The cow was either very young and naïve, or she was just stupid. I saw her on the very first day I showed up to hunt elk on a new mountain range. She was standing there in the middle of the field, calmly munching a mouthful of grass about 100 yards from where I parked my truck. Who knows why she separated herself from the other elk running around on top of the peaks, but she showed absolutely no fear. She just stood there looking at me. I had an either-sex tag in my pocket and she was on public land. “Well, that was easy,” I thought, raising my rifle and settling the crosshairs on her shoulder. Then I thought about all that planning for the season I’d done, and all those big bull elk fantasies I’d had, and how it was all about to culminate in simply shooting a cow elk 100 yards from my car. It just didn’t feel right. It was against my code. I lowered my rifle, and looked up at the mountains beyond the cow. “Too easy,” I said out loud, shooing the cow elk out of my way and starting the long trudge up the mountain. It has long been my belief that in order to be a good hunter, you have to adhere to some sort of ethical code—your own set of guidelines that not only keep you on the right side of the law, but on the right side of your own morality. Too often, it seems, we hunters get so wound up by the idea of being successful, the idea of making a kill, that we will stop at almost nothing to do it. That isn’t what hunting is about, or at least it isn’t what it should be about.
For me, hunting is about challenging myself. It’s about using my instincts and woodsmanship to outsmart a wild animal in its natural environment. I believe in fair-chase hunting in challenging terrain and keeping the odds in the animals’ favor. It’s a belief that I stick to. And while I’m not above taking an unexpected opportunity when it presents itself, I won’t take one that violates those beliefs—like shooting an overly brazen cow elk 100 yards from my truck. Now, I’m not saying that every hunter has to share my beliefs, but I do believe that you’re only as good a hunter as the standards you set for yourself.
Set your standards before you set foot in the woods. Think about not only what and where you want to hunt, but how you want to hunt. Choose a hunting method and weapon, think about the size and age of the animal you want to harvest, and once all of that is decided, stick to it for as long as you can. What’s probably more important is deciding early what you don’t want to do. For me, this includes hunting over bait or behind high fences, where the game has no avenue of escape. It includes not hunting when animals are disturbed from their natural movement, like when ranchers drive their cattle down from the high pastures and push elk and deer down into the river bottoms. Now, that is not to say that if I happen to be in those river bottoms, or on the side of a mountain when those cattle push a big bull or buck by me, I won’t shoot it and be happy. But I won’t purposely go hunt there when I know the cattle are being driven. It’s a thin gray line, but it’s a line.
That’s the thing about adhering to your own hunting code, it gives you a baseline to follow so that even if you have to alter your plans, you’re not violating your own personal standards. If tracking down a big buck isn’t working, instead of putting a pile of apples in a field, you can try putting up a tree stand. If you can’t get that monster herd bull into bow range, you can maybe knock down one of the smaller satellite bulls or try using a muzzleloader. Allowing yourself to adapt while still staying within those moral boundaries you set for yourself simply makes you a better hunter.
One of the most common arguments I hear from other, less scrupulous hunters than myself is that what they do “isn’t illegal.” To that I say that if living in this day and age has taught us anything, there is a big difference between what is lawful and what it right. Having integrity is critical in hunting, and in the end it really all comes down to personal preference. So come up with your own rules for yourself, because whatever game you harvest, and however you go about doing it, there aren’t any do-overs in hunting. You’re the one who has to live with how it feels at the end of the hunting season. Hopefully it feels right.