April 7, 2014
Last week, my brother and I spent two full days at Crystal Creek Bowhunting, a high fence ranch over near Del Rio, Texas. Our plan was to target axis deer and hogs. The package we paid for also allowed us to shoot a turkey. We could swap the axis for any other exotic we encountered, which could have included sika deer, blackbuck antelope, or various sheep (ramboulet, mouflon, aoudad, or hybrids).
Each of us spent one arrow, shot at wild hogs during the last light of the first night’s hunt (neither of us connected). Each of us also passed up a single shot opportunity at a ”wild” sheep during the trip. I got caught flat-footed by a big tom turkey that snuck in through the brush and suddenly appeared, five yards away. Other than that, we had no shot opportunities and spent the majority of the time in the field enjoying the plethora of birds that flock through Texas during the spring migration. I may have napped a little in the warm, spring morning sun. Neither of us killed anything except time.
During the trip, the contentious debate about high fence hunting kept running through my mind. In particular, I kept thinking about the insistence by some folks that high fence hunting isn’t hunting at all. The argument centers on the fact that high fence hunting is easy, and that the animals don’t have a fair chance of escape.
So is it the difficulty of the hunt that makes it “hunting”?
I’ve got a spot at the Tejon Ranch, back in California, where I could guarantee a shot at a wild hog. Even better, I could just about pinpoint when the animals would appear, and where they’d show up first. Everyone I ever took to that spot had at least one shot opportunity. I am certain that, had I wanted to do so, I could have laid around camp all day long, driven out to that spot in the last half hour before sunset, and killed a hog (if I shot straight)… every trip.
Tejon isn’t a high fence ranch. There were no feeders, and no food plots. Was that “hunting”?
When I was guiding for mule deer out at Coon Camp Springs, in California’s eastern Sierra, my clients had a 100% shot opportunity rate. Once I learned the lay of the land, I had specific areas that almost always produced deer. By the time the clients showed up, I could usually have them tagged out within two days… often sooner.
Coon Camp Springs is about 7000 acres of unfenced land, surrounded by millions more acres of public and private property. With the exception of some habitat restoration work, there is nothing unusual there to specifically attract or hold deer. But the hunts were typically easy. Was that “hunting”?
A few years back, I joined my brother on his first elk hunting trip. The first morning, the sun came up on us about four or five miles into the Uncompahgre Wilderness. We were surrounded by elk. Fifteen minutes later, my brother had a 320″ bull on the ground. The next morning, I set up on the edge of some dark timber while the guide and wrangler took the horses down to pack out my brother’s bull. By the time they got back up the mountain to where I was, I had almost finished skinning and boning out my own bull. Sure, it was a fairly long hike in and out, but it wasn’t what I’d call a “hard” hunt. In fact, it was far easier than some high fenced, hog hunts I’ve been on. Was it “hunting”?
Enough with the redundancy, then.
Besides the relative ease of all of those hunts, high fence and low, they share one other thing in common. I enjoyed them. Even the ostensibly “fruitless” bow hunt on the high fence ranch was a great time. I had fun, and really, isn’t that what hunting is about?
There are people who would tell me that my visit to that high fence ranch wasn’t “hunting”. But I have to say, it sure felt like it to me. As I sat there with my release clipped on, waiting with ragged breath and racing pulse for the spotted boar to take just two more steps… it felt like any other time or place, sitting in the same position with the same apprehensive tension. Or leaning back in the stand, nearly dozing under the late morning sun… I could have been on any hillside in any place. And later, around the skinning pole with the guys who were successful, it was the same jokes and banter that I’ve heard around skinning poles in every state and setting I’ve ever experienced.
No, I was there… and I’m pretty certain I was hunting. I am also dead sure that I enjoyed the experience, and it makes me wonder; in what world ruled by reason and logic could anyone tell me that I didn’t?
Isn’t that a foolish thought… to tell someone else that they couldn’t have enjoyed an experience because you wouldn’t enjoy it yourself?
Is it hunting? It is to me. Maybe it doesn’t meet your definition, but that’s alright.
March 28, 2014
It’s one of those days where I really can’t decide what I’d rather write about.
First of all, it’s hardly news now that the Pig Man, Brian Quaca, has apparently hit the big time with a new show on the Discovery Channel, Boss Hog.
Here’s the story, according to the press release that I (and pretty much anyone who’s ever written about hunting or shooting) received yesterday.
BOSS HOG, premiering on Discovery Friday April 11 at 10PM ET/PT, follows Brian “Pigman” Quaca and his crew as they take on Texas’ wild hog problem, building his own “pig empire.”
In recent years, wild hogs have ravaged Texas, causing an estimated 1.5 billion dollars in agricultural damage annually. Where most see this as a nuisance, Pigman sees it as an opportunity, making money off every aspect of the pig – from booking clients on high-end hog hunts and customizing hog hunting bows, to stuffing and mounting trophy boars.
Expanding Pigtime Enterprises’ hunting empire, Pigman has also partnered with local barbeque joint, Wright’s BBQ. At the helm of the BBQ business is Quita, helping Wright’s serve up delicious BBQ to Texas for the past 50 years. Whether she’s trying to curb Pigman’s big business ideas for Wright’s or just keep tabs on Pigman’s wacky dad, Dap, Quita’s partnership with Pigtime has become a lot more than she bargained for.
Although Pigman’s hands are full building a successful business, it seems like most days are spent managing his hair-brained staff. No one tests Pigman’s patience more than his dad, Dap, who runs the Pigtime hunting ranch.
“With Dap, if it’s not one thing it’s another, but somehow he always gets the job done – he just has a unique way of solving problems.”
Above everything else, Pigman has one main goal in life: to provide for his thirteen year old son, J.D. Pigman’s every ambition stems from the idea that he’ll one day pass on his pig business and pig legacy to his son. Right now, Pigman’s doing everything in his power to build on that legacy and take his pig empire to the masses.
So, imagine Duck Dynasty with hog hunters.
Look, while I may not have enjoyed every episode, I’m generally a fan of Brian Quaca’s, Pig Man, The Series program on Sportsman Channel. When he’s doing what he does best, hunting and eradicating hogs, he’s entertaining and often educational. He makes no bones that killing hogs isn’t just about sport hunting, but he also doesn’t pretend he isn’t having a great time. I respect that.
But I’m not nuts about anything that Discovery has applied their sensationalistic, lowest-common-denominator approach to “reality”, spin on. I hope Quaca and his team will rise above that, and I might even break my personal boycott of Discovery to catch an episode or two… with the clear-eyed realization that this is supposed to be entertainment, not reality.
The bright side is, Pig Man will continue to appear on Sportsman for the time being.
Now, to an entirely different topic…
A few folks on my Facebook feed have shared this “investigative series” on deer farming and high fence hunting from the Indy Star. The piece purports to “expose” the harmful and unethical practices behind this industry, and while I think it gets off to a reasonably good start, by the end of the last segment (there are four “chapters”), it’s easy to see that the mantle of subjectivity has slipped a bit and the agenda starts to drive the content.
Nevertheless, I strongly recommend giving it a read if you’re at all interested in the topic. The first chapter does present some interesting history about the deer farming and trophy deer breeding industry, and the next three chapters offer some food for thought. But I also advise reading it critically, because there’s a good bit of speculation mixed with the facts.
And, in the spirit of full disclosure for anyone reading this blog who doesn’t already know this about me, I am not opposed to high fence hunting, or game farming. While my preference will always be a rugged hunt in the backcountry, I do enjoy many kinds of hunting experiences, including high fences and planted bird preserves. But probably the most important thing to know about my position on this topic, is that I absolutely believe that none of us has the right to define the experience of the hunt for anyone else… as long as it is reasonably safe, legal, and does not threaten the natural resources.
March 4, 2014
How to begin?
I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of the Center for Humans and Nature before today (or maybe I have and didn’t remember), but from the sounds of it, it’s kind of intimidating. It sounds like a place full of lofty thinkers and deep conversations about Leopold, Audubon, and Thoreau. So when these guys announce an open conversation about hunting, and bring in writers like Mary Zeiss Stange, I felt a little hesitant to toss in my two cents.
There is little doubt that hunting played a decisive role in our species’ evolution. But with the spread of agriculture and the domestication of animals, eventually the necessity of hunting diminished. This raises the question: Does hunting still contribute to our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to nature? Do we need hunting for that purpose? In many different cultures, hunting has inspired an ethic informing hunters’ engagement with prey, arguably one of the foundations of modern environmental ethics. But is the hunter’s ethic still a necessary component of broader environmental ethics? Should it be? We invite you to join the conversation and return as new responses are added each week.
But then, it’s the Internet and my two cents didn’t cost a penny… so of course I couldn’t resist. The conversation is essentially a blog format, so it’s not too hard to jump in with your comments. However, as you may expect, my comments ran a little long. And since I sort of needed an easy post today, I figured I’d just add them here… for those of you who don’t want to go read the whole conversation (but you really should, as there are several excellent writers involved, including our friend, Tovar Cerulli).
Here’s what I had to say:
I’ve thought a bit and decided. It’s not so much that hunting necessarily makes us human. I think the more important reality is that hunting reminds us humans that we are animal.
I am neither scholar nor philosopher… biologist nor anthropologist, but I have some ideas about the sorts of things that make us, “human.” Lay aside the basics of taxonomy, as there’s not much to add there, and think more about the concepts of self-awareness and the ability to rationalize. Consider the determination expressed by much of human culture and society to distance our species from the rest of nature… to set ourselves above all others. That conceit? That’s what makes us human.
Throughout human history, for as far back as we can really look, the general thrust of humanity has been to drive us further from our “animal” nature. That drive is, arguably, responsible for the formation of society and culture as we set laws and mores that inhibit the “savage” tendencies and enable us to live together. You don’t fight, you don’t kill, and you don’t breed with your neighbor’s mate. The Ten Commandments, the Seven Deadly Sins… social controls all, and intended to set us humans apart from the beasts.
The tale is long and convoluted, but it brings us to a time when the most “civilized” societies are also the most separated from nature… and more importantly, from their natural selves. The animal part is still there, of course, as evidenced in everything from our business and political practices right down to our children’s games (what are Tag and Hide-and-Seek if not basic training for little predators?). Still, how many people recognize it for what it is? How many would celebrate it if they recognized it?
And how many, seeing it, try to squash it?
Squashing the animal out of our very nature…
It’s an exercise in futility, of course, but exercise builds strength. The more we distance ourselves from the animal, the more we divide ourselves from nature. Too many civilized humans already think of nature not as a vital part of ourselves, but as some nebulous construct… as some abstract state that is different from us. It is “other”.
I think, thankfully, that there’s always been a subset of the population that recognizes that nature is not separate, but it is integral to everything that we are. Outdoors-folk, naturalists, environmentalists… we all recognize (and some of us evangelize) the importance of interconnectedness. And we recognize this because we choose to be part of it… even if we don’t all perceive our parts to be the same.
Of all the participants in that subset, hunters connect at the most basic level. We actively participate in the continuum of life and death… predator and prey. Put aside the confounding cloak of modern trappings and technology, and look at its bloody essence. When we hunt we feel ourselves, even for those brief moments in time, animal.
Good or bad?
I don’t know. Value judgments are easy when you’re judging someone else. They’re not quite so simple when you’re looking in a mirror. I can’t speak for anyone else.
Personally, I feel it is a blessing to recognize the animal in my humanity. It’s grounding. I embrace it. I think it’s absolutely important to understand that at the most base level; we’re not that different from the other creatures… and no more or less vital to the world around us either. Each of us wants life, but none of us really has much say in the matter. It’s bigger than the rabbit or the deer. It’s bigger than me.
And when I stand with bloodied hands over the carcass of my prey, I know that his blood is my blood too. Our origins are the same. We defy genealogy. For a moment I am wild… I am untamed. I understand more than ever the meaning of Whitman’s barbaric yawp.
February 27, 2014
It’s hardly like news anymore, it seems, to see a (relatively) positive piece in a major news outlet about hunting. Between “locavores” and “hipsters”, or youngsters and women, there’s been a steady stream of press over the past couple of years that would suggest a swelling of the hunting community by a host of non-traditional participants.
For my own part, I haven’t had a whole lot to say about the “phenomenon”. On the one hand, I certainly do relish the thought that more new hunters means more political and economic clout for our community. Likewise, I am cheered by the fact that we’re seeing a largely positive spin on hunting. These new participants tend to bring with them a strong ethic with a practical perspective (healthy food and a renewed relationship with our role in nature) and this plays well with the non-hunting public. It’s no secret that the best way to counter the lies and myths of the anti-hunting propaganda machine is to get our real stories into the popular press… let non-hunters read about hunters who aren’t poachers or drunken oafs.
But there’s a flip side. Even as these bright-eyed neophytes come into the sport (and the press) with professions of high ethical ideals, the spotlight that follows them also shines into the darker corners, threatening to illuminate the reality that all hunters don’t hold to the same, high, ethical standards. That’s not to say that the “old guard” is a bunch of scofflaws or heartless killers, but it is fair to say that we’re not all in this for the same reasons… we don’t all eat what we kill, we don’t all agree on the concepts of “sportsmanship” or definitions of “fair chase”, and all of us don’t see the kill as some particularly sanctified event (sometimes it feels like a damned inconvenient part of the whole experience, to be honest).
It’s a weird sort of conflict, no matter how you think about it. All this time we’ve wanted positive press, and now there’s a chance that the lights might shine a little too brightly on the contrast between lofty, ethical ideals and a sometimes, harsh reality. How do we reconcile this… or do we even try?
November 15, 2013
They’re patrolling the borders. They’re patrolling the coastal waters (including search and rescue operations). They’re patrolling enemy-controlled territory in foreign lands, and occasionally blowing up “bad guys”. They’re swooping down canyons and along waterways looking for polluters, and hovering over feedlots and slaughterhouses looking for illegal discharges. They’re even flying around backyards, swimming pools, and neighborhoods…
At their core, they’re just remote-controlled aircraft. With the right technological upgrades, they can pretty much become a platform for anything, from research equipment, to cameras, to weapons. They’re also pretty easy to use (getting simpler all the time), and reasonably available to anyone with a few hundred extra bucks laying around. So it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that it was just a matter of time before hunters (and anti-hunters) figured out a use for them in the field.
Not too long ago, PETA announced that they would be using drones to spy on hunters, ostensibly to catch us breaking the law and behaving unethically. By and large, the threat carried little weight because most commercially available drones are limited in range and payload. In order to get close enough to actually spy on hunters, the activists would likely have to tresspass on private land, or they’d have to carry their gear into the backcountry. All the time, they’d be at risk of having an enraged hunter shoot their equipment out of the sky.
In fact, anti-hunting activists have experienced this sort of equipment loss at least twice while flying their cameras over a couple of pigeon shoots… one in South Carolina and another near Philadelphia. I have very little doubt that similar fates will result in any other drone observation of hunting activities. I can only hope that the anger and frustration will continue to be directed only at the mechanical devices, and not at the operators.
On the pro-hunting front, we haven’t really heard much about the actual use of drones. Some organizations, such as Orion, are already stepping out to the forefront of the issue, decrying their use and calling for legislation banning drones for hunting. It’s been a topic of conversation, mostly idle, in some of the hunting media as well. But for the most part, the conversation has been hypothetical or satirical, like this article from Wired magazine.
It’s not all theoretical though.
Sometime back in 2010 or 2011, a couple of engineers in Louisiana developed a drone with night vision video to use for hog depredation. By using the device to locate hogs, the men could then deploy to the field with rifles and thermal scopes and kill the hogs. It’s a great idea, particularly for depredation hunting where the traditional ethos of the sport hunter doesn’t really apply. In an interview, the engineers (who design this sort of technology for the US Air Force) said it wouldn’t be too tough to affix a firearm to the drone as well, but conceded the common sense reality that armed drones in the hands of civilians would probably not go over very well. The reality is, that even if something like this were developed, the law would almost certainly strike it down immediately… if for no other reason than general safety.
But the possibilities of drones, even if they’re not armed, raise concerns from hunting ethicists and others concerned about protecting the “image” of sportsmen. Using a drone to track down an animal and lead hunters to it, for example, would certainly conflict with most hunters’ concept of “fair chase”. Similar practices using manned aircraft are already illegal across the country (for example, you aren’t allowed to fly over and locate a herd of elk, and then direct hunters to them). A federal law, the Airborne Hunting Act prohibits hunters from hunting in an area within 48 hours of flying over it. This came about as a result of bush pilots locating game and then setting down close by to allow the hunters to go kill them. And of course this sort of thing absolutely conflicts with the traditionally presented ideals of fair chase and sportsmanship.
It’s all starting to come together now, with Colorado poised to become the first state to specifically prohibit the use of drones in the use of scouting, aiding, or taking of wildlife. There are questions about whether such a law is necessary, either because the practice is generally addressed by existing legislation, or because the reality of this type of activity on any large scale is highly unlikely. The law would be very difficult to enforce, but it would provide an additional penalty when perpetrators are caught.
Personally, I’m sort of ambivalent. I definitely see no problem using drones as one more tool in controlling problem wildlife. That’s not supposed to be “sporting.” And I can see legitimate hunting uses, such as mapping property and locating geographic features from the air. But the technology certainly presents a big opportunity for abuse.
Most of the time, when it comes to ethics I tend toward the laissez faire as long as the activity is safe, doesn’t endanger the resource, and doesn’t harm the habitat. But I do think you have to draw lines somewhere. In 2005, I drew that line (along with many other people) at Internet hunting. The more I think about it, the more I think I might have to draw another line at using drones to find and kill native game (I think exotics and invasives are a different story altogether).
November 12, 2013
The shot not taken is the one to:
- Be thankful for
- Revisit in your dreams for years to come
- All of the above
As someone who has made a career out of designing and developing training courses, I’ve always hated multiple choice questions that end with, “All of the above.” I dislike them nearly as much as, “None of the above.”
It just seems lazy.
But that’s neither here nor there, I guess. The correct answer to the question is, “Depends.”
Doesn’t it? There are any number of reasons to hold your fire, resist that pulse in your index finger, and let it walk. Some reasons are better than others, and some seem foolish to anyone except the person who made the call.
It’s nearly dark. The clock on my cell phone tells me that I have about four minutes of shooting time left. 25 yards away, in a spot I call “the Murder Hole”, a nice-sized doe is silhouetted against the rocky, white ground. It’s so dark, and so quiet, she doesn’t notice when I stand up on the platform and raise my bow.
The pins barely glow in the fading light. I can’t really see the crease behind her shoulder, but I draw and center the 20 yard pin right at the top of where I think it should be. The doe continues to feed, head down, as my finger inches toward the trigger of the release. With a touch, in less than a quarter of a second a razor-tipped shaft could slice deep into her chest.
Instead, with all the strength I can muster, I let off and slowly lower the bow. The doe, oblivious, browses for a few minutes and then wanders off into the cedars.
I’m about 95% certain I could have killed that deer. If my shooting had been better earlier in the season, my confidence would have been even higher. But it didn’t matter. I never loosed the arrow.
I know that, under those conditions it was easy to make the choice I did on ethical grounds. I couldn’t really see, and was aiming where I thought the vitals were. I would not have been able to see the arrow’s flight or impact, or the deer’s reaction to the hit (if it was hit at all) so I wouldn’t really be sure of whether it was a clean killing shot, or something less ideal. And on a purely selfish level, I really didn’t feel like spending my night bloodtrailing a deer. I know some people would have taken the shot, and I don’t think I’d fault them for it. But for me, at that moment, it wasn’t right.
It’s not always as clear-cut, though.
It’s 09:00 on a beautiful Saturday morning. I’ve been in the stand since 05:30, and haven’t really seen anything since legal shooting light. I’d be discouraged, except it’s just such a nice day I don’t mind lazing in the branches of this oak tree.
Behind me, from the edge of the horse pasture, I hear the sound of rolling rocks and tentative footsteps. I know without looking that it’s a deer, and I also know that it’s going to walk directly under my stand. I freeze, resisting the urge to snatch up the bow. And I wait.
He appears in the edge of my peripheral vision, a young buck with two long spikes that curve inward, almost like an antelope. He’s a regular on these trails, and shows up frequently on my cameras… sometimes alone, and sometimes with a little bachelor group. I strain my ears as he walks by, listening intently for signs that the other bucks are with him. He’s alone.
The buck passes under my stand and enters my shooting lanes. He’ll crawl under the fence at the corner of the pasture like they all do, and when he stands back up he’ll be exactly 20 yards away. He idles along, but eventually comes to the corner and follows the script. He kneels to pass under the slick wire, and then stands and looks around carefully. He’s in a textbook position, broadside at a slight angle, and he has no inkling of the predator perched overhead.
I ease the bow up, and when he turns to look out over the pasture, I come to full draw. The sight pin drops into the center of the peep and hovers over the deer’s beating heart.
But I don’t shoot.
Maybe I just wasn’t hungry enough. Maybe I’ve gone soft. I don’t know.
All I know is that I let him walk, and then passed on him again the next day in a similarly ideal setup. It was about as easy as any shot in archery can be, and I had the whole day to trail, recover, and process him. But I didn’t.
There’s an awful, powerful sense of finality in the decision to take the shot. I think a lot of us have a level of something, reluctance maybe, that delays that trigger squeeze sometimes… makes us hesitate a half-beat before calling up death. In its most powerful form, I think it even causes us to pull a shot and miss the easy target (or maybe that’s just me making excuses). For me it’s always been there, although I think I feel it more as I’ve gotten a little older.
There have been a lot of shots I didn’t take for which I later kicked myself. I’ve passed shots at big bucks and boar hogs, and then replayed the images over and over in my mind with the solid conviction that I could have made a clean, quick kill. But sometimes that’s just hindsight playing tricks… or that’s what I tell myself so I can finally go to sleep.
I’ve hunted with a lot of people over the years, and I’ve been right beside many of them when the time came to make the shot or pass. Without fail, it seems, there’s that moment of doubt. Some people are openly vocal about it, doubting their abilities or the capability of their weapon, second-guessing the range estimation or the angle. Others internalize, but I can see it working in their minds and their fingers as the mental battle rages.
I’ve had clients apologize to me after not taking a shot. Usually, there’s a reasonable justification, but sometimes they can’t get past the argument that, “it just didn’t feel right.”
So there it is…
I believe it is never wrong to pass a shot, no matter the reason. As the person with the finger on the trigger (or release), it is the hunter’s responsibility not only to kill cleanly, but to do so with a clean conscience. If your doubts are too strong, then don’t shoot. If you just don’t feel the need to kill an animal, at that moment, then let it walk.
Taking a life should never be a thoughtless act.
November 2, 2013
What is the price of conservation?
What is the value?
It’s a fact of this modern world that everything comes with a price. It’s also a fact that if you want to get someone’s interest in something, you have to provide a payoff. Altruism still exists, but by and large it’s a practice reserved for little things… the intangibles like sparing a kind word for a stranger or moving a flock of ducklings out of traffic.
I guess I should focus first, before I wax too esoteric.
About a week ago, the Dallas Safari Club made big waves with the announcement of an auction for a permit to shoot a black rhinocerous. Ripples spread quickly from news sites to blogs. The argument is that the sale of this permit will generate somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million, 100% of which would then be turned around to fund conservation and protection of these endangered species in their native home.
According to what I read (I’m no expert here), there are about 4000 black rhinos left in the wild. About 1800 of them live in Namibia, which is where this hunt, along with four others, will take place. As part of the country’s management plan, five mature, male rhinos will be taken in the coming season. The argument is that the males selected will be past their prime as breeders, but may still be capable of severely injuring or killing younger rhinos as they fight over mates. Taking these animals out of the herd may preserve several others.
What I’ve also read, and something about which I am only slightly more informed, is that the biggest threat to the survival of the black rhino (and to most endangered African species) is poaching. Because most African countries are fairly poor, fielding the personnel required to police the huge areas of wild lands to protect game from poachers is a daunting task.
Selling the various parts of endangered species, such as the horn of the black rhino, is big business and can provide significant income… and poachers are willing to kill anyone who tries to interfere. Stopping the poachers, therefore, requires more than the lightly armed, solo game warden with which most US hunters are familiar. It takes a small army, equally armed, to patrol the countryside. Small armies are not cheap.
An important source of the funding for African conservation is the dollars brought to the country by travelling sportsmen. Hunters from all over the world travel to Africa to hunt the exotic species that can be found there, and they often pay top dollar to do so. The more exotic the species, the higher the tab. As with any commodity, short supply drives the price tag higher. With this in mind, some African countries provide extremely limited opportunities to hunt endangered species.
Of course, even for some of the hunters among us, this practice raises a flag. Selling hunts for endangered species? How does that even make sense? Who would shoot an endangered animal?
Part of the problem is purely perception. When a species is listed as “endangered”, that doesn’t mean there are only one or two animals left. What it means is that, left unprotected and unmanaged, the population is in danger of collapse. And really, in many cases at least, hunting is one of the few ways that both of those requirements, protection and management, can be achieved.
Of course, it would be wonderful if folks felt the urge to just open their checkbooks and send a few hundred thousand bucks over to Africa for wildlife conservation. There certainly are a handful of charitable organizations trying to accomplish exactly that. But the best way to get someone to part with their money is to offer them something in return. That’s just how it is, and hunters are just like anyone else.
Which brings us back to where I started…
October 22, 2013
My friend, John (JAC) pops in here from time to time, usually to keep me honest when I’m off on a rant about lead-free ammo or other such stuff. But he also gets out for an occasional hunt, and this season he was fortunate enough to get after an elk in his home state of Arizona. As I requested, he sent me a write-up about the hunt.
Events in the field often don’t play out quite like we plan them. This was the case for John, and as you’ll see, he had to do a little internal processing after all was said and done (as evidenced in the title he gave the piece). I’ve been corresponding with him via email, so I’ll hold off on repeating my comments just now. I’d love to hear what some of you folks think, though.
How to fail massively and wind up with 265 pounds of elk venison
I went elk hunting last week in hopes of finally filling my freezer in accordance with my desire to eat no meat but that which I’d hunted myself. I had only two rules: first rule, don’t shoot a cow with a calf, and second, don’t violate the first rule.
My excellent friend Steve has a place in Payson, Arizona, and last year, he and I hunted mule deer on the high desert that falls away from Payson toward Phoenix and he agreed to help me again this year. He is excellent in the sense that he is good at being a friend, and in the sense that he is good at being a compassionate person working in the morally and legally complex field of law enforcement. You guys would get along, actually. Like you, he has a pick up truck that is 72 feet long. Like yours, It has a big, happy dog in it a lot of the time. He sees game when it’s too far away for me to see it the way you do. And like you, he runs off in pursuit of it. I told Steve about my rules and he said not to worry, there were so many elk around I’d tag out the first morning after picking my shot.
I bought a 30-06 last year in case I was ever drawn for elk. I took it to the range this Spring to sight-in for the first time. I fired ten times over the course of an hour and then went out to the concession and bought a bottle of water. When I came back I was on the right side of the rifle for the first time and I saw a six inch scratch running lengthwise under the bolt-knob. I first thought someone handled it while I was gone and dropped it against the table. But that would be such an egregious, unimaginable violation of etiquette, I decoded instead that I must have pulled it from the case against the zipper and scratched it myself.
Beginning in August, I loaded lots variations of rounds with Nosler E-Tips and the first time I went out and ran them over a chrono and checked their accuracy, some of the groups were perfect little clover leafs and I figured I was one seriously dangerous elk hunter. The next time I went, however, the groups opened up to several inches and the scratch felt rough when I wiped down the stock. The third time out, after a few shots, the scratch grew and forked. There never was a scratch of course, the stock had fractured during the first few shots. So last Tuesday I took my 7mm-08 to the range with a box of reloads made by Stars & Stripes Ammunition and a lump in my throat. I’m a great worrier and I was seriously worried about the diminutive cartridge for elk. I salved my worry by writing friends (sorry you were one) and pointing out that the 7mm-08 is more powerful at 200 yards than a 30-30 is at the muzzle. Pretty thin gruel for my ravenous anxiety, but it’s what I had. Apropos of your post on copper projectiles last week, those Stars & Stripes rounds fired 140 grain Barnes TTSX bullets at 2863 fps. The rifle shot two sub MOA groups like it usually does and I went home and cleaned it. Wednesday morning I went to the range and fired two fouling shots and spent the day getting supplies I needed. When I was loading up Wednesday night, the moon was big and bright. I’d not been paying attention to it and hadn’t noticed it during the week and I hoped it was waning.
I drove up to Payson on Thursday. Leaving dinner that evening, it was clear the moon was waxing instead of waning. It was sitting hugely on the horizon. At 4:30 a.m. on Friday, the moon was fully up and casting shadows. The wind had picked up too making the 32 degree temperature feel especially ugly. We drove out to a 125 yard wide electrical line easement that ran for miles, off loaded Steve’s Polaris, and drove off into the cutting wind, no headlights necessary thanks to the moonlight. The plan was to get up high and glass so after stashing the ATV, we bombed up several hundred feet of a nearby slope, Steve demonstrating how he got the nickname Big Diesel. That guy doesn’t race, but he doesn’t slow down either. Ten minutes later, fully warm I settled in to wait for dawn. Fifteen minutes after that, fully cold, I was silently rooting for dawn to hurry the hell up as I pulled my fingers into a fist inside my gloves.
The sun eventually rose and the cold abated, but he wind never relented. We glassed a long time, then Steve made a big loop through the canyons to see what he could see. I stayed behind in a shady spot, my rifle resting on my monopod and glassed the easement. The area seemed likely. There were ravines falling away on both sides of the easement, filled with a mixture of oak, pine and spruce. There was a lot of elk scat. I stayed in the field all day, still hunting up and down the ravines and eventually found a narrow draw in the easement where the ground fell away pretty quickly to a floor of fresh grass. There was even some clover growing there. I sat up on the edge in the afternoon shadows with the wind straight into my face. Around 3:30 in the afternoon a big coyote with a beautiful red plume at the end of his tail came over the lip of the far side and trotted down the slope. At 60 yards he did the National Geographic front legged hop and stomp, lunged in after whatever he’d stomped up, pulled his head out of the grass and tossed something into the air, caught it, chewed it and then tossed his head back to swallow. For the next five minutes that handsome boy raced around a little blue spruce, lunging in here and there, sometimes upending himself to get an whatever he’d found. He eventually came straight down into the bottom of the draw and crossed away from me to the other side, his tail looking the color of a red-headed baby in the sunshine. After the coyote left, I watched iridescent blue jays gathering food the rest of the afternoon. We don’t have birds like that in Phoenix and I don’t remember them back in Missouri either. II spent a pretty nice afternoon and I headed back to meet Steve at the truck in the gloaming. Steve had taken his quad on a loop of several miles but didn’t see any mammals himself.
Saturday morning we hunted a place named Walnut Flat. There was one truck in the pullout and another high up the mountain when we pulled in. The moon was insanely bright. We waited until 5:30 then got on the quad and drove off into the moonlight. As the first glimmer of daylight started to change the color of the horizon we headed off on foot. Walnut Flat is beautiful. It’s a large grassy mesa surrounded by ravines and there is a pond at the interior edge. We glassed, moved off and glassed again, hopping from juniper to juniper. We came across a ground blind situated to watch a huge open area. We spent the next hour, maybe two skirting the edge of the ravine to get over the edge of the mesa out of the blind’s field of fire. Around 9:30, Steve headed back to the quad to check on his dog back at the truck. I snuck along through the forest for a couple more hours. There was so much scat on the slopes above Walnut Flat that if I wasn’t standing in glistening black elk droppings, I needed only to take a step left or right to crush some. I don’t know where the animals were that left all the scat though. I didn’t hear any rifle shots either.
Saturday afternoon we headed out for a place called Hardscrabble Mesa. We took the National Forest road until it dead ended at an engineer’s dream of a gate. It was made of a rectangle of 4″ box steel with 4″ box steel cross supports. It’s end posts were sunk into concrete and guarded by gambion boxes filled with head-sized river rock which was cemented inside the wire. We left the quad and clambered past the gate to take a look a the road beyond. To our left were rock wall cliffs rising a couple hundred feet and to our right a drop off of lots of hundreds of feet. I never really got close enough to look straight down because I am somewhat, but not completely crazy. The warning signs said the road was unstable and it was hard to dispute that as we made our way down the hill toward a sharp curve guarded by k-walls. It looked like the monsoon rains had washed away the pavement and undercut the cliffs on the inside of road. We only walked for a few minutes past the k-walls and when we turned around we could see why they were there. There were four, maybe five crushed cars that had gone off the road. Those cars had free-fallen as little as 60 feet and as much as several hundred feet. The results were the same for all the cars, though. Gauging by the cars’ age, the road must have been built by the 40′s and the k-walls placed in the 70′s.
We took the quad to the top of Hardscrabble Mesa. That is a sunny, windy place without any water we saw or could find on the maps. Steve wandered off the utility roads once and reported that there was as much scat as on Walnut Flat, only it was all white with age. A couple hours killed, the sun heading for the horizon, we headed for the truck. If you are into zooming, terrifying quad rides, hop on Steve’s on the top of a mountain mesa with 45 minutes till the end of shooting light. Holy mackerel. As we loaded up, I figured that I’d seen a coyote, some beautiful jays and had had the ride of a lifetime. It was a good weekend already.
As I turned in Saturday night, I didn’t need to turn on the bedroom light, the moonlight sweeping in was plenty bright.
For the third morning in a row, my phone lit up and sang at 3:23 a.m Sunday. Steve had picked a third spot, near the East Branch of the Verde River and we lumbered out. It was as cold as the first day but the air was still. As we pulled off the highway, the headlights settled on three elk cows. A really big one, a medium sized one and a smallish one. There must be more, I figured but whatever else, I admonished myself, don’t shoot that mommy elk. I was suddenly very enthusiastic about the place Steve had picked. The pullout was u-shaped and we went back to the highway and found another. We left the quad and headed into the forest sneaking from moon shadow to moon shadow. We picked a big shadow behind a big cedar and stood still waiting for dawn. We could see the highway and watched two trucks pull off within sight of Steve’s. I was pretty unhappy since I had a proprietary feeling about the spot. We moved into the forest away from the people with elk rifles and ATV’s behind us. Steve was hunting, I think I was mostly thinking about putting trees between us and the people I could now hear coming up behind.
At 6:20 I saw a big white rump up the slope ahead of us. I had my rifle unslung so I couldn’t pull up my binoculars, Steve looked through his Swarovskis and said “That’s an elk.” I dropped to a knee, but Steve reminded me that we can’t shoot from, to or over roads, even logging roads. I think he reminded me by saying “Get off the road!!” so I scrambled off the road and stuck the stock of my rifle on a cedar branch and cushioned it with the rubber sling. I dialed my scope up and saw an elk turning left and looking my direction. Steve, watching through his binos behind me and a few yards to my right said, “I’ve got her, take her.” I clicked off the safety, settled the cross hairs into the dark crease low behind her left shoulder and fired. I couldn’t see her as the scope rocked back, but I saw two elk bounding up the slope away. Steve said she’s down.
I found her in my scope and she had gone straight down on her legs but her head was moving like she was trying to get up. My body was shaking pretty violently, my voice was involuntarily modulating. The sound of an ATV rumbling up behind stopped as Steve waved the other hunters off.
Then, to my exquisite horror, a small elk walked over to the one I’d shot and just stood a few steps away, obviously unsure about what to do. That little elk stood there a couple minutes while the head of the one I’d shot craned again and again as she tried to will her body to get up. That little elk stood there until the ATV behind us started up again and drove into her view. Steve was still behind me glassing and telling me not to shoot again. I only remember saying that this was 100% of what I didn’t want. I don’t know if we talked while I watched that elk through my scope except for Steve letting me know where the humans were. For several minutes after her calf left, I watched her and I just kept thinking I’d broken both my rules in my haste and excitement. I’d shot precisely the elk I didn’t want to shoot.
Five or so minutes after she finally laid her head down, Steve and I methodically made our way straight to her. There was a single drop of blood on her right side where the bullet exited. The Cedar tree I’d used as a rest didn’t have a John-sized branch so I was hunched when I fired. I’d pulled the shot up and left but, to be precise, it could have been bad shooting rather than the tree. The bullet caught her at the junction of her neck and body, passed through the near lung, struck the spine and caromed down, I guess, through the off-side lung and out. There was a thumb sized hole in the offside lung, a little one in the near lung. The spinal injury had paralyzed her and kept her in place till the lung wounds killed her. I hate to think how far she’d have run, leaving no blood trail, if her spine hadn’t been damaged.
The Payson-area processers were either full or not accepting elk with their hides on, so we hightailed north it to a mobile elk processing unit run by Miller Southwestern Processing, a Queen Creek (near Phoenix) operation. My elk was 10 percent larger than average. She dressed out at 265 pounds.
Some notes on my personal experience with Barnes’ bullets: I’ve now killed three big game animals using Barnes bullets; a pig in California with a Barnes TSX, an axis deer in Texas using a TTSX and this cow elk also with a TTSX. The pig was 60 yards down a steep slope and I pulled that shot up and left too, catching it under the jaw, and destroying its spine. It went down so fast, and the shot was at such an angle, that I saw the pig drop through my scope. The petals came off that bullet and I found them in the meat. The axis was a country mile off, but I was able to shoot prone with my rifle resting on its neoprene sling. I hit it in the chest, I know, because we found lots of frothy blood, but I don’t know how the bullet performed because we never found that buck. My cow elk died of the lung wound caused by the TTSX, though not in an acceptable time period. There was no blood at the entry wound and a single drop at the exit site. We ranged that shot at 121 yards. That bullet was traveling around 2570 feet per second when it hit her. It’s performance should have been optimal and we found no petals. But the holes in the lungs were’t at all what I expected and the larger off-side wound may have been the result of a tumbling bullet, for all I know. Steve, who has seen the insides of lots of shot animals, didn’t believe it was the lung wounds that had killed her and the debate wasn’t resolved until his lovely friends, a veterinarian and his wife, dropped by and gave the expert opinion that it had to be the holes in her lungs that were the fatal wound since the artery under the spine would have caused death in seconds, not minutes.
I went to bed last night thinking about the despair and terror to which I consigned that baby elk, and the weird fortuity of making a bad shot that was probably much better than the one I’d intended given the little TTSX wound channel. I took the wrong shot and made a bad shot. I did everything wrong. And yet, in the kitchen this morning, there is an iced cooler with five pounds of liver, an elk heart, and a tenderloin I need to take care of.
October 7, 2013
My friend, Tovar Cerulli of the Mindful Carnivore blog recently posted a good column in the Missoula Independent. The piece talked about the familiar “grip and grin” photo (also known as the “hero shot”), where successful hunters pose with their dead quarry. In his column, Tovar applies his fairly unique perspective to the interpretation of these photos… particularly the interpretation of people who don’t like hunting. He writes:
Such images, like words, are symbols to which we each ascribe significance. You and I can look at the same photograph, or read the same story, without perceiving the same meanings. If you are the hunter, the image will probably seem positive. But not necessarily.
And the point, of course, is that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, sometimes the only person who can supply those words is the person looking at it. As someone who often takes and shares photos of my “prizes”, I’m well aware that there are plenty of critics out there who don’t recognize the pride and happiness of a successful hunt, but instead see the cruel, brutishness of a killer gloating over his victim.
Of course, what I usually like about Tovar is that, instead of wrapping up his point with some one-size-fits-all answer, he puts the burden of understanding back on the reader. It’s not about the right way to see a grip-and-grin picture, but about considering different ways to see it. It’s about understanding that we don’t all share the same values, and that what I may see as perfectly normal, others may find abhorrent. And vice versa.
That’s not the end of it, though. It’s not even what I set out to write about, so consider most of the previous as a bonus… as a prequel to the main event.
In the comments to Tovar’s piece, I engaged in a sort of brief dialogue with Mary, a commenter with a clear animal rights bent. The essence of her comments and responses was an effort to validate her preconceived notions of hunters’ motivations… namely, that we hunt because we get a thrill out of killing. She consistently rejected suggestions that there’s more to the hunt than the kill, insisting that she only wanted to understand why or how we could justify that with ourselves. She even offered assistance in the way of trotting out time-honored, enhanced psychobabble explanations such as the search for paternal acceptance, or sexual insecurity/gratification. Of course, sticking so tightly to your prejudices is a general barrier to understanding, but that didn’t seem to deter her.
After our initial exchange, I recognized the old pattern and knew that the best I could hope for was to offer counterpoints for other readers. There was never any hope of making inroads to her bias, and in fact, she finally put the truth right on the table… all she wanted was for someone to tell her what she wanted to hear… that hunters are emotionally handicapped, bloodthirsty brutes. With that, I declared impasse, and exited the conversation.
Someone else picked it up though, and tried again to “explain” with a reasonable, personal perspective that seemed to challenge her premise. In this person’s case, he (or she) is an adult-onset hunter (a Tovar term) who came to hunting late in life, ostensibly to take personal responsibility for the death of the animals that fed his family. For him, the kill is an emotionally trying experience. While I think that’s an essentially honest (albeit somewhat naive) rationale, it’s certainly widely shared, especially among the newer crop of hunting apologists. Mary soundly rejects this position, though, with the inference that this is a dishonest justification used to displace the reality that he doesn’t have to do it (kill or eat meat), so on some subliminal level he actually enjoys killing.
But then she closes her comment with a statement that hit me with a flash of reason.
If it is a burden to do this killing, which for the morally conscious among you, it appears to be, why choose to do it when it is strictly a choice you have power over? I think the distaste for my comments here is the sense of discomfort that question raises.
That is a good point, and I think it’s more right than even Mary realizes.
I think that, for most hunters, the “rightness” or “wrongness” of hunting is never really a question. It’s not true for all, of course, as folks like Tovar clearly illustrate, but; people like Tovar are really the outliers. I believe that the majority of hunters just hunt, it’s what we do, and we don’t spend much time justifying it to ourselves or to anyone else. And it is this thinking that challenges us when someone like Mary steps up and asks, “why?” It makes anyone uncomfortable to have their basic values questioned.
There’s a fundamental problem with the challenge, though. It’s predicated on commonality… on the notion that one hunter can answer for all.
The truth is, we hunt for all sorts of reasons. I could spend all day laying out my personal rationalizations, but that doesn’t erase or change the reasons that other hunters are out there and my reality may or may not apply. The tighter I weave my own story, the more I exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative.
See where this goes?
I’ve lost count over the years of people I’ve talked to who oppose hunting on various moral bases, but at the end of the conversation will say something like, “well, if more hunters were like you, I’d feel better about hunting.”
What did I resolve? What about hunters who are not like me? Did I just draw a line and push them over the cliff?
The truth is, these debates (especially online) are seldom productive. Folks like Mary bring their entire premise on the basis of emotion and a core system of beliefs. It’s not something that can be measured or quantified, much less successfully debated. The analogy I’ve always relied on here is religion. Laying out your own reasons for being a Catholic isn’t likely to make a Rabbi hang up his yarmulke.
And that is the true source of discomfort when hunters are confronted with arguments about the “rightness” of killing animals. It’s an antithetical affront to our core beliefs. It’s an argument in which, if you’re wrong, you’re absolutely wrong. And few of us are honestly comfortable with absolutes.
September 18, 2013
And then there was this…
It’s deer season, and as usual, along with the guns and bows, out come the ethics arguments. It’s an educational opportunity for those with the patience to sort through the hypocrisy and ignorance, and for the rare individual who can resist the temptation to feed the “trolls”. Ethics conversations are almost always worth having, even if the outcome isn’t always definitive (it almost never is).
Yesterday, an article about deer “farming” was making the rounds on social networking sites. As you might imagine, it drew a good bit of debate, both about the specific topic as well as the associated conversations about high fence hunting.
First of all, let me say that while I try to be pretty non-judgemental about hunting practices and trends (as long as it is safe, legal, and environmentally healthy), the one thing I have consistently bemoaned is the focus on trophy antlers.
In my opinion, I feel like it changes the nature of the hunt to some sort of competition. I hate to hear a successful hunter practically apologize because his buck is “just a forkie”. It’s disingenuous, to begin with, because if the hunter really felt bad about shooting it, he shouldn’t have shot it. But it’s also a sad sign when we feel like we should measure up to some arbitrary and inconstant standard.
I also feel like the focus, from TV shows, magazines, and the myriad of record books like Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett, perpetuate and feed the appetite for bigger and better deer. I know that “bragging rights” aren’t a new thing (although it will be an interesting bit of history research to pinpoint when trophy quality first became a point of pride), and I absolutely grok the concept. Hell, I am as happy as the next guy at the opportunity to kill a prime specimen (I’ve killed a few), and I lose no time getting those pictures on the Interweb for all my “friends” to see. But I’m also pretty tickled to shoot a fat doe. “Quality” deer to me doesn’t mean big, thick antlers… it means big, thick backstraps.
I also have a lot of respect for the individuals who choose to hunt only for big, trophy bucks. It takes a lot of self control, patience, and hunting skill to consistently kill mature bucks. You have to be willing to set a standard, and to be willing to pass on anything that doesn’t measure up. It can be a great, personal challenge which I can certainly appreciate… as long as they don’t get all self-righteous about it.
But you’d think there would be a limit. No matter how good your property or your management program might be, wild whitetail bucks are only going to get so big.
Enter the deer farms…
Breeding big bucks is huge business. From my place here in the Hill Country, I can drive an hour in any direction and find deer breeding ranches where farmers are mixing genetics to develop an “ultimate” deer. I’m not sure how, or if, anyone defines “ultimate” in this context. Maybe it’s the wrong word, because it implies a final point. I don’t know if there’s any such thing. With the right, carefully managed genetics and ideal nutrition, we could eventually see whitetail bucks with over 300 inches of antler.
It sort of makes me pity the poor bucks, though. I’ve seen some of them in the breeding pens, their heads so heavy with antler that it looks like a struggle just to look up at the sound of the feeder. There must be a reason they never grow that big in the wild… doesn’t anyone consider that?
My sentimental feelings aside, though, it’s crazy big business. From talking to some folks who are involved, I’m reminded of the horse breeding industry. A tube of prime semen can go for tens of thousands of dollars. A breeder buck will set you back more than a house. Even the does can go for a pretty penny, especially if they’re “guaranteed bred” with a top buck.
And then there’s insane amount of money some people will pay to hunt these freaks… and here’s where the conversation gets dicey.
The vast majority of hunting for these freakish deer takes place on high fence ranches. It makes sense, of course, since nobody who paid that much to stock these animals on their property wants to take a chance of it wandering across property lines to be shot for free by some yokel. And just the mention of hunting and fences sets off the klaxons of self-righteous “ethicists” and hunting “purists”.
“Hmm. Strong words, Phillip,” you might be thinking.
And you’d be right. I’m a little sick of the ongoing, holier-than-thou assaults on the general practice of high fence hunting… particularly when it’s carried out by people who’ve never experienced it and don’t have a clue what they’re really talking about. The arguments are built on stereotypes, myth, and the misplaced idea that their ethics are the only ethics. It’s a button. They push it.
So for now, I’m not going further down that road. Just noting that the aforementioned crowd is going to dogpile anything to do with high fence hunting, and that’s that. Not likely to change.
There’s another faction in the argument though, and they’re not as concerned about the fact that these trophy animals are hunted behind a fence (which they generally don’t like) as they are about the trophy itself, and how the hunter chooses to show it off. This one is curious to me.
The scenario they paint is some uber-wealthy individual who goes out to an exclusive property where he spends a blue-collar salary to sit in a luxury shooting house and pick over a herd of genetically superior deer until he picks and shoots his “trophy”. (So far, so good… it’s plausible because it happens.) A few months later, the mount comes back from the taxidermist and goes on rich man’s wall. He proceeds to regale anyone who will listen with the tale of his monster buck, and either omits or changes the actual conditions of the “hunt” in order to enhance the trophy and his own status as Great White Hunter.
Kinda makes you want to take a shower, huh?
And the truth is, those guys are out there. They’re the same ones who lie about their golf handicap or their financial portfolio. They’re the ones who live in trophy houses and collect serial trophy wives. They are every stereotype of the rich and famous that we’ve ever glommed onto.
But I ask you, besides the fact that everyone hates a liar and a braggart, why does this stereotype have such a grip on people… on hunters? Is there a perceived impact on hunting ethics, or on our individual experiences as hunters? Or does it have to do with the traditional divide between the “haves” and “have nots”… a resentment of wealth and privilege?
It’s a valid distinction, and in a lot of ways, it’s probably as old as sport (e.g. recreational) hunting. But does it advance any agenda for hunting? Does it make our individual hunting experience better or worse? What do we gain by denigrating other hunters, even if we don’t appreciate their methods?
It seems to me that this is the question on which we should focus… not on whether farm-raised, genetically modified deer are a good thing or bad. Not on whether it seems fair that only the super-rich get to hunt these monstrosities. Not even whether we should call what these rich sports do behind their high fences, “hunting.”
I think we should be focused on whether or not making that distinction makes us, or our sport, better. Does it improve us? Does it improve the deer herd or habitat? Or is it just an annoyance that we find irresistable to pick at, like an itchy scab over a shallow wound?