Too often, the sport of hunting seems to lack both sport and the hunt

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.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 11/24/2008 - 11:44 am.

    I agree with almost everything here. But I intentionally carry a semi-automatic Remington into the field over the objections of my bolt-action and lever-action brethren. I will only pull the trigger when I have a clean-kill shot. But accidents happen; bullets get buffeted by wind; deer move. I would rather have the ability for a quick second shot than leave a deer to bolt and suffer. I am sure some consider this unsporting, but I would rather be thought a slob hunter than be thought cruel to animals.

  2. Submitted by Rod Loper on 11/24/2008 - 12:47 pm.

    We have a left-handed Remington semi-automatic
    30-06 in our deer camp that prints better groups
    than any bolt-action in camp of seven. My ethical failing as a (meat) hunter is potting grouse on the sit on occasion.

  3. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 11/24/2008 - 03:45 pm.

    I agree with Ron’s comments about hunting and fishing. The very basics and skills to these sports seem to be forgotten or put aside when some new fangled hi-tech gear or tackle comes on the market.

    A recent quick survey taken of some Ohio and Wisconsin hunters demonstrates that many hunters lack the simple common sense survival skills needed if lost or hurt. Many survey didn’t carry a basic compass! Their GPS was their directional guide and cell phone their emergency device. What if batteries or electronics fail?

    The survey also showed that modern hunters were leaning toward the ‘artillery’ style rifle/weapon with almost match grade ammo and high powered scopes. The majority of modern hunters didn’t realize that their super ammo, if they missed, could conceivably travel more than 2+ miles before being spent!

    Plain ignorance, lack of firearm safety, and lack of old fashion common sense seem to be the new traditions to our outdoor sports experiences.

    As for me, I’m an existentialist when it comes to the outdoors. My former home state limited deer hunting to shotguns, muzzle loaders, or bows. That’s how I learn to hunt with skill and knowledge of the habitat. Keeping things simple led to the enjoyment of the outdoors.

    When I came to MN & WI, I occasionally upgraded to a 1903 US Springfield, 30-06; US Springfield M1, 30-06; US Springfield M1a, .308; or a trusty Winchester 94, 30-30, In each use of these firearms there was no scope and just regular off the shelf ammo. With the exceptions of my shot gun and the 30-30 Winchester, I only used the ex-GI rifles on flat field/distance shots where a flatter trajectory was needed.

    My military and Boy Scout training also helped me i.d. targets, concentrate, and shoot straight. I rarely missed. With a shotgun, you really have to be focused and close in toward your quarry. If the shot wasn’t clear and clean, I didn’t shoot. At least I’d have a good ‘buck fever’ story to tell back at camp.

    I could go on but the point is that society culturally is missing out on the traditional experiences and heritage we have and share concerning the open outdoors. The maddening fast pace of living life and working is interfering with our longing for the peace and quiet our tired spirits require in the outdoors environs.

    When I go [fishing or] hunting, I leave the laptop and/or PDA home; my cell phone is turned off only to be used in dire straits; my pager is on only for life-or-death emergencies at home; and, I am prepared for emergency or survival situations. Keeping everything simple and light, I came to relax, let go my worries, and rehab my spirit; not be distracted by a crazy world. Isn’t that what the outdoors experience is supposed to be?

  4. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 11/24/2008 - 08:29 pm.

    Yeah, huntin’ ain’t what it used to be, but then what is, aye?

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