother was not very happy about,” he told me with a laugh. “And I am not ashamed to admit that all I did early on in my hunting career was freeze. Fortunately, I have come a long way since then, from spending my weekends hunting to traveling West to chase game. I just love to get out and enjoy creation.”

Bill Mayberry with a successful harvest after a hunt on his nephew’s farm.

From the pursuit of whitetails and wild turkey in the hardwoods of Missouri to pursuing elk, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer in Wyoming, Johnny Sanders shared a similar journey into the world of hunting. He continues to keep a close eye on the local wildlife and has even put up a 15-foot ladder stand on the 175-acre campus of the Baptist Homes of Arcadia Valley with the help of his son. 

“I have always enjoyed going out in the woods to hunt, and of course, I love the venison,” Johnny said. “When we moved here, my declining health forced me to give away most of my hunting gear, and I thought I was done. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case!” 

Johnny Sanders (left) and mentor Vaughn Martin hunting from his ladder stand on the 175-acre campus of the Baptist Homes of Arcadia Valley.

Bill and Johnny both aim to continue their hunting journey and are looking forward to having the opportunity to hunt this coming fall. “I’m 86 years-old, so hunting is part of what keeps me going,” Bill said. Johnny added, “I really enjoy the opportunity to get out in the woods, so as long as my health allows me, I will be hunting!”

Mentors Needed Desperately

Current R3 efforts like these are clearly making an impact on the lives of hunters like Iuesha, David, Bill, and Johnny. Their stories serve as a testament to the value of the Field to Fork program, but we need more help. Hunter numbers are still declining, and it is an issue that no single individual or organization can tackle on their own. However, there is one action that every hunter can and should be taking: becoming a mentor

Seventy five percent of Americans approve of hunting for meat. This means there are a lot of potential hunters out there, and what they need most is a great mentor. Are you willing to help us keep our hunting heritage alive and well by serving as a mentor for these aspiring new hunters?

About Cole Gander:

Cole Gander is NDA’s Deer Outreach Specialist for northern Missouri. He earned a bachelor’s degree in natural resource science and management from the University of Missouri-Columbia and formerly worked as a natural resource technician with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Cole is an avid hunter, angler and habitat manager. He and his wife Michaela live in Hannibal, Missouri.