I recently talked with a friend about a Facebook feud between two outfitters and their surrogates last week. It happens every year, every month, and nearly every day. It’s often worse on forums and is one of the reasons I stopped using them. The guiding industry is as cut-throat as they come. There’s immense pressure to be the best, kill the biggest, and boast the most to attract the highest-paying clients. So feuds arise as people’s livelihoods get threatened - rearing the ugliness of the hunt-for-pay industry.
I’m glad I’m not part of it. I have a lot of friends who are, all of whom are standup guys. And to some degree, I get caught in the middle of these feuds, being friends with guys on both sides. The thing that strikes me the most, from being in the middle, is that if you removed the competitive nature of the marketing, these guys would probably all get along and be friends.
But these feuds aren't exclusive to the guide industry.
Hunting has changed a lot for me in the last decade. As a kid, you knew what animals were being killed by guys in your community, and if a truly remarkable animal was taken, you might hear about what someone in the neighboring community killed as well. With the advent of social media, however, you quickly learn of almost every animal killed each season. With that, individual reputations precede people, and the world gets smaller and smaller the more it becomes “look at me, look at me!”. Photos of beautiful animals get ruined with logos "tramp-stamped" all over them because they have less marketing value if the world doesn't know exactly who found them. And those that aren't branded risk being stolen and used to market the businesses of those with fewer scruples.
We tend to use the size of the animals we kill to measure ourselves against each other. It’s as if the only thing that matters is the animal's size, and we risk being looked down on if we kill a sub-par animal. People lose sleep and go to “dark places” when the mountain doesn’t provide a size we deem worthy of ourselves and others’ admiration. Guys do crazy things, like stepping over animals they kill if they're too small.
I experienced this firsthand when I shot my first Coues deer in 2006. I’d drawn a coveted December whitetail tag. I had no idea how to hunt them, and on the second or third day, I killed a two-point that didn’t break 75 inches. However, I was thrilled with the buck and the hunt and was hooked on the little buggers.
We’d first glassed a herd of does about 1,000 yards downwind of us and two canyons over. Jason, my hunting partner, and I made a great stalk to close the distance to 175 yards. To do this, we went down and up the first canyon, relocated the herd from atop the next ridge, and then made our way down into the next canyon. We used a side canyon to get around and behind the herd, where we could pop up on a rock bluff above the herd. We still had no idea there was a buck with the does, but we found it quickly once we got above them. After watching the herd for half an hour, enjoying the pre-rut behavior of wild animals oblivious to our presence, I decided to shoot the deer. It was a great experience.
A week later, I was in an archery shop in Mesa and, grinning ear to ear, showed one of the clerks a picture of my buck. His comment was, word for word, “You had a December whitetail tag, and that’s the best you could kill?”
I'll never forget it.
The dude took my teeth from my smile, and I felt shame. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with people? What was wrong with me? I then went on a terror, spending inordinate amounts of money and time buying and running trail cameras so that I, too, could find and kill a 120” Coues buck. And I did find them, but never managed to kill one.
I understand the drive to find and kill the best animals in a population. But doing so means very little about the person who does it. Last year, I started getting nauseated by the social frenzy to get followers, form groups and teams, and use the size of an animal as a proxy for the measure of dedication and ability as a hunter. I sold all my trail cameras except the one I never bothered to collect and swore off hunting for attention for good. It’s been soiled by the instant and counterfeit gratification of likes and double taps - those little red notifications that send a flood of feel-good chemicals rushing through our brains.
I’ve reassessed my priorities. I quit using Facebook and hunting forums. And I quit concerning myself with what other hunters I do not and probably will never share a camp with are doing. Instead, I’ve re-focused on the adventure and the effort it takes me to get to places others don’t want to go. Places that have no ATV or motorcycle trails. Animals that don’t feel pressure every fall and aren't accustomed to lead flying over their heads or under their feet. I no longer care if all the mountain offers me is sub-par. I’m not a bone collector. I'm into experience. From now on, I focus on what I do and am content with what the mountain offers me. If that’s a book buck, great. If it’s not, well, that’s cool too.
I'm not anti-guides. I'm not anti-trophy hunting. And I'm not anti-social media. Guides provide a valuable service. Big animals are the best and often hardest to kill. And I realize the hypocrisy of using a social platform to question the effects of social platforms. Trophy photos are great, but they rarely tell the whole story of the hunt or the meaning of the adventure. The size of the animal's antlers is a credit to the animal itself and the environment that produced it—Not to the measure of the man. I don't know, maybe I'm too old and too crotchety for the new social world, but I wish we could get back to the days when hunting was just fun to do for its own sake instead of an activity we use to boost ourselves up and put others down.