Not Your Daddy's Deer Hunt
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because everyone should look their Big Mac in the eyes at least once.
By Meghan Walsh
It’s mid-November, and I’m watching the sun set from beneath a ponderosa pine on a hillside outside Bozeman, Montana. The lambent rays reach through the distant branches, settling into the lingering patches of snow that salt the ground. Horses neigh, birds whistle and a nearby stream gurgles. It’s an idyllic scene. But we’re not here for the scenery. We’re here for blood.
Crouched beside me is Shane Rickert, a scruffy, sweet-faced 26-year-old social-media expert who works for a company that produces creative content for hook and bullet gear manufacturers. These aren’t dull shots of ruddy-cheeked, middle-aged men with beer guts and shotguns. They’re producing the type of clips you might expect GoPro or Red Bull to release, except there are no snowboard descents or base-jumping expeditions. They’re glossy stills accompanied by witty commentary and fast-moving shorts that track professional athletes deep into the backcountry on epic multiday stalks. Essentially, Rickert and his colleagues at Seacat Creative are tasked with making hunting appealing to a much broader demographic than the aforementioned ruddy-cheeked dads. And, sure enough, whether it’s the branding campaign that’s working, the locavore movement or any number of other factors, hunting has acquired an aura of cool.
Over the last handful of years, this pastime once relegated to rednecks and rural America has undergone a renaissance, bringing life back to an age-old tradition that not long ago was on the endangered list. For decades, hunting involvement plunged, but between 2006 and 2011, the number of participants shot up 9 percent to 13.7 million, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which releases a report on the state of the industry every five years. When the new figures come out this spring, that growth is expected to hit double digits. It’s not just that more people are pursuing their own prey, either. The camo-clad also look different than they did 20 years ago; the profile is younger, more athletic and increasingly feminine. Since the beginning of the century, female joiners have outpaced men, almost doubling to 19 percent of the total share. When it comes to bow hunters, another fast-growing segment, 36 percent have at least a college degree (sorry, Seacat — Catniss Everdeen may get the credit there). Hunting, it would seem, is diversifying.
It’s not just that these Millennial hunters will someday teach their kids to let the arrows fly. It’s that even I — someone who for ethical reasons became a vegetarian at age 8 and can’t kill a cockroach — was floating down a river with a pack of twentysomethings decked out in cutting-edge gear and armed with rifles. And not only that, I was just about ready to go buy my own gun so I could be the one holding Bambi in my sight lines. The irony of it all is that the proliferation of bloodlust, in the end, may be what saves Bambi and her polka-dotted kin.
Alex Tenenbaum grew up in Colorado, in a household that viewed hunting as the testosterone-driven hobby of simpleminded menfolk. That is, until sophomore year at Montana State University, when he was at a BBQ and someone threw elk steaks on the grill. To his disbelief, a vegan friend heaved one of the lean slabs of meat onto her plate. “I couldn’t believe it,” the 29-year-old says. The young veg explained that she didn’t have a problem eating an animal that had lived the life it’s supposed to, died a swift death and wasn’t pumped full of cancer-causing crap. Plus, she could use the protein.
With the farm-to-table movement and other, faddier, Paleoesque diets, people who before might have judged hunting have now themselves taken interest in harvesting their own meat. You may recall Mark Zuckerburg’s personal challenge to eat only what died at his own hands. “You’re participating in nature’s game,” says Will Brantley, hunting editor at Field & Stream magazine. “You can’t really quantify the appreciation for wildlife and self-reliance that comes from that.” Hipster hunting isn’t exactly new, but it’s beginning to be seen as a cultural shift in the way we understand consumption rather than just a bunch of bearded, flannel-wearing lumbersexuals on the ultimate DIY mission.
As the Bozeman, western-frontier lifestyle rubbed off, Tenenbaum eventually decided to try for some of his own venison. A buddy he normally rock-climbed with also grew up archery and rifle hunting in Alabama, and after two weekends of following him through the woods, Tenenbaum bought his first 7mm Rem Mag. That was nine years ago. Today, Tenenbaum works for Sitka Gear, one of the companies responsible for opening the sport up to the new, more agile participant. “You’re backpacking, climbing, mountaineering — you’re just doing it armed,” he says. Whereas in the past the outdoorsman’s objective may have been a summit, now it’s bighorn sheep.
Two big-game hunters, former NFL linebacker Jason Hairston and Jonathan Hart, founded Sitka in 2005, after becoming fed up with the pathetically outdated quality of camo apparel. While backpackers headed outdoors suited up in water-wicking, breathable textiles, hunters were relegated to clammy cotton and cheap polyester. By using modern technologies and fabrics to create hunting-specific gear, Sitka made it possible to head out in Wyoming on a two-week, 12,000-foot trek in late November. It has spawned a slew of similar companies. And the novel conception of women-specific gear that doesn’t just follow the “shrink and pink” approach might have something to do with why the other sex is more apt to join in as well.
There’s even a new workout movement to go with the updated threads. Personal trainer Kenton Clairmont conceived Train to Hunt, a blend of CrossFit and Survivor that gives woodsmen (and women) a way to stay in elk-stalking shape year-round, with competitions that are quickly growing in popularity and are now in 14 different locations. The Tough Mudder–like obstacles, meant to mimic scenarios one might face in the woods, such as dragging the dead weight of a carcass for 20 miles, go from lugging sandbags to leaping over hurdles to piercing the heart of a target with a bow and arrow.
Meet the new extreme sport. Or, some might say, the original extreme sport.
From the early 1980s until 2008, hunting and fishing declined steadily in popularity. Urbanization was partly to blame — according to census data, 36 percent of people lived in rural areas in 1950, whereas now fewer than 20 percent do — as well as loss of wilderness, an aging population and less disposable time, according to the outdoor research firm Responsive Management. In 2002, Field & Stream published an article warning that hunting in America “faces a mountain of challenges that could grow to insurmountable heights.” The two biggest issues it named: fewer people taking up the sport and limited access to public lands. While back then surveys showed that children not exposed to hunting by age 14 never became involved, the industry seems to have made progress on the recruitment front; the public-land problem may still spell doom. Private-interest coalitions in 11 western states have launched campaigns to seize control of federal lands.
Randy Newberg is the frontman for two successful TV shows about hunting on public land. Over the past five years, outdoor reality shows have infiltrated the mainstream, from Duck Dynasty to Alaska: The Last Frontier, but few have done much to help the movement overcome stereotypes or otherwise advance its cause. Some of the critiques hunting faces have legitimacy. After all, there are still those who pay thousands to shoot animals in pens, the grip-and-grin trophy hunters. “We have to find a way to say that’s not us,” Newberg says. The sport’s continued revival — and survival — depends on society’s acceptance, and when a Minnesota dentist kills Cecil the Lion just to have something to hang on the wall, it’s quite the setback. Newberg’s hope is that the new blood will help move hunting beyond what’s been a traditionally white, male backwoods endeavor and generate some much-needed public contemplation.
The 51-year-old says backcountry hunting was how everyone in his northern Minnesota town of 500 got their protein, which is why the otherwise patient and thoughtfully spoken former accountant rolls his eyes when I ask where he picked the practice up. “It wasn’t a pastime; it was a part of living,” he says. Newberg has become something of a de facto and surprisingly candid spokesperson for hunters, while also making sure his colleagues don’t forget the real threat to their way of life: private interests. Before passing the 2016 budget, a Republican senator from Arkansas attached an amendment that leaves the door open for the feds to sell national forests, wildlife refuges and wildernesses. It’s a catch-22; often the same conservatives second amendment stalwarts support, Newberg points out, are the ones selling off America’s God-given public assets, one acre at a time.
To be clear, many who eat their elk still kill it for the sport. “I couldn’t tell you the last time I bought red meat, and that’s a great byproduct, but that’s not why I do it,” says Adam Foss, a sponsored professional hunter and the youngest to take down all four species of North American wild sheep with a bow. But regardless of Foss’ motivations, the fact that his life revolves around hunting means he’s invested in making sure his targets stick around. “I don’t know any outdoor-enthusiast group that takes the time to understand how an ecosystem operates like that,” Brantley says. Trackers recognize migration patterns, native vegetation and the delicate relationship between human, animal and nature. And in fact anglers and hunters are the largest contributors to conservation funding — to the tune of about $1.6 billion a year, reports the National Shooting Sports Foundation — not only through permit sales but through nonprofits that have helped revitalize whitetail deer, turkeys, elk and many other wild game once on the endangered list. “If we hunters don’t survive, the entire country will be worse off,” Newberg warns.
Back in Bozeman, I set off on my first fly-fishing expedition. My companions are decked out in Simms apparel — what Sitka is to hunting gear, Simms is to fishing — with fancy rods and Nikon cameras. But the coolers are still packed with good ol’ Coors. Over and over, they whip their lines with a flick of the wrist, careful not to catch the brown cattails leaning along the banks as they cast into the shallow water. It’s the collision of two worlds: one technology-driven, shiny and primed for Instagram; the other timeless, only able to be captured through experience.
Newberg remembers sitting around the fire at 8 years old, listening to the adults talk about their armed expeditions and thinking how hundreds of years ago Blackfeet buffalo hunters probably did the same exact thing. Hunting is one of the oldest pursuits — if not the oldest — of the human species. But as rural hunting societies have become diluted, manufacturing has made it unnecessary for us to kill our own food and antihunting voices have grown louder with the Web, this once fundamental practice could easily lose its social and cultural relevance. For some, it already has become something to be ashamed of. “People who don’t hunt don’t understand,” Newberg says. “Any animal has a sparkling bright color to its eyes, and as life leaves the body, the eyes go to a bluish green. It’s a very powerful moment to know you have taken the life of another creature. You don’t get that going to the grocery store.”
After several hours on the Jefferson River being pounded by icy winds and without a single bite, 27-year-old Montana native Jake McGlothlin tosses aside his rod. “I’m just going to shoot something, damn it,” he says. A moment later, five red-breasted mergansers take off into the air 30 yards ahead. He raises the camouflaged shotgun to his shoulder and, when they get close, pulls the trigger. Just like in Nintendo’s Duck Hunter, three of the birds spiral headfirst from the sky. When we scoop them from the water, one is still gasping for life. Rickert picks the animal up by the neck, spinning it in circles until it breaks. I look away. And later, when we fail to find a deer in position to shoot, I’m secretly relieved. Though I don’t think twice before inhaling a bowl of elk chili.
An earlier version of this story inaccurately described McGlothin’s hunting weapon.