Saturday, March 28, 2009

Rentrer Bredouille (Going Home Empty Handed)

Today was a sad day. I became very familiar with the French phrase that encompasses a fundamental of hunting better than any other; in any language I'm aware of- rentrer bredouille, or going home empty handed. For various reasons my favorite quarry- the caribou- has eluded me all season. My unpunched tags were returned today to the state for processing as per the law. I've had some wonderful times this season from high mountain passes and high tundra to the frozen passages of Tangle Lakes. I've had some frustrating times as I've glassed the endless frozen tundra for any sign of an animal, any bit of hide or piece of antler protruding over a distant ridgeline. The season ended for me today and I'm already looking forward to next year. It's disappointing, but its one of the fundamentals of hunting- there will be times you do not take an animal.

Over at Albert's "Rasch Outdoor Chronicles" a most interesting discussion on the subject of canned hunting and high fence operations is ongoing and I encourage you all to check it out. Rather than continue to pollute Al's blog with my input I thought a post was in order here on my own page. A lot of the interest seems to be in the definition of hunting. What is hunting? At what point are our activities the noble act of hunting and when do they devolve into slaughter? In all cases the laws of our land may not help as many acts are immoral or unethical and be perfectly legal. I would encourage the hunter to examine himself because what you display in the field (whether seen or unseen by all) is your character and its by your character that all in the hunting community will be judged for good or ill.

First of all hunting is a relationship between two animals (remember other species hunt- not just humans) basically one inferior to the other- the prey and the predator. In almost all genus of fauna do hunting organisms appear. I say that one is essentially inferior to the other in that hunting doesn't occur between equals. Men hunting and killing other men is called combat. Predators of equal strength fight for territory and dominance in the wild all the time. There exists also a limit in the degree of separation that species can have before hunting ends altogether and mere killing begins. A finite point at which the superior attribute of the predator species overwhelms the inferior defense of the prey. Case in point- men kill a much more inferior organism in the ant but we seldom call that hunting. Men have developed a wonderful technology that when applied to the game fields often render the ethical lines blurry. Couple that with a society becoming farther removed from the field with less experience and knowledge of wild places and you have a fine stew to ruin. Ethical hunting balances the superior attributes of the predator against the formidable defenses of the prey. If the scales tip out of balance the result is either killing or a farce, but it will not be hunting.

Can there exist a simple guide as to what constitutes truly ethical hunting? In today's world we are faced with numerous choices that skirt the ethical boundaries that hunting should have to protect its fundamental essence. Like any billion dollar industry there exists an element within the hunting community that will bend the rules for a quick buck and take advantage of the grey areas to maximize profit. Can a hunter ask himself or herself a few basic questions to find the right path? I think you can and I'll discuss a few. That said- I don't believe that regulation is the key- we are all free to follow our conscience and make our own path in life. I would much rather see the hunting society regulate itself internally and accept there will be differences of opinion. We should however not let those differences become walls of division to ultimately separate us. Case in point is primitive archery- some (not all) of its practitioners have developed a superiority complex that sneers at all other hunters in preference to longbows. At this time when all of our hunting privileges are under assault we should all be "brothers in arms" even if we're sisters and even if our "arms" are different!

The first question I would ask myself is whether or not the relationship between myself and my quarry has too great a chasm for ethical hunting to exist. Am I using a level of technology that I'm comfortable with? In a lot of cases this will be regulated in game laws- seasons, limits, restrictions are all there to balance your superior technology against what the prey animals will bear. For example, in Alaska you are not permitted to fly and hunt on the same day- the reason is the animal is readily spotted from a plane and in days past horrible abuses occurred. I think all hunters should check themselves particularly when they use ATVs or similar machinery in the field- nothing causes non hunters and hunters alike to grimace like animals being pursued with a machine. Animals simply can't compete with our ever evolving technology so the ethical hunter will cast a wary eye at his gear to see if it passes the smell test. This kind of thing is seldom found in game laws so its every hunter looking at himself. A trend among hunters shows that more experience in the field usually leads to less technology in the pack. A good friend of mine is a master hunter and seldom uses anything other than a self made bow and hunts in buckskins he made himself. If we all were restricted to such devices there would be no need for bag limits or seasons- the harvest would never reach its quota! While such a step is not practical or even advisable in itself; a look through your equipment might reveal some things you hadn't thought about before. Remember the saying from the Greek- Aquila non capit muscas. The eagle does not hunt flies!

The second question should be this- Can the animal use its natural defenses against me, the hunter? While we automatically like to think of dramatic lion charges or bear mauling the most common defense by far is simply being somewhere else other than where you are. Most animals are naturally wary as their whole life is lived one moment from an event of predation. Most animals have senses of hearing and smell that are simply unbelievable but chief among the problems of the hunter is finding game to spook at all. I would love to have had the opportunity to spook caribou this year but they were all miles away from me. This immediately brings to question the previously mentioned "high fence" or "canned hunts" where the animals are more or less restrained into a confined area. That area may be as big as several counties in the case of large Western ranches or African concerns or conversely I've seen video of a "hunter" shooting his "quarry" in a large corral after the animal was off loaded from a cattle trailer. All I can say is to let your conscience be your guide because the law isn't going to be much help. If it seems like a "sure thing" I'd advise you to look elsewhere for a more appropriate hunting experience. If a "sure thing" is what you're after I'm not sure hunting should be your occupation. Fundamental to the hunting experience is "rentrer bredouille"- going home empty handed. Only the arrival home with muddy boots, soaked clothing, aching muscles, a full magazine and nothing to show for it makes the "hero shot" photos of you with your quarry precious.

I think the third question every hunter should ask himself is this- Can I kill this animal today and feel good about it? We have all heard the cries against the hunting community about our "blood lust" and "wanton love for killing". None of us should enjoy killing but it is a fundamental part of hunting. Its a terrible truth- without killing, there is no hunting. We should approach that moment in the field when we are about to culminate the hunt with the death of our quarry with no shortage of fear and trembling. That moment when you, the hunter, walk up and take your animal should be both beautiful and terrible. I think the final thought prior to pressing the trigger should be whether the death of this animal will improve upon the experience of the day or not and whether the hunt has warranted the death of your quarry. Surprisingly it sometimes comes back as "no" and the animal should be given a pass. A friend of mine once relayed a story about a fantastic antelope that he shot in Wyoming. The animal isn't quite record book but its an impressive specimen, in short its a trophy most hunters would be exceedingly proud of. My friend is ashamed to have even shot it. He relayed he took it while it was floundered in deep snow near a hay barn (ostensibly to feed) after a hard blizzard. Its an act that's haunted him at some level for years that he would undo if it were within his power. "Antelope hunting isn't supposed to be like that," he relays.

Sometimes "rentrer bredouille" is for our own good.

Admittedly, all of us go to the field with different goals in mind so each of these concerns will have different weighting for each of us. Sport hunters looking for that one special animal will be more accepting of higher levels of technologies than a nature hunter for whom the experience of taking the animal will be of paramount importance. A utilitarian hunter primarily looking for venison will have less care about animals using their defenses and a nature hunter will have more propensity to let animals pass but not so many as a sport hunter concerned with a specific sex or antler measurement. A relatively inexperienced hunter will be more comfortable on a smaller concern or lease than someone with more experience for whom a full wilderness setting is required. At some level however I think these are all valid questions no matter what your hunting goals are or what your experience level is.


Albert A Rasch said...


Excellent post. The discussion has really opened some eyes, and forced people to evaluate just what it is that they are arguing about.

Your post is an eloquent reminder of how we should all approach hunting.

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles
The Range Reviews: Tactical
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit

R. Gabe Davis said...

I am currently about to launch my young son's hunting career and I fear that the going home empty handed as often as you do with a puched tag, will be the hardest lesson for him to learn. I still have a hard time of it, but my hunting and trapping are the only source of meat for the family. If I am unsuccessful to much we will be eating mystery meat from the dreaded grocery store. As for hunting vs slaughter, I don't have a problen with either, I just choose hunting

Native said...

I can only aspire to convey my thoughts to pen and paper in such an articulate and moving way as you have done here Mike.

I would like to come by and visit more often if you don't mind.

Great editorial!

Best regards.
T. Michael Riddle

hodgeman said...

Drop in anytime! The more the merrier. Do you have a blog?- I'd love to see some pictures of your ranch

tom said...

As you brought up the African thing, I have to chime in. I've been a giant frustration to some PHs over there because I'd go out day in and day out, learning the land and the animals, and not shooting things.

The PHs live off of trophy fees so they want you to shoot things but I think of it as "I'm paying the daily fee and I'll hunt how I like".

Some people book a hunt for say, a zebra, which I did, and then fly over, get off the plane, get driven to the area of where they are likely to be, shoot one...send it off for making a rug...back on a plane and home in a week to ten days.

My zebra took me 5 and a half weeks and the semi- frustrated PH tended to let me go out alone on my stalks with a native tracker who liked my style and didn't mind, radio, and my rifle and eventually I got one, by hunting it.

Not by driving up to it and shooting it. That wasn't what I wanted to do. I could see the monetary sadness in the PH's eyes as well as that of the farm owners every time I came back in the evening empty handed but happy from another day of exploring with a rifle slung over my shoulder.

If I'd gone home and not gotten the mare I'd been stalking, I would have lived and still had great memories and stories. You can't bring the meat home from Africa and you won't be there long enough to eat it up all by yourself, so why not make it an adventure like the books I read that made me want to go there in the first place?

You must walk, look, be still, walk, look, be still. Every day, you must walk and look. Eventually you will find success.--Obed the tracker from Zimbabawe

hodgeman said...

I love the quote from Obed, thanks for sharing it with me.

I've wanted to go to Africa for some time, right now Alaska is enough. Hopefully in the future I'll make it over there.

tom said...

Glad you liked it.

You'll appreciate the funny that the PHs didn't on that hunt because it involved me refusing to hunt for a number of days.

I had a cough that was going to last a few days and I said "I can't see any point in trying to stalk that big mare if I'm gonna cough and ruin it when I get close enough for a shot. (I wanted a mare because I admit to wanting a rug as well as liver and onions and zebra steak dinners, and mares don't fight as much and the skins are less beaten up.) I'm not hunting until the cough goes away! Let's go fishing instead."

I caught 8 pan fish that day and I'm possible more proud of that than the zebra. Nothing like the feeling of dropping another worm in that hole you found and checking the bait 5 minutes later only to find you had another bream on the hook! It was like I was God's own angler rather than a mediocre zebra hunter. Was just one of those days that will always make me smile to reflect on. I outfished the farm owner's son on his own farm with worms. He was quite vexed, though polite about it. Was just luck but still neat.

While we were fishing I got to see a troop of baboons coming up from water on a cliff face about 50 yards off with a leopard waiting on top for the lead baboon. That's one of the neatest things I ever saw in my life. As you said, "humans aren't the only hunters on the planet".

I've only made Alaska once so you're significantly up on me there. :-) Life's a trade off.

I've become the US agent for an African company specifically to have excuses to go there, but if I do a good job some of those earnings will involve Alaskan bush pilots! Giving it my best shot, no pun.

David Cronenwett said...


Great stuff. You're doing Nelson, Kerasote, Petersen and the rest of them proud! It can't be overstated how much our technology, population and land conversion has affected the hunting experience and relationship to the natural world.

In Montana, like many western states, we can choose a fair variety of experiences in different settings which is good: some involve relatively easy, high success, close to the road hunts, and some are remote (by lower 48 standards) treks for elk or sheep in the mountains. At the other extreme, here are also provisions and areas for disabled folks, who are allowed to shoot from a vehicle.

Still, there has to be some baseline "fair chase", where the law and ethics are relatively on the level with one another. I know our state Fish, Wildlife & Parks has worked hard to achieve something close to balance on this; something that is NOT easy.

Like many, I cannot personally stand anything resembling a canned hunt. We banned captive Elk farms in MT back in the late 90's partly because of ethical concerns over fair chase, partly because of Chronic Wasting Disease.

I have done some primitive hunting and trapping (in braintanned buckskins, by the way!) and believe that it produces an experience with the landscape that is so intimate, its difficult to articulate. Still, its not how I hunt most of the time because of time constraints, etc., etc. I don't like the more-primitive-than-thou attitude either, but I've found that it is rare. Primitive bow hunting is on one end of a fairly short spectrum of what I believe good hunting should be. I mostly hunt with my trusty 30-.06 currently.

Another couple things to throw in: I'd like to see some technology specific-zoning on public lands. Just a few select, relatively small areas. It would be cool to see how wildlife adapts to "primitive technology zones" (traditional bows, perhaps old-school muzzle loaders, no modern tents or sleeping bags, etc.) People engaging in hunts here would need to be serious about hunting and possess a high level of bushcraft just to be there.

Also; the more I think about the Buddhist idea of "what is my intent?" the more meaningful my hunting journey's become. Am I trying to get a damn animal just to be "successful" (the ego trip) or am I trying to feed the family and participate with Nature as an active player in the Great Game? I'm no zen master; sometimes I just want to get it done. But I strive for the latter. All of this goodness does take continual work you know?

I think they call it self-discipline.

Thanks for the great thoughts. Talk to you.
David C

hodgeman said...

Up here we have a limited version of a "lower technology zone" in a couple of controlled use areas. These areas limit or eliminate hunting with ATVs or vehicles so at least all hunting must be done on foot. There also some archery only areas that are relatively close to Anchorage or other cities to eliminate gunfire risks.

I think the primitive use area is a great idea... probably wouldn't fly but I can sometimes make the 5 feet surrounding me a "technology limted area"!

Native said...

Hi Mike,
No blog just a website: nativehunt dot com

I would like to put a blog together sometime in the near future but time is of the essence right now.
We are working double time to get all of the ranches up to an "off grid" status.

Never know what is coming down the pike from this Obama fellow.

Stop by for a visit and shoot me an e-mail through the website.

Best regards,
T. Michael Riddle

Deer Passion said...

Beautifully written! You conveyed your thoughts and opinions well, and it's an inspiring and thought-provoking post.

Thank you for sharing.

David Cronenwett said...

One more thing,

I should have been much harder on the scourge of ATVs. There's a place for them on public lands, but its got to be limited. They are so detrimental to the landscape (weeds, erosion, wildlife harassment) as well as to the experiences of others.

I know of plenty of outfitters whose business has been directly and adversely affected by these machines. They are a disease in many places in the West. Fortunately here on the Rocky Mountain Front, the Forest Service with its recent travel plan has effectively banned them from the landscape. Thank God for this! Let's get off our duffs and onto the landscape on our own two legs!!

To me, the self-propelled experience is absolutely fundamental to any hunting that can be called hunting. Just my two cents. Keep up the good work Mike.


Anonymous said...

I'm completely unqualified to form on opinion on this subject, but I'm learning so much from reading posts like this one. It is fascinating to see the different approaches people take.

Beautifully written too.

Holly Heyser said...

I love the fact that you addressed the evolution of each hunter. As a new hunter (2 1/2 years) I appreciate having some easy opportunities now and then because I am hungry for the experience. But I can also see myself evolving toward more and more primitive and/or challenging hunts as I get older.

I guess it's the huntress equivalent of sowing my wild oats: I'm in that stage where the quantity of my hunts, and my bag, matters a lot to me - mostly because quantity translates into "I can do it!" But I'm well aware it's really just the first rung on a ladder, and I can't wait to climb higher.

When I read about some of the more hard-core hunts my blogger friends go on, I find myself thinking wistfully, "I'd love to try that," followed immediately by, "I don't even know if I'm in good enough shape to handle that."

As for everyone else? I am of the "to each his own" school until someone can persuade me otherwise. I think much of what people hate about high-fence hunting is the character we associate with it: the man who is so rich he can buy his trophy instead of working for it. We hate that man in every aspect of life, not just hunting.

Hubert Hubert said...

"Rentrer bredouille". I certainly know a little about that! Nice to know there's a good phrase for it.