“He has draped the American Outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from the neck and belt. The outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage…. The American Sportsman becomes puzzled; he doesn’t understand what is happening to him…. It has not dawned on him that outdoor recreations are essentially primitive, atavistic; that their value is a contrast value; that excessive mechanization destroys contrast by moving the factory to the woods or marsh.”
Aldo Leopold – 1948
I wonder what the illustrious Mr. Leopold would think of today’s technological onslaught on the field sports? Indeed, modern hunting in the 21st century has seemingly become as much or more about the gear and gadgets than the actual activity, greatly assisting, or even completely replacing, traditional outdoor skills and making a mockery of the notion of equitable pursuit.
Are GPS trackers, trail cameras and range finders minor aids to killing an animal or have they now become indispensable tools of the trade? Do we really need dozens upon dozens of camouflage patterns and configurations pitting the ‘Mossytree” zealots against the “Realoak” fiends? Are all-terrain buggies and quadrunners legitimate means of traversing wild country tantamount to a muddy pair of boots? Are food plots and antler growth supplements valid alterations of game behavior benignly improving trophy quality, or merely the latest forms of rationalized game baiting masquerading as “management”? Are current compound bow contraptions that launch broadhead tipped projectiles, tagged the “Bloodcurdler” or “Gutripper”, which are lethal out to 100 yards the primitive equivalent of Fred Bear and his hickory longbow? Are thousand yard rifles and the promotion of such “sniping” true hunting or simply exercises in long range shooting trajectory? All utilized and hyped on interminably nauseating outdoor programs hosted by insufferable self-promoters with ridiculous titles invoking the “extreme” nature of the hunting “fanatics”.
Every hunter must ultimately answer these questions for himself, but make no mistake they are choices that are being imposed upon us by an increasingly mechanized, tech-crazed outdoor industry ever obsessed with innovation and improvements to products that unquestionably detract from the essential ingredients of fair chase.
Could these same inquiries regarding the dilution of stalking and marksmanship skills be made against the advent of modern, scoped, center fire rifles as contrasted with our muzzle loading or longbow armed predecessors of centuries past? Absolutely they can, although I will venture that Leopold’s “contrast” dynamic has been more significantly altered in the last twenty years than in the previous hundred.
Yet another fundamental consideration, besides our own definitions of what constitutes appropriate sporting “opportunity”, should acknowledge that the animals themselves deserve a respectful and honest approach to the quest. The current state of whitetail deer hunting stands out. Trail cameras that constantly monitor deer movement, often to and from food plots and feeders that are unequivocally intended to alter and monopolize their presence in a beneficial shooting scenario, are the most egregious example of recent technological advantage. With the use of these devices and tactics the whole notion of honorable and fair pursuit of a truly wild creature in an intractable environment becomes rather compromised.
I started mule deer hunting as a teenager with the most rudimentary tools needed for the pursuit of these animals in their native western habitat; a scoped rifle of medium caliber, binoculars, a knife, and a handful of cartridges. The only additional and essential items were an almost empty backpack (a couple of Snickers bars, water bottle and matches residing somewhere therein) for packing out meat, and the most indispensable ingredient of all—a sturdy, worn in pair of hiking boots (indeed, I always believed my choice of foot gear to be an infinitely more important consideration than my firearm selection). I wore jeans or work pants and a heavy wool shirt over thermal long johns, a ball or scotch cap and a pair of cowhide gloves. I have not made any significant changes to this most basic outfit in 40 years. Oh yes, some of the latest versions of this getup certainly involve more modern materials and fabrics, but the point is that I have chosen to keep it pretty simple and not let gear and garb become an obsessive focal point. I then go hunting.
“Good for you Carroll”, some might respond, “but that high horse of regressive superiority you are riding isn’t of universal importance to the modern outdoorsman, and who are you to pass judgment anyway?”
As previously mentioned, these questions must be answered individually, but make no mistake, they represent very intrinsic and essential dichotomies when it comes to what a meaningful and genuine hunting experience entails for each of us.
Perhaps a bit trite and somewhat gratuitous, it is nonetheless essential to constantly remind ourselves that killing an animal should not, and, indeed, cannot, be the primary measure of satisfaction. Yes, the intent must be there and encountering game, or at least the sign of game, is integral, but plainly, killing is not imperative in order to have hunted.
Modern equipment and methods are only going to become more conspicuous and I am not naive enough to think that we will ever “get the toothpaste back in the tube”. Today’s hunter is confronted with a mind-numbing array of decisions as to how far he or she wants to diminish, or even eliminate, the components of skill and chance from their hunt. For the fact remains that no generation has had the ability to so drastically tilt the odds of what is intended to be a challenging endeavor of uncertain outcome in their favor.
Implicating or impugning the motives and methods of every sportsman who utilizes innovative outdoor equipment is not my intention, but a growing number of our ranks abhor what modern hunting and hunters have become and the term “fair chase” lies at the heart of it. It is a conversation not only worth having, but has, unfortunately, become increasingly necessary.