The Drummer

For reasons that will become apparent in a future post, I recommitted my fall 2017 hunting season to ruffed grouse.  I have always hunted grouse as a byproduct of hunting other animals. Grouse were the incidental harvest when I encountered them while out hunting deer, or rabbits, or even while calling coyotes.

Many, many ruffed grouse also got a free pass for precisely the same reason; because I wasn’t hunting them specifically. Sometimes I had the wrong firearm in hand, other times the opportunities were at too close of range, while in other cases I did not want to spook deer, or rabbits, or coyotes by shooting. Whatever the reason, either by choice or necessity, I rarely if ever exclusively dedicated time to ruffed grouse hunting.

Until this month.

It was a grey, humid, and unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon when I carved out time to stalk some birds in the Simcoe County forests near my home. I parked the car and slid the silky-smooth Ruger over-under shotgun from the fleece-lined gun case. I thumbed the barrel selector over to “T”, broke open the action and casually dropped two wasp yellow 20 gauge shells into their slots. Flipping the action closed with a firm click, I locked the car and started down the two-track trail.

I had a blaze orange hat and matching t-shirt on.  The windless, overcast sky hid above the greenery, and I remarked to myself at how many leaves were still on.  These were not orange, red and yellow leaves clinging to the last vestiges of summer, but rather healthy, verdant, and persistent foliage enjoying the summer-like weather that had continued to hang around southern Ontario well past its expiry date.

A mourning dove flushed from a tree and a snap shot from the Ruger ushered him along unharmed down the arrow-straight path ahead of me. I popped open the gun and caught the spent hull as it launched backwards; the smell of spent powder incongruous to the mild, damp afternoon that had promised rain since before lunch. I reloaded and walked onward to nowhere in particular. This specific tract of public land is made up of a series of interconnected bush roads that winnow their way through a mixed woodland of precisely planted pine trees interspersed with more mature stands of native hardwood. In several places undergrowth has taken hold, and there the ferns and saplings brush against legs and try to tangle the arms of a shotgun-laden hunter. I walked large figure-eights across the bush roads, back and forth between the pines and hardwoods and ferns and saplings in the hopes of flushing a bird, all the while listening for the peeping of an alert ruffed grouse that I might have been able to stalk closer to.

However, aside from the earlier roar of the shotgun, only the sounds of the woods around me played out.  Somewhere squirrels barked at each other, either as an altruistic warning to each other about my presence or perhaps just in the conversational way that a squirrel’s daily interactions might go. Sparrows and blue jays flitted about, chirping and screaming respectively, and for a while I was simply a quiet spectator to the goings on in the woods that day.

Two things broke my enjoyment.  The first was the discovery of a series of tumble-down, makeshift tree stands in the woods.  All were ramshackle and trailing litter and waste. I would have felt reproach, I guess, if I knew who the architects were, but as it stood I could just simply smirk at the recklessness of them all, and stand smug in the knowledge that I was more sensible than anyone who would sit in those precariously perched contraptions. A short while later, I heard the revving of a vehicle and a few moments after that a man and woman on a side-by-side ATV sped past, dirt flying from the wheels and music blaring from a sound system. The din faded down the bush road, and soon enough I was once again in relative peace.

Further into my slow walk, after having encountered a large pile of rotting, discarded hay bales and a dried-up tom turkey dropping, the wind picked up gently and soft drizzle began to fall.  The leaves caught most of it and although the patter of rain on foliage muffled some of the wilderness sounds, the breeze and occasional drop of precipitation cooled me nicely.

I was at a bend in one part of the road when I heard it; faintly at first and then more clearly as I turned and triangulated the source of the sound.  A ruffed grouse was drumming on a log somewhere.

I stood stock still and waited. Hoping to hear the bird again, he obliged me about three minutes later.  I marked the sound and started slowly moving through the trees in the bird’s direction.  Shortly thereafter, he drummed a third time and I smiled to myself.

I was closing the distance on him.

The fourth time he drummed, I froze and moved my thumb to the safety of the gun.  He was close, and his wingbeats thrummed in my ears. As he concluded his thumping, I took two steps towards the sound with the gun at the ready.  Just to the periphery of my vision I saw him running through the low cover. I swung the bead onto the gray of his head while he juked and weaved and disappeared into the undergrowth. I never fired his way. As if on cue, the drizzle became a steady rain.

Standing in the hardwoods, with my shoulders getting soaked, I briefly took stock of the situation.  I was not getting any drier, so I quickly decided to walk along after him, in the hopes of either seeing him or having him flush. After a few more minutes of pursuit, no sightings, and a lot more rainfall, I realized that I was fighting a losing battle, and to boot I was just a bit misplaced. I hesitate to say ‘lost’ since a ten-minute walk in any of the chief compass directions would eventually have led me to a road, but I was admittedly quite turned around.  For just a moment I was unsure if the nearest intersection with the bush road was due east, west, north, or south of me and I felt a snarling murmur of alarm restlessly turn somewhere deep in the back of my head. A brief glance at the compass and I was reoriented and confident, a minor crisis averted.

Having convinced myself that I had spooked the bird thoroughly, and not relishing any further time spent in an October rain shower, I cut north and shortly found myself back on the carpet of dead pine needles blanketing the familiar bush road.

No sooner had I made the road, I heard the grouse drumming…again…from what sounded like the exact last spot where I had seen him.  A wry grin broke uncontrollably on my face at what struck me as a divine piece of wilderness comedy. “Clever fellow…” I muttered to myself, and I metaphorically tipped my cap to the bird.  I’ve had turkeys that I’d spooked do the same thing to me after I gave up on them, gobbling in my direction long after I have decided to call it quits.

On the walk out I heard another grouse drumming from another point in the woods, but he was past the county forest boundary and safely ensconced on someone’s private property.  I pictured that second bird drumming his response to the first bird, and for a fleeting second took it as their derisive, taunting laughter at my failed attempt on their lives.

But even I’m not so far gone to believe that ruffed grouse are capable of that.

Some Thoughts on Competition

Photo from SignsoftheMountains.com

Competition is generally a good thing.  It builds character, it drives improvement, and it fosters a strong work ethic.

This is, of course, the conventional definition of competition, which is not what I’m going to be talking about here.

Reports are starting to trickle in from friends and family, and overall it is looking like being another solid season of waterfowling for 2017. Things have been slow to ramp up, but that pattern has appeared in previous seasons with the action heating up as more crops are cut and cooler weather brings fresh migrators through.

But this year, unlike previous seasons, the reports from the field indicate that competition for access is going to be high, and I’ll expand on that topic in a few paragraphs.

I think back to my formative years when there was virtually no conflict at all when it came to access.  Provided you had a decent relationship with the local landowner and you left the place better than you found it, there was simply no problem at all in getting into a good spot for a shoot.  Almost every landowner we used to have access with asked little more of a hunter than simply closing a gate or parking in a certain spot on the property, and although some would gladly accept some wild game or labour in exchange for hunting permission, most did not even care for that.

Most were just happy to have someone shooting the geese off of their fields.  But something has  changed.  Goose hunting is business for some now, and a few select outfitters have taken to leasing access from landowners (sometimes at premium rates) directly aimed at the exclusion of local, recreational waterfowlers from fields and areas they have traditionally accessed simply on goodwill.

It is tradition versus business, and tradition looks to be losing.

Five points are problematic here and I’ll briefly summarize them now.  Hopefully these serve as some idea of what myself and other waterfowlers (call us amateur, recreational, local, legacy, or whatever else you want to label us with) are dealing with in relation to professional groups barring access through rental payments to landowners.

  1. Reduced Access

Since many do not have the means (through a prepaid client base) to pay up front for access, or to even pay for access at all, for non-professionals, there will be a direct loss of hunting opportunity. That such a situation is problematic when organizations like Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited are bemoaning low hunter recruitment and a loss of support for waterfowling is obvious.

  1. A Dangerous Precedent

Related to point one, this could conceivably set a ‘pay to play’ precedent with local landowners, putting a once democratic pastime in the hands of a moneyed few, or in targeted business interests. In many areas of Canada, there is little ‘lease’ type of access in contrast to what is seen south of the border.  Hunting leases have been targeted as one of many reasons for dwindling hunter participation in America, and it also creates competitive crowding on public lands.

  1. Hunter Conflict

It is not difficult to see how the practice of paying for access at the prohibition of local hunters from their traditional fields and marshes could create conflict.  Waterfowlers in particular seem more attached to the places they’ve hunted and the relationships they have cultivated with landowners.  To reduce those traditions and relationships to merely commercial relationships will most certainly lead to a broader divide in the hunting community.  Is an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ between outfitters and their paying clientele on one side, and what I’ll call non-professional hunters on the other really what we need in a time when the tradition is believed to be under attack from outside forces?

  1. Hunter Apathy

This is the scary part.  Generations of waterfowlers, suddenly finding themselves on the ‘outside’ may lead some to give up altogether.  Think I’m being alarmist?  I’ve seen several examples both in the area I hunt and on countless forums, magazines, and in public interaction that lead me to believe many hunters will just say “To hell with it, then” and just stop chasing ducks and geese out of stubborn resentment.  If this happens, and I really do believe it is underway in some places, who will buy the waterfowl stamps necessary for conservation, who will support DU and Delta, who will champion waterfowling to a non-hunting public, and most importantly, who will pass this timeless and incredible tradition to the next generation?  I do not believe this is me using hyperbole.

  1. Hunter/Landowner Relations

For a long time, hunters and landowners worked cooperatively, in a non-commercial sense.  Hunters would offer their labour in exchange for access.  They would offer part of the harvest to any landowners interested in fresh goose meat or a plump mallard. They checked on the fields and popped into the marshes just to make sure things were on the up and up.  In some places I’ve heard stories where hunter access has discouraged trespassing.  In short, there was a sense of community between landowner and hunter.  But with land ownership being centralized and held outside of the local communities, and with guide services exploiting their superior financial position relative to local hunters, how could good relations between landowners and local hunters as stewards of the land continue?  If a guide service has the means to pay, and a landowner wants the money, far be it from me to think I could intervene in a meaningful way.  But an outfitter visits a spot in season a few times, with paying clients from outside the area.  They are there short-term and they are usually gone.  A local that gives a damn about the land drives by it every day.  But I imagine absentee landowners and outfitters care little for these long-term relationships.  To say nothing of the anecdotal stories heard occasionally about guided hunting parties leaving gates open, litter behind, and the like; what kind of landowner relationships spring from that?

Now this could all be construed as just so much ‘bitching’, or a reluctance to ‘adapt’ and perhaps it is those things in a way.  Local hunter in our jurisdiction, and it is possible that in other areas as well, do not have ready means to ‘rent’ access, and we cannot really control the price paid by outfitters and guide services to lock us out.  But with access at a premium, and long-standing tradition of ‘amateur’ hunting in the area, the grievance is legitimate.

It also calls into question, ultimately, what the guide services and outfitters are truly interested in progressing.  Is there a real concern about the long-term viability and participation in the tradition from the grassroots level, or is self-interest in business the lone driver in this push to exclude local participation from waterfowling?  As I see it, paid access is a threat to the viability of the sport long-term, especially in areas where there is not a history of leased access.

I suppose the motivations of those doing the paying and those taking the money are ultimately unknowable answers, but I know where my best guess aligns.

Hunters, Tourism, and Civic Pride

It has been some time since I clackety-clacked the keys on my laptop for this forum.  It’s been an off-season filled with not too much hunting, but with many other things.  A new role at my ‘real job’, the obligatory summer vacation with the kids and the in-laws, and tinkering and practicing and preparing for waterfowl season in just a few short weeks.  If you’ve been following along, we’ve also gotten further along with social media and are now on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, so that takes up some time too. I started to write a novel, and then lost the plot…literally.

It always seems I’m writing something, just nothing about hunting. Sorry about that, and here’s something about hunting now.

You see, I like to hunt. A lot. And I like to let people know that I like to hunt, if they are interested, and sometimes I do it politely, even if they aren’t interested. And for the most part, people just smile cordially at me and move on.  If they hunt too, then we converse and smile and share some stories, and maybe we become friends, or at least become that on Facebook, and everyone is happy. However, I’ve lately gotten a few firmly worded warnings that I should be more cautious in what I post to social media, especially from a few people who think I’m infringing on their right to not see dead animals.

(Sidebar: I’m not going to even broach the recent PETA Facebook Frame controversy, because others have written more adequately than I on the topic.)

You see, I’m proud of the places I get to go and pursue game in, and no place is more front and centre than the Bruce Peninsula for me.  It is where I cut my teeth hunting, and although I’ve haunted other areas in search of turkeys, and waterfowl, and grouse, and deer, “The Bruce” is my preferred locale; my ‘hunting grounds’ in a metaphorical way.

My extended family lives there.  My friends live there. And several hundred other people live there that I have not met yet, but hope to one day.  But I do not live there, regretfully.

You see I guess I’m just a tourist.

And that’s the thing at issue here.  There are thousands of other tourists that frequent the area, and deservedly so.  It is as rugged, picturesque, wild, and awe-inspiring as anywhere I’ve been.  It is vastly under-appreciated in my estimation, and I advertise it to everyone I can.  I brag about my (sometimes tenuous) historic and genealogical connections to the area, and I point at maps like a 4th grade kid doing show-and-tell to point the spot out where I shot my first deer or folded up my first mallard to anyone who is listening.  I scan print and web media for stories about the area, and one of the greatest thrills of my life was flying over top of the family farmstead at 22,000 feet on my way to a business trip in Saskatchewan a few years ago. But I’m still just a tourist. Like the other tourists, I spend my money locally and I try to be as polite and friendly to the (they themselves) polite and friendly inhabitants of the area.

But I hunt.  And that rubs a few people the wrong way.

Recently I received a message through social media telling me (not asking me, mind you) to stop using #brucepeninsula in my posts, because this would make my pictures and stories about sunrises, forests, fields, and harvested wild game show up for the litany of people searching that hashtag.  I presume their issue would not be with the sunrises, forests, and fields.  And I get it, not everyone wants to see a ‘grip and grin’ of a fish, or a Canada Goose, or a rabbit, or a deer. To them that makes me a taker, a slob hunter, some sort of redneck, and not at all like “them”, who based on my research of the hashtag, are young eco-tourists, hikers, campers, and amateur historians who have every right to turn a blind eye to the historic hunting roots of the area.

I understand.  I try to make the posts as respectful as possible to the animal and as non-gruesome as I can.

But messages like that still trouble me and messages like that are important, because positive hunter representation is important.  If you want to get self-important about it and call me a “snowflake” or say that I’ve caved to political-correctness, or whatever other pejorative you want to fling at me for actually taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of others, then so be it.  I’m past caring about that.

The fact is, a ‘screw you’ attitude towards non-hunters (or even towards anti-hunters) is counter-productive at best, because even if it doesn’t feel like it, hunters in modern society are a minority that exists through the conservation work we do with our dollars and our blood, sweat and tears.  A simple political decision, even though it would likely be incredibly unpopular, could end that tradition rapidly.  So how we conduct ourselves and portray what we do should be considered.

But this post is about the Bruce Peninsula…and I also have a right to share the WHOLE story about the area, a story that is inextricably linked to the outdoors.

The villages of Lion’s Head and Stokes Bay (as well as dozens of other villages that dot the east and west sides of the peninsula) were built on commercial fishing, even if they are pretty, quaint tourist stops now. Charter fishing still brings valuable money into the areas micro-economies every year.  All those photogenic farms? I defy you to find one with a family history that did not involve supplementing the farming operations with wild game, especially during lean years. This is to say nothing of the historic timbering and clearing required to make some of those farms the size that they are. The cottages and cabins you apply a sepia-tone filter to on social media did not just grow organically like mushrooms.  Trees were cut, some animals were displaced, while other animals made their way into the ovens of those rural and woodland homesteads.  Those areas boasted a low per-capita “vegan” population at the time…likely still do.

What I’m asserting here is that you cannot simply have the beauty and the raw scenery while filtering out the resource extraction that made the initial existence of these communities possible.

Well, you can, but it just makes you wrong.

So, you see, I’m not going to stop going there, hunting there, or talking the place up.  And I’m certainly not going to stop using #brucepeninsula when I post on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram about the region, because the hunting and outdoors tradition of the area is undeniable. The game in the area is abundant. Opportunities to enjoy pursuing that game can also be had for those willing to put in the time on public land, or those willing to respectfully earn their way into the trust of a private landowner.

And for a hunter in the area, there is plenty of goodwill and plenty of like-minded people that share your passion.  So, if you are in the area and you’re hunting, and you are on social media, go ahead and use #brucepeninsula all day long, get it trending, and share the tradition with others.  And if you aren’t hunting up there, please keep using #brucepeninsula because I like seeing photos of The Grotto, and Flowerpot Island, and Greig’s Caves, and Lion’s Head Harbour.

I, for one, welcome the opportunity to see what all of you are doing up there and I’m glad you are supporting those local communities full of people I call friends and family.

HuntFit or HuntFat?

In the preceding few years, I have noticed a trend creeping into every aspect of the hunting community, and that is an increased focus on the health benefits of hunting, which is a noble thing to be focusing on.  Time spent outdoors is undoubtedly beneficial, a tidy hike through the woods being far preferable to dozens of other sedentary pastimes, and the numerous health benefits of consuming wild game has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

That said, there also seem to be an effort afoot to glorify an ultra-fit outdoors lifestyle as somehow ‘better’ or in some way more rewarding method of pursuing game.  Under Armour or Sitka Gear do not have hunting pro-staff members.  They have “Athletes”, which in a hunting context sounds patently ridiculous.  This whole thing has been on my mind and has been thought-provoking to say the least.

Is this purely self-aggrandizing machismo?  Marketing? A way to sub-divide the hunting community into classes?  Is there merit in the dichotomy between the HuntFit movement and what I lovingly call the HuntFat movement, and does this dichotomy denigrate anyone who isn’t fit enough to pack out whole elk quarters or climb mountains in search of bighorn sheep? Does this devalue the hunting experience at large of those who are not in peak physical condition? What are the metrics?

This fellow did not take care of himself very well. Photo Credit: Rory Eckenswiller

I can remember the first time my own lack of fitness impacted my hunting experience.  A one-time collegiate athlete, I had let an inactive lifestyle take over, and between nine hours at a desk every day, a long commute in the car, and a generally poor diet, I had gotten more than soft…I had gotten fat.  My cousin Luke and I were hiking out to a couple of deer stands in the Parry Sound district are we hunt in, and I was rapidly getting sweaty, winded, and leg-weary.  More than once I stumbled slightly over fallen tree limbs that my legs were just too sore to step over.  I was breathing hard and loud, and I was so damp from sweat that I almost immediately caught a chill when I finally reached my stand. Luke, never one to exercise an internal monologue, basically asked if I was going to keel over from a heart attack on the way back out.

Now there are certainly areas of the hunting experience that don’t simply benefit from being ultra-fit, but that essentially mandate it.  I would be courting danger to head on a high-country goat hunt in miserable physical shape.  I would be doing the animal a disservice if I were pack-hunting and managed to shoot an elk or moose in a spot where the butchery had to happen at the kill site.  It takes physical strength and stamina to pack out meat, horns, and hides. I can see why they say that safari hunting on the ground in Africa requires physical and mental stamina, especially when hunting dangerous game.  All valid points in favour incorporating high levels of physical fitness into the hunting tradition.

But what about the ‘rest of us’?  Last year, my doctor told me it was time for a change, or I was staring down the barrel of obesity, diabetes, and cardiac problems, and I wasn’t even 40 years old. I was a hunter that indulged in rich food, both at deer camp and day-to-day.  I did hardly any physical fitness and had not been into a gym for years. I rode the ATV if the country got rough, and I got winded dragging deer or carrying a backload of decoys. I was fat, and it was a source of good-natured ribbing from the camp boys. Maybe I was not ‘okay’ with it, but I was comfortable with it.

So for myself and my family, not for hunting, I committed a whole lot of time, effort, and money to getting in shape.  I’m there now.  Down 50lbs, way down from almost 32% body fat, and up lean muscle.  I feel great, and some say I look great.  All good things, but none of which much to do with hunting.  I’m sure it can’t help but be beneficial, but I don’t think it makes me a better hunter (because I have no idea how to quantify ‘better’ in a hunting capacity) and it certainly doesn’t make me think less of anyone who wants to live differently.

This fellow does take better care of himself, but it hasn’t made him any better at deer hunting.

For a long time I’ve personally resented the HuntFit movement, because I took it (and still do to some degree) as an attack on the majority of hunters who simply enjoy the outdoors recreationally and may, in the course of their day-to-day lives, be out of shape, or slightly obese, or otherwise physically inferior to those who subscribed to this model of physical fitness uber alles.

I consider it in many ways to be exclusionary, and there are certain individuals out there that privately and publicly act in a definitively exclusionary way.  The outdoors just seems to be an extension of the gym to them, some personal best just waiting to be conquered.  I find it offensive at worst, ridiculously myopic at best. It takes away the democratic feel of the North American hunting tradition, and boils it down to ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit’.

I can also safely I’ve never shared a hunting camp with a hunter of the ‘physically fit’ variety.  That’s not to say I have not hunted with very athletic and in-shape people…because I have.  But more accurately, my hunting per group is just a group of average guys, some that could use to drop a few (or more than a few) pounds, some that while slim, couldn’t jog 5 minutes without breaking down, and others who ripple with muscles and live a lifestyle that renders them terrifyingly strong.  But no one in my goose, duck, deer, or turkey camps makes a point of staying in shape as part of their preparation for hunting. And feats of strength rarely factor into what we value in our hunting camps…although arm-wrestling does occasionally break out.

Likewise, in the past I have shared hunting camps with some of the most physically out-of-shape people I’ve ever seen. Fat guys, chain-smokers, heavy drinkers, party animals, loud-snorers, fatty-food loving guys, and more.  And you know what?  Every one of them all loved hunting, and I never saw their experience diminished by their bad habits.  Are their personal (and by extension, deer-camp) lifestyles beneficial and worth emulating?  Probably not, but that’s not for me to decide.

I’m reasonably fit and healthy now, and I still have the same obsession for chasing waterfowl and turkeys that I did when I had sleep apnea.  Losing weight and getting stronger did not ignite some hidden love of deer hunting that I did not know existed.  I still like it just the same as I did when I was creeping up to 270lbs.  Can I get to a deer stand without getting winded? Sure. That’s a nice fringe benefit, but is my deer hunting experience quantifiably better? No sir, it isn’t.

I’ve tried to think of all the arguments that are coming my way.  People will say I didn’t love hunting enough to give it my full physical effort.  That I don’t have ‘appreciation’ for what it takes to hunt fit, whatever that means.  That is am just condoning lazy, “slob” hunting habits. And so on, and so on.  There is an absolute truth here, and that is if you are in the minority of ultra-fit hunters and you treat that as some means to demean and devalue the vast, vast, vast majority of everyday hunters…or worse yet, try to use this HuntFit trend to make a tidy living off exploiting this majority of everyday hunters, then you are one of the things wrong with the modern hunting culture.  Not a popular stance, but I stand by it.

Anyhow.

I decided to change for my kids and my wife.  If there’s a hunting benefit at all, it might be that I’ll get to enjoy hunting experiences with my boys for a longer time if I’m healthier.  That’s still a ‘might be’ only because I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and all the burpees, crunches, and wind-sprints won’t help me then.

So, just go out and enjoy your hunting however you like it. If it means indulging in rich food and whiskey at dinner, riding the ATV because you can’t climb hills, and hunkering into a weather-proof blind in a comfy chair, so be it.  If you want to do chin-ups and push-ups before you head out to scale craggy peaks in search of game in some test of man against nature, or you against yourself, then go ahead and do that too, even though I just don’t understand it.

In either case, just be safe, have fun, and pass on the tradition. Because the future, and history of hunting is bigger than you, despite whether you choose to HuntFit or HuntFat.

Hunting. Not Hype.