This one will probably rub some folks the wrong way but have no fear. I make no laws. I am no threat to anyone, because in the final analysis, I am a man in charge of nothing except my own thoughts, and even then, I sometimes lose control.
I want to talk about gadgets. Huntin’ and fishin’ gadgets.
Now this is an old topic. As old as the history of humans. Some of you may remember when Yarg and Mog, both purists, were horrified when Zok threw a spear at a bear rather than jabbing the animal up close and personal as was tradition. Unfortunately for Zok, he did not practice enough, judged distances poorly, and well, the bear ate him. But this simple act was enough to get younger members of the cave clan thinking about how many more bears they could kill if everyone hunted by throwing their own spear. Design improvements were made, a company was formed, Zok signature spears were marketed, and soon every cave wall in the land had pictures of rugged, stylishly adorned caveman hunters in a deep stare, throwing spears and posing with their trophies.
This would all change, of course, about 72,000 years later when the hunting world was once again turned upside down by the advent of the bow and arrow. The United Spear Throwers Association immediately condemned this method stating that using a bow with a gut string to fling an arrow denigrated the hunting experience. The Bow and Arrow Association rebuffed the criticism while proclaiming how this new method would enhance hunter recruitment and retention by creating expanded opportunities. Much later, the atlatl, confined mostly to backcountry mastodon hunters, would have a similar impact even as the Atlatl in the Schools Program ultimately failed because schools hadn’t yet been invented. Timing is everything.
The point of this deeply researched, factual recount is to say change is inevitable, but with each invention or modification, something along the way is lost. The greatest pleasures are often the simplest. Everything else is a distraction, and each distraction pulls you further away from the basic experiences and maybe the reason why you do it in the first place.
When I think about such quandaries, I often turn to Aldo Leopold. He didn’t have all the answers, but he certainly knew how to frame the argument and call the question. In his essay, Wildlife in American Culture, from A Sand County Almanac (1949), Leopold pitches the idea that outdoor recreation like hunting (and I’ll add fishing), “…are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast-value; [and] that excessive mechanization destroys contrast…”.
In other words, the acts of hunting and fishing take us back in time, to something basic and fundamental to our existence, and each layer of modernity added pushes us further away from those feelings and experiences.
He goes on to say, that outdoor journalism “…no longer represents the sport; it has turned billboard for the gadgeteer.” And wildlife agencies spend their time stocking the shelves rather than worrying “about the cultural value” of hunting and fishing. He also acknowledges not knowing where the line should be drawn but suggests the trajectory we are following is destined to “destroy the cultural value of the sport…”.
A never-ending debate. And the fact this debate persists tells me there’s something more to it than just a quarrel between the older nostalgia-driven folks and youthful newbies.
I recently talked to a wildlife agency official about a proposed regulation change allowing for another newfangled waterfowl hunting gadget. He thought the change was likely because of the slippery slope in trying to regulate personal hunting ethics. A puzzling mindset given the fact hunter ethics are embedded in some way in many regulations. I then asked an avid duck-hunting friend his thoughts about this particular gadget. He gave me a terrifyingly detailed description about the slow death he would prefer before he would ever use such an abomination.
Unfortunately, the barn door was left open long ago and you’ll never get the cows back inside. Mechanized decoys have forever changed waterfowl hunting in most places. And so, my agency contact was right about ethics. It really is mostly a personal choice. And preserving the cultural value of the sport really comes down to the limits we place on ourselves. I’m not hopeful.
There was a time when using a tree stand for deer hunting was considered taboo. They gave too much advantage to the hunter, said many. Diminished the idea of fair chase. Now they’re everywhere, ranging from the simple homemade to elaborate mini cabins in the sky.
Compound bows shook the world in the 1960s. Crossbows nudged that controversy off the radar. Simple to use and extremely accurate, crossbows make deer hunting more accessible to more people. I recently saw a picture of a 14-year-old girl posing with a very large buck she killed with a crossbow. I could hear the “real hunters” howl. It’s not fair, it’s too easy, she killed my deer, I could hear them say.
Trail cameras have further revolutionized hunting. Sitting in my tree stand early one morning, I received a text message on my satellite communication device. The message was from a friend who hunts neighboring land. He was at home, checking his phone because he heard the ubiquitous buzz alerting him to an incoming communication. The message he received came from his trail camera. The message he sent me was a video of a large buck possibly heading in my direction. I watched the woods a little more intensely for the next couple hours, but the buck never came.
Of course, fishing is not immune from the tech infection. One contraption getting the attention of the freshwater angling world these days is the real-time sonar known as LiveScope. Now you can watch your fish finder, live, as well as your retrieve and the reaction of the fish to your presentation. Anglers now watch screens like they’re playing a game on X-Box. Find a fish and drop a lure on its head. Find a musky and beat the water until the fish takes the bait out of annoyance. Find a pile of fish and attack with extreme prejudice.
I can’t deny the fascination and how tech makes fishing more interactive, and for those with attention issues, maybe more interesting. But it hurts my head to think about what we’re doing to the sport. A big part of fishing is knowing how. The exciting part of fishing is not knowing. But none of that matters anymore. Fishing is no longer the reason. Only catching matters. Just wait until they find a way to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) – you know it’s coming!
And as the gadgets permeate, other tech is filling in the gaps to provide faux social praise and acceptance. Another friend recently bemoaned a young deer hunter who hunted his property. As warm blood still trickled from the fatal wound, the hunter was posting grip and grin pictures on social media.
Text and post and, having met the objective, charge home. Forget the post hunt conversations and socialization, the contemplation and camaraderie. Creating memories and sharing stories. The box has been checked; the pixelated evidence secured. Time to move on to some other gratification. No other commitment necessary.
Leopold points out “…our tools for the pursuit…improve faster than we do, and sportsmanship is the voluntary limitation in the use of these armaments.” Further suggesting that we use “…mechanical aids, in moderation, without being used by them.”
Unfortunately, I fear that ship has sailed for many. Hunters and anglers want less uncertainty, more guarantees, less failure. We want shelves stocked like a grocery store. Guaranteed success. Nothing too difficult. Failure is not an option. And what of the future? Holographic decoy spreads? A Klingon cloaking device for duck boats? AI-informed apps to tell you what, where, when, and how?
Somewhere in the fog and ether there remains a little hope. I watched a video posted by an influencer on social media. He helped a young boy rig his little Zebco closed-face reel, imparting some knowledge along the way. A bobber over a baited hook. Just simple fishing and the surprise of success. The boy caught a monster bass, and I’m betting he’ll remember that fish and that spot on the shore of that lake forever. What will your memories be like?