column By: Lee J. Hoots | September, 18
Long ago, more than half a lifetime and before children began filling our modest home, hunting was measured by “success” – a sticky word that, depending on perspective, means either something substantial or, today, to me at least, truly nothing at all.
With a bit of beginner’s skill, I fancied myself proficient in calling ducks while standing crotch deep in federal- or state-managed public wetlands in central and southern California during my formative years, and almost relished the opportunity to proclaim such egregiously obnoxious statements as “Limited out in 30 minutes!” I flung these brags as if shooting a pile of hailed green-winged teal or gadwalls was automatic, not fully aware at the time that late season mallards and sprig will teach a young man a great many lessons.
Back then, at the age of 15, I worked in an archery pro-shop where the majority of patrons were bowhunters hardly more than twice my age. Few of them hunted waterfowl on any regular basis, preferring instead to stay busy making their way in life. In those days the right to boast over killing a buck or shooting a limit of valley quail, snow geese or whatever, was apparently acceptable and sometimes expected.
Why my father never sternly counseled me about the implications and disrespectfulness of such bravado, I’ll never know. A fairly introspective fellow (I realized later), Dad grew up in the mountains of North Carolina picking apples for a nickel per bushel, served in the U.S. Navy between the Korean War and Vietnam and, as I recall, said little about any of it, at least to his only son who at the time paid little attention anyway, focused always on shooting another limit or hanging a photo of a buck on the brag board.
Of course, commensurate punishments were doled out when I got out of line, including missing out on an exploratory outing for feral hogs in San Luis Obisbo County, a region of the state known at the time for great public-hunting opportunities; my high school grades simply were not up to par. Fortunately, young, distracted boys often grow into thoughtful men.
A little bit of bragging, or so it has been said, is part of natural human progression from “young” to “older” – from “unknowing” to “understanding” – from “limiting out” to “having hunted.” Like many children (and adults new to pursuing game), I took a hunter education course at age 12, then did so again with each of my children. In such training programs most states provide a list describing the progression of hunter development. Arizona fittingly rounds out that list with the Sportsman’s Stage, when (quoted here with emphasis) “Success is measured by the total experience – the appreciation of the out-of-doors and the animal being hunted, the process of the hunt, and the companionship of other hunters. A person in this stage will also mentor new hunters.”
This final state of progression, really an achievement, is spot-on, though it is my experience that new hunters, young or not so young, advance to this point in their own time and way, and it’s not unusual to encounter a bit of harmless regression now and then. Nor should it be looked down upon – or hidden! Nervousness, “buck fever,” or whatever name it goes by is a natural part of big-game hunting. This is as it should be, because killing game is not to be taken lightly.
Several years ago I hunted elk for a second time in Colorado with an outfitter-turned-buddy, Brad Carnahan. Brad has long since given up the outfitting business, but that hunt took place, if memory serves, during the last season he had the rights to use the entire ranch. After a year or two of procuring preference points, a muzzleloader tag showed up in the mail, and plans were made to see my old friend and his wife and children, all of whom had become important to me.
As sometimes happens during the state’s muzzleloader season, storms plagued the hunt. In addition, a client was hunting at the same time, so Brad was kind enough to turn me loose now and then on another portion of the property of which I was familiar. It rained most of every day, requiring that the musket caps (yes, musket caps) and loose powder in the .50-caliber sidelock were replaced frequently. This task was performed several times each day, and the rifle was scrubbed thoroughly every night and stashed in a small, heated garage festooned with all the necessities of rural ranching that could not be stored in the barn.
The rainy days passed quickly, time was running out, and my departure was looming. Brad’s client was leaving, so the two of us hiked up a draw on the last evening to give it one more try while the weather was cooperating. Admittedly, the burden that is desperation weighed heavily on both of us, given the reality that we might never again have the chance to hunt elk together. Brad wanted to watch me shoot an elk with that iron-sighted rifle as much as I wanted him to be there if and when it happened.
As it turned out, I shot a decent bull while struggling through a hang-fire as slight tremors of nervous anticipation quivered down along the muzzleloader’s barrel and wiggled the front sight blade ever so slightly. Regression? Perhaps. Embarrassing? Not at all.
It remains unclear as to exactly when a corner was turned and I somehow became the “sportsman’s stage” kind of hunter, though a couple of other distinct events stand out. Neither of them truly had to do with hunting but had everything to do with death.
While in my mid-20s, my father, riddled with cancer, decided he wanted one last opening weekend dove shoot in the desert he was so fond of. He sat in the burning morning heat and humidity two days in a row, oxygen tank at his side. A dutiful son, I stood nearby as the sun rose and shagged each of his birds, a legal bag of 10, before even considering loading my autoloader, a Christmas gift from a man that was now withering away. He was gone within a few weeks. The mentor had pushed forward a monumental duty that, like killing game, should never be taken lightly.
Later in life, my mother’s oldest brother, Uncle Bob, called to discuss a similar and equally serious matter. Already too sick to pursue big game, he planned a get-together on family land in South Dakota, and clearly my attendance was adamantly required. The small gathering included uncles, friends and cousins. Bob was upbeat and happy, and he walked and shot wild pheasants like an otherwise healthy man. Knowing what the future held, I let the older fellows have their space and shot only two or three roosters over three days. It was the last time I saw Bob – a pleasing grin on his aged face.
The idea of life coming full circle has not been lost on me. It is admittedly difficult, however, to recognize the fact that some episodes close out more quickly than they should. Fortunately, much of the time spent afield these days with a shotgun or rifle in hand includes my children, but even those moments are becoming increasingly rare. About the time this column is published my oldest boy will be heading off to a university – with all the busy trappings that entails – while his brother will be preparing for his first elk hunt.
However, both of these young men recognized long ago that hunting – and all the benefits it provides to both the pursuer and the hunted – are real. They also realize, I think, I hope, the pursuit of game should be done with utmost respect for all involved. It’s not a video game where telling anyone who will listen that you topped your best score or time is acceptable.
Hunting, real hunting, involves no fist pumping, no bragging; and decals pasted up and down the side of a rifle stock, proclaiming some sort of fandom, are highly unnecessary. Instead, reverence for the game, the shaking of a trembling hand and congratulations for a shot well made, perhaps even a hug, are quite suitable.