“Well now,” he continued, “a gentleman starts down at his boots and works up to his hat. A gentleman is, first of all, polite. A gentleman never talks down to nobody, or even to anybody that says ‘anybody’ instead of ‘nobody’. A gentleman ain’t greedy. A gentleman don’t holler at anybody else’s dogs. A gentleman pays his score as he goes. He don’t take what he can’t put back, and if he borrows, he borrows from banks. He never troubles his friends with his troubles.”
“What is a sportsman?” The Old Man wasn’t even asking me this. He nodded his head, as if he was giving himself a vote of confidence. “A sportsman,” he said to nobody, “is a gentleman first. But a sportsman, basically, is a man who kills what he needs, whether it’s a fish or a bird or an animal, or that he wants for a special reason, but he never kills anything just to kill it. And he tries to preserve the very same thing that he kills a little bit of from time to time.”
“I never knew a bad man who was what I’d call a sportsman,” he said. “I never knew a true sportsman who wasn’t a gentleman. So, if you are a gentleman and a sportsman, you can’t be a bad man. Is that clear?”
~ The Old Man, per Robert Ruark
Some of my best memories are hunting or fishing with my Dad and my brother, and later my sister. It was a time when we had Dad all to ourselves, and we could bond around a common cause.
There was the ride out to wherever we were going, usually a few hours early in the dark morning, with a stop at one of those roadside cafes where we could get biscuits and gravy or other elaborate breakfasts. Dad always picked up several orders of sausage biscuits “to go” so we would eat later in the morning, too.
Sometimes my Uncle Buddy from Oklahoma would join us. He was older than my dad and had hunted all over, preferring quail as the gentleman’s game of choice. Often, as we were gathering to begin the hunt, we’d be finding things, ferreting out more shotgun shells or water, or just generally being disorganized, Buddy would call us to order with, “Well boys, as the old whore said to the fraternity boys – did we come here to fuck or just fuck around?” That usually got us going.
Dad was a tax lawyer and we often combined quail and duck hunting on one of my dad’s clients’ West Texas ranches — they had that kind of relationship. We’d stalk up on farm ponds (we called them “tanks” — I don’t know why) and “jumped” any sitting ducks, causing them to fly before shooting at them. We could also put out decoys. Most of the time, waiting for the ducks in the blind was cold and not very comfortable. Someone, usually my dad, would spot an incoming flight of ducks, or maybe you’d be surprised by the whir of wings overhead and freeze in place. Dad would work the duck call and we’d wait for them to land and try to catch them just before they hit the water.
After the sun was up, we’d collect our ducks and decoys, gather at the truck and clean and ice down the taken birds, before eating the biscuit sandwiches and having something hot — usually coffee for the adults and hot chocolate for us kids. Then we’d move to a more suitable place for quail.
My dad’s bird dogs were mostly trained, and he would release and direct them in the direction we were hunting. We’d fan out in a line, no one getting ahead or behind so to minimize getting shot, following the dogs as they scoured the ground for scent, then tracked it. The rough Texas terrain was often brushy and hilly, with cactus and mesquite and you had to watch your step, as well as the dogs and your companions.
When the dogs went “on point’”, we all waited for my dad to contain the other dogs (who were taught to honor the original pointer by stopping and pointing at them). Slowly we approached the pointing dog – step by step, inch by inch – and then the ground would explode with a “flushing covey”, wings drumming a startling blast of sound as you tried to focus on just one bird out of the dozen or so scattering across your vision. Shots were fired and most of the times birds fell to be retrieved by one of the dogs … as your heart rate slowed back down to normal.
For me hunting was not about the shooting anymore than fishing was about the catching. It was the sense of camaraderie, a time to be doing one thing together. We not only hunted, but we saw amazing things – strange objects, animals, landscapes, skulls and discarded antlers, snake skins, skeletons, and even old abandoned farming or oil well drilling machinery.
An added benefit was that we got to (had to, per my dad) eat whatever we took. The freezer back home was stocked full of duck, quail, dove, turkey and, sometimes, venison. Somehow the fish never made it to the freezer, but was fried up immediately upon our arrival back home. My mom was great at that kind of cooking.
We took pride in eating our game, and I was proud one Christmas when, as an adult, I went back home from Arizona to bring along a couple of geese that I had shot out there. Christmas goose is still one of my favorites. Wild goose is far less greasy than domestic — all dark meat and tastier than domestic turkey. It made for a good Christmas feast, and the leftovers made good sandwiches when sliced thin.
Quail hunting particularly was a way to learn organization and manners. We always said “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am” not only because we were taught to, but because my father set that example for us. (A coach on the freshman football team in college called me “West Point” for that reason.) Dad was genuinely polite to almost everyone, including dogs, and treated them like they mattered. He was gentle and patient with his bird dogs, and with his kids, as well. He taught us all what was expected of us and held us to that behavior.
I learned that each one had a role. The dogs each had a job — follow directions, find quail and point them, back up (honor) the dog on point, and fetch any fallen birds. As a hunter, you had your place and responsibility over a given space; you didn’t intrude on anyone else’s and they kept out of yours. Gun safety was paramount and strictly enforced. You policed the area, cleaned and put away your gear at the end of the day. These learned attributes were invaluable to me in sports and as an adult and when I began to work with multidisciplinary teams.
Most of all, hunting and fishing was fun! You did cool things with people you liked, there were lots of strange and interesting things to see and find, and sometimes, the result was something unusual and good to eat. We were lucky to have the experience and access to the places we went.
Times are changing. According to Nathan Rott, “A new survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) shows that today, only about 5 percent of Americans, 16 years old and older, actually hunt. That’s half of what it was 50 years ago and the decline is expected to accelerate over the next decade.” The FWS noted, “over a tenth of adult Americans (11 percent) went target shooting, either at a range or more informally in the field;” and notes that “In 2018, about 43 percent of U.S. households had at least one gun in possession.”
So, not a lot of gun ownership for hunting, it seems.
On the other hand, FWS says, “a staggering 40 percent of the U.S. population 16 years and older – participated in some form of fishing, hunting or other wildlife-associated recreation such as birdwatching or outdoor photography.” More people are involved in the outdoors, but fewer are hunting. “Increased urbanization, restricted access to huntable areas, lack of free time, and the rise of Netflix, video games and all-consuming youth sports are all dropping hunter numbers.”
Nathan Rott highlighted a significant evolving problem: most state conservation programs are funded by hunting and fishing licenses. Those “other wildlife-associated recreation such as birdwatching or outdoor photography” don’t require licenses or payment for use of the resources, so state conservation programs are seeing reductions in funding from traditional sources. It will only get worse.
The biggest issue is a “demography wall”. That wall is an age. Sixty-five. “That’s when the average hunter stops buying licenses and picking up their rifle,” according to Keith Warnke with the State of Wisconsin.
The unstated problem, of course, is that while hunter numbers are shrinking, gun ownership is increasing, as are gun deaths and gun suicide rates.
Since I learned about safe gun handling as a kid while hunting, I am concerned that today’s kids and adults are learning gun safety from video games and TV shows, if at all. A friend and I (both old curmudgeons, according to my wife) comment nearly continuously at the TV about how unsafe everyone is with their guns (not to mention that a revolver can apparently now shoot twenty times without reloading). It seemed back then that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was all about hunting and gun safety. Now the NRA seems to be only focused on politics and scaring people into buying guns to either protect themselves from “others” or to overthrow the US government.
I know that few people can have the experiences I had growing up and spending time with my family hunting, fishing and generally being outdoors. I learned a lot about hunting, fishing and nature, but mostly about myself and those around me. I experienced life and death on a small scale, hard work and reward, and the camaraderie of doing something fun and worthwhile as a member of a group. The guns in hunting were secondary to the rest of the experience and the enjoyment of nature.
From hunting, I learned some important things very early: a gun is not a toy; an “unloaded” gun can be deadly; don’t shoot at anything unless you can see all of it; make your expectations clear; know where everyone (people and dogs) is at all times; do your job and trust that your companions (people and dogs) will do theirs. And, remember that it’s not a competition, it’s fun and often dinner.
Note: Whether you are a hunter, supporter or anti-hunting, I’d like you to read a great book by Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy, 1953. You will enjoy it and it may help you understand the allure of hunting and fishing a little. The memoirs of a childhood hunting and fishing set the tone for hunting done properly with a reverence for nature, people and dogs, and has great mouth-watering descriptions of eating what you catch.
Nathan Rott, Decline In Hunters Threatens How U.S. Pays For Conservation, March 20, 2018, All Things Considered, National Public Radio
Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy, 1953
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, April 2018, FHW/16-NAT