Kentucky Reminds Hunters: Think Before Shooting

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The call came in to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources' Information Center a couple of years ago, during the first week of modern gun deer season. The woman was angry.

"I want to call and complain about people shooting deer and leaving them lying," she said. "It's not right."

I agreed. But this issue is one of those gray areas where ethics, not the law, determines what a hunter will do. Even the most well-meaning hunter can lose an animal despite a sincere attempt to retrieve it. Usually, only the hunter knows if an animal is left because of a genuine inability to locate it, or if the hunter just didn't want to search for a deer that ran deep into the woods.

The best I could tell the woman was for her to encourage every hunter, especially those she allowed to hunt on her land, to act ethically and make every attempt to retrieve downed game.

We're approaching that busy time again this year, when phone calls pour in to Kentucky Fish and Wildlife from hunters across the state. They call to double-check season dates and regulations, make sure their firearms are legal, get help with the Telecheck process or find a public place to hunt. Calls like these, which the department takes by the thousands, prove that most hunters want to hunt safely and legally.

For those who do not want to follow the law, our poacher hotline heats up with reports of everything from trespassing to spotlighting to shooting across roads.

But many calls, like the one this woman made about wasted game, come in about things that are more a matter of ethics than law. Hunters set up right on property line fences, irritating the landowners next door. Shots are taken too close to a farmer's grazing livestock, or at distances too far for a clean kill. Downed game is left lying in the woods without an earnest recovery effort. Things like this may not be illegal, but they give all hunters a bad name and frustrate true sportsmen and sportswomen.

None of us is perfect. Few haven't been tempted to pull the trigger when a deer presents a less than ideal shot, step across a fence line without first getting the landowner's permission, or give up the search for a downed animal on a cold, rainy day. But if we all hold ourselves to a strict code of personal ethics, even in the isolation of the woods, it enhances our enjoyment of and pride in our sport. Perhaps even more importantly, it sets a positive example for kids and new hunters, and sends a good message to those who don’t hunt.

Prepare yourself for difficult choices in the field. Determine the effective range of your rifle when practicing before the season, and refuse to take a shot farther away. Realize that the law prevents you from retrieving game on someone's land without permission, but ethics dictate whether you'll set up your tree stand near a property line in the first place. If it's getting close to dark and you're still hoping to see a deer, but don't want to comb the woods on your hands and knees with a flashlight, go ahead and pack it up for the night. One of the easiest ways for all of us to do the right thing is not to put ourselves in difficult situations in the first place.

This season, hold yourself to the kind of standard you'd like to see in all hunters. It's sometimes harder than it sounds. But an ethical hunt is always a successful day afield, and when we are fortunate enough to take home game, it's a trophy every time.