When Durrell Smith leaves his house to go hunting, shotgun and dogs in tow, he pens a note to his wife with his GPS coordinates.
It’s responsible hunting. It’s also one of the many precautions he takes as a Black man hunting alone in southern Georgia, like leaving the field long before dark, and answering a few extra questions from other hunters wondering what he’s really doing out there.
“It’s the issue of familiarity,” he said. “It’s not that we don’t know other minorities go outdoors, it’s the fact that a lot of mainstream culture is not used to seeing others in their space.”
Until more Black, Indigenous, and other people of color’s faces become prevalent in hunting companies’ marketing, outreach, and internal efforts, diversity experts say those attitudes will continue. And the outdoor industry desperately needs hunting and fishing to embrace those faces.
For one thing, the hunting and fishing industries carry weight in Washington. They align often with powerful pro-Second Amendment groups like the National Rifle Association, and conservation organizations like Trout Unlimited or Ducks Unlimited. The industries also get a political leg up on the outdoor industry from their conservation contributions: Every $36 fishing license or $10 conservation stamp goes to support habitat projects or pays a biologist’s salary. Federal taxes on hunting and fishing equipment pump millions of dollars into state wildlife agency coffers. Experts fear that, without those dollars, critical wildlife research and public land maintenance efforts could fall apart. Another concern: Without hunt and fish, land managers might be forced to institute a backpack tax or hiking licenses to make up the lost revenue. Both those policies inhibit access for first-time outdoorists and could undermine some of the outdoor industry’s fledgling DEI efforts.
For many outdoor companies, the murder of George Floyd was another call to action as executives realize BIPOC outdoor enthusiasts are a growing part of the market, and they can’t be ignored, persecuted, or avoided anymore. But hunting and fishing companies have felt forced to choose: go all in and reach out to groups that aren’t part of their traditionally white, male base, or play it safe and try to wait out the racial reckoning. Some brands, like Orvis, chose the former, signing pledges and hiring BIPOC experts for training. Many didn’t.
So hunters like Durrell, founder of the popular Gun Dog Notebook podcast, started a group called the Minority Outdoor Alliance as a way to promote and increase BIPOC participation in the outdoors. Opportunities to support the existing BIPOC hunting community exist, he says, but, like in the outdoor industry, hunting companies have been reluctant to not only talk, but put money on the table.
That’s the issue Eric Morris ran into when he launched his Nontypical Outdoorsman show in 2019, an effort to highlight more of the hunters of color he’d seen go unrepresented in mainstream hunting shows.
“TV shows are risky,” brands told him when he reached out for sponsors. “Most fail in the first year.” They told him he’d have to prove himself before they would commit a dollar.
Morris decided to try. Outdoor companies were talking about diversity, he knew. They’d sign on, he thought.
His first season, which he launched on The Pursuit Channel using largely his own savings, featured episodes on turkey hunting and accessing public land, and included interviews with two Black veterans. More than 60,000 households tuned in for each episode, far above his initial goal of 40,000—high for a new show. When he reached out to find sponsors for season two, though, only one company—Thorogood Boots—stepped up.
“I drank the Kool-Aid and thought people would be serious about increasing diversity,” Morris said. “I think there are some [brands] that believe there is not a market among the minority community, but there is. From my experience, sometimes people get too bogged down in the politics and red tape and bureaucracy of diversity and not going out and just doing it.”
The fishing industry tackles inclusivity
Even before COVID hit and many Americans took to the water, the number of people grabbing fishing rods and reels in this country had been climbing.
But back in 2013, when leadership at the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation (RBFF) sat down and dug into their numbers, they saw a disturbing trend.
“We started to realize that Hispanic participation, which is the fastest growing demographic [in the country], was flat,” said Stephanie Vatalaro, the organization’s senior vice president of marketing and communications.
The group started Vamos A Pescar, a national marketing campaign aimed at offering education and information to the country’s Hispanic communities. And whether or not that helped the cause, Hispanic anglers are now the fastest growing demographic, according to a 2019 report by the RBFF.
About a decade ago, executives at Orvis, one of the nation’s oldest and largest fly-fishing and wing-shooting companies, had a similar moment. The company saw its fly-fishing sales were growing, but its customer base was shrinking.
“We saw things that weren’t looking great in our future,” said Orvis CEO Simon Perkins. The brand understood its primarily white, male core supporters; they were easy to market to. But Orvis executives also realized the brand was becoming less relevant with each passing year. They knew they needed to learn how to talk to other audiences if they wanted to survive. The evolution hasn’t been easy.
“These conversations are uncomfortable,” Perkins said. “If you’re going to grow a business or industry, you have to always be working really hard to listen outside that echo chamber, and that takes time and effort and resources.”
Orvis then started a program called 50/50 On the Water meant to increase gender parity in fly fishing.
In mid-2019, long before Justice June, Orvis reached out to the nonprofit Brown Folks Fishing to figure out how to improve its diversity efforts.
Orvis has since signed the group’s Angling for All pledge, a commitment to identify and eliminate barriers to racial diversity in fishing, and hired Erica Nelson and Sydney Clark, co-founders of REAL Consulting, to help it evolve and reach new audiences in a meaningful way.
But Orvis’s process is far from the norm in the nation’s fishing industry, says Nelson, a Navajo angler and Brown Folks Fishing ambassador.
“I don’t think companies know how to respond,” Nelson said. “If we open the doors to being inclusive to all, white people in general think there’s not enough for them. Somehow they think they will be pushed out.” But that fear is unfounded, in her view.
Hunting struggles to keep up
As much as fly fishing’s base has traditionally been white men, hunting has struggled even more to increase representation. In 2016, 90 percent of hunters 16 years and older in the country were male and 97 percent were white, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, a trove of data collected every five years. And they’re aging.
Yet despite efforts by state agencies and nonprofits to increase participation, BIPOC hunters rarely see themselves reflected in marketing from companies.
That’s what Jimmy Flatt, co-founder of Hunters of Color, is trying to solve. If 96 percent of hunters are white right now, and the country is becoming more diverse, that whole hunting-funded pool of conservation dollars is in jeopardy. Companies need to begin recognizing, promoting, and fostering BIPOC hunters—and fast. But right now, the hunting industry as a whole is “handcuffed” by seeing the 96 percent number, Flatt says: Brands look at that data and believe they should cater only to the majority.
That’s one reason calls for racial and gender equality sometimes fall on deaf ears. Take Bass Pro Shops, a leading hunting and fishing retailer. In defiance of calls for gender equity, the company is currently selling a T-shirt with a graphic of a woman yelling at a man with the word “PROBLEM” underneath. The next graphic is a man sitting alone in a tree stand with a bow with the word “SOLVED.”
Gender diversity has become less of a sticking point among hunting brands in recent years. Vista Outdoor, which owns about 40 brands from CamelBak to Remington firearms, for example, sponsors the Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt, an effort to bring more women into hunting, and is increasing its educational campaign about safe firearm use, says Kelly Reisdorf, Vista’s chief of investor relations and communications officer.
Growth in hunt and fish depends on audience diversification
Even though fishing’s numbers are headed in a better direction than hunting, advocates all agree that the future of the sport depends on the industry doing a better job representing all current and potential hunters and anglers.
“A lot of companies are missing out on progress and profits, actually, by continuing to focus on their same target audience they have done for generations,” said Morris, founder of the Nontypical Outdoorsman show.
And it’s not just equity for equity’s sake—inclusion means more ideas and minds solving today’s complex problems, from climate change and invasive species to lack of access, says Wayne Hubbard, founder of Urban American Outdoors, one of the country’s first TV shows to represent diverse hunters and anglers. It also means a stronger voice in voting booths.
While the fishing industry has made some gains in that respect, they might not stick if people don’t see themselves represented.
“Will [fishing participation] grow even more, or [will there be] a drastic decline because the industry itself is not being inclusive?” said Nelson, of REAL Consulting.
Like outdoor industry companies, hunting brands could re-evaluate their marketing budgets to think of new ways to partner with diversity professionals, Nelson recommends. They should stop being afraid of alienating one group and instead welcome all groups—it’s not a zero-sum game. The hunting and fishing industries as a whole should include more BIPOC voices on their nonprofit boards, she adds. They should also be more aware in general: Neither survey, the one from the Boating and Fishing Association or the Fish and Wildlife Service list Native American as a demographic, instead using the catchall term “other.”
Not only is that a lack of representation, Nelson says, it’s erasure of the nation’s first hunters and anglers.
The fishing and hunting industry can and should learn from the steps and missteps in the rest of the outdoor industry, Nelson added. Instead of comparing how the industries are doing, furthering a competitive mindset, our industries should be working together, with each other and with diversity experts.
Orvis’ Perkins agrees.
“Issues of diversity and access are inextricably linked to the long term survival of hunting and fishing,” he said. “We are also seeing an increasingly blurred line between core outdoor and fish and hunt. As these industries continue to overlap the outdoor industry’s leadership around diversity will help create the groundswell, and the rest will follow.”