I used to hate the looks. The small eye rolls and the raised brows. The quizzical shadow that briefly flashed across other hunters’ faces when they looked at my deer. Most of the time they didn’t say anything much; they just offered a small, half-hearted congratulations before moving on down the trail. But every now and then, I’d get one of those grumpy, no-nonsense old timers who would look at my deer, grunt in disbelief, and just not be able to help themselves. “What the hell’d you shoot that thing for?” I’d hang my head, face reddened in shame, and in a quiet, hesitant voice, answer, “Meat.”
Since the beginning of human evolution, the act of hunting has always been about meat. It used to be that the signs of a good hunter were not heads or antlers on the wall, but a fat belly and a cheerful grin. Yet somewhere along the way it seems we have forgotten that fact. Whether through the natural need for humans to compete with one another or a baseless desire to prove ourselves superior to nature, hunting seems to have morphed from its original sustenance-based culture into one established predominately on trophy hunting. What is more, this ethos seems to be breeding a generation of hunters who think less of, and even mock, those who don’t adhere to this “bigger is better” mentality. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but it’s a comparatively recent change, as I doubt that in ancient times cavemen would ever gather around the fire and mock one another’s hunting success. “Did you see Grog’s mammoth?” “Yes, it was pitiful. From now on we should call him ‘Tiny Tusk.’”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a big set of horns as much as anybody. I live in Montana, and like every other hunter in the state, on the evening before opening day, I go to sleep with visions of antlers dancing in my head. But I usually spend the first day or two of hunting season trying to fill my doe tag, just so I have meat for the freezer. I am obsessed with big mule deer bucks and love bull elk. I will pass up shots at smaller specimens for most of the hunting season. Yet that last week or two of the season, I find no problem with knocking down a fork-horn “meat” buck or filling my elk tag on a cow. I understand the trophy-hunting mentality, and I understand being selective. I even understand that by trophy hunting and taking the biggest animals, I am ultimately providing myself with the most meat. Still, I find the mocking of others for the act of simply putting meat in the larder to be reprehensible. When you’re a meat hunter, any animal that provides meat for you and yours is truly a trophy.
Surely the influence of popular culture has had some of the most substantial impact on the face of hunting. We all see the magazine covers with grinning hunters holding incredibly rare, trophy-sized specimens. We watch hunting shows filmed on private ranches where the deer herds are closely managed, stocked with genetically superior animals, and in some cases even fed antler growth hormones. It’s all had a profoundly negative influence on hunters’ priorities. Just as celebrities and models have pushed us to accept a warped view of beauty, those “monster buck” television shows and magazines give us a distorted perspective of what we are supposed to be hunting for. It’s not big antlers we should be after, but a big experience. Ideally one where we immerse ourselves in nature and come out at the end with full hearts, full stomachs, and full freezers. That is hunting.
Like I said, I used to hate the looks. And though I have gotten better at dealing with them, it still makes me apprehensive when I run into another hunter when a tiny pair of antlers are sticking out of my pack or truck bed. I know that it’s coming. Still, no matter how high-minded the hunting world seems to get, every now and then I’ll meet a hunter along the way who will look at my animal and simply grin. “That’s gonna be some good eating,” they’ll say, and I’ll know I’ve found a kindred spirit.