Herald Outdoors Columnist
Hunting has changed a lot over the past few decades. It isn’t like it was even as recently as, say, 20 years ago. Heaven knows it’s a far cry from the glorious sporting days of the thirties and forties, times when many folks in these parts hunted not only for sport but often for supplemental sustenance as well.
When hunting seasons begin opening in the early fall, I often think on this. I ponder the changes, those that have occurred during my own lifetime and the lifetimes of my sporting ancestors.
Many of these changes have been negative. Gone are the days, for instance, when much of the land was freely accessible to practically anyone who wished to shoulder a rifle or shotgun and venture afield in search of game. Many woods and fields trod by our hunting forebears no longer even exist, replaced now by industry, local commerce and sprawling corporate agriculture.
On the other hand, some differences are positive. Market hunting and wanton wildlife destruction at the hands of hunters are now illegal and collectively abhorred by most modern sportsmen.
Statistics and opinions for the most part indicate that hunting might be in trouble, here and elsewhere. Hunter numbers continue to decline as we, for various reasons, give up the sport or, as youngsters, fail to appreciate it or pursue it from the outset. Sadly, it is often now socially and politically correct to vilify existing hunters and at the same time work diligently not to create new ones. Through it all, more and more hunting land (not to mention valuable wildlife habitat) is ground to rubble beneath the developers’ bulldozer treads.
Yet, some of us continue while many ask why. Heck, we often ask why ourselves. After all, we no longer need hunting to help feed our families. Rules, regulations, and expenses today are apt to make it a complicated, costly venture. And face it, few landowners want us around anymore.
So why do we persist? Well, to a hunter, the answer is not so difficult to formulate or understand.
To a hunter (and by that I mean a traditional sportsman and conservationist, not a hunter in name only), hunting means much more than shooting and killing within allotted legal boundaries of space and time. Hunting is far more than that.
Hunting is the genuine extra-sensory experience of a Deep South autumn, an autumn that stretches long into “official” winter. It is acorns and dry leaves that crunch beneath the hunter’s feet as he walks a carpeted forest floor. It is a crisp morning and a cup of hot coffee, sipped in predawn darkness in the friendly confines of a deer-camp kitchen. It is a hurried, nutritionally unbalanced breakfast bolted in haste lest the hunter miss the first covey of quail, the first flight of mallards, or perhaps his appointed time to climb into his tree stand.
Hunting is the familiar heft and feel of a favored firearm, the smell of Hoppe’s #9 solvent subtly emanating from the barrel. It is old, comfortable boots and an old, no less comfortable pointer, retriever, or hound.
Hunting is a special place. A beaver-impounded cypress pond where the ducks always pitch in at daybreak. A bottomland woodlot where the squirrels are fat and sassy. A briar field where the bobwhites hide and the cottontails scamper. A trail where that once-in-a-lifetime whitetail buck is bound to show himself sooner or later.
Hunting is fellowship, sporting camaraderie unlike any other human association. It is old buddies, contemporaries, fellow sportsmen who see the world as you see it. It is new companions who look to you to lead by word, deed and example, to show them what hunting is and how it can come to mean to them what it has long meant to you.
Hunting is a rite of passage. It is the look on a son’s or daughter’s face immediately after the first gray squirrel succumbs to the crack of the new Christmas .22. It is learning to respect and love the woods, the creek, the deer, the raccoon, even the lowly ’possum.
Hunting is in the blood, an inherent bond passed down from beloved outdoorsmen who have gone before. It is a beautiful thing for which I am truly thankful.
Oh, how I pity those who don’t understand that.