What a crazy premise it is to be in a tree all day? It sounds just as crazy as the movie The Men Who Stare at Goats. Stick with me as I explain why this is actually something you may want to consider. As I am rapidly approaching my fifth decade in life, I look back only about four years when I made the decision to learn how to hunt. If you would have asked me twenty or even ten years ago if hunting would be something “I am into”, I would have said, “sure…maybe, but…”. Then, I would have come up with a litany of reasons why it wasn’t meant to be because having spent my formative years in Austria, only the rich with access to their own or leased land and people with a family tradition in hunting would even conceive such a bizarre notion.
Having lived in the US now for over twenty years, I discovered that hunting has been and still is a leisure activity for the masses; rich or not. There are close to 12 million hunters in the US. For those of you unfamiliar with this great American past time, it takes literally a day to get your hunters safety education under your belt at a local outdoor store. It also takes an afternoon at a gun show or store to run your background check and pick up a long-rifle, scope and ammunition for hunting. While this shocked me a bit because suddenly you are not only armed (political discussion around the 2nd amendment aside for now) but also able to acquire a hunting license in any US state to hunt on millions of acres of public or private land for a fairly small license fee. With some lower-end camouflage gear, bow or rifle, and accessories, you could be ready to go for less than $2,000 in your first year and in the $100 range thereafter.
In comparison, the amount of time and money I would have to spend to get a hunting certification and weapon’s license back home on top of acquiring hunting access to someone’s property (highly limited and running into tens-of-thousands Euros annually) is staggering. In a nutshell, the average American doesn’t know or appreciate democratization when as it relates to hunting rights and affordability. Unlike golf, which saw a rapid democratization in the nineties on mainland Europe, hunting continues to be a fairly high-brow sport for the rich and wannabes or practiced by an increasingly smaller agricultural population. Youth hunting, while on a slow downward trajectory in the US, is basically non-existent across Europe to the point where legislation is trying to encourage it. Anecdotally speaking, I have never heard of any of my high school peers even talk about, let alone do it.
Bad stereotype: Old guy reliving his youth
The financial, legal and logistical setup aside, another great aspect of hunting for an older guy like me is that it brings me back to my youth in the boy scouts and camping with my late dad. It is my way to connect to my childhood and nature. When I got busy with life, career and family, I completely forgot about those aspects, which really mattered to me deep down. Suburbanites like me are increasingly craving self-reliance and reclaiming control over their lives steered by mundane corporate lives and hierarchies. These voids in my industrial-world soul got their initial fill through TV series like Mountain Men, Naked and Afraid or The Last Alaskans; yet, it wasn’t enough. When my wife insisted to move us to a farm-to-table community surrounded by a nature conservancy near our house was certainly the final straw to get me going. Suddenly, I had the motivation and the access to hunt.
This is when I decided to get neck-deep into this, call it hobby, lifestyle or passion. Personally, I don’t call it a sport because it isn’t about “citius, altius, fortius”. I devoured hours of YouTube videos on how to pick the right gear, what bow or rifle caliber is best, what makes a good hunting knife or backpack, how to read deer and turkey tracks, how to use a climbing tree stand, what to bring to an all-day tree sit, how to field-dress, etc. After everything was said-and-done, I must have spent close to $10,000 on gear and at least 500 hours in research. My sarcastic self would say, “There goes my affordable hunting for everyone in the US argument.” but I guess once you are in it, you are fully invested. Moreover, you could theoretically do all this within one week. That is the theory but then there is reality. The best laid plans all come to a halt when you need to execute.
As it turned out, the magic sauce is your, what I submariners call, “firing solution”. To make a bullet or arrow fly where you want, forget all the toy contraptions you had as a kid. This is way different. A real arrowhead is razor sharp and can pierce sheet metal easily. A good hunting bow or scoped rifle including accessories and arrows will set you back close to $2,000. The magic sauce is that you have to sight both weapons in, which I luckily knew for the rifle due to my time in the army. The archery setup was a different animal all together. It is like learning to ride a bike for the first time. Considerations include draw-weight, brace height, draw length, let-off, stabilizer weight, arrow rest adjustment, arrow spine, release type, kinetic energy, broad vs mechanical arrowheads…I could go on and on. Tuning this into a successful concoction given weather conditions and target distance is as much an art as it is a science. Imagine learning to play the violin. Now imagine shooting its bow of a string and it must hit the one audience member in row 10, seat 3. Every YouTube expert will have their own biased opinion confusing the hell out of any novice hunter. Ultimately, you have to spend hours at the range to tweak all these variables to make it work, meaning grouping shots within an inch or two.
Despite all the gear, preparation and research, my first year was full of mistakes, false starts and humble pie lessons. I sat for days where deer are not passing through. I bumped (spooked) deer on my way to the tree stand repeatedly. Once, I nearly stepped on a turkey and saw it fly off. I couldn’t call a deer or turkey for the life of me. The guys at Gearhungry would likely laugh their heads off about all these mistakes. In my defense, and unlike a fellow novice and her experience, Liz Harroun, let’s not forget that nobody showed me how it is done right; no outfitter, no father or friend. If people are looking for digital mentorship, I suggest Geoff Belnap’s The Novice Hunter podcast.
Hunting is like Zen Buddhism with a possible, more immediate physical and spiritual reward
What these failures and the overall effort and experience have done for me though is priceless. I have learned to sneak into the forest before sunrise without spooking animals and climb a tree in silence without breaking my neck. I have seen and heard the forest wake up at dawn and all kinds of critters in their natural habitat up close. I have experienced a December cold to the point of shaking uncontrollable but have managed to deal with it. I have improved my ability to control my noise and scent profile because deer can detect them before they can see you, as I found out in my first year. I am slowly mastering the art of relaxing and removing work from my headspace when I sit in my stand, look up the tree and feel it gently swaying in the wind allowing me to doze off for a few minutes. I can also report that I have harvested, tracked, field-dressed, butchered, and eaten deer by my second-year hunt. More importantly, I knew what went into this effort from start to finish.
In the age of home grocery delivery who can say that? It is an indescribable feeling, to say the least, when after hundreds of hours preparing and unsuccessful efforts, everything comes together and you are able to control the adrenalin rush and uncontrollable shakes (buck fever) during the few minutes prior to your arrow releasing. Taking an animal’s life wasn’t a thing for me before. Yes, I have caught and gutted some fish occasionally but outwitting another mammal is another thing and it is life altering. It is saddening, deeply spiritual and rewarding at the same time, so much so that I regret it the second after. I believe this may also explain why fewer than 30% of soldiers shot at a human enemy in WWII and Vietnam.
All these aspects may be esoteric vignettes for most but they are essential skills our not-too-distant forefathers had. I developed these literally from scratch, through personal motivation, and without anyone’s help. Feeling a sense of pride and appreciation for nature and its creatures is something most of us, including the old me, have either never experience or forgotten. Many may utter a “poor thing” under their breadth when encountering road kill but don’t think of it a minute later. I just think of how civilization infringes on nature to the point of wasting such a precious life.
Hunting: The more pragmatic side
On the more pragmatic side; the more I reflect on it, learning to hunt may also be a good test if I would be able to create my own business. At least that is my hypothesis. It seems to me to be very similar as you have to draw on many disciplines you often know little to nothing about really. It involves legal, product, and market research; budgeting; procurement, and strategy execution. You have to budget for hunting. You have to adhere to local firearms and hunting regulations. You have to know what equipment is essential, what works in reality, and how to use it? You have to find a property to hunt on, which was a doozy for me as I had no local network I could leverage. You have to merge insight from digital maps and on-the-ground animal tracks. Then, you have to turn all of this into action by doing everything right on a given morning to turn it into the life-changing experience it really is. And you also have to be able to track and gut an animal to avoid spoiling the meat you just invested hours or days. Most non-hunters don’t understand that the actual act literally takes seconds but the majority of the effort occurs before and after. While I am sure I am not doing it full justice with these few paragraphs, I hope to have illuminated the work involved to get to this level of content, self-awareness, and simultaneous peace and even spirituality. I can only say that it is highly unlikely I would have ever fulfilled this passion back home. America is a truly great place to (re)fill your cup – thanks to YouTube.