Why I Hunt

It’s been so much a part of my life I’ve never stopped to ask the question: Why do I hunt? But then spending time in self-reflection is not my cup of tea. I don’t remember the first bird I shot. But I do remember when I knew I was a bird hunter. As a burr headed boy of about 12 I was walking with Uncle Jim along a field edge in Alabama hunting rabbits behind a couple of beagles. The sudden eruption of a covey of quail not only startled my nerves, but drew something up from deep within that said, “This is who you are.” I’ve now been a bird hunter for fifty plus years.

Want to know how serious that makes me? Growing up in Alabama, a state with a three month deer season with one deer a day, I never went deer hunting. Never killed one, never had the desire. But give me a cut corn field in September for dove, or a soybean or cornfield edge for quail and I was in heaven. Unfortunately my early quail hunting opportunities were limited until I got out on my own and the Army sent me to some pretty good places for quail hunting: Forts Campbell, Benning, and Bragg, come to mind. And of course bird hunting means bird dogs and they’ve been there with me through the decades. It’s true: I wouldn’t do it without the dogs.

And then I was introduced to the King of Gamebirds, the lordly ruffed grouse. After leaving the Army we moved to the mountains of western North Carolina. I went to a local sporting goods store and asked where to go quail hunting. The guy behind the counter said, “None around here. If you’re a bird hunter you’ll have to hunt grouse.” And so it began. I don’t remember the where and when of my first grouse flush. But do remember the look on my setter Belle’s face when it broke cover. That look of wonderment as if to say, “Hey, these birds don’t play fair. What’s this about not holding for my point?”

So here I find myself, with grey in my beard and in the winter of my years my thoughts turn to why I hunt birds. What is so captivating about that brown blur to draw me back to the forests and fields every year? For me it is the un-measureable. It’s something to not put a number on. Yeah, we count flushes of grouse or quail in the bag. But those are long forgotten when the memories hold our mind:The setter corkscrewing into a point; my hunting buddy dropping the hammer on an empty chamber on a straightaway grouse; field lunches on a truck tailgail with friends. You just can’t measure those.

Bird hunting releases me from a life full of metrics to simply experience the my connection with nature. Like many others, my everyday life is full of numbers:  sales goals, profit/loss statements, survey results, and counting the number of Twitter and Facebook followers. Yes, I know some folks keep a gunning log recording flushes, birds in the bag, where they hunted and the weather. More power to them.  I’m sure for them that’s part of the hunting experience.

I don’t, simply because it is an experience I don’t want to put a number on. How do you measure the look your 12 year old son gives you when he shoots his first quail? Tell me how to put a number on the anticipation when the sound of a dog bell goes silent in a Wisconsin aspen thicket? Where is the spreadsheet column to record the smiling eyes of my setter when he passes in front of me on an Appalachian mountain ridge on a crisp Autumn morning? Somebody please tell me how to transfer to numbers the laughter that follows your hunting buddy muffing a straightaway on a grouse down a logging road . . . with both barrels. At the end of the day, whether there are birds to clean or not, and the flush counter on my whistle lanyard is reset, the memories will always be there. That is why I hunt.

I guess David Petersen in his book A Hunter’s Heart says it about as well as any: ” To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. Fore the glimpse in offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closest thing I’ve known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can’t help myself . . .because I have a hunter’s heart.”

The Invisible Bird Hunter

Earlier this year I posted a blog  “We’ve Met the Enemy . . .” talking about hunter apathy in supporting conservation efforts. When we owned a gun shop I’d get into over the counter conversations with hunters about anti-hunting groups trying to stop legal hunting and environmentalists thwarting wildlife habitat efforts. The typical response was a shoulder shrug and something along the lines of, “Aw, that can’t happen here.”

For too long sportsmen have put their trust in government agencies to protect the land and their hunting privileges. We’ve lapsed into a false sense of security by letting those agencies be our voice and do the right thing for us. In many cases they still do. It still amazes me that hunters still don’t get it when it comes to active participation in conservation efforts, especially with certain upland game birds in decline (grouse, woodcock, quail). Now we have more information to support the concept that yes, bird hunters are invisible in supporting their sport.

Ultimate Upland recently released a report on upland hunter participation in conservation organizations for the bird they hunt. Results are both disappointing and appalling. Based on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2011 survey on hunter participation there are nearly 1.5 million pheasant hunters in the country. That’s the good news. The bad? Only 8.5 percent of them belong to Pheasants Forever or like-minded groups. Grouse hunters? Of the over 800,000 who said they hunt grouse only 1% belongs to Ruffed Grouse Society. Quail hunters are just a little above grouse with 2.5% supporting conservation groups.

Courtesy Ultimate Upland

Conversely, Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl boast nearly 50 percent of waterfowlers among their ranks. So does that higher membership percentage make a difference? Numbers indicate it does. While wetland habitat needed by waterfowl has increased by nearly 35% over the last forty years, habitat for upland species has significantly declined between 20 and 40 percent (chart below).

Let me say this: there is no panacea or silver bullet solution. The decline in game bird populations and habitat has been a long-term trend and can’t be corrected overnight. But there are steps we can take as individual upland hunters to reverse the trend. One of the ideas being floated is an Upland Stamp similar to the Federal Waterfowl Stamp where funds are used for wetlands habitat. I’m OK with that as a partial measure. The problem for me is it’s a continuation of an existing problem: we put our reliance on government agencies. For a nation build on individual rights and responsibilities we must take action at the grass roots level.

Courtesy Ultimate Upland

Here’s some ideas we can ALL do:

  1. Step one: Join up! If you hunt an upland species join the conservation group that supports habitat work for that bird. That is what all of them are about. Yeah, membership is primarily hunters but the work they do is to improve habitat. While you’re at it, encourage your hunting buddies to join also. We’re talking annual membership of $30-40 a year. It’s not going to break the bank.
  2. Once you’ve joined, get active. All the conservation groups host fundraising events one or two times a year, usually anchored by a Sportsman’s banquet. Don’t just go to the banquet, buy raffle tickets and bid on auction items. Much of that money goes to habitat work at both the local and national level. A lot of local chapter do muddy boot habitat projects where members can get involved.
  3. The other part of getting active is answering Call-for-Action notices from the group. If they need you to go to a Forest Service meeting to support a planned habitat project, show up with some of your friends. Out west attend public meeting hosted by BLM to support grasslands management. It’s true: 80 percent of life is just showing up.

For nearly 100 years sportsmen have been willing to sacrifice to make sure wildlife species thrive. We have paid license fees, self-imposed bag limits, and paid Pittman-Robertson excise taxes all in the name of wildlife conservation. But those are all government driven. It will require support at the grassroots level if we want to continue our upland hunting traditions. We all need to be involved.