Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Lesser Known Skills

On newsstands, the “big mags” are soon to be publishing their turkey hunting run-ups, and that is fine.  Great actually, because I love to read them.  At various times of the year, every hunting publication that you’d buy in a bookstore has what I call their “Get Ready!” issue and they all feature articles with catchy tag lines like “Fool Wary Late-Season Geese!” or “Sure Fire Tactics for Greenheads!” or my personal favourite “Your Best Rut Ever!”…like I’ve ever had a ‘bad’ rut.  That’s as redundant as “good orgasm”.

These articles and features do become formulaic after a time…after all how many different times can we be told how to call to a hung up gobbler?  Deer will always be deer and I think by now I know how to use rattling horns.  Likewise there are not a lot of differing ‘strategies’ for deploying a pop-up blind or a trail camera.  But again, that’s fine because every once in a while I find a hidden gem of wisdom.  For example, last year in either Field & Stream or Outdoor Life (I can’t frankly recall which, and my wife has since recycled the magazine) there was a nifty piece about how to make a ‘wingbone’ style of turkey call out of a pen and a spent shotgun shell.

How very MacGyver.

But that’s not the point of this post.  This post is about what has been missing.  For all the promise, exceptional photography, and flashy splendor of these institutions, they’re missing out on what I would call the ‘unspoken fundamentals’, which I consider the basis for making any hunt enjoyable and the key skills to becoming a successful hunter.  So with that in mind, I humbly submit to you a list of some of the lesser known aptitudes that truly define what makes “a hunter”.

Now this is admittedly a cliché, and we’ve all seen the shirts and hunting camp placards that say something like “Liars and Hunters Gather Here” or some permutation thereof, but in every joke there is a kernel of truth, and hunters are exceptional liars.  Now I alluded to this in an earlier post, but that dealt with a certain segment of the hunting community.  To put it simply, to hunt you must develop the ability to lie.  Now I’m not talking about the kind of double speak and manipulation that politicians and power-brokers use.  No, no…in this respect I’m referring to both the benign, passive lies that make you seem like less of an abject failure or the broad, open lies that grease the wheels of conversation.  If you meet a hunter that tells only the truth, beware.  He or she is not to be trusted as they are either a far too upstanding citizen to associate with, or they are a hunter par excellence and has never had any reason to lie because they always experience glowing success.  Either way, those are people that you do not want to live in a cramped shack with for a week.

Excuse Making
Of the same vein, but distinct from, lying is excuse-making.  To be a successful hunter this is a must-have skill and once developed it will carry you far.  It has a multi-faceted range of applications from practical use in getting out of doing dishes and sweeping floors through to actually helping you harvest game.  Don’t believe me?  I would argue that we all know someone who through excuse-making and laziness (laziness being excuse-making’s deadbeat progenitor) decided not to walk ten miles cross-country and instead sat on the porch with a gun and cigar and killed a huge buck that had the temerity to stroll out onto the front lawn.  Heck, in 2009 my own excuse-making and laziness led me to sit in hardwood opening not eight minutes from the front door of the camp.  Shot a deer ten minutes later, if I wasn’t such a poor shot I would have shot two.  Don’t tell me it isn’t an essential skill.

Being a generally objectionable person is not a prerequisite to being a good hunter, but it helps.  I’ve met a lot of hunters that were accommodating, friendly, and willing to listen to your opinion on anything.  But I don’t really remember them fondly or as being particularly successful.  The ones that I do remember as successful and memorable are the irascible, gruff, opinionated SOBs that did things their own way regardless of what the camp consensus was because that’s what they thought was right, even when it clearly wasn’t.  These people are not the best camp-mates when trying to nail down a dinner menu or debating the merits of gun caliber, political affiliation, or governmental tax mandates…but by gar do they know how to hunt.  The underlying trait of argumentativeness is self-confidence, and to be a successful hunter, you’ve got to have that in abundance to go where no one else will, to try what no one else will try, and to believe in your abilities when everyone else doubts them.  Hunters with that trait are inherently, and inexplicably, successful.

In a bizarre, Zen-master kind of way, I’ve found the best hunters to be exceptionally, if not frighteningly, stoic.  Now here in Ontario there is not much that you can hunt that will realistically ‘kill you back’ so to speak…although the “black bear sow when surprised with cubs” scenario lives in an especially dark corner of my nightmares, especially in turkey season when all I have is a shotgun packed with a few 3-inch rounds of paltry #6 lead shot…but calm is more than facing the potential dangers of the woods unfazed.  I’ve never even had the crosshairs on a deer that was more than an average-sized doe but those beautiful ungulates reduce me to a quivering mass of skin and tissue every time I get the gun up on one.  Likewise a wild turkey, a bird that is both beautiful in plumage and hideous in countenance, ratchets up my adrenalin like no other game animal and I can’t make rational or even basic decisions very well.  Now I’m not sure if the calm and collected camp of hunters just has better control of this than I do, but I don’t really care.  All I know is that they ghost serenely through the woods and fields, seemingly attuned to all the nature that surrounds them, and when they do succeed in taking their prey of choice, they always act like they’ve been there before.  Even when I know damn well that they haven’t.

Here’s where things take a bit of a swerve to the left.  I would argue steadfastly that all the best hunters are legendarily gluttonous.  Now I’m not speaking of wasteful game harvesting or boorish, self-absorbed behavior (although I am likewise not discounting it because I don’t know what you do when I’m not looking) but I am talking about their ability to pack back food and drink.  Of all the hunters I’ve known…and I’ve known many…there exists a one way correlation between the ability to have success in the field and the ability to eat and drink.  I say “one way correlation’ because I also know lots of guys and gals that can eat and drink but don’t have a lick of hunting sense.  To put it basically, I’ve found that if you can hunt, you can also eat.  This is not always inversely true.  And before someone emails me with a list of reasons why this is not an accurate or tenable assessment let me further state that feasting has been a part of hunting as long as hunting has existed in a recorded form.  The coming together of comrades after a hard day afield and restoring our bodies with wine, ale, meat, and wild edibles of all kinds is engrained in the hunting tradition and has been in tapestry, song, and literature for centuries.  As a man with an almost fanatical appreciation of history, who am I to say that isn’t important, nay required, in a hunter?  I await your angry emails.

Again, speaking strictly from observation and years of compiled empirical evidence, I think to qualify as a good hunter, you need to be able to swear.  Now I’m not advocating the exceptionally crude, low-brow kind of cursing reserved for locker rooms and Comedy Central Roasts, but then again I’m not talking about maintaining a level of dialogue that is purely biblical either.  What I would say is that the well-constructed, exceptionally-timed, and situation-specific use of foul language is a prerequisite to hunting.  Whether used to castigate one’s self after missing a dreadfully easy shot (I do this often), expressed as dismay as you go through the ice, over your boot top, and into the lake up to your knee on a freezing Lake Huron shoreline (looking in your direction Tack), or just to add spice to a humorous campfire anecdote about what witnessing the birth of your first child was like (again, guilty) the use of salty language is exactly that…it is the figurative seasoning that makes conversation interesting.  I’ve always been struck by the irony that language and dialogue defined as “tasteful” was always exceedingly bland, luckily we keep things pleasant seasoned in our camp.  What constitutes appropriate levels of foul language in your hunting camp is a matter of personal preference; all I can say is test drive a few words you might not normally use.  You’ll learn your limit and will operate accordingly.

The last item on this list speaks to a trait that exists innately in every hunter in every walk of life.  Tinkering with things.  Centuries before the concepts of kaizen and other continuous improvements were implemented in the multi-billion dollar world of business, hunters the world over were toying with ways to improve on weapons, game calls, and hunting techniques.  I’m reminded of a Far Side cartoon where a couple of cave-men have felled a mammoth with a single, well-placed spear; the caption “Let’s remember that spot”.  That’s what hunters do, we innovate.  You could be utterly without redemption on all of the above characteristics and still have success hunting if you show some initiative to hone your skills, get proficient with your weapons, and learn the art, so to speak.  Or you could just have a good time playing in your garage with your game calls and decoys and blinds.  Your choice.

Now to wrap this up, one might ask how I define success…after all I refer to it a lot in the above rambling paragraphs.  I’m not sure if being in possession of everything mentioned previously here will make you successful in the sense that you’ll kill more game (although it may; stranger things have come true) but then again maybe you define success differently than the glossy, vibrant articles run by huge multi-national publishing conglomerates.  If you do, then you’re like me and I’ll leave you with a (censored) quote from one of my now-deceased hunting companions that long ago became a sort of mantra to the way that I go about my hunting adventures.

“Since when did killing deer have anything to do with (expletive) deer hunting?!”

Sunday, February 26, 2012

News: Finally Getting Out Again, NWTF Events, and We're on Twitter

After a month or so of a cripplingly hectic family and work schedule, I'm hitting the woods this upcoming weekend in pursuit of some coyotes.  I've been itching to do it for a while and have finally found the time.  Hopefully the weather co-operates and we can get some coyotes running in front of the dogs and/or coming hard to the call.  Exciting stuff, and it will eventually be serialized here.

In other news, for the past couple of weeks a few of you subscribers suggested a Twitter feed.  So now I have one.

You can follow the blog here:  https://twitter.com/#!/getoutandgohunt

I'm still going through the (admittedly shallow) learning curve of Twitter, but feel free to join up and see where we're hunting, what we're thinking while we do it, and more of the zaniness, analysis, and opinion that you've come to expect from this blog...all within a 140 character limit no less!

And lastly, it is NWTF Banquet season here in Ontario and I've got a few invites to attend banquets.  The one I'll definitely be hitting up is my hometown banquet in Barrie, Ontario.  For details on pricing and attendance you can email nwtfbarrie@gmail.com for details.  For info on the auction packages click http://www.nwtf.org/special_events/CoreItems.php

Monday, February 13, 2012

And They Call It...Progress?

I’ve been absent, I know, but with good reason.

You see I’ve been jetting all over North America these last few weeks, with stops in Halifax, Calgary, Phoenix, Charlotte, and Chicago.  No, my ears have not returned to normal just yet, and yes, I am a whiz at airport security now.

So what have I had time to do in those intervening weeks, you might ask?

Mostly I’ve been staring at works projects and completing late night drives home from Pearson International Airport…seriously why does every flight seem to come into Pearson after 10pm?  I did some writing on a side project I’m working on while heading from Chicago to Scottsdale.  But I’ve also been thinking about you my devoted reader, specifically about some way to bring you into my wandering experiences that also lines up with the hunting-specific content of this blog. 

And I think I’ve come up with it…but please be patient, there’s some lead up.  I’ve also been dreaming of turkey hunting in May, but that’s another post.

On my most recent flight from Charlotte, NC into Toronto I looked around the plane.  I was reading a copy of Outdoor Life I had picked up at the Charlotte Airport and I also had a well-worn copy of Stephen King’s Night Shift in my carry-on.  I am not above exaggerating normally, but I speak the truth when I say that those two pieces of publishing were the only traditional forms of reading material brought by passengers that I could see on that entire flight.  Every other soul had a Kindle or a KOBO, or a Playbook or an iPad or some other piece of technological flotsam that they were using to read or otherwise entertain themselves.  I’m not above technology, even though my iPod is seven years old and is about the size of a brick, but this troubled me.  I love books and magazines both from a content perspective and from a tactile angle, and I fear that we’re careening down some bumpy Fahrenheit 451-esque path where paper books and print in general will suffer the same (metaphorical) fate as the dodo.  At least that’s the irrationally paranoid approach I take when I have not slept in fourteen hours, crossed four times zones, and find myself circling Lake Ontario at 20,000 feet at 11:47pm while waiting to land at Pearson Airport.

So is it positive progress?  Since I have never used an e-reader, I cannot pass definitive judgment, but I do see a parallel between the way that technology has changed something as humdrum as reading and the lamentations that I see in almost all of the hunting magazines that I subscribe to or purchase for in-flight reading (and believe me, I buy a lot of them…I may just be keeping that whole industry afloat.)

There are worried rumblings among the hunting community (or at least the segment of the hunting community that writes letters to the editors of these various magazines) that technology is changing the beloved hunting tradition in a way that may not be for the best.  The editors, likewise, seem to be on the warpath against (some) technology because there are now dozens of editorial columns devoted to how widespread technocracy in the hunting community is irreversibly altering the hunting ethic and experience.  It is a hot-button issue right now, but I’m not going to wade in with my opinion…because that would be the antithesis of my efforts to keep this forum from getting too preachy, at least I’ll try not to sermonize.  But I will highlight some trends I’ve seen, and at least add some fuel to the debate.

Advances in optics, rifle accuracy, and ballistics have now made guns capable of being consistently and accurately lethal (in practiced hands) to distances in excess of a kilometer.  Yes I said kilometer…as in 1000 meters.  That is well beyond the limits of the visual acuity and olfactory prowess that serve as the defense mechanisms of most of the big game here in North America.  Shotgunners and archers are also using cutting edge technology and cutting edge equipment to extend the range of their weapons of choice to well beyond the traditional 40 yard marker…a distance that at one time seemed almost religiously enforced as a stretch to the limit of lethality for waterfowlers, turkey hunters, and bowhunters.  But now there are dozens of websites, television shows, products, advertisements, and magazine columns devoted to extended-range shooting.  I don’t think it is a fad…I think it is going to stick around.  I remember a time when in the hunting media and in my circle of friends and hunting companions where the litmus test of hunting abilities was how close one could get to game…and not how far away your equipment allowed you to be lethal from.  Is it a positive change?  Is it universal?  I don’t know because I’m not involved in that subculture of the hunting experience.  I’m going to focus on shooting straight first of all before I look to extend my range.

In the same vein, there is a vocal segment of the hunting populace that is vigorously opposed to the A-R platforms of what is now being marketed as the “modern sporting rifle”.  That name is firmly in the world of what is referred to as ‘spin’ or as I prefer to call it the tradition of putting lipstick on a pig.  I will admit my bias openly here: I am of that group that is not comfortable with the new platforms.  But it is not because I am a reactionary old purist who thinks we should all go back to using flintlocks, or Damascus-barreled antiques, or longbows…because I’m not.  It is not because I think those guns are unsafe; they are no more or less safe than any other firearm.  It is not because I think they don’t work; they work fine and do have some benefits in terms of reduced recoil and accuracy (they do after all leverage military technology…and who knows more about killing than the military?)  And I do fully understand a latent hypocrisy in my stance in that many of the rifles and shotguns built in the 1950’s through to the 1980’s (arguably the heyday of rifle, shotgun, and bullet design) sprang from WWII military platforms or leveraged Vietnam War-era operating and ballistic techniques.  But those guns did not look intentionally like combat equipment—as this new generation does, and the marketability and image of anything that looks that “military” is going to draw attention from those who are looking for a reason to denigrate hunting, which is a headache that I don’t think we need (we have enough of that already, thank you very much).  For my American readers, I understand that my stance also draws in a constitutional aspect to the debate that thankfully I do not have to deal with here in Canada.  It certainly brings the matter of ‘rights’ into the development and ownership of this type of weapon, and rest assured I have no interest in removing or impinging on anyone’s constitutionally guaranteed lifestyle…because as a Canadian (and not an American or a constitutional historian) I simply do not understand it.  Ultimately for me, at its very root, I like the classic lines, curves, and aesthetic of glossy hardwood and blued steel.  If only I could afford more of it in my gun cabinet.  Again, is the proliferation of A-R platformed sporting arms a good thing?  Make up your own mind.

The use of optics, specifically rifle scopes, have long been at the center of a swirling maelstrom of ethical debate, but increasingly shotgun mounted ‘quickbeads’ have been the target of persecution too.  In a lot of ways it is a ‘new school’ versus ‘old school’ kind of thing, and having been on both sides of the equipment debate I can vouch for the benefits of both on a situational basis.  No one would sensibly argue that they would rather have iron sights for a 200 yard shot at a coyote or mule deer, just as very few people would likely choose even a moderately-powered scope when hunting dense bush for rabbits where shot selection is going to be inside of 30 yards. But what of the new breed of scope that not only magnifies the target, but also takes the wind, your ballistics, and caliber into account, as well as acts as a range finder and puts the reticle just where it needs to be based on all those factors?  I have never thought of mounting a $1000 computer/videogame shooting aide to my .243WIN, but apparently that’s the age we live in now.  If used properly I have no doubt that such a scope increases humanely lethal kills, just as I have no doubt that if used improperly it also gives people without the shooting skill a confidence to shoot at and wound game that they have no business even thinking of taking a poke at.  As Hamlet would say “Ay! There’s the rub.” The only qualification necessary to have such a scope is having the prerequisite funds available to buy one.  Sadly, nothing is as priceless as good judgment during shot selection…or seemingly as rare.

There’s a special spot in my heart for game calls.  If some law passed making it illegal to ever hunt with a gun again, I’d still be out there in camo with a camera and my calls.  But even my beloved calls, those bells, whistles, trinkets, and toys that make me what I am in the woods are not exempt from being included in the technological shit-storm of debate over what defines fair chase and how advances in technology and manufacturing processes are blurring that line.  If it were a contest, those select few hunters who can mouth call game with nothing but their own voice would win.  I can do it for turkeys but not much else.  Everything else we’ve manufactured to fool game: from aboriginal turkey wingbone calls, to the first hunter who blew through a cane reed duck call or scratched two pieces of wood together to yelp up a gobbler, to the machinist hand turning space-age materials on a lathe to make a short-reed goose call, right up to the tech expert who is creating digital downloads of cottontail distress calls to market to coyote and predator hunters through their smartphones, is all (depending on who you ask in both the hunting and non-hunting communities) deception and an act that cheats nature a little bit.  I’m not in for making judgments or gradations in that ladder, because it is pointless: calling and hutning are inextricably linked.  Camouflage is the same way.  Should we all go back to smearing mud and dead leaves on ourselves in an effort to remain concealed or are we okay with using state of the art digitally designed camouflage that makes a hunter nearly invisible provided they can sit still?  Regardless, a hunter still has to make the shot.  And I don’t think it is an arms race…simply because the animals aren’t evolving as fast as we can come up with new ways to fool them.  Yet still most of us fail more than we succeed.  So what do you do?  I guess you make a choice.

The further into writing this I’ve gotten….and it is now well past midnight and I’m sleepy so I suppose I’ll have to proofread this again before I post it (probably on Monday sometime)…the more I have realized two things.  The first is that it all seems so hopeless, this meaningless hypothetical conjecture.  There are so many of us doing so many different things in the field that coming to a standard conclusion about how best to reconcile modernity with such a timeless tradition as hunting is futile, and more importantly, it is likely to earn me many enemies in the hunting community…including some of my own friends and family, but whatever.  And the second is that it is very hard for me to keep my opinions to myself, as I’m sure my tone and style betrays my feelings to a degree.  Sorry if anyone took offense…it is the internet after all, so please don’t feel you have to read this again.  But before I close, and despite what I said above about futility, I guess I’ll put out this little nugget for what it is worth at this late hour.

The one thing I will stake my name on in this post is that no matter what you think about the way that technology has impacted hunting, we must also be aware that technology now makes us as hunters that much more scrutinized as well.  The non-hunting public (which as I’ve alluded to before has as much to do with our continued existence as hunters as do our actions on their own merits) now has access through social media and widespread video to a lot of information and visual evidence of what happens in the field.  If all we show is hunters whooping it up as geese and ducks careen out of the sky, or bow kills that decapitate a turkey and send it flopping about as the shooter giggles, or mile long rifle kills that strike down a mountain goat like a lightning bolt thrown by almighty Zeus himself, then what are the people that we rely on for legislative support going to think and do?  That is to say nothing about the idiots who post photos and video of wantonly cruel or illegal acts on the internet…non-hunters lump us in with those nitwits too in case you were wondering.  Don’t believe me?  Ask around.  Killing is a part of the game, but it is not the only part and depending on who you speak with, it is not even the most important part.

But aside from that whole debate, the bottom line is if we don’t police ourselves and make well-meaning, informed, and justified decisions about how we use technology in the field and how we use it to market ourselves in the public, someone else is going to take it upon themselves to make that decision for us.  If that happens we might as well all get a Kindle and read some classic hunting stories from the likes of Hill, MacQuarrie, and O’Connor, because by then it may be increasingly difficult for us to make our own new tales of hunting adventure.