Walking The Walk, Or Just Talking The Talk?

August 16, 2013

Here’s a topic to take into the weekend… and a break from the flurry of press releases and links to other people’s work.

Over the course of some recent blog reading, commentary, and mental drifting, I got to thinking about how so many hunters present these extraordinarily ethical positions in public discourse, and how poorly that lines up with my experiences in the field… or even in private conversations.

Am I just spending my “Real Time” with Hunting’s problem children?

Of course not.  But I’m also clearly aware that we’re not all perfect.  In fact, when it comes time to pull a trigger or loose an arrow, perfection is often the last thing on our minds.

To me, it’s a question of the practical versus the theoretical.  I always take the comments on blogs and social networks with a grain of salt, because I recognize that anonymity can make anyone an expert on anything.  People can make any number of outrageous claims without fear of being found out as frauds.  No one knows what you really do out there… We have only the face you present.

In some ways, there’s an interesting parallel to what Jose Ortega y Gassett and Aldo Leopold have both said in regards to hunting ethics.  The thing that makes the sportsman special is that we have no witnesses to our actions in the field.  The thing that really matters is what we do when no one is watching.

I’m not claiming that the moment we step into the woods we become poachers, game hogs, or simple slobs.  I’ve hunted with a whole bunch of folks, from all over the country, and I can say with no hesitation that most of these guys are above-board, law-abiding, and safe.  But what I’ve also learned is that, when it comes to some commonly discussed ethical “norms”, there are no absolutes in the field.

For example, a current discussion over at one of the Field and Stream blogs is centered on acceptable bowhunting shot angles.  The blog post challenges the rejection of the “quartering to” angle on big game, and makes the argument that not only is the shot reasonably viable, but it’s a good option.  In the comments I read a consistent thread of debate that centers on how an ethical hunter should never take that sort of shot.  At the same time, there’s a cadre of hunters who argue that the shot is perfectly ethical.  Others, with telling honesty, write about how they used to think it was a bad shot until they tried it… successfully, of course.  In light of these comments and my own experience, I can’t help thinking that the folks who are so absolutely opposed are either not being honest, or they actually have very little (or no) hunting experience.

I’ve had similar discussions right here on the Hog Blog as well.  For example, the recurrent topic about head shots or debates about long-range hunting often see comments running toward the absolute with tones of, “I would never…” or “an ethical hunter would never…”

I’ve had clients sit in camp with me preparing for the hunt who tell me over and over that they wouldn’t consider a shot over 200 yards, but then I find myself restraining them when the big buck (or boar) appears at 500. 

But then we get into the woods.  A shot that’s a little longer than we ever thought we would try presents itself.  With typical, human aplomb, we rationalize that it looks do-able.  We’ve got a good rest.  The animal is calm and unaware.  And suddenly we’re launching a bullet over three or four football fields. 

Or it’s almost dark, in that strange little zone when our reason tells us it’s too dark to shoot but the clock says we still have a quarter hour of legal time.  We really can’t make out individual trees on the far side of the shooting lane.  How would we expect to get a reasonable sight picture?  But then the shadowy form appears.  The dusk lights up with muzzle flash. 

Or here’s a simpler one (that isn’t really simple at all).  We loudly and proudly extoll the virtues of making every effort to humanely and cleanly kill our quarry.  And then we go wingshooting. 

This isn’t intended as any kind of condemnation, or even an indictment.  I recognize that ideals don’t always line up with reality.  It’s how we are, not just as hunters but as human beings.  I think we’re often honest when we first set the bar, but I think we’re still being just as honest when we adjust it under field conditions.  Is that even possible?

So how about it?  For all the folks who take the high road in conversations, blog comments, or social media feedback… how often do you catch yourself fudging your own rules when there’s no one there to see you? 

And how much fudging is too much?



7 Responses to “Walking The Walk, Or Just Talking The Talk?”

  1. The Suburban Bushwacker on August 18th, 2013 00:21


    Interesting one: I was recently talking with a very accomplished shot who told me that having seen a deer run 50 yards after an engine room shot he’d resolved that only head and neck were ethical for him. “you’d always shoot a Rabbit in the head so why not have the same respect for a deer?”

    Personally, although on paper my accuracy may be good enough I’m a little early in my shooting career to stray away from the engine room shot. My last deer trembled, walked a little circle and it was lights out, ask me again if or when I’ve shot one that took off.

    The same chap and I were watching video’s posted by an american scope maker where the guys were shooting big bucks and big bears at HOOJ ranges, 600+ as the crow files and what looked a hell of a lot further on foot ie down and up a very steep valley, and it made me wonder how they could hope of getting to the beast to gralloch in a reasonable amount of time, really the down and up again looked like a mornings walk. From a taste point of view its better to bleed as early as possible and from a hygiene point of view the gralloch cant come soon enough no?

    So maybe, for me, the ethics of the shot are also to do with the intended use for the animal, fur bearing at any clean kill range, and food bearing at prompt gralloch range?


  2. Phillip on August 18th, 2013 00:40

    Good points, SBW.

    I keep thinking back to the guys on that Field and Stream blog, though, who said that they felt like this particular shot was taboo… until they tried it and it worked. There’s a lot to ponder in that little bit of information, not least of which is what made them decide to try a shot they thought was a bad idea?

    Trick question, because I’m pretty sure I know the answer. I think most folks who’ve spent time in the field could answer it too. It’s the shot you’ve got, and when it’s there… just waiting… well, most of us will throw a lot of preconceptions out the window in favor of our confidence and experience. You’ve shot that gun or that bow. You know what it can do. Suddenly all the doubt makes no sense, and there’s nothing for it but to draw and shoot because THIS IS YOUR CHANCE.

    I’m sure that sometimes the confidence is misplaced. I’ve seen some folks make some bad choices. I have, myself. But the reality is that we’ve got a lot more leeway than some people realize.

    It’s also true, by the way, that there are no sure things. I’ve seen some pretty amazing feats of survival… or attempted survival. Heart-shot deer running almost 200 yards… and wild hogs shot in the ass, dropping within 20 paces. You just don’t know. You want to make it a game of percentages, and the safe bet is usually the best. But you just never know.

  3. Mike C on August 18th, 2013 10:06

    I am the last person that should be giving advice on hunting ethics, but I just couldn’t help myself.

    About two years ago my wife and I went on an ocean going fishing day trip with a group of people (all strangers).

    During the course of the trip we got to talking with a fellow whose name is well known in gun circles and he introduced us to his son, a pleasant nine year old.

    Soon enough we got to talking about hunting while we waited for the fish to bite.

    He then told me, proudly, that his son had shot a mule deer at 957 yards! If you are inclined to believe this, then consider this fact: if during the flight time of the bullet, had the animal taken a step or two, you’d be looking at a gut shot animal running away.

    I didn’t believe this story at all, but then again, you never ever embarrass a man in front of his son. I kept silent. No lecture on the ethics of hunting.

    Which brings me to my final point. I’m no saint. I’ve botched more than one hunt and done things I’m ashamed of. Don’t ask – some things are better taken unspoken to the grave.

    I’m a lot older now. I wouldn’t say I’m wiser at all, but I have more experience and have listened to my betters.

    That inner sense of honesty and ethical behavior when no-one is around has developed and I hope that I am a better man.

  4. hodgeman on August 18th, 2013 23:57

    Good post Philip. I think there is a real distinction between what we perceive as the ideal from the vacuum of the written page and the reality of what happens in the field.

    If things go right the two line up closely… when they go bad? Well, you know how that goes. It’s pretty easy to get caught in the heat of the moment and let your emotions pull you off course. I attempted a shot well beyond the realm of sanity last year. I missed clean thank God- but the fact I even tried is embarrassing. Why? I felt some real pressure to score in a really messed up season- somehow convinced myself it wasn’t nearly as far as I thought.

    I went back to area last week and look at it from a fresh perspective a year later under better conditions- what was I even thinking? Was I even thinking at all. I couldn’t have been.

  5. Neil H on August 19th, 2013 11:39

    Another good post. Is it really hypocrisy though? Ethics are sort of a baseline standard you strive for more than a backstop.

    I have ethics about driving. I don’t as a rule text, or drink and drive, and I generally obey laws and try to stay focused. Those are my guiding principals. That doesn’t mean I’ve never been late to a meeting, or tired, or taken a call. Ethics are a marker we set on the sliding scale that defines what our range is. What might be a stretch for you might be some other guy at their average. His worst is a whole lot more likely to be further down the scale than yours. The problem of high ethics only arises when the the stated goals and the actual ones don’t coincide at all.

  6. Bruce C on August 19th, 2013 13:01


    Long time no post.

    I think the one factor that leads to ethical hunting—not taking iffy shots, for example—is how much hunting experience a person has. I hunt big game on almost a weekly basis here on the Big Island. I can say honestly that my buck fever from years back is virtually gone. When I first started hunting, or when I was hunting 2 or 3 times a year back in California, I would get jittery and excited and I took shots that, from my perspective today, were unethical and unreasonable and on a few occasions led to horrible suffering on the part of my quarry. I also used to read posts on Jesse’s Forum in which hunters routinely bragged of 400 yard shots on small pigs and 200 yard shots on deer running flat out and 500 yard neck shots on antelope. If the truth were known, I’ll bet that the animals were horribly wounded as often as they were cleanly killed. I hunt for meat today, as do many Hawaiians, and if I can’t get a nice, neat double lung shot, which ruins virtually no meat, at a reasonable distance [which for me is now probably 150 yards or less], I pass or wait for a better angle. For people who only hunt once each year, I can certainly understand the temptation to take whatever shot presents itself.

    I have bowhunted with guys who truly lose about 1/2 the animals they hit and it never seemed to bother them much. I have also bowhunted with guys who never, ever lose an animal, but these guys are highly experienced, patient, passionate about marksmanship, and they’ll simply pass if a good angle at a reasonable distance does not present itself.

    On several occasions I’ve been with a hunter who demonstrated behavior that was clearly unethical. There has never been a second hunt with any of these guys. I would very much rather hunt alone than be in the company of anybody who will take longshots or someone who hasn’t sighted in their rifle or someone who shoots 20 arrows per year and then goes out after big game. I have screwed up shots and animals have suffered terribly because of it and these moments of selfishness on my part have haunted me. Today it’s a nice clean kill or nothing at all.

    Aloha from the Big Island

  7. Phillip on August 19th, 2013 14:47

    I appreciate the conversation, folks. And Bruce, glad to see you! I was just thinking about you this weekend, and wondered if maybe you’d fallen into a lava tube chasing those wild bulls or something.

    This whole topic is interesting to me, of course, particularly because I’ve spent so much time in discussions about hunter ethics. I’ve heard a lot of folks espouse some pretty unrealistic ideals as if they were matters of fact.

    I think we’ve all, at some point, lost sight of our standards or rules and lauched a long shot or took a really bad shot angle. It’s not the end of the world, and I honestly don’t think it illustrates any deep, personal flaws. It’s temporary imperfection, and it happens to everyone… hunter or not.

    There’s another side of this too… and that’s expanding our horizons by occasionally challenging the preconceptions and personal limits. Maybe it’s stretching our range out to 250 yards, or the decision to start making neck shots instead of boiler rooms. We try it, with success, and now our rules have changed. I think that’s also human nature.