We mature as hunters as we mature as human beings, and the process is no less complex than the journey that leads us from childhood to adulthood. I can still recall my first year with a gun. I was fourteen then, with a 16-gauge bolt-action shotgun and an unbridled blood lust. Throughout that fall, I would venture from the family’s summer home every Saturday and Sunday at dawn, and walk the woods all day long, a boy possessed.
My intent was to bag limits of grouse, quail, pheasants, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, ducks, geese, and even crows and fox. This fantasy of mayhem was not blind of reason, however. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I equated being a hunter and sportsman with all the elusive qualities of manhood: courtliness, confidence, knowledge, and above all, freedom. It seemed obvious that the shortest, most direct route to that state of grace was to bring home limit after limit of game. After all, what better proof existed that one was a good and able hunter?
There is, fortunately, a law of inverse proportions at work in the woods when you are young, inexperienced, and bloodthirsty. Although I would have decimated Long Island’s game populations had I been given the opportunity, my aimless wanderings, flock shooting, and sky blasting resulted in a season’s bag of one rabbit and one quail. I came to the painful conclusion that I was not a very good hunter.
The next year proved better. I had begun to learn from experience where and when game was likely to be found. I discovered that the twilight hours of dawn and dusk might be good for trout fishing, but that quail generally stayed under cover until the sun burned off the frost and went back to their roosts around sundown. I noted that rabbits preferred clearing edges rather than deep woods, and that grouse tended to hole up where laurels grew. Occasionally, I shouldered my gun fast enough, and shot straight enough, to bag a few.
Sadly, I had no mentors during those green years. None of my family, nor friends of my family, hunted. But I did have a role model, a man of casual acquaintance who lived next door. He had a pair of sleek bird dogs kenneled behind his home. He carried a fine, engraved shotgun from his house to his car when he left on Saturday mornings. And soon after he returned, a brace of mallards or pheasants or two quail and a rabbit, were usually hanging below the eaves of his garage, catching the low, fall sunlight like a still life by the Old Masters.
One Friday in late November, it snowed heavily. Then the snow changed briefly to rain and it got bitterly cold. I went hunting the following day and surprised a small covey of quail in a flattened, white field, scratching through the crust for ragweed seeds.
I can still recall my elation at the stroke of good fortune. There was generally no place for the quail to hide, and the shooting was wide open. I took my first double ever from the covey rise, then hunted each single down until I reached my limit; that too, a first. In the afternoon, six quail turned slowly on the string that was secured under the eave of our garage.
I waited idly until my neighbor returned, and then pretended to fiddle with the quail and the string. I waved to him as he kenneled his dogs. He saw the birds and smiled, returning my wave. He stepped into our yard.
“Did pretty well today, son,” he said through pipe-clenching teeth.
“Sure did,” I replied, and recounted the circumstances of the hunt.
Like the ticking of a clock, each detail removed one weathered wrinkle around his eyes and mouth. When I was done, his smiling face had become as flat, featureless, and somber as the crusted snow. He tapped his pipe thoughtfully on the palm of his hand, gazed at the quail, and smiled a different smile.
“You’re young,” he began, “ and I was too, once. You got your birds, and you’re proud, and I don’t want to take that away from you. But someday, when you get a little older, you’ll come to find there’s a difference between killing and hunting. It’s a distinction that people who aren’t hunters seldom understand.”
I was devastated. A rite of passage that spanned two years and had at last been successfully run was disqualified in half a minute. If numbers were not the name of the game, by what yardstick was I to measure?
I would like to report that an epiphany occurred that night, or soon after, but such was not the case. I continued to hunt with a laser focus that stretched from the barrel of my gun to the game that rose in front of it. A good day equaled a heavy game pocket.
But I had been sensitized. Long hours in the woods gradually taught me how to spot hiding rabbits and squirrels by the telltale pinprick of light in their shiny, black eyes. I concluded that the gift was advantage enough, and chose to walk them up and flush them, rather than shoot them where they hid. I once did the same thing with a pheasant on the ground. I rushed the bird to make it fly before I shot. I missed.
Aside from those small gestures, though, I was not tested again until my early twenties. By then I had entertained and discarded a dozen friendships with people I had met afield, and had found a handful of special friends called hunting buddies, with whom strong bonds had been formed through times good and bad.
I was hunting black ducks on Moriches Bay with one of them when a norwester arrived with the suddenness and power of a hammer blow.
We were on a long point, and a raft of at least 1,000 birds lay to the east. The fierce winds tore loose a sheet of ice that stretched for 3 miles along the western shore of the bay, and as it bore down on the raft, the birds were forced to move. The wind was so strong that the only way they could make headway was to fly into the teeth of the gale, flat on the deck, where backcurrents and eddies broke some of the blow. Their route took them right over the point where we hid.
At first we were astonished as singles, doubles, and small flocks arrived as if on an assembly line, flying so low that we could touch some of them with our barrel ends. There was also a short time of humbling shooting until we figured out that a bird pumping along at 5 miles an hour into a 55-mile-an-hour headwind had to be led the same distance as one sizzling along at 55 miles an hour on a calm day. But once we got the lead down, there was no contest, and no sport. We found each other reluctant to shoot, saying, “ you take this one,” and “poor devils,” as the confused ducks poured into our decoys.
At some point, one of us spoke for both of us and said, “Enough.” We broke our guns, lay back, and enjoyed the spectacle, leading birds with our fingers, and yelling “boom.” To this day, when I tell the story, someone will allow as how we must have been nuts not to take advantage of such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I recall both of us feeling uncommonly good later that evening about what we had done.
The years went by and I grew in knowledge, experience, and I think, as a hunter. I acquired fine bird dogs of my own, expensive guns I knew how to shoot, and I learned the habits of game so well that I rarely returned from the field empty-handed. But along the way, a curious transformation took place. Armed with such sure knowledge in my callow youth, I would have killed all the limits I dreamed of. Yet now, I began to exercise restraint.
Sure, there were times when filling a table with a feast for friends led me to shoot a limit of ducks or pheasants, and big-game season represented sustenance as well as sport. But more often than not, I would swing on the most difficult bird in a covey rise, rather than taking the sucker shot. When a flock of fidgety mallards swung wide of the decoys and circled overhead, I would resist the long shot for the possibility that they might settle down, and treat me to the singular beauty of a classic toll, approaching the decoys on confident, cupped wings.
I also found that I preferred the company of others with a like mind. It wasn’t snobbishness or elitism; just a matter of priorities. It gradually made more sense to enjoy the company of people who could savor the best of a morning on a marsh, then cap that memory when the bottle was full, rather than let it overflow with the excess of another two or three birds that could be bagged in an instant as a foregone conclusion. I also discovered another common denominator among those I called both hunter and friend: a mutual reverence for the things we hunted.
That one can have reverence and respect for something you are trying to hunt down is easy to imagine as a contradiction, but I have seen antelope hunters choose a tough, tricky stalk over an easy one in exchange for the certainty of a swift, clean kill, and bird hunters who spent half their afternoon finding a cripple. But no example speaks so eloquently of this abiding sense of reverence as the time a friend downed a six-point bull elk that we had hunted hard and well. It was a perfect shot and a magnificent trophy, yet in that ebullient moment of deserved triumph, he was moved to briefly touch the carcass and mutter, “I’m sorry….” It was not a statement of regret, but of humble apology and thanksgiving to and of a spirit that we both understood perfectly.
Upon that cold and windblown hillside, perhaps I arrived at the estate I first sought as an adolescent in thought and years, but I don’t really know. It’s like asking me now, at two score and three, if I’ve finally grown up, and to be honest, I hope I haven’t, because when you stop growing, you stop living. At that moment of salute to the fallen elk, a quote ran through my mind. It has been a creed of mine ever since, and I recall these same words every time I sight down a barrel:
“We are measured more as hunters by the things we choose not to shoot, than by those that we do.”
Norman Strung did not grow up in a hunting family, but when he graduated from high school in New York in 1959, he headed to college in Montana and never really came back. He made a name for himself as a writer and was eventually invited to become a contributing editor at Field & Stream in the early 1980s. Once on staff, he amazed his colleagues with an intimidating show of complete professionalism. He could write on nearly any subject, producing full-length features (in those days often more than 2,000 words) as well as short back-of-the-book how-to fillers with amazing ease. He had a deft touch embossed by personal experience—to complete one article he hoisted himself into a tree to watch a feeding rainbow in a pool. He was destined for greatness, but was cut down in 1991 by cancer just before his 50th birthday.
“Measure of a Hunter,” which ran in January 1985, touches on a subject close to his heart: it’s not about numbers, but rather the quality of the experience. It’s a lesson worth repeating and passing on to the next generation. – S.W.