The herd of elk was perfectly positioned for a stalk. I’d been hiking for an hour in the dark and was delighted when I spotted the animals about where I expected them to be when shooting light arrived. By making a half-mile circle, I’d be within 80 yards for the shot, and the wind was in my favor. It couldn’t have been better.

Suddenly an all-terrain vehicle roared in front of me, its two occupants heading in the general direction of the elk. The driver crossed a Forest Service fence where a gate was down and sped toward the herd. Moments later, the panicked animals bolted and then milled about in confusion even as one of the hunters jumped off the ATV and shot an elk.

I was livid and had to mentally restrain myself from confronting the hunters and having it out with them. The fact that they’d beaten me to the elk wasn’t the issue; it was the way they’d done it, as well as the fact that they had driven in an area that was closed to vehicles.

There were two violations here: a legal one that involved Forest Service regulations and another not governed by law but by personal ethics. Driving into the middle of a herd of elk on an ATV may not in itself be a legal violation (depending on the state), but it is a moral one. To the hunters on the ATV, their strategy worked. In their minds, they had done nothing wrong and probably wouldn’t lose a bit of sleep over their actions. To other hunters who have a different perspective on fair chase, everything was wrong with the ATV scenario.

Clean Competition

Consider another elk hunt that happened two weeks before the ATV incident in another state. I’d spotted a nice six-point bull about 600 yards away just as it was fight enough to see. I planned to sneak up a draw and get within 200 yards. I was thinking about meat on the table as I eased toward the animal, but I was suddenly brought to attention by a shot that rang out just ahead of me.

Presently I came upon a hunter tying his tag to the elk I’d planned on owning. The man was overjoyed and asked if I’d take a photo of him and his bull with his camera. Frankly, I shared some of the guy’s happiness, and left with a smile. The hunter had earned his elk fair and square. He admitted he was surprised to see me when I walked up, and never knew I was making a stalk. He’d simply beaten me to the animal. This was, in my mind, “clean” competition.

Anything Goes?

Competition is a fact of life among hunters. The so-called “quality” hunt we hear so much about is almost always characterized by solitude, which in turn translates to few hunters. On public land with good access, you can forget about solitude. Everyone has a tag, and there are only so many legal animals available. Anything goes, within reason, provided it’s not outside the scope of the law. But the “anything goes” attitude becomes an ethical judgment call much of the time.

Perhaps the most competitive hunt on this continent occurs just outside Yellowstone Park’s north boundary near Gardiner, Mont. When heavy snow blankets the park during Montana’s general fiveweek elk season, thousands of animals migrate out of the park, entering the Gallatin National Forest. There, hundreds of hunters wait for the elk to enter public land where hunting is legal. As the old joke goes among hunters here, you don’t need a rifle, just an elk tag and a pair of good running shoes. Ethics be damned.

Fortunately, many of those hunters indeed abide by high moral standards, but there are always some who see ethics as something for the other guy.

Defining a Code of Ethics

Just what are ethics? Can we really define the term? I think not, since ethics are really what people perceive to be the right thing. Perceptions are just that–unwritten laws. In the case of hunting, ethics are standards by which you are judged by others.

One of the oldest ethical arguments involves the ownership of a big-game animal when it’s shot by two hunters. Who gets to tag it–the person who hit it first or the one who made the killing shot? Years of controversy seem to point to the person making the final shot, but is this fair in all cases?

Here’s a good example. A couple of years ago, while hunting whitetails, I heard a shot just over a ridge and saw a buck charging toward me. I shouldered my rifle, picked up the fleeing deer in the scope and put him down. By the time I got to the animal, another hunter rushed over and excitedly asked if he’d hit it. Quick inspection revealed he had. Both of our bullets hit the buck in the lungs. To me it was no contest: It belonged to the other hunter. But what if the other person had hit the deer in a nonvital area? Then we would have had a debatable issue, one that occurs every autumn in the deer woods. It’s my opinion that the hunter whose bullet strikes the deer in the vitals should lay claim to the animal, and not necessarily the one who shot first–or last.

That raises another interesting problem. Much of the time it’s unclear whose bullet did what. Then, too, there’s a question about whether a wound was indeed in a vital area. A couple of my good hunting pals are medical doctors. I’ve seen them disagree with each other over the consequences of a particular bullet wound. If two doctors can’t agree, how can laymen? So it becomes an arguable situation, and one that often leads to unpleasant behavior. There have been more than a few fistfights; over this. What’s worse, some hunters have won the challenge by making threatening gestures with a firearm.

Defining Fair Play

Big-game hunting isn’t the only activity in which ethics are involved. More than 30 years ago, while in college, my pals and I frequently trudged a mile through mucky marshlands, toting heavy bags of decoys to our favorite duck hunting spot. As broke as we were, we managed to pool our money to buy 10 dozen decoys. Back in those days, decoys were heavy, bulky and literally a pain to carry. Our efforts paid off, but our success wasn’t unnoticed by a pair of hunters who always managed to set up a cattail blind about 150 yards from our decoy spread. They had no decoys but were astute enough to ambush the ducks we worked into range. While this wasn’t a flagrant breach of ethics, those hunters knew exactly what they were doing.

What this boils down to is a sense of fair play. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Competitive Humor

Sometimes competition among hunters can take a humorous turn. Recently I hunted a truly giant bull elk on a public forest. He was every bit of 400 points B&C, but there was a slight problem. Several other hunters also knew of his existence, and you can imagine the intense competition on that bit of landscape.

To thwart competitors, a party of bright guys set up phony camps in a few valleys below the ridge where the big bull hung out. They put up tents and even parked vehicles to make it appear that the valleys were already occupied by hunters. I was unaware of the ruse until I met some of the hunters. They picked me up during a lightning storm, and while waiting for the storm to pass they admitted their sly game. Though I don’t condone such shenanigans, I was impressed with their innovative thinking.

Living the Golden Rule

As long as other hunters share the woods with us, competition will always be a factor. It would be nice if we all took competition in stride and reacted with good sense, but too often that’s not the case. Unlike an athletic event, where you follow the rules or get penalized, hunting ethics aren’t judged by referees. For whatever reasons, society is quickly changing. We’re becoming far less tolerant of each other, whether we’re in the woods or driving down the highway.

As I see it, hunters have something to prove, not only to other hunters, but to the rest of the world. It’s simply the notion that we’re okay people, rather than second-class citizens who are constantly criticized by the press and non-hunters. For that reason alone, we need to be on our best behavior in the woods. Not only will we be better off for it, but we’ll feel good about ourselves. After all, hunting is a close fraternity. Let’s keep it that way.


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