Have we hunted together before? No? Then no thanks.

Have we hunted together before? No? Then no thanks.

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become particular about a few things. Among them: the firmness of my pillow, the freshness of my coffee, and the people with whom I hunt.

He actually thought he could shoot the mud out of his gun. I stood by, incredulous, as one of the men I was duck hunting with for the first time approached the rest of the group, the barrel of his shotgun split from muzzle to receiver. He’d taken a fall in the marsh and planted his shotgun barrel-down in the North Dakota mud. A sensible hunter would have known to go back to the truck to properly clean the mud out of the barrel before firing the gun. This guy ignorantly thought he could shoot the obstruction out, and in so doing, ruined a thousand-dollar shotgun. He could have cost himself a hand or an eye, too.

This was the first day of a five-day hunt.

The friend who’d invited me along with this group was apologetic and as bewildered as I was, but I was furious. I hadn’t driven my own vehicle. I’d already bought my (expensive) out-of-state license and had used up very precious paid time off for this trip. Now here I was, stuck hunting alongside someone I couldn’t trust to make sensible, safe decisions in the field. It cast a pall over the entire experience. I found myself constantly eyeing this other hunter, anxiously watching to make sure he didn’t commit some other egregious mistake that might cost someone their life.

I wish I could say that was the last time I found myself in that position.

The next was on an acreage in South Dakota. For a fee, the farmer allowed hunters to come out and hunt pheasant on his property. His schedule was packed—overly so. He’d double-booked the weekend we were hunting there, and so we got thrown in with a batch of guys who’d just flown in from California and arrived in a rented Cadillac Escalade. They looked like they’d just stepped out of an L.L. Bean catalog, their gear brand new and spotless, their shotguns worth more than any car I’ve owned. They spoke at length about their considerable pheasant hunting experience. “We come out here every year,” one said proudly. Twenty minutes later, a rooster got up and a shot followed. The report was followed by enraged shouting. One of our guys had grabbed one of the Californians by his very clean vest and was reading him the riot act. Turns out the other hunter, overeager and not nearly as experienced as he’d professed to be, had pulled the trigger the moment a rooster had cleared the grass, very nearly hitting our guy’s dog that had flushed it.

These experiences have convinced me that blindly agreeing to hunt with new people is a risk I’m no longer willing to take. Hunters represent a microcosm of society: They come from numerous backgrounds and have unique temperaments, skills, and experience. That’s part of what makes hunting such a remarkable pastime: It’s not defined by any one demographic. But this also means that—like society at large—a small number of hunters may be careless, rude, or too concerned with appearing confident and experienced to admit when they’re out of their depth.

Trusting those with whom you hunt is vital. Just as you have the means to hurt others when hunting, others have the means to hurt you. Carelessness or flippancy cannot be tolerated. The fundamentals of gun handling and hunting etiquette are simple things, but because they are, many people dismiss them as superfluous. They’re not.

Now, do these experiences mean I’ll never hunt with new people again? Of course not. If someone I trust in turn trusts someone else—will vouch for them and help them coalesce with our group—I’m usually willing to go on faith and give them the benefit of the doubt. That said, I do expect that friend to be responsible for the new addition and to ensure they’re not a danger to themselves or anyone else.

If a new, inexperienced hunter wants to come along, I’ll gladly hunt with them. New hunters are comparatively easy because you know from the onset to stay near them and gently guide their actions rather than focus on your own hunt. They’re also typically more willing to ask for help or input than those who’ve been hunting for some time.

What I won’t tolerate anymore: hearing an earful about a hunter’s experience or fieldcraft only to learn once we’re in the field that they don’t know what they’re doing, or that they have a history of making ill-conceived decisions. Arrogance, in tandem with inexperience or carelessness, can be deadly. For me, hunting with those kinds of people is a risk not worth taking.

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