Hunting for Hipsters
Why locavores who’ve never held a gun should go and kill things that are pretty
By David S. LewisPublished November 1, 2012
Hunting animals is a controversial topic, somehow. For some, it conjures up the imagery of the Great White Hunter-type, some dude with handlebar moustaches wearing a pith helmet and a smoking jacket, surrounded by the mounted heads of hundreds of exotic animals. Perhaps a little closer to Ohio, hunting is associated with other redneck sports, like leering at women and shotgunning Natural Light.
In reality, only non-sportsmen consider hunting a “sport.” For those that partake, its relationship to football is nonexistent. Hunters aren’t looking to win a competition, and they typically show a good deal more respect to their prospective quarry than OSU students show fans seated in the visitor’s bleachers.
Most hunters have much in common with many urban young professionals … they care about their food, and they want to be as familiar with its sourcing as possible. You know how good you feel when you buy local eggs, or Snowville Creamery milk? You read the carton and feel good that the animals are treated well and fairly, with respect and pasture. Hunters care about those things, too. They want to be more connected to their food, familiar with the journey meat makes to the table. No one who’s ever field dressed a deer looks at a Styrofoam package of hamburger the same way again. Killing a game animal isn’t the purpose of the hunt, but instead its consummation. Much like gardeners and farmers care for their plants and animals only to eventually eat some of them, hunters know the strange mixed triumph and sadness of a felling shot. The satisfaction of the kill, and a quieter sorrow for the quarry’s passing, is an infinitely more passionate and emotional connection to food than pulling chicken nuggets out of a bag.
Hunters are also wildlife conservationists, and provide more funding to protect species and habitat than of any group. Licenses fund field agencies, and the purchase of any hunting gear entails an 11-percent tax that goes to a federal wildlife conservation fund. Nearly all hunters have a deep appreciation for the wilds and the various creatures that live there. The habitat is not accessory to the hunt; it is the hunt.
Hunters play another critical role in conservation, as well: because of the decrease in natural predators and the gradual encroachment of society on their habitats, populations of game animals (particularly deer) must be managed by someone. Without regulated hunting, an orderly and scientific means of controlling the biological surplus of an area’s carrying capacity, that surplus would find others ways to die (because die it must), whether from starvation, disease, or an unfortunate encounter with your vehicle’s bumper.
Hunters also have a longstanding tradition of generosity. The number of tags with which one is allowed to venture afield hardly guarantees a harvest of the same, but when hunters are able to fill their tags with more than they need for themselves, the remainder is donated to food pantries and shared with families that benefit greatly from the lean, nutritious, and natural meat. Many hunters will either pay to have the donated deer processed, or contribute to charities that pay for the processing to avoid passing the cost on to the food banks. Last year alone, Ohio hunters donated over 104,400 pounds of venison to the needy – equivalent to 417,600 meals – and last year was a slender harvest statewide. Organizations like the Safari Club and Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry helped fund the processing and inspection for the meat.
Hunting is good for our economy, too. Estimates place annual economic activity from hunters at around $860 million dollars, from purchasing equipment to hospitality services to paying for processing and taxidermy.
So you, locavore … you like farmer’s markets, right? This is a lot like that. The big difference is you were probably taught from an early age how to approach a man who owns tomatoes, hand him money, and then take some tomatoes. Hunting is alien to you if you didn’t grow up hunting, and it probably seems foreign, scary, and maybe gross. You don’t own a gun, you’ve maybe never even fired one, and your friends are more likely to chat of fixed gears than fixed sights. And cleaning an animal? Isn’t that super gross?
Well yes, in point of fact, it is pretty gross. But, like clipping your toenails or pooping, you get used to it, and in fact learn to appreciate it more. I know at least one vegetarian who reclaimed an omnivorous diet after butchering a hog at a farm. Understanding where the food comes from, and every part of what goes into its journey, is usually important to a locavore.
If you’ve been considering hunting but feel it is too daunting a prospect, consider it a little harder. This is a great time of year to try hunting in Ohio, and there are lots of resources to help you on your way, as well as a variety of hunting experiences – there’s definitely one that will fit your level of experience as well as your wallet.
Even if you’ve never shot a gun before, one of the principle firearms used in hunting, the shotgun, is easy to learn, relatively inexpensive, versatile, and intuitive. That said, there is no substitute for safety around firearms, and absolutely no second chances after a trigger is pulled, so you should consider a basic firearm safety course part of your initial expense.
Around this time of year, sporting goods stores like Dick’s or Cabala’s tend to run sales on shotgun “combos,” which generally means a shotgun with a “field” barrel used for hunting birds and small game, and a rifled “slug” barrel. Field barrels shoot “shot,” tiny lead pellets that spread out as they leave the gun, effectively showering the target with tiny bullets. That makes hitting small, fast-moving animals like birds or rabbits far easier, while damaging the meat very little. The slug barrel is used for hunting larger game, effectively converting your shotgun into a rifle capable of humanely killing larger prey. Slugs are used primarily for deer in Ohio – in fact, high-powered rifles are not permitted for deer hunting here, because rifle bullets can travel for miles, something not suited for hunting in this state.
Combos are a great introduction to firearms. Essentially two guns in one, the whole package will generally run you between $250 and $400 dollars. Sometimes they even come with a small scope for the slug barrel. The two best–selling combos (due to longstanding reputations for reliability, ease of maintenance, and their low cost) are the Mossberg 500 and the Remington 870.
Find “that” friend
Maybe it’s a relative. Maybe it’s a friend of a friend, or an in-law, or an in-law’s friend. Someone you know is a hunter. If not an avid, every-season-every-game kind of hunter, he (or, increasingly, she) likes to go out once or twice during deer season, or at least shoot skeet (a game played with shotguns, firing at clay disks called “pigeons.”) These people are generally happy to share as much knowledge as you’ll listen to. They can give you tips on great public spots, techniques, and certainly on gear.
In fact, offer your new friend a six-pack in exchange for going to the sporting goods store with you. Not only will he (or she) prevent you from buying unnecessary or impractical gadgets, he will probably realize he has two of something you do need, and offer to loan, sell, or barter it to you instead. The sporting goods store is resplendent with the siren calls of weird junk and bizarre devices, and you don’t need or want 95 percent of it. Hunting is best approached simply; try to avoid getting caught up in the consumerism, and instead remain focused on the experience.
Start with small game
I would recommend sitting out your first deer season as a hunter, unless you are very, very excited about deer, because hunting them can be very, very cold, very, very boring, and even very, very gross. They are large and complex animals and the possibilities for a terrible first stalk as an inexperienced hunter range from cold wet personal misery, mind-numbing doldrums, setting yourself up somewhere silly or dangerous, or even dealing with a poorly shot animal. You probably didn’t drive a dragster the day you got your learner’s permit.
I would suggest you begin with upland birds, such as grouse, chukar, and ring-necked pheasant. They are relatively easy quarry to find and require no extra permit than your hunting license. There are other benefits, as well: practice can be had cheaply by shooting at clay pigeons, they are found by walking across beautiful open fields, they are easily cleaned and prepared, and they are delicious.
On cleaning game
and overcoming squeamishness
The idea of field dressing an animal that was living until you killed it is, I think, a major obstacle for would-be hunters … but it is a very important part of the process, perhaps more important than anything else. It’s easy to learn to shoot. It’s easy to pull the trigger. It’s the food part that reconnects you to what goes inside you, and to the food cycle that you are a part of. Food does not come from cans. Vegetables grow and are full of life, living under the same sun as you until they are rudely yanked from the ground, processed with foreign chemicals, finally processed and shoved into a dark tin. Or frozen, or whatever. So are animals. When it comes to food, you might have fonder feelings for a rabbit you’ve never met than the tomato you painstakingly grew from seed – and that’s up to you, but at the same time, we’re talking about your belly and how things get to be there.
Begin to overcome your squeamishness by purchasing some whole chickens. Chances are good that you normally buy them already prepared in one way or another, but whole chickens are not only a much better value (two boneless breasts are often the same price as one entire chicken, which also comes with two breasts), you can be more confident of the conditions of its processing, because you did it yourself. All you need is a sharp knife and five minutes on the Internet, and you will learn much about how birds become food. The skill translates readily to turkeys, grouse, pheasants, and ducks.
Later, after you’ve cleaned some of your own birds, take a rabbit (during season). It’s furry, but you will be better prepared by your experience with the birds, and you will be ready. Work your way up to larger game at a pace you are comfortable with … remember, you’re eating well the whole time. And you will find the chicken you understand and prepared yourself tastes much more satisfying.
Hunting is learned in two ways: listening to stories, and going afield yourself. The stories of hunters are great, and sometimes even useful, and you will pick up jargon and tips and tricks, but you won’t find the essence of hunting in their words. You won’t even approach that essence until your boot sinks into the soft mud at the edge of the field early in the morning, with the sun just barely peeking over the edge of the meadow.
If you are safety conscious and remain vigilant for other hunters, simply walking around the public hunting areas at Deer Creek State Park or Delaware State Park with a shotgun in your hands and an orange vest on is going to take you a very, very long way. It doesn’t matter if you even load the damn thing: your first trip out, preferably alone, is going to be a significant experience. You will find yourself thinking much differently than you normally do. You will wake up earlier than you are accustomed to; you will pour yourself a cup of coffee at a gas station and then hesitate before adding cream and sugar. When you get to your field, you will thrill to the newness of the activity, and you will load your gun and throw some extra shells in the orange vest’s bulky pockets and as you walk away from your car and into the field. Red thorny branches will tear at you and tall, soft meadowgrass will kiss you and it will wave at you amberly as you wade through it, and as the sun comes up and the sky blues it will stand in stark contrast against that vivid early sky, and whisper at you of your adventure.
For a while, you will wonder what in hell you’re doing out there. You’re not a hunter! You aren’t going to find any birds. No long, graceful pheasants will lift out of their hunkers, beating at the blue sky away from you, offering you the deceitful temptation of their long tails; no grouse will explode from underneath your feet like feathered landmines. Even if they do flush for you, you just started shooting last week, and were barely able to hit the orange clay Frisbees that flew when you requested them to; how in hell are you going to shoot a bird out of the air? And, even if you do, you are going to have to clean it. Jesus, the YouTube videos were confusing at best and nauseating at worst … you don’t know a beak from a breastbone. You’ll tear it to pieces and then you’ll probably puke.
And any of those could happen, of course. You might wander for hours and never even see a bird. But then your senses will begin to adjust, and you will begin to see trails. You might even find a feather, or a nest, or see the tip of grounded pheasant’s tail disappear behind a row of cropped grass … was that a pheasant?
Your gait will slow, and somehow seem to match the pace of the tall blowing grass. You will hear leaves hitting the ground, or a mouse run through the grass 15 yards away, or see a matted area of grass and a bird will have slept there – how do I know that? Before long, you’ll look at your watch, and realize you’ve been walking for over an hour with all your senses receiving signals at full blast. You can smell a rotting log at 20 feet; you will hear a symphony that, until you started hunting, would have described as “silence.” You’ll notice another hunter 1,000 yards away, and feel pricked by his invasive presence, and wonder why you are feeling that way.
You’ll understand that shooting an animal isn’t hunting, but that taking an animal is the event that happens because you have hunted.
The fact is, our ancestors hunted. Yours did, too. And humans are apex predators, and have been for a very, very long time. Hunting is in your DNA because it is in everyone’s DNA. It’s a rare thing in 2012, to find a primal instinct lies only a little dormant, readily quickened by little more than a purposeful walk through a field.
And someday you are going to take the squash from your garden and sauté it with the zucchini from your neighbor’s, serve it alongside the roasted pheasant piled atop North Market wild rice, pair it all with a sweet mead from Brothers Drake, and after dinner, once your friends have complimented your cooking and the care you gave each ingredient in each dish, you will sit on your porch and recall your trip, the smell of the mud at dawn and how the grass undulated under the blueness and the songs of the insects and that flash of red and brown and green, rising up and away from you against that sky.
Because that’s hunting.
For more information on hunting in Ohio, check out these helpful websites:
International Hunter Education Association
Take the useful (and free!) home study course
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources
Full of information on the harvest, and best hunting practices, as well as season dates and state regulations
Boone and Crockett Club
Founded by famous sportsman Teddy Roosevelt, the Club is committed to hunters and wildlife conservation