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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Homage to a Real Hunter

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., November 12, 2005.)
The dedicated stand hunter is long on patience,
but takes fewer risks and neglects the ancient skills
that served hunters of bygone days —
the skills that made Grandpa a real hunter.
Early in my hunting career I heard about deer hunters who scored for 20 years straight. These hunters were passive, staying put on their old faithful stands, waiting patiently — maybe for 2 or 3 hours — for a buck to come by. Other hunters were more active, skulking around the edges of clearcuts or old abandoned homesteads, or prowling the benches where deer bedded. Moving hunters usually didn't have the long success streaks, but they had more and better hunting skills — and more than their share of antlers.

Then marketing and media got involved. Hunters who had two things embedded in their DNA — a love for hunting and an entrepreneurial spirit — began to apply good old American ingenuity to the problem of how to make a living at what they enjoy most. The result was countless inventions to be sold to new hunters entering the ranks and older hunters who wanted to be more successful. Dozens of glossy magazines made monster bucks seem accessible to the average hunter. TV shows and videos brought the how-to's of outdoor success to the comfort of an easy chair.

Hunting has changed from the days of Grandpa's Woolrich plaid, when he picked up his lever action and poked through the oak flats and clearcuts looking for venison for the winter and a rack to hang on the barn wall.

Few hunters are learning from Grandpa today. Thanks to TV shows and videos, they're being tutored in tree stand hunting as the way to harvest whitetails. TV cameras can't record much quality footage while following a silent whitetail hunter barely moving through a deer bedding area. Cameras are better suited to roomy, elevated box stands and oversized fixed position tree stands. So, the hunter trained on made-for-TV hunting shows may not read the directions as he's putting together his climbing stand, but he's already committed to following the hunting instructions he has seen on the Outdoor Channel.

And tree stand hunting is a good way to do it. It works, or at least, it works when deer are moving. But deer may not move much without hunters doing it like Grandpa did, with boots on the ground. The problem is that Grandpa's Woolrich has gone to the second hand store, and his lever action is either in the hands of a collector or retired in favor of a flatter shooting modern caliber.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against tree stands. I think they're great. Like many hunters, I have more than one, and sometimes I use them. Classic calibers are great, too, but I prefer modern cartridges, and I'd rather tote my 7-08 than my old ought-six. And I have my own Grandpa's Woolrich hanging in my closet, though I haven't worn it in years.

Nor am I against entrepreneur hunters hawking their latest must-have equipment. I'll tip my orange cap to anyone who is creative enough to make a living at hunting or fishing. I buy some of the stuff they've invented. But the ingenuity of marketers sometimes replaces the ingenuity of hunters. As an everyday hunter, what I want is Grandpa's ingenuity, the skills that he used to take deer on their turf.

Hunting on the ground is a greater gamble in many ways than hunting from a tree stand. The hunter on foot always has more to consider. He is always moving, and movement is what deer are most likely to see. He creates more scent-laden perspiration. He must be more conscious of wind direction, and make constant adjustments to it. He should know when to speed up through unlikely areas, and slow down when he hits prime ground. He is always at risk of stepping on a stick or swishing a branch across his pantleg. When he sees a deer, it is likely to be close, and alert. His response time is more critical but is slowed by muscle stiffness. At the moment of truth, he may not have a good, solid rest.

These are the challenges that our Grandpas faced in a low-tech age, taking their chances on the ground. In contrast, the dedicated stand hunter is long on patience, but takes fewer risks and neglects the ancient skills that served hunters of bygone days — the skills that made Grandpa a real hunter. Opening day is different now that Grandpa is gone, and we miss him.


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