The NRA’s dedication to the preservation of the Second Amendment and the protection of our right to keep and bear arms is very simply what we do. However, that is not all we do, or have done. The privilege to hunt with those arms has also been a dedicated cause for the NRA for a very long time; but in a relatively quiet way. With the launch of the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum the NRA’s support of the hunting sports and all that relates to hunting is no longer in the background. You see one facet of that here, and the sheer magnificence of it all speaks volumes; not only about the NRA’s greatly enhanced effort, but also about the spectrum and grandeur that is Hunting.
While what you see pleases and entertains us who “know,” it actually has a far higher purpose. That purpose is ammunition. Our bow needs arrows, our shotgun and rifle need cartridges, and our cause and future need ammunition as well. That ammunition is words, images and most important, thought processes that we can use to touch those who do not understand what we do and what we are. This is not fire and brimstone; instead it is beautiful, honest truth that can be used as a translator and ambassador for hunting. While there is probably little we can do to influence those radically against us, there is much we can do to communicate with those who are neutral, who do not know, who care about the wild world, and who would join our cause at some level if we communicate with them. So, please take what you find here and share it with pride with any and all who listen. It is possible that the ONE person you touch might one day make the difference.
I think it may be beneficial to the full understanding that we are hunters to begin at the beginning; to reach back to the dawn of man and think about the forge that formed us. Also, it is important to keep in mind in this day of 2017 you are very apt to bump into those who will listen, but who will be pretty sure we humans arrived on Earth fully formed, fully clothed and with an electronic gadget in our hands. They will need a trip backward in time to understand.
One of the turning points in my life as a hunter, as a human, came one late evening in the mountains of the Western Slope of Colorado. It was one of those extremely philosophical discussions that delved into the state of the human race. “What is wrong with us?” was the fundamental question we were trying to answer. The bounds of thinking were liberated by the top quarter of a bottle of good Scotch, and what the famous cinematographer said to me nearly four decades ago in answer to the question was so profound that his words are forever welded in my mind.
What he had said in more easily digested form is that we have evolved far away from our roots; we have virtually lost all touch with basic reality. Society as a whole has forgotten we are hunters. For most of the existence of mankind we have hunted for food, with clothing and houses being byproducts of what we caught.
Once there was one very fundamental concept to our survival: We need food, how will we catch it? Evolution of our species changed the shape of the answer: When we want to eat we go to the store and buy. But that does not mean that our roots are lost; that hunter lives deep in our DNA, and many still exercise the ancient plan.
I think to fully understand, especially if you are among the majority that chooses the supermarket option, we need to look at our history. To begin, we are predators. If you doubt that, look in the mirror. Your eyes; do they face forward or to the side?
Forward is for predators/hunters: wolves, sharks, tigers, bats, coyotes, lions and bears. Sideways is for food: deer, ducks, turkeys, buffalo and all of the other pure “grazers.” How about your teeth; any big sharp ones on the corners? Yes, canines! I agree that we are not pure meat eaters, but omnivores instead. But then; even the grizzly bear relishes tender grass, berries, roots and grubs ... and an elk steak.
We have come a long way, we humans, and no other “yardstick” measures our evolution better than our hunting. Our first hunts for meat were probably not terribly romantic, but incredibly courageous. We most likely used some sticks and drove several hundred pounds of big cat away from his kill and stole supper. Soon the sticks became well balanced clubs and perhaps, by luck or design, we thumped some small critter for dinner. Then we sharpened a stick and had a spear, and then added a sharp bone on the end and soon had the magnificent knapped flint spear point. We had range now, only a few feet, but we had the ability to kill at a distance. Next the wonderful atlatl, the lever that launched long, fletched dart-like spears. We invented the bow and arrow which gave us real range, and then the crossbow. These were followed closely by confined gun powder in a match lock, then wheel lock, then flint lock, and, and, and the hammerless ejector, and yes, the black plastic semi-auto hunting rifle and shotgun. But our tools and the engineering to make them were not the only or even the greatest part of our hunting-related evolution.
Our first hunting was probably random chance, but soon it became an organized activity. And, in the colder climates, it was simply the only way to survive. In order to be able to kill something like a mammoth, bison or giant deer—that not only fed us but provided clothing, tools and a house as well—we would have needed to be organized. This organization would have needed communication that began as grunts and gestures and evolved into language. When we killed there was the need to divide the meat insuring that all were fed; old, weak and our cubs, as well as the strong hunters. Law would have developed. Then someone was inspired to draw a picture of the game, the hunt or the hunters on a cave wall or skin and yes, we had art.
Coincident with all of this we had the need to try to summon help to aid our success and, of course, the fundamental need for protection, to be alive and in one piece after the hunt. We began to reach out to higher powers to help us and yes, religion. Hunting had become the very foundation of our existence; but then time and evolution marched on. We hunters, our habits, skills and methods all evolved and changed; all but the undeniable fact that we are hunters. We began to congregate in cities, and while we still coveted and ate meat, wild meat, true hunters became the minority. Most bought the game in “meat markets,” game that was hunted and killed by “market hunters.” Then, around 1900 here in the USA, the sudden revelation that game resources are finite altered our hunting and shopping habits. We had essentially wiped out most of the wild birds and game animals on the continent in an atmosphere without seasons, limits or other game laws. Everything was about to change.
To save the game, wise people and conservationists, often at the very real risk of being run out of town on a rail, created things like bag limits, closed seasons and National Parks. One of these Parks, Yellowstone, was the child of none other than our great hero, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States of America! More people moved to town and the small shop evolved into a supermarket. The wild deer and duck became the feed-lot cattle and hogs and the ultra-modern highly confined poultry producers. We do not need to hunt anymore! But just perhaps, we should. When we hunt we touch that reality that formed us, and at the same time, within the modern system we also protect and enhance the wild world.
As I have matured, my focus has turned to increasing the difficulty of my hunts, and perhaps, the spirituality. With that in mind, I want to share two of my very favorite hunts—two hunts that will be difficult for even the most radical of anti-hunters to detest.
The first is an elk hunt in a wild world I helped to recreate. The place was Elk Song in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon. Under my momentary stewardship it became home to one of the most natural wild elk populations in North America. I looked at them a lot and hunted them a little, and instead of choosing a way and place that would ensure success I often used a rifle that made the hunt almost impossible. I realize this is an odd, personal quirk; but it is one that many might want to pursue because the mental reward for success is very high.
On this particular autumn I chose a 12-gauge pinfire double rifle made by Rigby in England in about 1860. It represents the earliest breech loading arms and the gunmaker’s art in all its glory. It had, among other things, etched Damascus barrels of unparalleled beauty. I took it out one November afternoon with four shells and went to a very special place.
It is just above Wolf Creek, below the big meadows and right next to several bubbling live springs. The trees there are large, almost old growth, and there is a good bit of nice open grass beneath them. Cliffs jut out above and some of the most worn elk trails, in a world of worn elk trails, come out of the big canyon and pass through this park like paradise. On this afternoon it was foggy, with a little drizzle created by a warm Pacific front that had lumbered into the Blue Mountains. I walked the mile from the cabin, wound down the old trail and slipped quietly into the timber to a place on a little rise covered with fat young pines. The thick shed needles on the forest floor were dry and soft as I sat down and leaned back with those glorious barrels across my knees. It was almost surreal, the fog and gloom swirled in a silence that to some would have been sensory deprivation. Nothing moved, nothing stirred. The world, as near as I could tell, was at peace with itself, at least in this secluded place. Over the next hour the fog and gloom thickened so that I could just make out the trunk of a huge pine only 20 yards away. Then there was a tiny aberration in the silence: a mew, a squeal and a wee whistle far below in the canyon. It had begun, the chorus, like hump back whales, that is the very soul of Elk Song. The elk were out of their beds and moving toward the meadows.
Over the next half hour the sounds grew more numerous and varied and much closer. I could hear hoofs on the soft ground and smell elk; and once in a while there was an invisible shadow that appeared and disappeared before my eyes. The shadows might have been elk, might have been ghosts of elk or might have just been my imagination, but they were the final ingredient in the perfection of the moment. I could not judge time and it did not matter for there would be no demarcation between daylight and darkness this day. I watched of course, waiting for an opportunity to allow the ancient Rigby to do what it was made to do, but I did not really consider the possibility because I could not see. It was a time perfectly suited to the heightened senses of a blind man, so much to hear, smell and feel on your skin and nothing beyond the magical etched pattern on those barrels to see, and I believe even those would be more significant to his heightened touch. I was adrift in the fog, swirling with the eddies that swept silently through the trees, when there was a rift in front of me like a tear in a piece of grey fabric. It was about as wide as she was long and perhaps 50 yards in length. She stood framed as if she was supposed to be there as part of the immortality of it all. The silky lock drew in silence and the smoke filled in the rift. The others called more, but did not panic or run. As I walked forward she was there, in her special place where swirls of fog had again sealed the rift, and perhaps in the realm of elk, pinfires, black powder and ancient Rigbys, had even sealed time itself. For I know it will never happen again.
In another world and in another way we formed a family tradition, one that created an artificial hunger, and an artificial NEED to hunt for food. This shopping venture was for the “Christmas Goose.” The Canada geese became part of everyday life on my old home ranch in Colorado. A few nested and raised their goslings in the summer and thousands adopted my realm as their winter home. At some point in time, without specific beginning or end, I fell in love with the geese. I looked forward to the arrival of the long Vs each fall. Their cries and beauty in the sky became the moderating factor that made the seemingly endless chain of harsh winter days tolerable.
This love affair grew until I couldn't shoot them anymore. I almost stopped hunting geese, even though there wasn't any social or biological reason for the abstinence. There were too many geese, and to my amazement they annoyed the city dwellers by daring to live in their parks and on their golf courses. But they were also one of my favorite foods and a necessary ingredient in the Christmas feast. It was Christmas dinner, or more accurately the lack of it, that unwittingly caused an essential “hunger” that continues as a tradition.
A few days before Christmas I plowed through the big chest freezer to select Christmas dinner and found that the cupboard was bare. No one had put a goose in the freezer that fall. This, the most grand of annual feasts, was in dire peril. On Christmas Eve we guided some other hunters, thinking surely they would provide The Christmas Goose. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it was below zero that morning and the geese did not fly at all. When the hunters left, my then very young son Rich wanted to stay in the blind and try a bit longer. A failed Christmas dinner was not to be taken lightly. I left him with my Labrador, Rigby, and a Beretta 10-gauge double that was somewhat larger than the would‑be provider.
While I was opening a gate, some half-mile from the blind, I heard a rather off‑tone goose call and stopped to watch. Of course boys, young and old, will play with their goose calls. I was sure RJ was entertaining himself until I saw the glint of a pair of the great grey birds in the blue northern sky. That the geese had flown out at high noon was uncommon; that they decoyed to the screech was unreasonable. I saw the front bird fold long before I heard the boom of the great gun. To the best of my knowledge the 12‑year-old had never fired the big 10 gauge before. Even looking back over many years, I am not sure of all of the factors that contributed to that Christmas goose … some things are best left unexplained. What did happen that day, aside from my having an unreasonable level of pride in the deed, was that I began to realize that there was a way to create an artificial need to hunt: "because I was hungry.” From that day forward we adopted two simple rules to make us hungry: We only dine on goose at Christmas and he must be taken on Christmas Eve.
In the end, the methods and hunts are as varied as the men and women who pursue them. There is, however, one common factor: We are undeniably hunters, and that is why we are what we are.