ROLLA — When Nick Girondo first looked at his family calendar this spring, he struggled to find a time to get everyone out turkey hunting during the 22-day season.
“With sports and other things going on, we probably would have got out one day at the most, the way planning was going with family events,” he said.
But when the coronavirus pandemic came to Missouri, those events were canceled and the family went hunting.
The Girondos weren’t alone. Missouri saw a huge increase in hunting activity this turkey season. Regular hunters came out more often, almost 20,000 new hunters tried out the sport, and the number of birds youth hunters took in was up by more than 10 percent.
“We went out 13 times, a lot more than we normally would have, because of the pandemic,” Girondo said.
Six-year-old Frank Girondo went hunting for the first time this spring during the youth season April 4-5. Even though he didn’t get a bird, he said he had a great time, especially trying to outsmart a gobbler that came back to his family’s blind several times.
“This one was so smart. He never wanted to come close enough. And one day he came about 30 yards, and I shot,” he said.
That shot missed, but Jen Girondo said it didn’t matter — that time spent in the blind was good for the family of four. She said, in a lot of ways, it was better family time than they would have had if not for the pandemic.
“When they are playing sports, they are out there with the coach. They’re out, and we’re on the sidelines just watching and cheering,” she said. “So for us it was neat to be there and get to be their coach.”
Keeping the new hunters coming back
Hunting proponents are welcoming the spring numbers as a sign that the state could see an increase in hunting after a decade of declines.
Eric Edwards, education outreach coordinator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said it’s great that more people tried hunting, but he is concerned the increase won’t hold up at these levels once people can go back to their regularly scheduled activities.
“Yes, people had considerable amounts of free time on their hands this year, and we probably won’t see these numbers again unless something like this happens again, but it would sure be nice if we could keep these numbers,” Edwards said.
Some first-time hunters are planning to return.
Karli Auble of Webster Groves went hunting this spring when she won a raffle to go on a free trip. She said normally she would have passed on it, but was going stir-crazy at home and the idea of being outdoors was too good to pass up. She found it exhilarating.
“The moment that a turkey comes out, it’s a very exciting moment. Your heart starts beating; you start shaking a little bit,” Auble said. “I’d do it again if I had the opportunity.”
Some hunting operations still hurting
Even with the increased activity, the news wasn’t good for everyone in the hunting business. Rob Mahalevich and his siblings run Missouri Hunting and Outdoor, a 1,300-acre hunting ground near Crocker in the Ozarks.
They had 28 hunting groups from nine states booked for turkey season. But because their property includes a lodge and dining facilities, they had to close because of the coronavirus.
”We just couldn’t guarantee our staff’s safety or our guests',” Mahalevich said.
“So we had to cancel the season. And it was very painful. We are a small operation in a lot of ways.”
The brothers hope to be fully open by deer season, and are exploring adding campgrounds to their property to accommodate hunters if the lodge has to stay closed.
Mahalevich shares concerns that the increase in hunting will be a one-time thing.
But Nick Girondo said the bonding his family had while hunting has him focusing on a new priority, even after the pandemic.
“We have to carve out that time. It showed how special it is to have that time and spend that time together,” Girondo said.
Summer is slower for hunting in Missouri, so it’s hard to tell if the turkey hunting boom will carry over to other seasons. But the Conservation Department reported a slight increase in fishing licenses and small-game hunting permits so far this summer.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl
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