Hunting hasn’t lost its soul. And social media is not real life. This is what I thought about throughout my 2021 season.
“Far and away, the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” — Theodore Roosevelt
This past weekend, I stood in a small clearing on the side of a mountain ridge thick with Douglas fir and stands of quaking aspen. I was alone. The weather was hot, like really hot — 65 degrees is not the norm for the final weekend of the rifle season in Montana. It was November 28, and I overdressed.
“I could be swimming in a river,” I thought. “I could be laying out and getting a tan.” Instead, I was hunting.
For a moment, I stopped to cool down, grab some water, and take a waypoint. And as I stood there in the dry open grass, I heard a snuffle. I lifted my eyes to see a young mule deer on the opposite edge of the clearing, about 20 yards from where I stood. This spike was legal tender in this district. I had the wind.
The buck sniffed at the ground and began to walk across the clearing. Yards closed. He paused. Took another step. Five yards from me now, and boom! He hit my scent like a brick wall, spun, and leaped three huge strides away. He still hadn’t seen me, though I was right there.
In the curious way of the mule deer, he turned broadside and finally pegged me. Both of us maintained a stillness that burst like thin glass once I took a step forward. He bounded into the thick trees to my right.
I kept heading left. Up the ridge, I went.
A story now lived in my back pocket, when a deer could have been coming out with me on my back.
Miles Upon Miles in the Mountains, Plains, and Woods
Since the first week of September, I absconded to the woods whenever possible. I’ve chased mountain grouse, pheasant, sharptail grouse, Hungarian partridge, doves, deer, pronghorn, and elk. Bow, shotgun, or rifle in hand.
I felt more a hunter than I ever have. The miles fled under my feet, a welcome change from years past. Birds rip roared into the sky out of the tall grass at my feet, satellite bull elk bugled in golden cottonwood river bottoms, and deer bounded through sage flats and peeked at me through the timber.
I encountered moose, songbirds, raptors, coyotes, enormous jackrabbits, a lost and bleating bighorn ewe lamb, and stark white ermine in a dowdy brown snowless scene.
The sun shone hotly for so much of the season that my late-season clothes never made an appearance. Areas that I’d hunted before were food-scarce and lacked their usual water sources.
The land was browsed down and thirsty, and animals were on the move. I found them tucked in new spaces near reliable water sources and piled onto food-thick private lands where no doubt their presence wasn’t always welcome.
And for the first time since my knee surgeries, I felt like an asset to friends in the field. After 4 years of limiting knee problems, the liberation from pain freed me from physical uncertainty in the field.
A girlfriend and I doubled on pronghorn does in winds that nearly took the skin off my face. I helped strangers pack elk off a high sagebrush bench when my truck broke down on the side of a highway. I packed the hide of a dear friend’s mule deer doe; she kept it as a totem to her first successful solo hunt in Montana.
It was also a season of growth for me, my friends, and our bird dogs. My Boykin spaniel retrieved his first pheasant. My friend’s young Gordon setter set a new standard for elegance afield. And a Brittany by the name of Chief continued to earn stripes in many miles covered. Birds were pointed, flushed, and retrieved by all.
And in another feat of teamwork, I kept a watchful eye from on high as my friend Danielle Prewett of both MeatEater and Wild and Whole put an incredible and successful stalk on her first mule deer buck after days of hard hunting. We were worried he might get bumped; no such thing happened.
Stepping Away From Work and Into the Present
I write a piece similar to this one each year, and the resounding themes are thus: I have opportunities that I don’t take. I cover country and see nothing that I can or want to fill a tag on, so I pass.
I’m grateful for my physical health to be outside. I love tackling the world of the outdoors on my own.
All these things ring true. Seven years of hunting and the terroir of my journey gets more complex with each step into wild country. I love hunting with friends, but hunting alone is where the truth of my inner being sings a song unknowable to anyone but me.
The presence I feel when the land is mine, and mine alone, to cover is unlike anything else that exists in my modern-day life. Tangential feelings of shame never sully my steps like they have when I’ve hunted with others in the past. The feelings like I’m not fast enough, or fit enough, or experienced enough — they’re dust on the wind.
My five senses step into a superhuman category.
Air filtering through the feathers of ravens’ wings overhead spins my eyes to the sky. Pine and sage take hold of my olfactory until the deep and musky scent of elk bursts through like a fever.
Every disturbance in the dirt or snow is a curiosity to pay attention to. Animal scat fills my world with predictions of timing and closeness. Water is sweet like candy on hot days; a cold beer at the end of a long day afield is even better.
I am simply close to the earth on those days, and she, in turn, shows herself to me. Prayer follows me through my hunt in ways that I thought it would never again after a religious upbringing gone awry.
But the prayers aren’t between me and an intangible, all-knowing god, and I’m not asking as much as I am thanking. No, those prayers exist between me and the deep tangibility of my surroundings.
Where the Hunting Ego Meets Its Counterparts
I don’t think about work in those moments, what I’ll post on social media, or write about in the next article. Those thoughts are for moments like right now, when I’m tucked into a chair with a laptop for 8-10 hours a day, trying to make a living.
Big bucks don’t typically grace my feed; I’ve never managed to fill my elk tag. In fact, I only filled one tag and bagged just a few birds in nearly a hundred miles of country walked.
Funny enough, I don’t feel like a failure. Nor do I feel that any external pressure is exerted on me to fuel a professional fire with the price of the blood of another being.
I can’t speak for everyone in the hunting realm. Surely, more than a few people do feel pressure to pull triggers. Wild amounts of cash are invested in the pursuit of wild animals each year, some less wild than others.
Some turn to private lands rich with unhassled animals and golden with opportunity. (Undoubtedly, some of those experiences are far beyond any I’ve had in the field to date.) Some instead turn to illegal methods of take. And the reasons for poaching extend far beyond ego, though it certainly can play a part.
Mediating that self-important gray area between the conscious and the subconscious is not necessarily for the faint of heart. Somewhere in that muddied space, our personal identities meet both reality and the idealized versions of the person we’d like to think we are. I can’t assume I’m any further in this process of mediation than anyone else.
I too am stuck in a reality of my own making. Many hunters both consciously and subconsciously broadcast this effort between the id, ego, and superego on a truncated and performative internet timeline that lacks context, subtlety, and detail.
But online isn’t the real world, and context — though king — never seems to find a crown that truly fits in that space.
Committing the Personal to the Professional
In a clickbait world full of curated and profitable imagery, it’s true that the visage of dead animals drives views, clicks, comments, and engagement.
It’s also true that an industry worth billions grew up around hunting in ways no one could have imagined.
This can appear, on the surface, trite and without soul. And there are days where the work is hard, people are cold and mean, and I daydream about a job that is fully removed from my passions.
When you’re passionate about your work, your work becomes personal. The boundary lines drawn between your heart and your bank account are thin and fragile.
And having skin in the game means that skin is often going to be wounded, sometimes by people who you’d least expect. I’ll admit it can feel like a sacrificial game when, like me, you’re in the middle ground.
On the other hand, I’ve met more people in this line of work that care more deeply about future generations of people, habitat, and wildlife than in any industry I’ve worked in prior.
Moments like these fuel the fire. They fill the soul. And they reinforce what it means to do a good job as a communicator.
It Only Gets Better
Good stories have always been a vector for change in first hearts, and then minds. And a good hunting story doesn’t always involve the pulling of a trigger, though many hunting stories certainly do. In fact, the finest storytellers among us are adept at eschewing that notion entirely.
In looking back on my time in the field this past year, it’s been the best yet. And for me, both hunting and fishing continue in that trajectory year after year. Skillsets simply become more fun as they become more refined.
The serendipity in this effort is twofold, really: I’m able to head afield and continue in my effort to be a better hunter. And then, I’m given the privilege to sit behind a laptop and try to work out what I’ve learned.
Sometimes, I’ll tell you about the best pants I’ve ever worn. Other times, like today, I can dig in a bit more to the matters of the heart. And ultimately, I hope to better educate a broader public about the soulful side of the sporting life in the process.
Perhaps that’s too earnest for some.
For me, it’s work worth doing.