by Al Cambronne, co-author of Gut It Cut It Cook It
A few months back, Deer & Deer Hunting ran an opinion piece titled, “Great Sport, Horrible God,” by Rev. Zeke Pipher. Even if you’re not a Christian, it was great advice on a strictly secular level. All of us, including me, should be careful to not take deer and deer hunting too seriously. (The sport, that is—not the magazine.)
There is, however, one more way that hunting is like a religion. As with any religion, joining is rarely a conscious choice. “To hunt, or not to hunt?” That is rarely the question. You’re simply born into a hunting family or a nonhunting family, just as you’re born into a Lutheran family or a Baptist family.
Actually, hunters are more like Hindus; converts are few indeed. Hindus don’t proselytize; although there are apparently minor doctrinal differences on this point, you pretty much have to be born a Hindu. We hunters are like that, too. Instead, I say we should be more like Mormons or Baptists. We should get out there and evangelize.
I was lucky. I’m one of those rare people who began hunting relatively late in life. By chance, I already had some of the basic skills. I grew up on a farm—or at least a hobby farm. We butchered our own chickens and ducks, so I had a pretty good idea of where meat comes from.
I also shot lots of sparrows and blackbirds with my BB gun; that’s what farm kids do. Later I graduated to an air rifle and a .22 rimfire; in eighth grade I even joined the rifle club. The indoor range was in a basement under our high school gymnasium. (This was a while back.) I was a lot scrawnier back then; I remember those borrowed match rifles as being very, very heavy.
Somehow, though, when I was finally ready to hunt something more useful than sparrows or blackbirds, it just didn’t happen. The opportunity just wasn’t there. I moved on to other interests, and spent the next couple decades living in big cities. For years, I rarely picked up a rifle.
In my late 40s, I finally left the city and moved to Wisconsin’s north woods. Not long after, a friend invited me to try grouse hunting. It turned out to be great fun, and the few grouse I do manage to hit every fall are a special treat. But for me, grouse hunting would be a very poor way to live off the land. It’s mostly just a hike in the woods. As a bonus, it’s actually a great workout. Power walkers back in the city might carry hand weights; I carry a six-pound shotgun.
Between then and the following autumn, my friend Eric and I began talking more about deer hunting. Turns out there’s way more meat on a deer than on a grouse. When Eric and Julie had us over for dinner, they made venison. So did some of our other new neighbors. It was delicious, and the hard work of hunting was part of what made it special. When we reciprocated with store-bought salmon or pork chops, it felt like we weren’t quite holding up our end of the bargain.
If you’ve recognized my name at all, you know what happened next. I went shopping for another rifle. After I shot my first deer, Eric showed me how to field-dress and butcher it. Being a writer, I immediately started wondering if there might be a book in there somewhere. Together, Eric and I wrote Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison. Now, a few years later, Eric’s still the expert. I was strictly the writer and photographer on that project. But I’m learning.
I’ve also learned a few more things. I’ve learned just how unusual my conversion was; hunters rarely make an effort to recruit their nonhunting friends, neighbors, and co-workers. (Thank you, Eric!) Knowing our numbers are declining year after year, we do try hard to recruit new hunters. The problem, though, is that we focus nearly all of those recruiting efforts on children—mostly our own.
When we talk about recruiting new hunters, we use the word “recruitment” in almost the same way wildlife biologists do. Recruitment rates are all about how many young from hunting families will survive and grow up to be hunters. We have to get them when they’re young, the theory goes. If we don’t, it will be too late. They’ll become addicted to video games, or maybe take up golf or drinking. They’ll be lost forever.
Granted, there’s some truth to all that. Still, we’re missing out on an even larger pool of potential new recruits: other grownups. For some reason, we don’t even try. True, there are exceptions. We’re especially doing more to recruit women hunters, and that’s good. But mostly, we’re trying very hard to recruit eight and 10 year olds.
Believe it or not, plenty of adult nonhunters are ripe for conversion—possibly more than ever before. One reason is that we Americans are becoming more environmentally aware; most of us accept that, in the absence of other predators, hunting remains our best available means for restoring the balance we’ve disrupted.
A moment ago, I almost slipped and wrote “in the absence of natural predators.” But we’re natural predators, too. Most nonhunters understand this. Whatever they may think of trophy hunting, they feel OK about hunters who eat what they shoot.
Meanwhile, more Americans than ever before are making conscious food-buying decisions. They’re paying more attention to where their food is coming from, and they’re eager to eat organic, eat lean, and eat locally. (Organic, free-range venison, anyone?) They’re not just eating granola and tofu, either. A few months back, a cover story in Publisher’s Weekly described three key trends in the latest crop of cookbooks: an interest in sustainable, locally sourced food; a willingness to spend time creating meals that are more labor-intensive, but also more rewarding; and, most of all, cookbooks about meat.
The Meat Hook, a neighborhood butcher shop in Brooklyn, regularly offers evening cooking and butchering classes. Prices vary; a one-evening introduction to hog butchering runs $80. Better sign up now; there’s a waiting list. And don’t think these young urbanites aren’t ready to get out and kill their own dinner. A Virginia entrepreneur named Jackson Landers offers a class called “Deer Hunting for Locavores.” He has a waiting list, too.
They’re all signs of the times. But for some reason, most of us hunters aren’t seeing them.
Now, this is going to mean a few adjustments. These new hunters may not think just like you do. Most will care about venison more than antlers; they’ll want to know about butchering & cooking, not Boone & Crockett. Deal with it.
Although they live next door or work in the next cubicle, they may not vote, sound, or look like you. They may be younger or older than you. They may think differently about a lot of things. What matters is that they’re thinking about giving hunting a try.
They may overthink a few things, like the part about killing dinner. They’ll have probably already decided that hunting can be more humane than feedlots, factory farms, and industrial-scale slaughterhouses. To make certain of that, they may get in more target practice than you do. They may already shoot pretty well, even if they’ve never killed anything but paper. Or, they may need plenty of supportive, patient coaching on this important detail.
Help them remember, however, that hunting is also supposed to be enjoyable. It’s a way to get outside for some fresh air and fresh scenery; the process is as important as the product. This isn’t just about killing dinner. It’s supposed to be fun. To emphasize this, and to get your new hunting buddy started in a low-pressure sort of way, consider starting with small game. Squirrels before elk. Grouse before moose. Baby steps.
If you live in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, and if your new neighbor or co-worker is from New Orleans or New Mexico (or even, for that matter, from New Delhi or Nuevo Laredo), that doesn’t mean he—or she—isn’t a potential convert. Be open-minded about them; they just might be open-minded about hunting.
Golfers, skiers, backpackers, and boaters? Their magazines are filled with how-to articles aimed at absolute, total beginners. They welcome them with open arms. They go out of their way to invite them along on weekend outings. Maybe we should, too.
Metaphorically at least, maybe we hunters should be less like Hindus and more like Mormons or Baptists. Now, I’m not saying you should start knocking on doors and passing out copies of Deer & Deer Hunting. But when opportunity knocks, don’t be afraid to bear witness.