When I was a kid back in the late ’60s and early ‘70s, I used to spend my weekends fishing at Murrow Park. The park’s small pond, which was situated in the middle of a gorgeous meadow, had a sandy beach at one end where the locals came to swim in the summer. The deepest spot, out near the middle, was all of fifteen feet.
Every April our local hatchery truck would pull up and stock thousands of trout, creating an oversized version of “fish in a barrel.” A week or two later, the town’s youngsters would arrive for the annual Kid’s Fishing Derby. We all hoped to win the Lions Club trophy for biggest fish.
I never won the Derby, although I sure put my time in. I fished that pond as long and hard as the rules allowed, and I always blamed my failure to take home the trophy on the fact that I couldn’t reach the cool, deep water out in the middle. The kids who were lucky enough to have open- faced spinning reels and fancy rods could cast further, and they always seemed to do better than those of us relegated to the waters near the bank.
Little did I know that this one particular lesson - something akin to the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence - would mess up my fishing and hunting for years.
Society teaches us that further is always better. A forty foot putt that drops into the hole is incredible. A two foot putt - well, anybody can do that. It’s the same thing with home runs, three point field goals, and touchdown passes. We’re always rooting for the Ruthian blast that clears the bleachers, or the 60 yard pass that settles into the receiver’s hands at the goal line. Let’s face it. Those are feats of skill; displays of power and talent so extraordinary that they separate the stars from the also-rans. And who doesn’t want to be a star?
Unfortunately, this “further is better” mentality has spent the last few decades creeping into our hunting and fishing. We admire the guy who can drop an elk with one shot at 400 yards, or who can throw an entire fly line, or who can crank his bow up to 320 f.p.s. and arrow a massive whitetail at 57 paces.
Many of us equate skill with a rod or a gun with prowess in the field. We’ve convinced ourselves that someone who’s a great shot must also be a great hunter, and someone who’s a marvelous caster must be an incredible fisherman. Yet we rarely take into account that our sporting pursuits are not simplistic, one dimensional activities, but rather the marriage of all the skill, knowledge, passion, intuition, and experience we can bring to bear.
Having the ability to make that long shot or long cast is a wonderful thing, assuming that it’s part of our tool kit; the set of diverse skills that we’ve developed over the years. But if we use those long range skills on a regular basis - if we take that 300 yard shot, or make that 80 foot cast, because we’re lazy or because we haven’t cultivated the complementary talents that allow us to get close to our target - then we’re missing out on the true outdoor experience.
Extreme distance, whether it’s with a cast or a shot, severs any sense of connection between us and our quarry. And that connection is what our time outdoors is all about.
Thankfully, the pendulum of distance is finally swinging back where it belongs. Sportsmen and women are once again calling for balance; for integrating our skills rather than relying on technology to make up for a lack of physical and mental prowess.
The argument against distance come down to two things: skill and respect. Let’s say a deer hunter with a scoped rifle decides to take a 200 yard offhand shot. He takes careful aim and then drops a walking mule deer buck in its tracks. Let’s assume that the hunter is in reasonably good physical condition and that the terrain provides some cover. Did our hunter make the right call?
Let’s look at “respect” first. As hunters, we should do everything in our power to harvest our quarry in the most humane fashion possible. That means we have a responsibility to take shots with an extremely high likelihood of success. For a fellow hunting with a longbow, respect might dictate that his shots are 20 yards or closer; for a compound bow with mechanical sights, 30 yards might be the outside limit. A rifle hunter with a good rest, quality optics, an intimate knowledge of his weapon and an animal standing broadside might decide that 300 yards is reasonable. That same hunter, with no rest and a moving animal, might determine that an 80 yard shot is not. In other words, there are any number of situations that are black & white, and even more that are shades of gray.
So let’s boil it down to a simple formula. If you can make that exact same shot nine times out of ten, then take it. If not ... well, you’ve got to decide what’s more important, your ego or the animal you’re trying to harvest. As far as most ethical hunters are concerned, it’s not worth taking a chance on a questionable shot. If you’ve ever tracked a gut-shot deer or lost a crippled elk to a snow storm, you know exactly what I mean.
Let’s get back to our example; the hunter who killed his buck at 200 yards with an offhand shot. Did he make the right call? From my point of view, the answer is a flat-out “No.” I’ve never met a hunter who could put a bullet in a deer’s heart/ lung area ninety percent of the time when he was shooting offhand and the deer was both two hundred yards away and on the move. Consequently, it was a poor shot despite the results.
But what about the “skill” angle? After all, doesn’t it take a tremendous amount of talent to make that 200 yard shot without a rest?
The answer is a definite “maybe.” There are certainly hunters who, through years of practice, can consistently put a bullet into a pie plate at 200 yards offhand. There are even marksmen who can do it with a moving target. So for those few people - yes, there’s an incredible amount of skill involved. But for the rest of us, that shot comes down to luck. And from where I sit, a wing and a prayer aren’t nearly enough justification when you’re trying to make a clean, ethical kill.
Now to tell the truth, I didn’t used to feel that way. In fact, I used to believe that my ability to shoot a buck through the heart while he was leaping over a fence, or to kill a distant elk with an offhand shot, was a sign of my ability as a hunter. Man was I wrong. I took shots I had no business taking, and I justified my faulty judgment by saying that I almost always hit what I was shooting at.
Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but when your ethical sidestepping leads to a long and fruitless blood trail - which it eventually did for me - you have two choices. You can try to figure out where you went wrong, or you can start lying to yourself. And that should be an easy choice.
So respect - respect for the animal, respect for the sport, indeed, respect for yourself - boils down to knowing your limits and your quarry, and refraining from questionable shots. That’s easy enough.
Skill, though, is not so simple, especially since it takes so many different forms.
There’s no doubt that shooting a bow or a rifle well is a valuable skill, as is the ability to make a long, accurate cast with a fly rod or a spinning outfit. Indeed, most folks would agree that if you’re going to hunt or fish, you owe it to yourself to develop a certain level of proficiency with your equipment.
Be that as it may, I’m going to make a statement that some people won’t like, but that the best hunters and fishermen will almost never dispute. The ability to make a long, accurate cast or shot should be down near the bottom of the list when it comes to a sportsman’s priorities. In fact, I’m going to go even further and say that the reason many people rely on a long distance approach is because they don’t have the necessary skills to get in close - and that those close-in skills are the true test of a hunter or angler.
I believe that the mark of a great sportsman is his (or her) ability to get in tight to his quarry. The most accomplished fly fishermen don’t usually cast more than 40 feet when they’re fishing for trout on moving water. And it’s not because they lack the skill to make long, difficult casts. It’s because the closer they get, the greater the likelihood that they’ll put the fly exactly where they want it, adjust for drag, and see the rise. Getting in close gives them more control over the entire process.
It’s the same for hunters. The hunter who releases his arrow at 12 yards not only has the satisfaction of being mere yards from his target - close enough to smell that huge bull, to hear the sound of its breathing, to see the bark shavings hanging from its antlers like dark tinsel on a huge, barren Christmas tree. He also he knows that his odds of making a successful shot are excellent. Chances are that the bull won’t jump the string, or a gust of wind won’t turn his arrow from the mark, or his elk won’t take a step or two before the arrow arrives at the target.
Even better, our hunter has played the game at the highest possible level. He’s beaten the odds to get within mere feet of a monarch, and that very act, that culminating moment of skill and woodcraft, brings him into the moment in a way that’s impossible for a guy who’s 400 yards away.
Which is the exact opposite of that 60 yard touchdown pass we like to rave about. You’ve already done the hard work, you’ve used your skills to overcome that animal’s incredible sensory defenses, and all that’s left is a shot you could make in your sleep. That, my friends, is the mark of a true sportsman.