Friday, January 08, 2010

easy hunts

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.


Trout Caviar said...

Well, I don't know, but that seemed pretty coherent to me. It's a pleasure to read a well-considered, thoughtfully expressed piece of writing like that about hunting.

An example of how those competing schools of thought translate into stark bureaucratic terms: In Wisconsin hunting deer over bait piles is perfectly legal and widely practiced. Just cross the border to Minnesota, and doing the same will cost you a hefty fine and the loss of your firearm.

Thanks for a fine read.


Catpad said...

i agree

Andrew Campbell said...

MDMNM: thanks for this. Seemed pretty coherent to me. Mr. Caviar reminded me of one of the great images from a book I haven't read in a long time -- Ed Grumbine's Ghost Bears -- of how the same bear as it crosses the border between the US and Canada becomes almost a different bear.

Am currently in N. AZ -- where hunting culture is very different from the NE. It has also been rather different to see 'actual' game, ie. a slew of jack rabbits and Gambel's quail -- and to talk to folks who might not think too hard about taking a quail for dinner out of season, but who do lament the amount of plastic shotgun shells and AR-15 brass that folks leave behind them.

all best

Hubert Hubert said...

An interesting post, this. Thanks for the link, too!


mdmnm said...

Brett, Catpad, and Hubert,

Thanks in turn! Glad it came together enough to follow.


Welcome and enjoy N. Az.! That's pretty wild country.
Years ago I worked on a wildlife law handbook that was started in part out of concern regarding inconsistency of wildlife laws from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Mike Spies said...


I liked the piece. As has been said before. "Character is defined by what you do when no one is watching."

Ethics in hunting is certainly cultural, and I am unwilling to have the discussion framed by those who do not hunt. Sort of cultural colonialism, in my mind.

The elk hunting deal is something I have done 'expedition style' with packing on horses to remote and beautiful places. Places I would probably not visited if it had not been for the hunting. Likewise I have had one or two relaxed hunts on a ranch. It's all good.

The simplicity of casual bird hunting with my dogs suits me best now, and I like the idea that after the point, flush, and shot, I can praise my dog, pick up my game, put it in my vest, and continue on... no massive recovery and transport issues to deal with.

mdmnm said...

Your sort of "cultural colonialism" makes sense, in that hunters have the personal experience with different situations to inform their views. Unfortunately, our status as a shrinking segment of outdoor recreationists renders us vulnerable to outside opinion. Most ethics discussions are best amongst hunters or fishers, though, for shared vocabulary and enthusiasm if nothing else.

Some day I'll be in an area where there is a bit more bird hunting nearby and take advantage of that. When I was in high school we were fortunate to have a few coveys of blue quail within a couple of miles of the house. We practiced our pointers on them and each year would take a bird or two from each bunch. Great fun on an otherwise empty winter afternoon.

Scampwalker said...

What a wonderfully thought out essay. To me, the most important part of sporting ethics is that each individual has taken the time to deliberately consider the consequences of his actions and are able to honestly reconcile them.

Maybe that's a pollyanna way of looking at things, but I think hunting -- like most things in life these days -- could use some more thoughtful consideration and less pedantic acrimony.

Chad Love said...

Damn, I have no idea why I waited five days to read this. Nicely done.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

I'd put a cap in that cow elk any day. I came late in life to hunting, and I came into it for two very distinct yet contradictory reasons: I like to work for my food (both in the field and within individual recipes) and I like to eat wild things -- all sorts of wild things.

I echo the comments of Mike Spies, in that if I can whack a game animal easily and cleanly, I rejoice because a) I got effing lucky and b) the meat is likely going to taste a shade bit better.

Now would I hunt at a place where I was pretty sure I'd get my game? Yes, but only if I were in need of that ingredient for the table. I view hunting planted pheasants as glorified grocery shopping, yet I do it every year. Why? Pen-raised pheasants are fun to work with in the kitchen and I always like to have at least a brace of pheasants in my freezer. Would I hunt planted birds if I were near South Dakota? Hell no.

All of us who are real hunters have been both the dog and the fire hydrant on more days than we care to count. In a normal duck season, I limit maybe two or three times a year. It is a big deal for me, because I normally get a brace if I am lucky.

Toss this one in, though: I shoot a 20 gauge over-under. So I am consciously limiting myself both in number of pellets flying toward that duck AND in number of shots I can take.

Sporting, right? Nope. Cheap. My first shotgun was this Franchi Veloce, it cost me a pretty penny and I had it fitted to me by an expert. For me, I can kill more geese with my 2-shot 20 gauge than most can with their 3-shot 12 gauges. Not bragging, just a fact that anyone who shoots just one shotgun will ultimately be good at it.

Yet to the outside world I am this great sporting hero. I always hear people say, "You shoot 20 GAUGE!?! WOW!" I just smile and say nothing.

mdmnm said...

Agreed as to folks taking the time to reconcile the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to lead unexamined lives. You've got it right, though. If, after some thought, you feel ok about pulling the trigger, you're likely right.


I shoot both a double and a semi, sometimes that third shot is handy! Your use of a 20, practical as it is, illustrates just the sort of limitation I was talking about. You have to pass shots and practice more in order to get the sort of good hits that keep from losing birds, raising your own bar. While a 12 or a 10 gauge is, of course, so substitute for skill, they do offer a little larger margin.

Funny, when I come across piles of shells on the levee left by skybusters pass shooting, they're almost always the cheapest steel promotional loads and never Hevi-shot.

Holly Heyser said...

Excellent post - one I think I'll enjoy re-reading. You really brought together a lot of great thinking here.

I'm always a little melancholy when a hunt is too easy. I like the idea of feeling that I've worked hard, because that's part of the experience - not necessarily because I'm noble, but because the majority of the time, it does take hard work.

But I am always grateful for the meat, and for clean kills, and I don't turn my nose up at the opportunity for relatively easy hunting. It's just a different experience.

And I love how Hank is idolized for shooting a 20 gauge and all I get is crap telling me I need a bigger gun. What's that about?

Matt Mullenix said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Mullenix said...

I hope all hunters and fishers have some version of this argument going on from time to time. Falconers certainly do.

I've been all over the map on this issue. I've shot plenty of fish in barrels, so to speak (although in falconry it is a little different in that you have to make the fish barrel from scratch and train the gun to shoot, etc.) Those facts notwithstanding, there are some easy forms of falconry, and I have practiced them.

But there is also the "right way," which is harder, usually, but not always and not more right just because more difficult.

My good friend and falconry mentor Tom taught me, "Make hay while the sun shines." If the hawks are working well and the rabbits keep busting out of cover and running in the open, catch all you can. The flip side is that most days are not easy; most days are tough as hell. So be thankful some hunts are smooth and fast, and give thanks by taking full advantage.

It goes something like that, anyway.

I think I've found a balance in my own hunting. I can cook game my familiy will eat in bulk, which allows generous portions to be caught and used without waste. My hawk and dog eat what else is left. I hunt in places I know to be gamey; my good animals expect that and judge me when I get it wrong by taking off to better pastures on their own.

I am skilled now in ways I wasn't as a young falconer; it is easier now for me, no matter how I slice it. But I don't shoot the barrel fish anymore.

mdmnm said...

Thanks. As to the reactions to the 20 ga., I'd guess that's pretty much just sexism. I'd recommend a 12 for waterfowl, you have more options for shells and more lead (or steel) generally means more dead. However, A. picked out an over under 20 after trying a number of different shotguns. She preferred a double, the Ruger Red Label fit her, and a 20 was easier to swing. Especially on decoying ducks, as you know you can kill them just fine. I'd imagine most guys think you're unnecessarily limiting yourself, while they assume a guy is limiting himself on purpose.


"But there is also the "right way," which is harder, usually, but not always and not more right just because more difficult."

There you go again, getting right to the heart of the matter! Thanks for the great comment, right on as usual.