First Time Hunting

by Dan Walsh

I went hunting for the first time this year.

I never thought I would go hunting. It was a large part of the culture where I grew up, but it always seemed “not for me.” Nothing about it was appealing, and  many aspects about it seemed appalling. It seemed low-brow, inefficient, selfish and cruel. However, something struck a nerve in me this year, so a friend and I trained up, got geared up, and gave it a shot. Like any topic of willful-ignorance, I realized I had a lot of false ideas about the sport.

I grew up in Wisconsin surrounded by hunters. Every fall a bunch of my buddies would miss a week of school to disappear into the woods. The roads were dotted with rusty pickup trucks and as the beautiful autumn leaves turned brown, fell off, and gave way to snow, I could pick out specks of blaze orange in the trees on my way to school. It was common for families to delay Thanksgiving because all the guys had gone off to hunt that weekend. No one in my family hunted.

If I had any interest at the time, I could have joined some of my friends and their fathers in the woods. I could have learned the ropes from an older generation, the way this type of knowledge is traditionally passed on. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested. Even though many of my close friends went hunting, I had the idea that it was a low-brow endeavor. Some of the kids I knew who went hunting didn’t do well in school and their families weren’t well off. These kids were often the ones who talked about hunting the most. My family wasn’t well off either, but that didn’t stop me from unfairly stereotyping them and overgeneralizing the entire sport. Something like selective hearing must have protected my friends from this unfair judgement. I realize now that hunting is hard. It’s complicated, difficult, and requires an entirely different kind of intelligence. Those kids talked about it a lot because they were good at it. I should have helped them celebrate their victories instead of judging them by their GPA. The follies of youth, I suppose.

I think part of my low-brow judgement came from the fact that hunting seemed wildly inefficient. Hunters would spend weeks in the woods and come out empty handed. Any effort to intelligently make the process more efficient, like baiting, was usually illegal and would brand someone as a poacher if they were caught. If the whole point of hunting was to bag a deer, pheasant, or whatever, then not getting a kill looked like failure to me, and the inability to ensure success seemed ridiculous. Again, I was wrong.

Before supermarkets, returning home from a hunting trip without meat would have counted as failure. Not anymore. No one will starve. Instead, hunting is a way to reconnect with food, the land, and one’s sense of self reliance. It’s about the feeling of earning one’s way through life at one of the most basic levels. It’s kind of amazing how the new parts of the brain settle down and let the old parts take over when stalking prey. Waiting in the grass for 8 hours isn’t boring when every little noise could potentially be food. Sure, getting a kill would be great. But I think these days that’s really more of the excuse to get outside. Like all worthwhile activities, the pleasure is in the act, not necessarily in the reward.

The hunters I knew would always justify their trips by saying it was important conservation work. I used to think that was a bullshit line. I thought hunters were driving extinction. Growing up, stories about the great buffalo extinction and the mass hunting of dodos really effected me. These were instances of hunters causing a species to go extinct, and history is full of these stories. Again, my ignorant judgments were wrong.

Modern hunting really is about conservation. Hunters collectively contribute millions of dollars and hours a year toward wildlife habit creation. They actively lobby congress on important environmental issues like pesticide use, and every hunting fee, tax, and sale goes toward preservation efforts. Hunting efforts are largely focused on wildlife equilibrium, and there are complicated systems in place to ensure that the right number and right kind of animals are removed from the population to prevent an imbalance. The presence of humans creates drastic imbalances in the natural equilibriums of an area, and in many ways hunters are cleaning up that mess. They don’t often get credit for that, unfortunately.

Hunters are also often labelled as cruel. I hear this a lot, “who would delight in the murder of innocent animals?” I’ve even said it before. Sure, some hunters might enjoy the sense of power, but it’s not the norm. Hunter’s spend a lot of time learning to make a clean and quick kill. They’ll even ostracize other hunters who take irresponsible shots. It’s unsafe for everyone else in the woods and it’s bad form. If an injured deer wanders onto a road or into someones backyard it gives all hunters a bad name.

I question those who consider hunting cruel. Is it any less cruel to pickup a chicken breast from the super market? That chicken still had to die, but no one cared. I would argue that it’s more cruel. There was no effort involved – no ceremony. A machine killed that chicken, sliced it up, and packaged it in plastic wrap so that the shopper didn’t have to think about where it came from: a living animal. The animal still had to die so that someone could eat it. How is that any different from hunting? The difference is that no one felt it.