This post has been kicking around in draft for over a year now and I haven't had much luck in massaging it into a cohesive essay. Since content is scant while life is busy, I'm going to throw it out in it's current, messy form. You have been warned.
I've written previously about a couple of successful big game hunts that I've enjoyed. Generally, those hunts were noteworthy in part for the physical challenge they offered and were the result of substantial preparation as well as years of honing skills (or at least tromping around in the woods with a rifle). I've also had some easy hunts. My last successful elk hunt turned out pretty easy.
Far more easy was a hunt many years ago in northern New Mexico, when I had a chance to get in with a group of guys for landowner cow tags on a large ranch. We were over-geared; loading daypacks with compasses, spare clothes, water, extra ammunition, and other sundries for a day in the woods far from the road. As it turned out, opening morning the guy working as a fence rider for the ranch led us to a winter wheat field at sunup and we walked over a little rise to see a couple of hundred cow elk that had been feeding there that night. Within fifteen minutes, half a dozen elk were down and the work began. Dressing, skinning, and quartering that many elk was work, not fun. Heck, the hunt wasn't exactly fun. I shot my cow in the back of the head from 150 yards- a nice, clean, instantaneous kill, but the hunt wasn't exactly a hunt. It was more truly a harvest.
Would I do it again? Perhaps, particularly if short on time and without other meat. Would I spend a lot of time thinking about it, or get particularly excited? No. It would not be an unpleasant chore, but it would be just that- a chore. Work. Putting meat in the freezer as surely as heading to the office is work in pursuit of putting bread on the table.
Certain hunts are more challenging, whether due to the scarcity or wariness of the game. Where challenge is lacking, you'll find some hunters raising their personal bar, limiting their effectiveness by using weapons, such as traditional muzzleloading rifles or bows, which lack range and require greater skill to master or by limiting themselves to taking only the largest, oldest, most wary animals. This is generally a good thing and reflects well on human spirit, in my opinion.
One of the rubs with a hunter using weapons which are more difficult to master or otherwise imposing handicaps on himself is that the chance of wounding his prey is increased. While each is easily capable of taking game humanely, bows, muzzleloaders, and pistols all require more precision in range estimation and generally deliver less immediately-lethal projectiles over shorter ranges than modern hunting rifles Their use requires more practice, skill, and discipline on the part of the hunter. One of a hunter's ethical obligations is to take his game as cleanly as possible, without causing any more suffering than absolutely necessary. Emphasizing again that ethical kills can be and are made with each of the above mentioned weapons, their use is somewhat in conflict with a hunter's obligation to kill game quickly.
In turn, the obligation to make quick, sure kills leads to the query, why not take all possible advantages in hunting? Rather than condemning hunting over feeders as antithetical to appropriate hunting skills, why not advocate for the practice as an efficient way of ensuring relaxed prey which is not distressed and can more easily be instantly killed? Rather than condemn high fence hunting operations,* why not embrace them to the extent they accomplish the same goal?
This point was made (quite some time back now) among the comments in a earlier discussion on Norcalcazadora's blog regarding hunting programs on television in which the comments got going on hunters' behavior and ethics. Phillip of The HogBlog makes a point that "There are those who would argue, and somewhat soundly if you stop and listen, that taking every advantage over the game we pursue is actually more ethical than drawing arbitrary rules around the means of take and limiting hunters to difficult and overly-challenging methods. An animal unaware and feeding over a bait pile at close range is going to offer a much better opportunity for a clean, quick kill...especially if the hunter is armed with the most efficient and accurate equipment with which to make the kill." He goes on to write "My personal standard falls somewhere in the mix of all that.... But the thing that stays in my mind throughout it all is that what I'm there for is to play my role as predator, and in the end game, it's all about killing meat for my table."
A good while back Steve Bodio put forward a nice, clear perspective in a blog-comment, (on a slightly different topic) stating: "I think restraint (including in pursuit of game) should be encouraged, and excess discouraged, by custom and peer pressure.
I do NOT think most of this should be law-- and my inclination on this goes beyond hunting-- ie, I don't believe in compulsory anti- smoking, to pick an issue at random, but I DO in manners.
Bag limits are (or should be) compulsory and biologically determined. The rest is culture. It may be too late to promote good manners and sportsmanship in this society but I am willing to try."
Opposite the idea of using every advantage to humanely and efficiently kill game is the thought that, at some point, advantage over our prey offends the idea of fair chase. Game must have an opportunity to escape and cannot be in a "sure thing" situation, or the activity isn't hunting and, from the perspective of sportsmanship, isn't ethical. If you're always going to win or succeed, who would keep trying for long? The discussion is complicated by the fact that the ideas of "sportsmanship" and "sport", emphasized in older hunting and fishing literature and seemingly assumed as part of the chase are approached warily by today's hunter/fisherman speaking to those who neither hunt nor fish. Admitting to enjoying hunting, which inarguably (at least if you read Ortega y Gasset and agree with him at all) culminates in a death, or fishing for the pot, is a dicey business in many circles.** Leave the killing stuff to people paid to do it. This is part of why, when in some social circles, many of us emphasize that we hunt for the meat.
Regardless of talking to others who don't hunt, among ourselves I think most hunting should be elitist and aspirational. Not in terms of game pursued, or the expense of the tools used, but in terms of our approach. Rabbit hunting is considered pretty easy, at least here in the western US, but it can provide quite a challenge. Change the venue slightly and it can be more so, given limitations on your approach. Check out Hubert Hubert's blog and archives for good writing on the challenges of air rifle hunting for rabbits in England. Regardless of your quarry, your approach to the hunt makes all the difference. A good example of the sort of meditation and inevitably personal resolution we come to with respect to ethics can be found here. Another nice example is in this discussion of "varmint hunting" at Querencia.
While I won't turn down a cow elk standing just uphill of the road, or complain about the days when the ducks just bomb the decoys, the fact that those are rare occurrences makes them both memorable and something to take advantage of. Dry runs and miles walked without game, hours spent scouting and more hours spent driving to places to be scouted all balance those occasions out. So, I'm not out there just for meat. I do hope for a challenge, which can come in many forms and can vary depending upon my skill level. I won't set out to make things hard on purpose, but generally enjoy myself more if I've had to sweat a little.
*I will state that I do not personally believe that a high fence around a property renders a hunt on that property unsporting or unethical, provided that the area enclosed is sufficient to allow the animal to flee and escape. At a first thought, I'd guess that area as being somewhere around 2000 acres, depending upon terrain and vegetation.
**If you want to light up a strict "catch and release" person, tell them that they're guilty of playing with their food and point out that they likely kill one in every twenty or twenty-five of the fish they catch and disfigure more. Some of those folks need lighting up, a personal peeve is the "I only use a three weight" (cue condescending voice) types who have enough skill to bring in a big but exhausted trout and then release it to die. Use a six weight, up the leader a bit, and release a feisty fish, you tools. Not that fishermen are necessarily any less concerned with the ethics of their sport than hunters- Finspot (Langdon Cook) put up a post about a wild steelhead which was legally caught and kept, to considerable condemnation by the angling community, which is concerned that the regulations are too permissive and that all wild steelhead should be released. On the other hand, there are always bad eggs.
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