Although I spent a fair amount of time in the outdoors as a child and teen, I was never a hunter. No one in my family hunted or fished. And it was really a man’s sport and pastime.But all that has changed, and my thinking and feeling about hunting has really evolved over the years. The thought of killing a deer or other mammal used to really disturb me, and I thought of it as cruel. But then I learned how our average hamburger is made, and I began to change my mind.
Every fourth Saturday in September is National Hunting and Fishing Day. This year, that’s September 23rd. And while I doubt it’s a big deal in Western Maryland (because every day is hunting and fishing here!) I think it has had a slow but steady impact since it’s creation in 1972, on how many folks view and understand why anyone would want to hunt and fish.
For some, hunting is a family tradition. For others, it is a deeply spiritual activity; for others, it’s about getting out with friends; and for still others, it’s a way to practice and hone the skills of tracking and shooting. But no matter the motivation, hunting, like farming, helps us connect with nature and our food. Just like in the foraging episode last week, we can all benefit by getting back to the basics in terms of where our food comes from and how we can decrease our environmental footprint.
One reason for hunting that I never understood until just recently, and that I find particularly compelling, is that, in many parts of the country, it’s an important part of conservation efforts. As habitat loss causes a decrease in the number of predators, the population of prey species can reach unnaturally high levels. For example, in much of the Northeast there are way too many deer. That has led to a sharp decrease in certain plant species, which in turn has led to a shift in the forest ecology. For one, the disappearance of low-growing shrubs harms the native songbirds that nest in them.
Also, eating wild game, especially herbivores and fish, has many health benefits. Because they are moving freely and aren’t eating factory-farmed grains, wild game is leaner and has more anti-inflammatory omega-3s. And let’s not forget that it’s free! Well, after you pay for your gear, license, travel, processing, and so on. But considering the price of buying meat these days, and the kinds of conditions much of it is raised in, getting your lean lean lean red meat from a deer you shot yourself is very economical and has health benefits, too.
There’s a long and proud tradition in Western Maryland around hunting. If you haven’t heard of Meshach Browning, for example, you should have. He was a contemporary of Hugh Glass, the real-life character that was the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie, The Revenant, with Leo DiCaprio.
They were two super badass, tough frontiersmen who braved Indians, inhospitable territory and climate, and wild and crazy critters in their quest to survive. Meshach lived and hunted right here in Garrett County, and wrote a book called “Forty-Four Years in the Life of a Hunter,” that described in detail the hundreds, and some say thousands of deer and bear he killed. I’m going to do a complete episode on Meshach in the future, but his book is available at Amazon.com believe it or not, and you can also learn more about his fascinating life at the Garrett County Historical Museum in Oakland.
So how do you get involved in hunting and fishing? Here are some tips below from folks in the know (and it’s not just for men anymore either… and for the women, look up the organization called “Becoming an Outoors Woman” to find workshops on hunting and fishing in the Garrett County area):
Two good places to experiment in Garrett County are “Wings of Challenge” [(301) 746-8868] and “Streams and Dreams,” (http://www.streams-and-dreams.net) where hunting fowl and learning to fish can be awesome experiences.
And here are those tips from experts who know what they’re doing (not me, I’m a rank amateur!)
1) Take a gun safety course and a hunting safety course. Gun safety courses are usually offered through local police departments, and your state wildlife agency will have information about hunting courses. There’s a shooting range where you can practice off New Germany Road. And here’s a link to all the shooting ranges in the state of Maryland, by county. For the women, again, try a BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) course.
2) Try a few different types of hunting. You may like hunting quail much more than hunting deer or turkey. Maybe you like being still in a duck blind, or up a tree, or maybe you prefer being more mobile. Or maybe fishing is your thing. Try a bunch of different styles out until you find the one that suits you. If you have a friend who can take you, you can usually tag along and observe without a hunting license, and some states offer apprentice hunting licenses. And learn when to hunt what, according to the seasonal hunting calendar.
Testing the waters is also a good way to figure out what type of gear you’ll need before you make the investment. REI has made 2017 the year to level the playing field between men and women when it comes to the outdoors, so take advantage of their “Force of Nature” program to get out there and get to learning and enjoying the outdoors in new ways.
3) Look up the “Unlimiteds.”Conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, White Tail Unlimited, and Trout Unlimited can teach you everything you need to know about the animal you’ll be hunting. Most of them have outings and other opportunities to expose you to hunting, and they’re great ways for those who didn’t grow up hunting to get acquainted with it. Many also have social media outlets where you can post that you’re looking to tag along on a hunting trip. It’s a great way to connect with other hunters. Same thing with the hunting shops like Cabela’s or BassPro Shops. (And Ladies, they can make us look absolutely awesome, even without the pink cameo wear, who doesn’t like to wear face paint and carry a compound power bow?!)
Even Walmart in Oakland, where you go to get your licenses, is staffed by people in the know who are friendly and able to help you out. (And men, if you want to help your womenfolk learn the ropes, here’s some really good advice, just sayin’). And here’s a great article for new hunters from US Fish and Wildlife Service.
4) Decide how much money you’d like to spend. There are two main approaches to hunting: with little time and a lot of money, with a lot of time and little money. For a hefty price tag, a big game ranch will take you out to shoot at anything from elk and buffalo to gazelles and wildebeests. They’ll teach you everything, including how to load a gun and where to point it. The more economical option is to borrow some guns to figure out which you really like before you buy, to test out some local hunting options with friends or a local unlimited chapter, and to accumulate your gear slowly. Again, women, go through a group like BOW so that you will feel comfortable and like you are in a friendly environment.
5) Learn how to process. Knowing what to do with your game is critical. Plus, if you can field dress a deer, you’ll spend a lot less energy hauling it back to your vehicle, and examining the liver and other organs can also give you a clue about the health of the animal. It’s ideal to learn field dressing from a fellow hunter. It’s also a good idea to take a basic butchering class. While in some areas there are places that will butcher your animal for you, it’s a great skill to have yourself.
6) Own your bullet. At the end of the day, good hunters understand that once the bullet leaves their gun, they’re responsible for it. You own your shot. Before you pull the trigger, be sure you have properly identified your target so that you don’t shoot something you don’t intend to eat. You are holding the life of another being in your hands, and that’s no small thing. Taking another life should be done with respect, humility, and a mindful understanding that the animal is giving its life so that you can eat. It’s also critical to leave the environment better than you found it. Pack up your trash and respect the land you are using.
Again, ladies are the fastest growing segment of the sports of hunting and fishing, so girls, take a tip from the REI info graphic below and don’t let anything stand in your way. Increase your confidence and self-sufficiency by becoming more of an Outdoors Woman. And, as always, Stay Wild, my friends!