Respectable hunters live by both a written and an unwritten code. Most of us acknowledge our responsibility to follow the formal and informal rules of etiquette. Webster's dictionary defines etiquette as, "rules governing socially acceptable behavior." Unfortunately there are those among us who choose to ignore etiquette, conducting their hunting activities with only self-serving interests in mind. At a time when our heritage activities are under constant scrutiny it behooves us to heed the importance of etiquette and ethics. As I contemplate this issue I can't help but conclude that it's really all about respect - respecting the law, landowners, the land, as well as non-hunters and hunters alike.
Respecting the Law
Legal and ethical responsibilities often overlap. State and provincial hunting regulations exist for good reason. Designed to protect the resource, access, and the hunter, following game laws is very much a part of hunter etiquette. In our society it is a social expectation that each of us follow the laws and regulations that are set in place to govern certain activities. Hunting is no exception.
Unfortunately poachers are too often painted with the same brush as ethical hunters. Conducting their so-called hunting activities with little or no respect for the very regulations that make hunting possible, these are the folks that give the rest of us a bad name. So what can we do about it? Where I hunt there's a program in place called Report-A-Poacher. Not only do I view this service as a valuable resource, but I believe it is my responsibility to use it to report illegal activities. Only by actively contributing to this form of self-policing can we keep the bad guys in check and ensure credibility as responsible hunters in the future.
Among the more significant laws for me are regulations controlling the discharge of weapons in proximity to occupied buildings. Hunter etiquette supports the notion that regardless of our legal responsibilities, we have the overwhelming responsibility to exercise common sense and due diligence. Where I do much of my hunting, the law states that I have to be at least 200 yards from an occupied building in order to discharge a weapon while hunting. Further, it is unlawful to discharge a firearm along or across a major road (for obvious reasons). Etiquette compounds that issue by forcing me to acknowledge both potential safety concerns as well as perceived concerns. I can't count the number of times I've had the opportunity to take game close to a rural residence but abstained because of both the law and rules of etiquette.
Many of our hunting activities take place on privately owned lands. Whether we are granted access to those lands through a formal lease arrangement or by the simple good graces of the owner, every hunter has the responsibility to follow certain written and unwritten rules.
Most of us have grown up learning the rules of etiquette from a responsible mentor. We've learned that our actions should be based on commonsense and respect. Things like closing gates for instance; many landowners ask that gates be closed, but as a rule most often the unwritten rule of thumb is to leave gates as you found them, sometimes open, sometimes closed. The last thing any gracious landowner needs is missing cattle or unwanted visitors because they saw an open gate as an invitation to trespass.
A big one where I hunt is respecting crops. Hunter etiquette dictates that we respect the landowner's property. Waterfowl hunters often need to transport a spread of decoys and blinds into the heart of a swathed barley field for instance. This presents a dilemma. Most farmers allow vehicle traffic as long as conditions are dry and hunters drive between swaths, not on them.
Alternatively, many will allow foot access only. Hunter etiquette again dictates that we respect the owner's conditions of access and that we also use common sense. Sometimes it's as simple as displacing a couple swaths, driving into a row, and then replacing those swaths after concluding the hunt. I have access to one property where the landowner will not even allow a four-wheeler to cross the field. This is a result of too many irresponsible recreational users doing too many stupid things. His rule is that we can hunt deer, but we can only use game carts to retrieve a downed animal.
Hunter etiquette also dictates that we conduct our activities with as little intrusion as possible; for me that means minimizing my visible presence. I park my truck in the least intrusive manner (i.e., off to one side of a field access, or tight to the trees just inside the edge of the field so that the farmer can get his machinery in and out of the field if necessary), I slip into the woods quietly, conduct my hunt, and then leave in the same manner. In my view, the old adage, "out of sight, out of mind" holds true. The less we leave ourselves open to scrutiny, the better it is for everyone. All of my landowners appreciate the respect and in turn I'm always welcomed back.
Respecting the Land
We hunters often proclaim with great pride that we're the ultimate conservationists, hiding behind the noble reputation of famed hunter and conservationist Aldo Leopold. We would be wise to reinforce our proclamations with our actions. This can only be accomplished by practically exercising a responsible land ethic. How we as hunters respect the land is a big one. It truly annoys me to find trash at the base of a tree stand site or at an abandoned campsite formerly occupied by hunters.
Most hunters today use tree stands. Depending of the terrain we're hunting, setting a stand often involves clearing shooting lanes by cutting tree limbs. That said we have the responsibility to minimize the amount of cutting necessary to accomplish the task. I've seen entire woodlots desiccated by self-serving hunters who cared less about the health of the landscape in the long-term than their opportunity to take a deer in the present.
Likewise, many hunters will fill as many tags as they are allowed by law. Thankfully most wildlife management authorities monitor populations and allow harvests based on sustainability. Regardless of regulations hunters, being direct users of the resource, share a responsibility for managing game populations. Over-harvest can create irreversible problems and we should always be mindful of this.
Respecting Non-Hunters and Hunters Alike
Hunter etiquette encompasses so many things, but the most personal is how we relate to both non-hunters and hunters alike. From where we place our stands to respecting the space of other hunters, firearms safety, and more, hunter etiquette dictates that we respect others.
We've probably all had other hunters interrupt our own hunt by either walking under our stand at prime time, yelling and hollering in the woods while we're conducting our hunt, setting up their ground blind or tree stand too close to ours or any number of other disrespectful actions. Unless we have exclusive access, in which case any other party would be trespassing, we have a responsibility to respect the space of others. Unwritten rules of hunter etiquette would, in most instances, dictate that the first party on site (whether by years or hours) has first right to the area they are hunting. Those arriving on site later are obliged to respect the space of the first party. An example of this would be setting a tree stand in proximity to another hunter's stand. Each property and circumstance will be different. For instance if one hunter is focusing on a particular drainage in which deer movement is clearly from one end to the other, then the second party would be obliged to move to another area of the property and leave that drainage to the first hunter. I've seen other hunters on my favorite property literally look for my stands and set up within 50 yards, knowing that I am in good spots. This is way too close. I know opinions will vary on this one, but on the properties I hunt with shared access, 300 yards is a comfortable distance between stand sites. Again, each situation will dictate different parameters depending on the size of the property, the topography and bedding/transition/and feeding areas.
On the tree stand issue; hunter etiquette dictates that we respect existing stand sites. It never ceases to amaze me how many so called hunters steal tree stands. How in the world can they justify this? You wouldn't like having your stand stolen and I know I certainly don't appreciate it.
I've even seen other hunters honking their vehicle horn from the road as I sat in a tree stand. Somehow they think they have the right to attempt to ruin my outdoor experience. The bizarre thing is it's those same individuals who would be the first to complain if anyone interfered with their hunt. Confusing indeed!
Hunter etiquette also implicitly dictates that we handle our firearms safely and responsibly. This means controlling our muzzles at all times and never scoping someone. Aiming a firearm intentionally or unintentionally at anyone is unacceptable.
Hunters also share the responsibility to respect the rights and space of non-hunters. I once saw a guy driving around a major city with his fresh deer kill, actually a bloody deer head tied to the roof of his truck. Instead of placing it out of sight he chose to exhibit a disrespectful display of ignorance and arrogance. Imposing his values on others, he showed a blatant disregard for those who didn't share his views. Remember, we all have rights and freedoms and we have to respect that. Further, I found it distasteful that he disrespected the deer he'd killed. Hunter etiquette suggests that we owe it to the game we harvest to show it some degree of respect as well.
Remember, We're all Ambassadors
All hunters share a responsibility to act as ambassadors for our heritage activities. Unless we conduct our hunting activities in a respectable manner, the writing is on the wall. Given the direction social norms are headed, without discernment and positive representation, hunters and hunting may well become a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.
One of the most frustrating examples I can give is the irresponsible discarding of hides, heads and bones in plain view of the public. Those of us who understand natural processes and biodiversity, know that biodegradable material will inevitably, over time, break down and be reabsorbed back into the ecosystem - that is if it's not consumed by scavengers like coyotes, birds, rodents and bugs first. But that's not the point. A couple years ago I was absolutely disgusted when I drove to the end of a road allowance adjacent to one of my favorite deer hunting properties only to discover someone had discarded several carcasses in plain view against a barbed wire fence. This type of behavior would put off most non-hunters and hunters alike.
More common, and something that each of us faces, is day-to-day conversation. We're all passionate about our pastime and most often enthusiastic about sharing our experiences. Part of hunter etiquette is using discretion. Yes, it's important to share our views and values but we also need to respect that not everyone looks at things the same way.
In the end, hunter etiquette and acting responsibly both in the field and in our day-to-day interactions is what makes hunting an acceptable practice. Only by respecting the laws, landowners, the land, and others can we hope to enjoy our favorite pastime in the future.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.