Competition in Hunting; It Doesn’t Belong
Pat Wray Column
My wife noticed it first, nearly 20 years ago. I had returned with a limit of quail after hunting with a friend. As I washed and wrapped the birds at the sink she said, “You should hunt with Jerry more often, you always seem to do well with him.”
“Yep, we work well together,” I answered, and thought nothing more about it. Jerry was a nice guy and we covered a lot of ground together.
A year later Jerry had been transferred and I was occasionally hunting with two other fellows. Once again, my wife happened to mention how well I did when I hunted with them. At that point I realized she had a point. I really did bring back more game when I hunted with other people. And the same thing seemed to hold true for fishing as well. Why, I wondered, would I bring back more fish and game when I hunted with partners than when I hunted alone?
It wasn’t that they were more knowledgeable than I. In fact, I knew the area better. It had nothing to do with ability; all of us were good shots and at least adequate fishermen. There was obviously the cooperative aspect to be considered. Two or three men usually are better than one…but there was something more.
Once I began to rethink the hunting and fishing excursions of previous years, it didn’t take long to identify what was different between hunting alone and with someone else. It was the element of competition. When I hunted alone, I tended to be much more laid back. Not that I didn’t put in the effort; I planned my outings carefully and worked hard at being successful. But I didn’t have the same competitive drive as when there was someone with me. I tended to be easily distracted, once spending most of an afternoon lying on top of rimrocks watching a litter of coyotes when I was supposed to be quail hunting. But when I had a partner I was all business, driven by something I can only describe as the competitive instinct.
Sometimes the competition was subtle, simply the natural desire to be at least the equal of my partner. Sometimes it was more formal, such as when we bet a dollar or two on who would shoot the most birds or limit out first or have the best bird-to-shot ratio. But the result was always the same; tension caused by hunting together manifested itself in earlier starts in the morning, in more effort, more dedication, and finally, in more shots and more birds.
Fine and good, you might argue. A little competition never hurt anyone. It’s the basis of our society. Competition puts a razor edge on our efforts, raises the level of our performance. And if it results in a better harvest of game animals or fish, so much the better, as long as we don’t exceed the legal bag limit.
I agree. Sort of.
For most of us, competition was the foundation upon which our lives were built. We found incredibly diverse and stupid ways to compete. “I can swim farther underwater than you can.” “I can chug this beer faster than you can chug yours.” “I can drive my car faster and more recklessly than you can.” We even found ways to make a game out of romance. “How far did you get last Friday night?” Somewhere along the line we forgot why we took part in a few of our favorite recreational activities. In the process we cheapened them. At some point, competition, which should be one of the most important spices in our lives, began to poison the experience it should have flavored.
Nowhere has the negative effect of competition been more obvious than in our approach to hunting and fishing.
“Twenty dollars for the biggest buck and $20 more for the biggest rack.” In hunting camps around the country, campfire statements like that precede each season.
What are the effects on our ethics and hunting techniques of wagers like that? How many cross canyon shots would not be taken, how many running shots through timber would be passed up, if hunters did not feel the extra pressure of being in competition with their hunting partners?
And what of our impact on the game animals themselves? How many of us would really care how big our buck’s rack was unless we knew it would be compared to those our friends collect? Our strange predilection with rack size and point numbers already has helped us create a sort of “survival of the unfittest” situation in many of our big game herds. Poor Darwin would turn over in his grave.
And what about the effect of competition on our public image? Hunters are in the fight of their lives right now to continue their sport. The crux of any pro-hunting argument is our connection to the past. Humans have always been hunters, we rightly point out. We are doing nothing more than acting out our birthright as predators. But our emphasis on competition in hunting shatters that argument and leaves anything else we might say sounding hollow and false. Try this explanation on for size.
“Yes, I’m just a hunter like my ancestors. I search out the oldest, smartest, toughest old buck I can find and remove it from the gene pool. My ancestors would have been much more likely to have collected the first tender young yearling they saw but they only had to eat. I’m doing my best to get into the record book.”
Forgive me if I choke a little bit on the competitive urge that results in hunting for the record book.
The bottom line is this. The addition of competition subtracts the essence of hunting from our hunting experience. It destroys our commitment to the sport and makes us mercenaries in our own land. It reduces us to simple killers. It equates our own sense of self worth to the numbers of animals we shoot or the size of our kill or the number of its antler points. Freud would have a field day.
I love competition. I’ll accept a challenge any time on the basketball court, tennis court, swimming pool, poker table or board game. And day in, day out, I’d rather be hunting than anything else. But I cannot in good conscience mix the two. I don’t chug beers or race cars any more and I won’t bet on the biggest buck.