HENNING, Minn. — For the first time in two decades, I fetched my old Marlin 30-30 from its dusty hideout, donned my ill-fitting field jacket, drove up north and traipsed into the woods where deer were abundant — at least according to deer density surveys (PDF) by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
But dark shades of blue on an Internet map do not equate to brown, furry critters in the gun sights — especially on a blustery day when deer tend to hunker down. The only consolation was that no one else got any either.
The intervening years have left some things unchanged in the annual rite: the serenity of walking the woods, the marvelous variety of wildlife that can be seen if you just sit still awhile, and breathing very fresh air all day long are timeless pleasures.
But the best part remains the evening chatter in deer camp where brandy helps soothe the day’s aches and any food is ungodly good. Fond memories of past hunts are easily recalled, embellishments and all. Back then, farm kids understood that a successful hunt meant extra meat in the freezer; it was no small deal.
Going back, despite objections
I’m already planning to head to the woods again next year, over the objections of a vegetarian daughter and citified grandkids with understandable doubts about hunting as sport.
This one can be rationalized: Hunting and fishing in my early years were seen as important to provide cheap, nutritious meals, and I later came to appreciate the abundant good that hunters have brought to habitat-protection programs that benefit all wildlife. All who value a quality environment should be grateful to the hunting community.
But this year brought more notice than usual to what’s happened to hunting — even fishing — over the years and how, in too many ways, the adventure called “sport” has become tarnished with a creeping “make it newer and better and easier” syndrome.
Some defy the modern trend. Some hunters use single-shot muzzleloaders that place a premium on getting close to quarry and aiming well. This requires hunters to know habitat and wildlife habits, and to take the time in preseason to study sign like buck scrapes and animal trails and the freshness of dung.
Success only with closeness
There are archers who use longbows, eschewing the re-curves that some 50 years ago advanced the ancient design to improve the killing power of arrows. Nope, the longbow guys have to get within a few yards of an animal to have any chance for success.
Now, that’s hunting.
Considering too much of what constitutes today’s hunt, we spotted many examples throughout central Minnesota’s Zone 240 as we drove up to Henning for one of the best lunches in the history of cafes.
Back when, hunters mostly hunted the woods. Today, most seemed to be perched in enclosed deer stands that stood like watchtowers across fields on the forest edge. There hunters sat, armed with absurdly high-powered rifles with amazingly powerful scopes and loaded with high-tech ammo with enough velocity to shock a critter’s nervous system — hit bone and the animal is down. Some of these howitzers are the rapid-fire kind that can launch a hail of bullets as fast as the finger can pull the trigger.
What all that firepower, the effective killing range goes from a few yards to several hundred.
But it’s not enough. Perhaps you read Doug Smith’s disturbing report in the Star Tribune about the increased incidence of hunters placing bait in the woods, sometimes rigging sophisticated tube contraptions that ladle out corn on demand. When the season arrives, hunters slip into their stands in predawn darkness and wait for an unsuspecting Bambi returning for a meal that up to now had no consequence.
What’s sporting about that?
That’s sport? Of course not; it’s rightly condemned, and if caught hunting over bait the violators face stiff fines and loss of their howitzer (there is legitimate concern that DNR officers are soft with enforcement, usually tagging only those who set out the bait and for some curious reason not those who knowingly hunt over it).
There are subtler forms of baiting. Those watchtowers disguised as deer stands often are placed near strips of corn purposely left in the fields to attract deer. True, a lot of farm corn was still standing and drying in the fields, but some of it was purposely cut in strips to attract deer while denying cover so that those with howitzers could pluck off the animals at very long distances.
Heck, they could even call their buddies on a cell phone to bring in a four-wheeler to cart out the carcass (hunting with two-way radios, however, is considered unethical!).
Archery has become a growth sport for deer hunting but save for the longbow types, even the bow and arrow has changed mightily.
Growing up, a prized possession was my re-curved Coe with 40 pounds of thrust. It took all my strength to pull the bow to full load, and then shoot within seconds lest fatigue made the arms wobble.
Bows with sights like a rifle’s
But today’s “compound” bow with cams and pulleys enables archers to pull and hold the loaded bow for a long time while shooting an arrow with 70 pounds of thrust — and that’s remarkably fast, made truer with graphite arrows that pack so much driving force that missiles can easily pass right through the animal. The bows have sights like a rifle’s, and even a novice can put arrows within a 6-inch target at 30 yards.
There’s more: If you have a doctor’s slip that you’re strength-challenged (due to age or injury), you can hunt with a crossbow that fires “bolts” (dart-like arrows) at 150 pounds or more of thrust with amazing accuracy. The archer’s killing range is increased to 50 yards or more, and that matches my Marlin rifle.
Using the new technology isn’t “cheating” in the sense that poaching or shooting over bait is, but there’s no question that the firepower of rifles and even bows has changed the hunting dynamic.
And it’s not just in deer hunting.
Also radically altered: the hunt part of fishing
For years now, fishing boats have been equipped with sophisticated sonar that provides the angler with fully enhanced views of the lake bottom and even fish, and that, together with GPS guidance systems, can greatly help locate fish and return the angler to the good spots day after day and year after year. Oh, there’s still an element of studying lake depth-charts and structure, and knowing how to bait a hook and all that, but the hunt part of fishing has been radically altered — and not in favor of the fish.
Then there are the “pretend” hunts.
Among the most popular are “pheasant farms,” where the owners set out farm-raised fowl and hunters pay to “hunt” in fields they know have been seeded with birds. They call it “realistic,” but it’s hardly that. It’s guaranteed shooting, and “hunters” generally pay for as many birds as the wallet allows.
Worse are the “realistic” hunts where penned ducks are fed daily at a known distant spot on a marsh. Between the pen and the feeding spot, the owner erects a blind and “hunters” pay to snuggle in with coffee and snacks and, at the appointed time, ready their shotguns and blast “wild” ducks on their way for the only feeding place they know.
That’s sport? Of course it isn’t. It’s shooting animals for pure pleasure by “hunters” who want to skip the hunt part.
Of course, groups like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Isaac Walton League are working to promote the art of hunting and discourage “slob” hunters. But the “new tech” stuff keeps coming out and it blurs the line between “fair chase” and questionable advantage.
Perhaps the grandkids are right as they cock their heads in doubt as one tries to rationalize “sport hunting” that more and more, it seems, is neither.