Sticking by their guns

PIERRE, S.D. — Have gun, will travel — even if the economy's shot.

In the heart of South Dakota's pheasant-hunting country, license sales have been strong this fall despite gasoline prices near $3 a gallon and a looming recession. Ditto for hunting license sales in New York, Utah and Colorado. And the leading retailers of outdoor gear say sales of shotguns, ammunition and warm camouflage clothes aren't too bad considering the economy's headwinds.

Hunting's popularity has waned slightly in recent years, and American families are tightening their belts as a recession looms, but businesses catering to hunters say the sport's outlook remains relatively healthy during these hard economic times.

"Hunters may not get the latest product, but they're still getting the things they need and getting out there. Our sales are holding up good," said Larry Whiteley of Bass Pro Shops, a privately held company that is one of the country's biggest suppliers of outdoor gear. "It's a family tradition. You know, deer camp and all that stuff."

However, some publicly traded companies that sell guns and other hunting equipment, such as Cabela's Inc. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., are showing signs of weakness.

To the extent that certain regions of the United States are noticing a dropoff in hunting and fishing activity — Pennsylvania, Texas and Missouri, to name a few — industry and government officials point to other root causes, such as urban sprawl and poor weather.

Some industry officials say financial struggles might even act as a counterweight to these other forces, because the search for wild game in fields and forests can be soothing for the soul.

"Hunting is part of what you are. It's a relief from all the stresses of society," said Brent Lawrence, a spokesman for the National Wild Turkey Federation.

But just like leisure travelers in general, hunters are expected to stay closer to home and keep their spending in check when it comes to frills they might have splurged on in the past.

The wily Chinese ring-necked pheasant of South Dakota lures about 200,000 hunters every year. Many people fly or drive hundreds of miles to chase them through expansive fields of mostly harvested corn, soybeans and sunflowers, overgrown weed patches, and tall-grass prairie stretching to the horizon.

O'Jay Vanegas, 59, of Scottsdale, Ariz., visited South Dakota last week to hunt pheasants, just as he's done for the past 12 years.

But Vanegas, an auto salesman who expects to earn about $30,000 less this year, skipped the season's opening day because the round-trip airfare from Phoenix had more than tripled from previous years. He predicts other hunters will cut back in similar ways.

"When money gets tight, something has to go," he said. "Hunting is a luxury."

Lawrence says most of those who typically hunt close to home have not been deterred by the weak economy. However, he says some who have been willing to shell out big bucks for hunts might stay home this fall.