Dusty McDevitt fixed his cross hairs on the belly of a six-point buck.
"Hot dang," he thought.
Beside him in the tree stand, 5-year-old Hunter McDevitt covered her ears and waited for the bang. She looked at her father, silent and concentrating, then back at the buck.
Then she ran out of patience.
"Shoot him, Daddy!" the little girl shouted. "Shoot him!" The excited burst spooked the deer, her father would later recount, "into the next county."
McDevitt, 33, of Belleview, missed the buck, but he loves to tell the story of his daughter's first deer hunt.
It's an experience fewer parents are having with their children in Florida and the United States, as hunting declines in popularity and sports and other activities successfully compete for youngsters' time.
The number of hunting licenses issued in Florida has slipped each year for the past five years, from 104,176 in 1998 to 93,928 in 2002, according to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In 1987, when the state had 38 percent fewer people than it does today, Florida issued about 144,000 hunting licenses.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the number of Americans who hunt fell 7 percent each year between 1996 and 2001.
"Hunters are getting older and older, and younger people are not coming to the sport," said Nicholas Throckmorton, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "so there's a deep concern in the hunting community that we need to do more recruiting among youngsters."
A number of factors has pushed hunting to the sidelines. Development has pinched old hunting grounds where hunters traditionally could snag deer or rabbits.
A series of high-profile school shootings in the late 1990s made parents increasingly wary of letting their children near guns.
And a flurry of other activities, such as year-round baseball and soccer leagues, are more organized, demanding and politically correct than a deer hunt with Grandpa.
Government fish and game agencies, hunting organizations and gun- rights groups are trying to reverse the trend, reaching out to women and children as an untapped recruitment pool.
Experience has taught them that children who don't try hunting before they are adults likely will never hunt in their lives. Each year, more children grow up uninterested in and unsympathetic to a pastime that defined early America.
"They're panicking in the hunting community," said Heidi Prescott, national director of the Fund for Animals, which opposes hunting, "because they're recognizing that this is a dying sport."
Larry Skidmore, 56, a sports supply store owner and retired Citrus County sheriff's deputy, remembers when hunting was a rite of passage for young boys.
"My dad would say, 'Larry, how about a rabbit for supper?' And I'd say, 'Sure, Dad,' and I'd go out and shoot two of them," recalled Skidmore, who grew up in Wisconsin. "I miss eating rabbit."
Now Skidmore, who has noted a dropoff in hunting sales at his store during the past 15 years, is teaching his grandchildren to hunt. But hunting opportunities, even in a mostly rural county such as Citrus, are diminishing.
Some of the best hunting around used to be in a forest near an abandoned sugar mill, Skidmore said. Today, that area is a 3,700- home subdivision called Sugarmill Woods.
"The hunting has consistently slowed up because there's no place to hunt anymore," Skidmore said. "It's all subdivisions, housing."
This winter, the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission opened an area adjacent to Sugarmill Woods for hunting. Property owners feared the golfers on their course could be injured or killed in a hunting accident, but the state persevered.
"Wildlife management areas butt right up to residential areas, and we've never had any problem," said Karen Parker, spokeswoman for the agency. "Cross my fingers and knock on wood."
The commission, like hunting groups and conservation agencies in other states, is working to turn around the falloff in hunting licenses, in part because some of its programs are financed through hunting license fees. The state offers youth hunting days, and its Becoming an Outdoors Woman program reaches out to women.
Other states are trying to pair hunting mentors with children who want to be introduced to the sport.
Programs like these infuriate groups that oppose hunting, including the Fund for Animals.
"These are government agencies that are supposed to represent everyone," Prescott said. "Hunting is a controversial sport, and I use the term 'sport' lightly. For state agencies to be out there actively recruiting children, we just believe that's not their role."
Florida generates $7-million from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Other states' conservation budgets are based almost entirely on license fees.
"Money is basically driving the agencies," Prescott said.
Yet hunting advocates point to the money that hunting puts back into the economy. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting and fishing is a $108-billion-a-year industry that supports more jobs than Wal-Mart.
"If hunting and fishing were a corporation, it would be 11th in the Fortune 500," Throckmorton said.
Prescott thinks that hunting advocacy groups and conservation agencies are fighting an uphill battle. As the nation shifts increasingly from rural to urban, the hunting industry continues to lose its grip, she said.
"If the child doesn't come from a hunting family," Prescott said, "it's highly unlikely the children will ever hunt."
For McDevitt, introducing his daughter to hunting is a way to teach her about respecting wildlife, about the joy of watching a forest awaken in the morning, about sustaining a family.
"I'm not trying to force hunting on her," said McDevitt, who lets Hunter carry a BB gun into the woods on hunting trips. "But if she wants to wear a dress all week and then go out and hunt, I want her to be able to do that."
For her birthday this year, he gave his daughter a lifetime hunting license. That's another way the state encourages youth hunting: The younger the child is, the cheaper the lifetime license.
McDevitt inscribed his daughter's license: "I hope that you learn all that I have from nature."