A couple years ago I fetched my trusty Marlin .30-30 rifle from storage, donned an ill-fitting field jacket, and traipsed into the woods Up North where deer were said to be abundant.
But the day was blustery and deer hunkered down. No one else got any, either.
In my youth, the hunt was an eagerly anticipated rite of autumn. Some things hadn’t changed — the serenity of walking the woods, the amazing variety of wildlife one can observe just by sitting still, the invigorating joy of breathing fresh air all day long — and the pleasures, later in camp, of exchanging brandy-fueled tales of the day and embellishments on past hunts.
A notable difference this time was what preceded the hunt — objections from a vegetarian daughter and citified grandkids with pointed doubts about hunting.
I could defend my choice to hunt. Growing up, hunting and fishing for sustenance meant cheap, nutritious meals — a big deal for many rural families, certainly for ours. What’s more, anyone who values a quality outdoors should thank the hunting community for its considerable habitat-protection efforts that benefit all wildlife.
Still, my venture into the field that year brought home to me, more than usual, how sport hunting has been infected with a “make it newer, better, easier” syndrome that’s brought a dazzling array of high-tech changes, as attested by a visit to Cabelas.
Some resist the trend, preferring single-shot muzzleloaders that place a high premium on getting close to quarry and aiming well. The same venerable stalking and marksmanship skills are crucial for archers who use traditional longbows, with limited range and slow reload. These guys must get within a few yards of an animal to have any chance for success.
Now, that’s hunting.
Once was, most hunters hunted the woods. Today, it seems that most are perched on watchtowers on the forest’s edge, armed with absurdly high-powered rifles with precision scopes and loaded with ammo packing enough velocity to take down an animal at 500 yards. Some guns can launch a hail of bullets as fast as the finger can pull the trigger.
Then there are a growing number of “hunters” who set out bait, rigging contraptions that ladle out corn on demand. In season, such “hunters” slip into stands in predawn darkness to await an unsuspecting ungulate eyeing a meal that up to now had no consequence.
Such cheating is rightly condemned; hunting over bait can bring stiff fines and the loss of one’s weapon.
But there are subtler forms of baiting, like watchtowers overlooking patches of corn purposely left in fields to attract deer, sometimes cut into strips to reduce cover so shooters can more easily pick off prey.
Save for the traditional longbow, even archery has changed. Growing up, a prized possession was my Coe recurve with 40 pounds of thrust, enough to down a deer. It took all my strength to pull and hold the bow at full load, and then I had to shoot within seconds lest fatigue set the arm to wobbling.
Today’s “compound” bow with cams and pulleys enables archers to hold a loaded bow long enough to aim carefully before firing true-flying graphite arrows with 70 pounds of thrust — and that’s fast. With these rigs, even a novice can hit a small target at 30 yards.
Minnesota allows hunting with crossbows during firearms season and, if you’re over 60 or strength-challenged, during the much-longer archery season. Crossbows launch arrows (“bolts”) at up to 180 pounds of thrust with accuracy enhanced by rifle-type scopes and an effective killing range that’s nearly the same as my Marlin rifle.
Using new technology isn’t “cheating” in the sense of poaching or shooting over bait, of course. But there’s little question that the “new, better” firepower has altered the nature of hunting.
And it’s not just deer hunting.
Fishing boats today are equipped with sophisticated sonar displaying digitally enhanced underwater views that, together with GPS guidance, can locate fish and return the angler to the same spot each time out. Oh, there’s still value in knowing lake structure and how to tie a hook or when to change bait, but the contest has been tilted mightily against the fish.
Then there are private reserves where “hunters” pay to access fields seeded with farm-raised pheasants. It’s guaranteed shooting of as many birds as one’s wallet allows. Some places even stage “hunts” where ducks are released from feeding pens to fly back home to where they were hatched and raised. Paying customers sit in comfy blinds between the pen and the home place and, on cue, blast “wild” ducks as they fly to the only safe haven they know.
Is that sport? Or is it shooting animals for pure pleasure without bothering much with the “hunt” part?
Groups such as Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Izaak Walton League and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association conscientiously promote habitat conservation along with the art and ethics of hunting. Kudos to them.
Good hunters take time in the preseason to know the woods, seeking out animal trails and studying “sign” like buck scrapes and freshness of dung. Their presence in the field makes them sentinels for evidence of damaged habitat and advocates for improvement. But many also embrace the new-tech stuff that’s surely distorting the meaning of “fair chase.”
As I returned my Marlin to storage that year, I pondered the grandkids who cocked their heads in doubt as I tried to rationalize “sport hunting.” More and more, it seems, it is neither.
Ron Way is a former official with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior. He lives in Edina.