On opening day of the 1981 duck season, I was hunkered down with my 15-year-old son on a slough near Graceville, Minn. At six minutes to 12, nine Canada geese in a string — plus one snow goose at the end — floated over close enough to see their eyes. My son twitched, prepared to kill his first goose. But I whispered “no.” The season opened at noon.
Nearly every opener since then my son, Jon, retells that story around a duck camp firepit. I remember it for the oddity of the light goose flying with the dark ones. He remembers it for an early, if hard, lesson on hunting etiquette: Play by the rules.
Many alleged broken rules were behind the arrests of four deer hunters in January in western Minnesota. The charges in Lac qui Parle County were numerous. They included shooting deer out of season, an over-limit deer and trespassing. That bust should serve as a wake-up call for all hunters. Along with the emotions of disgust and anger over the wanton waste of game should come a re-examination of our own behavior afield. We don’t want to be throwing stones if our own houses are made of glass.
If you hunt often, as I do, it’s hard to miss the incidences of questionable conduct. The too-early and too-late shots heard from a duck blind or a deer stand; the bar talk from baiters masquerading as deer feeders; the bragging about over-the-limit success. But these are just minor infractions, right? Or are they?
There is a growing importance for playing by the rules, beyond the gut feeling that what we are doing is right. The burgeoning anti-hunting movement thrives on the bad behavior of hunters. Their “we-told-you-so” smirks echo across the media, including countless Internet sites.
With the possible exceptions of turkeys and geese, the game we pursue in Minnesota isn’t exactly flourishing. Poaching a dwindling resource is just mortgaging our own future and the future of the following generations of hunters. The numbers of hunters in our shrinking community of enthusiasts are a direct reflection of the available game.
Beyond our own personal resolve, we owe it to young recruits to introduce them to the various hunting sports and to teach them, by our good example, how to respect the land, the landowner and the natural resources. Hunting the right way is a fair chase sport. Take the “fair” out of the pursuit and it is no longer a sport.
We might think the Department of Natural Resources with its fleet of conservation officers has a grip on the poaching problem. We would be wrong. Minnesota’s 132 conservation officers have coverage zones that average 650 square miles. If my personal experience is an indicator, many hunters and anglers make it to middle age without ever having their licenses checked. Per my hunting diary, the last time I was checked was in 1971, on a slough near Morris, Minn.
With today’s ever-present cellphones and a state that enjoys nearly 100 percent signal coverage, hunters can become conservation officer deputies. Ken Soring, DNR enforcement chief, suggested real-time reports of infractions by simply dialing # TIP (#847). That connects to a State Patrol dispatcher and a dynamic list of which conservation officer is closest to the infraction. Timing is critical because in many cases the bad guys have to be caught in the act.
We shouldn’t buy into the perverse logic that squealing on a poacher makes us the jerks. The offender is the one attacking our collective reputations and our sport. This much we know: Only 6 percent of the U.S. population hunts. We are members of a shrinking minority, and we’ve got a cheating problem in our ranks. With game wardens spread thin, cleaning up our act begins with us. As avid hunters, we must provide the initiative and the leadership at the grass roots. Our sport, our kids and our game animals are counting on us.
Bill Klein is an avid hunter, angler and student of nature. He lives in May Township.