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Evolution of a Hunter

Like many things in life, becoming a hunter has been a journey. After many years, it is part of who I am. Part of my identity. Most folks see hunting as simple recreation and I suppose that’s true. To be sure, it is fun but it represents a lot more than simple amusement. It’s not something done out of necessity. My cupboard is full. And life would be simpler if I didn’t hunt. All of the related time, effort, cost and sacrifice complicates things. But these are complications I mostly enjoy and are really an extension of the act.

Sometimes I think hunting is more than just a learned behavior followed by a series of choices. It’s something deeper; genetic memory perhaps, a survival instinct, or may be its spiritual. I’m not really sure. Aldo Leopold thought it to be atavistic, something that takes us back in time. Any way you define it, hunting plays out differently for each of us. Molded by upbringing, tradition, friends and peers, marketing, and various social carrots.

In the late 1970s, Drs. Jackson and Norton of the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, took a deep-dive into the behavior of Wisconsin deer hunters. One of the interesting results of their research was a way to categorize hunters to help understand and describe, to some degree, hunter motivations. Their typology has been widely cited in many articles over the decades and continues to provide a nice foundation for thinking about the question of why we hunt and where we may be, personally, in the evolution of hunting.

Generally, the stages they described are self-explanatory. First is the Shooting Stage with a focus on using weapons. Second is the Limiting-Out Stage with an emphasis on getting maximum numbers of game. Next is the Trophy Stage where the hunter is motivated more by getting a unique or extraordinary animal, followed by the Method Stage where a hunter zeros-in more on how they hunt. And finally, the Sportsman Stage where motivations are more simplistic and thoughtful. While each is distinct, they shouldn’t be viewed as a step-wise progression. An individual hunter may float between stages depending on any number of reasons.

Maybe experience and maturity are the ultimate drivers, but whatever the case, I know my time afield today is richer and more meaningful than it was in my youth, and that may be the greatest contribution of the Jackson/Norton research; being able to know who you are versus who you were, and understanding the differences.

At this point in my life, I reside mostly in the sportsman stage. Shooting and limiting-out are not a big deal to me, although it’s an enjoyable part of hunting. There are many times when I enjoy not taking the shot. Instead substituting the opportunity to watch, listen, and learn whatever lessons my quarry, nature, or companions might teach me. Leaving the field with my bag light or empty reminds me that game is not limitless, doesn’t exist with guarantees, and other aspects of the experience are sometimes more important.

Seeking a trophy plays a very tiny part in my motivations, defined more by opportunity and luck. As a deer hunter, I have never killed what I would consider an extraordinary animal (your definition may be different than mine). On some hunts, however, I carry trophy intent, subject to certain standards and conditions. Admittedly, on this point I struggle a bit. I’ve always been a little baffled by the idea of killing the most magnificent animals and the post hunt crowing, yet I am not immune.

Methods do play an important role. As hunting methods have become more innovative, I find myself trying to blend usefulness and convenience compared to, again, a personal set of standards. As I read the hunting stories from the 40s and 50s, I find myself appreciating simplicity and the old ways when the biggest investment you made apart from a reliable weapon and good clothing was effort and time. This stage can be particularly hard to navigate mostly due to today’s fascination with gadgets, technology, and the marketing of image and fantastical promises of success.

The sportsmen stage is the pinnacle. A merging of methods and motivations combined with a thoughtfulness of what I do and why I do it. It includes an appreciation of ethics and limits, and has a contemplative or even spiritual component. Waterfowl hunting, a personal favorite, provides a great example. Over time I have made decisions that allow me to pursue ducks and geese in ways that closely match my personal standards. One important decision was to become part of group of hunters whom I share similar values about conservation, wetlands, and hunting.

Once that decision was made other choices became easier and my reasons for hunting and the methods involved changed. Time in the marsh became an appreciation of moments and events, whether it be harvest, migration, or camaraderie. Working the ducks close into the decoys, watching dogs retrieve, sharing the marsh with friends, telling and hearing stories, and celebrating the success of newcomers have become most important.

We no longer rush to set up before shooting time. We hunt mostly from layout boats we pole into the marsh. No robo-stuff is used, and light gauge shotguns are often but not exclusively carried by shooters. On some days, the guns are purposefully laid aside in favor of simple observation. We savor the morning flight as we prepare, worship the evening flights, and all the critters and hunters are treated with respect. We are not confined by urgency and expectations. More could be said, but you get the idea.

Forty years after the original Jackson/Norton research, hunters and hunting have changed significantly. Yet, I wonder if the profiles have changed much. My own observations tell me as far as we have come, the American hunter has a lot of room for improvement. Each year there are way too many stories about hunters exhibiting bad behavior and lacking an ethical code. Sadly, also, there are still too many that pursue and kill wildlife (I’ll not call them hunters) with an attitude of self-interest, entitlement, and greed.

So, what changes in behavior might take us to a higher level without sacrificing the joy received from the act of hunting? Fundamentally, what we do and how we do it is deeply personal, beginning with individual thinking and choices. In his classic book Meditations on Hunting, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset states: “We have not reached ethical perfection in hunting. One never achieves perfection in anything, and perhaps it exists precisely so that one can never achieve it. Its purpose is to orient our conduct and to allow us to measure the progress accomplished.”

While many see hunting as simple recreation, the term is desperately deficient. By extension, many of us who call ourselves hunters often lack a clear understanding of what we do and why, offering only superficial explanations. Most troubling of all is that wildlife still fails to be shown the respect it should, being relegated to the categories of commodity, nuisance, or irrelevant. The Jackson/Norton stages are just a set of measures we can use to determine our progress, and decades later, maybe it’s time to construct an alternative set of measures to help define perfection. For your consideration: 1) Ethical Sportsmen, 2) Methods, 3) Harvest for Food and Conservation, and 4) Teaching Others. I’ll not define these letting them stand on their own. You can decide or perhaps imagine own version. Waidmannsheil!

Originally Published, Driftwood Outdoors, July 29, 2021

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