Monday, November 24, 2008

High Fences and High Fliers

I hunt ducks. I thought it would be good to get that out in the open right up front. I am not ashamed of it, nor do I think it entitles me to any greater claim of outdoor wisdom than any other type of activity. I hunt other species and I fish as well. I am more of a generalist (my friends say opportunist), than a specialist, and I like it that way.

I have noticed lately though that outdoor pursuits are chocked full of paradoxes and moral dilemmas. The current debate here in Texas whirls around the new range wars if you will. Again fences are the focus.

Fences, Texas, and conflict have all been bedfellows before, since the privatization of land marked the end to open ranges. However the debate is no longer over the use of fences, but their height.

Some landowners, many of whom are challenged to make traditional cattle or horse ranching a going concern, are turning to big game hunting as their new core business. Hunting leases in Texas (where XX% of land is privately owned) have historically been how ranchers paid taxes on the land. Only in the last XX years has hunting begun to be considered viable as the main offering of the ranch.

This is where the high fences come in. Many landowners who want to have a hand in managing the deer herd on their property do so by trying to control as many variables as possible. The goal usually is to create a healthy herd capable of producing large trophy size deer. One of the major variables is the gene pool. So in order to control the breeding population, as well as avoid losing some of your large, expensive breed stock, you simply turn your ranch into a large game-proof enclosure. Landowners who follow this method have made tremendous gains in data gathering and genetic research for their deer herds.

I spent several seasons in my youth growing up amid the cornfields of Iowa, and chasing pheasants and quail on family land. Today however, there is the opportunity to hunt on shooting preserves for a fee. The birds are typically pen raised, and are put in the field the day before your scheduled hunt. You typically pay for the number of birds released in several different packages the outfitter supplies.

On the morning of your hunt, you go out with your guide and his dogs and cover the fields that were seeded with birds the night before. Pen raised birds don’t act much like their wild cousins, and often need a kick from the guide to get them to take flight. It’s not like the hunting I grew up with, but some folks love it.

Let’s turn for a moment to another one of my passions, fishing. I discovered fly fishing several years ago, and consider myself a fairly passionate participant. My wife describes it in different terms, but that is another whole discussion in of itself.

Fisheries management has been with us in the United States for nearly 200 years. The federal government maintains hatcheries and routinely stocks bodies of water for public recreation. Additionally private hatcheries also exist. Species that I am aware of that have been successfully managed via the hatchery systems are trout, striped bass, large and smallmouth bass, red drum, and various species of sunfish. I am sure the actual list is much longer.

Among my co-members of a local chapter of Trout Unlimited, there are those who disdain fishing for “stockers”, preferring instead the wild native fish. The native devotees claim that the stocked fish are not as challenging to catch, as some of the wildness has been bred out of them. Oddly enough, that is a claim I have never heard expressed by warm water fishermen, of either the fresh or salt water persuasion.

Certainly were it not for the existence of hatcheries, we would not know as much about fish as we do today. Also true is that without their assistance, recreational fishing in the U.S. in general would be much poorer than it is today…and may not exist at all in some places.

All of which brings us to several questions of ethics. How is fair chase defined? Is hiring a guide who has photos of all the shooter bucks on the ranch in a 3 ring binder with names or numbers on them actual hunting? What about hunting over feeders? How much hunting savvy do you need to fill a feeder, climb into a stand and wait for the deer of your choice to answer the dinner bell when the feeder goes off?

If you shoot a large racked deer under such conditions, is it really a trophy? Is it as much so as the hunter who hikes miles into the backcountry and takes a bull elk born wild who never saw a feeder?

In Aldo Leopold’s classic book “Sand County Almanac”, written well before the days of high fences, he addressed the issue of defining what a trophy experience is…and how our management of game resources changes the definition of a trophy. If everyone that hunts gets a “trophy”, hasn’t the definition of trophy been watered down? Maybe we need a statistical trophy definition where a true trophy is two standard deviations from the mean?

Why do few of the ethical concerns we have concerning high fenced trophy deer hunts transfer to fishing for stocked fish? Is it as simple as mammalian prejudice?

I can’t answer those questions for anyone but me. But what I do know is that we don’t have high fences or a federal hatchery system for ducks. And that in part is why I love hunting for them so much.

They are truly wild, and the rhythms of the natural world are still the masters of their universe. There is something primal about waiting in hiding in the pre-dawn light with a quartering northwest wind biting at you, waiting for the wild flights to fall from the skies.

I love to hunt for upland game, small game, and large. But to me nothing has struck the chord of wildness so much so as have my webfooted quarry. In today’s world of outdoor controversy, it’s nice to have something as simple to do as watching the skies, awaiting that first flight of the morning, wondering if the last meal the ducks had was in Arkansas rice fields or Canadian prairies.

Tight Lines....


momma p said...

Well, at least you're wondering if the little buggers' tummies are full before you blast them out of the sky. :)

Mark said...

Well of course...I am not heartless you know ;-)

Actually the way I look at it, I am taking up a spot where a really good shooter might be hunting...I give the ducks a better chance. :-)

Steph said...

Hmm. When I hunted (that one time) we were hunting for wild hogs. I was in a deer blind next to a feeder waiting for the hogs to approach. I would have had no problem killing one of those ugly suckers. However, if it were a pretty deer it would have been really hard to pull the trigger. Guess for me it's all about cute, because I had already decided if the hog had little baby hogs with it I couldn't do it. Too bad we don't hunt for more ugly stuff. Turkeys! Yeah, I could shoot a turkey. Eww. Anyway...

Mark said...

Given the damage feral hogs do to the land, I agree with you. Officially they aren't considered game animals, and I guess I am not as discriminating with my ethics where hogs are concerned.

Lumberjack said...

Hey! Stop dissing my pretty hogs!

P.S. I smell a devotional in this one.

Mark said...

Hogs are pretty on the plate...not so much on the hoof! ;-)