Sportsmen or Opportunist?

Posted on February 26, 2019


“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted… if one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift, he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.” José Ortega Y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting



As I stood mired in over two feet of fresh snow, a bit winded from pushing through it, a sight to behold stood belly deep fanned out before me. Seven whitetails in all. Five does and two bucks stood facing me up to their withers in snow, panting like beagles on a rabbit and were either unwilling or temporarily unable to move despite the threat of death now standing in front of them.

What a windfall for me: deer standing not thirty feet away and my rifle at the ready. But there would be no roar from the business end of my carbine. Not today. Not under these conditions. I turned and began plowing back toward the road, stopping once to look back at the group. They had not moved an inch. I felt good about my decision – this was no hunt; no challenge. To shoot just seemed wrong, and completely unfair.



Teddy Roosevelt in his 1902 essay titled, The Whitetail Deer scratched:

Personally, I feel that the chase of any animal has in it two chief elements of attraction. The first is the chance given to be in the wilderness; to see the sights and hear the sounds of wild nature. The second is the demand made by the particular kind of chase upon the qualities of manliness and hardihood.

In Trails of Enchantment, Paulina Brandereth, an Adirondack hunter and photographer who also wrote for the sporting publication Forest and Stream over a century ago, penned:

A real man does not care for sport that does not involve difficulty, discomfort, and sometimes danger. The trouble with modern life is that physically it is terribly softening. We need something to counteract the effects of luxury and too easy living.

The white-tailed deer remains prolific and is often described as beautiful, graceful, elusive and stately. To just go out and kill one without an investment of time and energy doesn’t create a story; there is no narrative other than, “bang goes the gun.” There has to be more to it than that or else it quickly loses its appeal. When you realize that this is really about the hunt, the piece of the entire experience you’ll long for is the adventure, more than the antlers. It takes days, weeks, months, and yes, even years for some to arrive at that single moment when the long-sought trophy is within reach – when only the squeeze of a trigger separates you from the prize and all of your work comes down to a split-second.



Most white-tailed deer hunters, from the animated characters of yester-year ‘who stalked through life like a deer’ traveling from backwoods cabin to backwoods cabin, taking tracks of white-tailed deer with great delight, to the present-day enthusiasts that embrace a world enmeshed in modern technology, collectively romance the mystique of the hunt. “Successfully stalking one of these heavy-shod, burly-horned, seasoned old strategists,” according to Archibald ‘Flintlock’ Rutledge, “is a woodland victory of the first order…No other creature so large lives so silently, so secretively and so self-effacingly.”

Rutledge goes on:

Those of us that hunt deer for sport must never lose sight of the fact that its interest is due chiefly to the nature of the game pursued. It is a classical exercise in freedom and a return to fundamentals that are instinctively basic and right… I hope to be a stag follower as long as I can see a sight. This feeling I attribute to the character of the deer – that noble, elusive, crafty, wonderful denizen of the wilds, the pursuit of which is surely the master sport of the huntsman.



Roosevelt, with great disdain, also wrote,

When snows grow deep, the deer is wholly unable to move once the yard is left, and hence it is at the mercy of a man on snowshoes…the man on snowshoes can move very comfortably, and the cougar and the wolf, although hampered by the snow, are not rendered helpless like the deer…Hide hunters and frontier settlers sometimes go out after the deer on snowshoes when there is a crust, and hence this method of killing is called crusting.



Walking upon and shooting a buck, unable or unwilling to rise from his bed, completely exhausted from trudging through the morass of over two feet of snow isn’t a hunting feat, it’s taking advantage of a weakened animal. In these conditions, plowing along a deer trail following the spoor of what should be the most graceful of all our game animals, isn’t tracking, it’s hounding.

Roosevelt continues: “It is simple butchery, for the deer cannot, as the moose does, escape its pursuer. No self-respecting man would follow such a butcherly method of hunting, save from the necessity of having meat.”

Messach Browning, in his book Forty-Four Years of the Life of a Hunter writes,

There lay the buck, contently chewing his cud, apparently considering himself perfectly secure. He was watching the ground in front, not thinking that an enemy could approach on the side, which heavy vegetation so completely covered. The buck moves just enough to reveal his heavy antlers and part of his broad chest. For a split-second the hunter sees what a complete advantage he has, and momentarily it greatly mars his pleasure to think that such a noble animal, possessing all the beauty bestowed by a pair of fine large horns, a well-formed body, and tapering limbs, whose life had been innocently spent, never having committed an injury against either man or beast, – should be thus sacrificed.



The buck bounds, and with each leap it takes more effort and energy to make the next jump. Once beyond his follower’s grasp, the animal slows to a trot, which expends even more effort as he pushes through the white debris. A whitetail’s lung capacity is such that they can only go for short bursts before slowing or coming to a complete stop. Add the deep abys of snow and the deer is rendered nearly incapacitated, at least until trails have been developed in and near their traditional winter yards.

The man continues his advance on the buck with a steady, unrelenting pace. The buck, with his tongue now hanging out plods along stopping much more frequently. And then, just like taking a stand at the Alamo, the buck can go no further. He turns to face his enemy with snow lapping at his belly. The hunter spies the buck upon rounding the bend in the trail. His rifle is raised, the safe is off, the finger comes to rest upon the trigger…



Far be it from me to be anyone’s conscience or tell somebody how they should hunt within the legal boundaries of the law. If you need a deer badly enough to either feed your family or ego, do what you must. But please, don’t attempt to pass this off as expertise, tracking or even hunting; It is not. It is an opportunity based solely upon conditions of deep snow and the innate behavior of the whitetail to head for their winter range and traditional deer yards that contributed to your success. Nothing more!

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