(c) Jack Ballard
“Have a good hunt?”
It’s a question I hear a dozen times in any given fall, voiced by a variety of family members and friends when I return from an alpine hike for blue grouse, a dusty sojourn on the prairie in search of antelope or a lung-taxing trek to the top of a mountain in hopes an elk herd might be surprised at dawn. Though voiced with exactly the same words, the query actually means different things depending on the lips from whom the syllables escape. From other adult, male friends, a good hunt definitely refers to a filled tag and meat for the freezer. From my sweetheart, it refers more generally to an enjoyable time outdoors, with some wildlife sighting or experience in the natural world that creates a lasting memory. To my nine year-old daughter? A “good hunt” simply means it was fun.
Like any recreational pursuit or discipline one engages with a reasonable measure of intensity, the goal a hunter conceives before heading afield inevitably determine his or her evaluation of the experience. Each time I set foot in the forests, fields or prairie as an outdoorsman, I desire a good hunt. But beyond the obvious desire to down my quarry, many other factors can create a good hunt. Here are some of them, listed in no particular order of importance.
1) Physical challenge – In a nation where physicians and politicians routinely remind citizens Americans are generally overweight and out of shape, outdoor recreation is an excellent vehicle for maintaining one’s health. Hunting that demands a high degree of physical challenge not only provides its own avenue for enhancing my fitness, but also provides a strong motivation for keeping fit throughout the rest of the year. On numerous occasions I’ve experienced hunts that didn’t result in a dead animal, but are among my most memorable days afield because they involved a high degree of physical challenge.
One cold November morning, my older brother and I set out on an unknown trail to hunt elk in a mountain range neither of us had hunted previously. Our route led across a lengthy flat, then wound into a narrow drainage that carved a deep rift in the steep, imposing front of the mountains. Just at sunrise, halfway across the flat, we stopped for a short rest. Pulling out my binoculars, I focused them on a lofty, snowy ridgetop that sheered down toward the level ground upon which we were standing. To my surprise, they quickly revealed what appeared to be a small army of tan bodies grazing on the wind-scoured summit of the ridge. Counting quickly, it soon became apparent that at least five dozen elk composed the band.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” or so the old saying goes. Its logic seemed to apply as aptly to elk in sight versus those that may or may not be discovered somewhere else. Turning our steps from the trail to strike out cross-country toward the elk, we soon found ourselves laboring up a horridly steep slope, with the snow deepening noticeably every time we paused to pant.
As we neared the point where we’d seen the elk, we split up. I ascended a finger ridge as planned, discovering a large patch of scattered timber harboring so many elk beds and fresh droppings it smelled like the barnyard on Old MacDonald’s farm. Then without warning, I crested a swell in the slope and blundered directly into a herd that undoubtedly numbered over one hundred animals. Elk scattered in every direction. My gaze landed on a young bull trotting below me. Training my rifle on its blonde shoulder, I lowered the barrel instead of waiting for it to pause for a shot. Even with two very fit hunters, retrieving the bull’s meat from our location would require an ordeal.
After we swapped incredulous estimates of the herd’s size, we turned our gaze back down the mountain. Only then did I realize how exhausted I’d become from the climb and how many hours had passed in the ascent. After eating lunch we turned back downslope, discovering a small band of four magnificent bighorn rams in a secluded basin below the elevation of the elk. Back at the pickup, we were still without an elk. But I vividly remember the look of the landscape, the stalwart beauty of the bighorns and the exertion required for the experience. Pushing yourself too far or hard physically isn’t wise, but any hunt that requires a manageable level of physical challenge is a good hunt.
2) Natural connections – For most types of hunting, moving quietly, remaining still and minimizing your quarry’s exposure to human scent are basic elements of the game. Conducting yourself in such a manner not only increases the likelihood of encountering your quarry, but also ups the odds your presence will go unnoticed by other creatures as well. As such, hunting often results in intimate observations of numerous wildlife species. Of the rare or unusual birds and animals I’ve been fortunate enough to spy in the wild, many of the sightings have occurred while hunting.
One fall, while hiking down a trail just before dawn, a stealthy feathered form swooped from a tall dead tree just down the trail, then glided a few feet over my head. The large owl passed soundlessly above my stationary form, an unforgettable testimony to the fact that such owls truly are soundless in flight, just like the biology textbooks report. Another time, while seated beneath a rock ledge watching a whitetail deer trail, a cascade of tiny pebbles plunked against my shoulder. Twisting my neck in the direction of the gritty deluge, I locked eyes with a small bird. Its wing feather were bold, bronze and spotted, fading to a lighter streaked breast and milky throat. A slender, curved bill and its overall shape betrayed its identity as a wren, but I’d never seen this species. Back home, my fingers found the pages in my bird book devoted to wrens. My visitor was a canyon wren, the only specimen of this species I’ve ever seen.
Unusual weather phenomenon, inspiring landscapes, intriguing trees and unique geological formations are all potential candidates for memorable encounters with the natural world when hunting. To further enhance this aspect of the sport, it’s a good idea to carry a camera and binoculars. When selecting binoculars, it’s helpful to choose models that have a close focusing distance. One time, while sitting at the base of a ponderosa pine, I observed a white-breasted nuthatch at not more than twelve feet away. Through my close-focusing binoculars, I could clearly see its tiny nostrils and every detail in its fluffy feathers. Quality binoculars also allow you to study the features of birds and other creatures viewed at a distance, aiding your identification of them.
3) A clean kill – For some folks, a good hunt simply means killing an animal. But a more enlightened perspective places as much emphasis on the manner in which an animal dies as the killing itself. Drop a mule deer doe in its tracks or dispatch a bull elk in its bed with a single, lethal shot and you have every reason to be proud of your marksmanship. Nature herself is not frequently such a humane executioner. Starvation, debilitating accidents or death at the jaws of a predator don’t seem very humane ways to die. By contrast, a single, well-placed bullet brings an animal to a very speedy end.
Of course, human error and poor judgment can result in wounded animals or those who take multiple shots to bring to earth. However, by thoroughly understanding one’s own limitations and those of the firearm you’re carrying, it’s possible to take only shots that are very likely to end your quarry’s life quickly. Last fall, I was privileged to introduce my sweetheart to big-game hunting. After a suspenseful and invigorating stalk, Lisa’s rifle was trained on an antelope buck facing us at less than 100 yards. The buck was thrown backwards then crumpled without a twitch when she fired. Any time you can attach your tag to an animal that comes to such a merciful end it’s a good hunt. Taking only those shots that are within your ability is the best way to ensure such an outcome.
4) Enhancing human connections – Each October, members of my extended family convene at an elk camp high in the mountains. Sometimes it’s the only opportunity I have to visit with some of the far-flung members of the group all year. Elk hunting keeps us connected. Some years we down several wapiti, on a few rare occasions we’ve bumped back down the rutted road through aspen groves and fir trees without a single ounce of meat burdening the vehicles. No matter the outcome in terms of antlers and meat, we’ve never failed to have a good hunt.
Along with maintaining existing connections with family and friends, hunting is a great way to form new friendships. One season, I invited an acquaintance to go elk hunting. On the second day of a strenuous hunt he dropped a very large bull elk, the first animal he’d ever taken. The effort required to harvest the bull and transport its immense quarters back to camp gave us plenty of time for conversation and required the type of teamwork that inevitably brings people together as more than casual acquaintances. Years later, we’re very close friends.
Parent-teen relationships can also benefit from hunting. In the absence of handheld electronics or adolescent friends capable of keeping a teen occupied with twenty text messages per minute, sharing a hunting trip is a fruitful way for parents to connect with their teens. Some of the most heartfelt conversations I’ve had with my two teenage boys occurred while hunting. They also enjoy reminiscing about mishaps and adventures in the field long after their occurrence, leading me to believe that the time we’ve spent together hunting is as memorable for them as their dad. On the personal side, it’s always a bit rewarding to find myself in situations where the kids actually think their father is intelligent and useful, reactions spawned by such feats as gutting an antelope or engineering a stalk on a mule deer in tricky terrain.
No matter the participants or the quarry, hunting has the potential to be a much larger experience than simply killing an animal. Interactions with fellow humans and a heightened awareness of the natural world make it possible to have a good hunt whether a shot is fired or not.