Technology and hunting have had a strained relationship for generations, centuries even. We hunters rely on technology to maximize our success in the field, but our pursuit of game is ultimately a primitive enterprise, stripped of bytes and megawatts.
That tension is not lost on Eric Dinger, the co-founder and CEO of Powderhook, a mobile app that intends to introduce and demystify hunting to a generation of brand-new hunters who may know all about technology, but very little about the earthy realities of hunting.
“We want to leverage technology to bring new people into the field, but then we want these new hunters to put down their phones and immerse themselves in hunting,” says Dinger. “I know that sounds like an oxymoron but we think it’s possible to achieve. Technology is just the gateway to the natural world.”
The evidence supports Dinger’s conclusion. In its first three years in existence as a mobile app, Powderhook has accrued more than 150,000 users, including 79,000 as registered users of the app. Most of those are either new hunters looking for information, advice, and access, or experienced hunters offering the same. The two ends of the experience spectrum meet on Powderhook (the app is available for free download on either the App Store or Google Play for all major devices).
“We have aimed to create a virtual community, where prospective hunters can ask questions and get answers to any number or type of questions, and it’s where experienced hunters can pass on their knowledge,” says Dinger. “So far, it’s created a really energetic climate of sharing, which is strange to see in cyberspace, since so much about hunting is grounded, in a specific place and in real time, with people you can see and touch.”
Equally unusual is the amount of sharing that happens among parties that are likely in different states, and with different levels of experience.
“When we started this, we heard from skeptics who said that hunters don’t share,” says Dinger. “They don’t share their places, their knowledge, or their gear. The conventional wisdom is that because it’s taken a lifetime to accumulate all that experience, that hunters aren’t willing to share it with people they know and trust, let alone strangers over a digital platform. But we’ve experienced exactly the opposite. Hunters are not only willing to share, but they’re proud of their ability to pass on their passion to new people. I’d like to think that we’ve made sharing both easy and cool, but I truly believe that it’s always been part of what defines hunters.”
POWER OF MENTORING
The pinnacle of Powderhook’s network is what is called “digital mentoring,” in which experienced users pair up with beginners, and develop more of a one-on-one relationship through the app’s architecture.
Mentors can be paired up based on locale, shared demographics such as age or gender, or interest. Powderhook features mentoring “camps” devoted to waterfowl, big-game, archery hunting, and just about any specific hunting discipline you can name.
But Powderhook’s breakout achievement of the past year is taking mentorship from the confines of the digital universe and bringing it to the field. It’s being delivered by a number of partners, ranging from state wildlife agencies to national conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever, which is developing a program to certify mentors so that each individual mentor can deliver services to a number of “mentees,” or beginning hunters.
“Scale is one of the biggest challenges we face,” says Dinger. “The reality of our world is that America’s hunters are aging, and they’re dropping out of the activity faster than we can bring new, younger people to hunting to replace them. Looked at that over time, the whole system that we’ve developed, in which hunters pay for wildlife management and are really the driving force for citizen conservation, is in danger of tipping over. In order to stabilize it, we need to bring more people to hunting, and the best way to do that is with scale, replicating our mentoring program so it’s not just a single mentor working with a single mentee.”
At deadline for this piece, Powderhook had 1,534 registered digital mentors in the app. But if each state and NGO also takes on the responsibility to mentor, then that scale starts to build in a meaningful way.
One of the agencies that’s had success implementing this mentorship is Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources, whose upland hunting programs has been wildly popular with prospective hunters, most of whom aren’t kids. They’re adults who may not have grown up hunting but are interested in getting outside, watching gundogs work, and the social atmosphere of pheasant hunting. Many participants are finding out about the programs through Powderhook.
“I’m really happy with the focus on getting adults in hunting, not only from the department (Iowa DNR) but also from NGOs like Pheasants Forever,” says Wisecup. “You go back 4-5 years, and there wasn’t the opportunity for adults to get involved in hunting unless they went along with their kids on an organized event. But we noticed that adults were curious and interested—sometimes more interested than their kids—and we were interested in reaching them. That was the origin of our adult-focused programs.”
Evidence of the success of these programs is the continued communication with participants.
“It can be hard to stay in touch with youth, but adults who go through our upland program become Facebook friends with each other and stay in touch with us via email,” says Wisecup. “They’re the ones that are usually initiating the continued contact, and social media has been an important tool for maintaining the community.”
One of Iowa’s social-media tools? Powderhook. The agency uses the app to open and maintain lines of communication between mentors and their hunting apprentices.
And the outcome, says Jamie Cook, who runs Pheasants Forever outreach events in Iowa, is the perpetuation of a strong upland hunting culture in the Hawkeye State.
“Iowa may not have endless acres of publicly accessible hunting property,” says Cook, “But upland hunters don’t need a ton of land. The ability to pull up at a property, unload your dog, load your gun, and take off is really all you need if the habitat is there. You’ll see birds and you’ll have a good day in the field. We’re just trying to create more good days in the field.”