I’m not sure what makes hunting so different than fishing.
As somebody who was on the “outside” for so long, I have somewhat of an understanding of perceptions and stereotypes regarding anglers and hunters. I’m not sure how “inside” I am now, but surely more than I was five or six years ago.
When I suddenly “discovered” fishing and the outdoors, it was a surprise to most folks who knew me: I was always an inside kid, the music guy, maybe the computer guy. Not somebody who would go outside and stick helpless animals with pointy hooks. But I did, very often, and it wasn’t long before fishing became a part of me. It’s what I did.
Even if they thought my new hobby was strange or random, I think it was very easily accepted by my friends and family– and I certainly appreciate that. It may have helped that for a long time I never kept any fish for the table* or that so many people have fished at one time or another. With their parents, with their grandparents, perhaps when they were kids, many, many people have had at least some fleeting experience with fishing. Especially in Michigan!
* kept for the table is a friendly euphemism for murdered to consume the flesh of. I suppose both are accurate, and although in the paragraph above I used the first, I generally prefer to think of the latter; Not because it sounds so much more brutal, but because it is the truth. That has been a huge influence guiding me toward fishing and now hunting: Things must die for me to eat, and I want to acknowledge that truth head on.
Hunting is a different story.
In 2011 there were 1.1 million licensed anglers in Michigan. That same year there were 795,535 licensed hunters1. It’s true those numbers are fairly close, but even in Michigan there is a number gap between anglers and hunters. I think it’s safe to say that in general, fishing is more socially accepted than hunting.
The great group of guys who introduced me to fishing are also avid hunters, and from the beginning they suggested fishing was the gateway drug of sorts: Sooner or later I’d become a hunter. I– normally so very open to suggestion– needed quite a bit of convincing to become interested in hunting. At the time I never thought it would happen. My thoughts about hunting and fishing were strangely distinct; Poking fish with sharp hooks was fun, killing animals with guns was cruel.
The more time I spent outdoors, the more time I wanted to spend outdoors. My initial goal was to catch fish, but that quickly evolved into a variety of other goals. Explore new areas. See new animals. Learn the names of plants. Spend time outside. Things changed even more when I started to get obsessed with foraging, finding and eating wild food. When we moved back to Michigan, eating the fish I caught became a reality, and sometimes the main goal of fishing trips. It wasn’t long before there were fish fillets in the freezer and my belly.
But the tipping point for all of this wasn’t the delicious fish I was eating, it was a series of books I read earlier this year.
Tovar Cerulli’s The Mindful Carnivore, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Call of the Mild by Lily Raff McCalou, Hunt, Gather, Cook by Hank Shaw, and most of all, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dillema; These books introduced me to new ideas and radically changed the way I thought about food. I suspected there were shady things happening behind the scenes of some of the products I found at the grocery store, but these books suggested things were more than shady. The Omnivore’s Dillema discussed the meat industry in great detail, and even if only a fraction of what Pollan wrote is true, it is mindbogglingly disturbing. At least it was for me.
Conveniently, as I had the burning desire to completely boycott the grocery store meat department, we live in the country. Our neighbors are farmers. There are cows and chickens everywhere. We live where food comes from.
This is when I got serious about finding our own food.
We joined a local CSA: Melody Bee Farms (not half a mile from our house) provides a huge portion of the fresh fruit and vegetables we eat. Through internet research I stumbled upon Two Sparrows Farm, another family farm a short drive away. Our freezer contains a quarter cow from the farm, our counter usually holds a few dozen eggs from their chickens, and in a few weeks ten other chickens will be taking up residence in our freezer. I am a frequent visitor to Heidi’s Farmstand; They supply even more fruits and vegetables for our table, ingredients grown within a ten minute drive of our house.
The only meat I’ve purchased from the grocery store is bacon (I haven’t been able to find a good source yet) and a few random pounds of pork (I got a cast iron meat grinder and had nothing to grind. I couldn’t help myself). I keep a fair number of fish– panfish, suckers, trout, bass, even minnows– and they are all varying levels of delicious.
We know where a lot of our food comes from. We know the people who grow our food. I think I personally met the cow whose delicious disassembled muscles and bones now live in our freezer. I watched this happy cow being moved from one pasture to another; The cows were visibly excited to get some fresh, tasty grass.
We have an incredible luxury that so few have: We have the ability to get our food directly from the source. Although we chose to live where we do, there is no doubt we are lucky. To have such a connection with our food is amazing.
Considering all of this, my move to hunting makes sense.
Love of the outdoors + desire for local food + huge enjoyment from cooking most of our meals + love of meat as an ingredient* = Hunting.
* Perhaps if I cared so much about animals and how they are treated I should stop eating meat. I’ve spent a lot of time as an almost-vegetarian (even some time as one). I absolutely love vegetables. Often I go days only consuming plants– beans, greens, potatoes, fruit– they are tasty. But I can never move past the simple fact that meat is delicious. It is so good. It adds so much flavor, so much nutrition2. By continuing to eat meat but putting my money where my mouth is– literally, my dollars are going to local farmers who treat their animals well– I hope that I am in some small way helping to fix our broken food system.
This Spring I took the Michigan Hunter Safety course. This was the moment when my interest in procuring my own wild meat met my lack of knowledge and fear of firearms.
There is no need to explain this: Just go on the internet, look at your Facebook feed, watch MSNBC or Fox News, pay attention to any election. Guns are a big deal.
I didn’t grow up with guns. I grew up in Flint, Michigan, where guns were regularly used for both hunting and robbery– but not at our house. As a kid I had a vague sense that some of my friends’ dads hunted, but neither knew what that really meant nor had any strong feelings about it. In my teenage years I remember seeing a dead buck strapped to a car on the expressway and thinking what a shame that was. That poor defenseless deer. That ignorant, brutal hunter who just wanted to kill something.
Fast forward fifteen years and there I was, sitting at Hunter Safety, surrounded by ten-year-olds in camo reading about pump-action shotguns.
This experience has been incredibly eye-opening, and I haven’t killed any animals in the woods yet. It turns out it was me who was ignorant. I’ve learned so much about hunters, hunting culture, the division between right and left in our country, and yes– guns. It’s hard to get into hunting without learning about guns.
Possibly the most important thing I’ve learned is how much I don’t know. How much nobody knows. We think we know about others, we think things are simple, black and white: Guns are bad, killing animals is cruel, liberals and conservatives have no common ground– as if there are only two types of people.
But things are not simple. Nothing is black and white.
My first revelation was that most deer hunters actually eat the deers they kill. I don’t know why, but for some reason I assumed they killed the animal, took it to the taxidermist, and mounted its head while throwing away the rest of the body. This is just one example of my complete ignorance on the subject.
The second revelation is that hunters love and respect their prey. This one is harder to understand but there is no doubt it is true in general. How can you love what you kill? To this question I defer to Hank Shaw’s excellent essay on the subject.
All of this lead to this Tuesday. I walked into Dick’s Sporting Goods and bought a gun.
I feel that I’ve crossed some threshold, moved past a line from which I’ll never go back: I am a gun owner. There is a firearm securely locked up in the house. I have ammo. I know what gunpowder smells like. I plan to kill animals with this gun.
Premeditated mammal murder.
And yet, I’m still the same person. I’m a lefty, tree-hugging liberal who eats large quantities of granola, vehemently supports the right of absolutely anybody to marry absolutely anybody else, is violently outraged by the treatment and second-class status of women in our country and is slowly becoming a feminist.
I’m also a gun owner, an owner of an ever-growing assortment of camouflage and blaze-orange clothing items, a follower of hunting blogs, and a soon to be hunter.
Plus– and this is one of the many surprises– shooting guns is fun. Really fun.
Even my brand new youth model .22 rifle.
1. From the Michigan DNR: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10366-121641–,00.html
2. Realistically, I don’t know anything about nutrition. I haven’t done any research about it, so really I shouldn’t be promoting the nutritional value of meat. What I do know is it tastes good to me and I like eating it.