I don't like the word sportsman

It's a primal thing, not a sport
angler in woods
Photo: Ray Gadd

Bullfrog tadpoles are big, easily fat as my thumb and a little longer. They’re obvious while resting on a pond’s mud flat or among the rocks in a tumbling creek. They wear the typical cryptic olive-brown camouflage you’d expect to see on an aquatic creature that can easily slide down any number of gullets, but their sheer size makes them conspicuous, or at least to me it does. I don’t see how any green heron or kingfisher could ever miss them.They look like plump, lazy little morsels, easily captured by even the sloppiest of attempts.

But they ain’t.

Bullfrog tadpoles are deceptively elusive with a quickness that contradicts the sluggish form, and they know exactly where the closest shelter is found. Then, if you are so lucky as to lay a finger on that muscular tail or gelatinous body, you’ve got to contend with their serious slickness. It’s like trying to catch a wad of animated snot.

As a writer, grabbing hold of the best word is akin to catching a bullfrog tadpole.

I struggle with this to the point of obsession. It seems easy. You’d think that surely to god a writer by profession would always be able to capture the right word. But, as German writer Thomas Mann said: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

It’s like trying to catch a wad of animated snot. 

This thought struck me as I was editing a press release and again saw the word “sportsman” as a term lumping hunters and anglers into a neat pile as distinct from “outdoorsman” which has taken on a bro-culture/flat-bill/Pabst drinking/rock climbing/cycling/kayaking persona. Personally, I think we’re all — “sportsmen” and “outdoorsmen” — much closer than we are apart. But for the sake of clarity and our unending need to categorize, that’s how it breaks down.

I don’t like the word “sportsman.” It became synonymous with modern hunting and fishing to mark a clear difference market hunters and those that hunted for reasons beyond capitalism. At the time, it was a fine choice for outdoor writers to label hunters and anglers. But now, it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it lacks honesty.

Hemingway said there are only three sports: bull fighting, auto racing, and mountain climbing (there ya go, bros). Inherent in each of these pursuits is the element of danger for the participant as well as a sense of conquest when the pursuit is over. Though I’ve had an alligator on the fishing line, though I’ve stepped over too many cottonmouths to count, and though I’ve slipped on a treestep once or twice, I generally don’t feel like my life is on the line while hunting or fishing. I’ve also never hunted or fished in the name of conquest. And frankly speaking, if you have then I don’t care to know you.

This is not to say that Hemingway has the term locked down, but I get his point. I can see how his treble of sports are “sporting.” Hunting and fishing are something more.

Hunting and fishing transcends sport. They transcend our modern definitions of humanity. Hunters and anglers were the default form of the Homo genus for eons. It seems demeaning, beneath us, to attach an Industrial Age label to Stone Age actions. It’s a title that separates us from what we really belong to. It’s not who we are and “sport” is not what we do. It’s not an honest word.

Going back to our rock-climbing bros, some of whom are my good friends, there is a difference between what they seek in the wild and what I seek, which is to become the wild. I want blood — sometimes literally, sometimes only metaphorically — but what I crave can only be satiated with blood. It’s a primal thing. It’s a predator thing. It’s a Pleistocene thing. It’s not a sport.

So I’ve started a personal and professional campaign in search of the perfect word to describe what I am as a hunter and angler, a student of the savage who very much seeks a return to his savage roots. It’s been a month or so since I first dove into this quest, but I’m nowhere close to an answer. 

What is the word for who we were and who we really are at the core?


good point ,i tell people who ask :why do you fish and why do you release your catch ? my answer :because i come from a mix of Neerdanhal and Homo sapiens .

How about "getting in touch with your feral self" ? You might find The Recovery of Ecstasy: Notebooks from Siberia by Sandy Krolick of interest.

As a fellow writer and outdoorsman this really struck a chord. I think as humans we may have changed less than we like to think in the last 300 or even 1,000 years. Maybe a good word is simply: human being. We're always trying to identify as this or that. But we probably all have more in common than in difference, particularly if there is any interest in the world outside of cities. We're all enjoying a similar type of freedom.

It’s difficult to tell if you’re genuinely serious bro - but I’ll take the bait. If you want to seek out your savage roots, then you’ll probably need to quit your job and move off the grid where you must hunt and fish to survive – a place where the choice to hunt and fish is the same as the choice to live or die. I love modern day hunting and fishing for the sport: the problem solving, adrenaline, camping, outdoors, the gear, blood, table fare, and everything else that goes with it except getting up before 4am.

But, modern day hunting and fishing only provides us the slightest glimpse of what it’s like to fully escape modern humanity and discover our savage roots. Our hunting and fishing adventures are seldom accompanied by true need, desperation, or tragedy. Our claims of being hunters and anglers on the same terms as our ancient ancestors is laughable – it’s a Pleistocene thing so we might not get it. Catch and release? Guided hunts? We’re the Milli Vanilli of fishing and hunting.

Need another word for our kind? Try hobbyist (flat brim hat is optional).

Not to be a Richard Cranium about it but that BS about ‘only three sports’ was Conrad Barnaby not Hemingway.

I love to hear a dissenting opinion. Really, I do. Disagreements are opportunities for learning, change, and growth. I especially love it when I learn something new or can share new information with the person in disagreement. This is how progress happens.

Ignorance can be enlightened, but there ain't a damn thing you can do about those poor shackled souls born with not an ounce of imagination, those folks tethered to the false gospel of false dichotomy within seemingly every facet of their life who couldn't grasp nuance if you gave it handles. Mike, you fall squarely into this latter category, and you're snarky about it, too. Though the snarkiness does make your post entertaining... in a sad way.

P.S. Your quibble about who actually said the quote only demonstrates even further that the entire point of this piece sailed over your noggin without disturbing one thin hair.

Have a great day!

I have to agree with the author. I'm not sure what I dislike more: the term itself, or rather how it tends to lump us all into the same group, as he mentioned. There is fishing for sport, and there is fishing that isn't. The need to eat is unequivocal. For someone to say we don't need to kill to eat "these days" is nonsense and simply dismissive. We don't NEED to let others do our killing for us, either. We have a choice either way. Our grocery store adventures are never accompanied by true need, either.

My family and I harvest as much as we can from our hunting, fishing, and trapping endeavors each year, and the vast majority of what we eat and feed our children with comes from our own hard work. I realize everyone doesn't live in remote Alaska, or possess the same options as someone who does. This is beside the point. We all have choices, and thankfully, the free will to make them. The clients I guide, that know nothing other than releasing the fish after I take their photos, do not approach their fishing trips the same way as we do. Not better, not worse, but undeniably different. Period. It isn't always a "sport". Thus we aren't all being "sportsmen" (or women) when we walk out the door in the morning, rod in hand. We don't need to try and rank one over the other - that just leads to a measuring contest. Rather, I am saying that to declare there is no difference between catch and release fishing trips (or lifestyles), and fishing to fill the freezer (by choice) is to declare one's self as blind as a bat. I assure anyone who may care to ask, that I damn sure am no "hobbyist" when it comes to fishing, hunting, trapping, or anything else that puts food on my table. Our roots are in it, whether we like it or not. The modern mainstream fishing (and hunting) industry, and the viewpoints surrounding it, have come about only through our 'savage' roots. Why "say farewell" to a good thing?...especially if its the horse that brought you?


I know I could capture more fish with a gill net instead of a Trico Spinner and could shoot more Pheasants by setting a downwind fire in the field. So, maybe a "Sportsman" is someone who chooses a method of pursuit and engagement that places aesthetics in front of efficiency. We do it our way because we can and choose to. There's a lot to see, smell, and hear along the way that has no direct impact on our success or failure in the primary pursuit. We learn things about ourselves and the world we share with other beings along the way that can make us better friends, parents, and humans. Maybe walking up a river with a fly rod is the best way for some to take home a creel full of patience and appreciation. Perhaps a "Sportsman" is someone who finds many forms of nourishment in the woods, fields, and river canyons and pursuing a quarry is what gets us off the couch...

My previous comment was sardonic to make a point – I am genuinely sorry I offended you.

When I’m fishing, there are indeed particular moments that serve as instinctive reminders of my purpose in being, perhaps from former lives if there are such things. The intensity of those moments increasing with every mile and hour, feeding thoughts of being born generations too late. My soul, shackled or not, doesn’t desire a new word for humanity to create another false dichotomy to distinguish me from other sportsmen. It just doesn’t care and can’t see any need to care.

Regarding my lack of imagination to grasp nuance - you left the door open for me to possess it in quantities less than 1 ounce.

“Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it”
Drax the Destroyer

P.S. I hope my snarkyness doesn’t make you sad again.

There is a parallel issue with using the word "sport" to describe flyfishing. At the risk being seen as too precious, I like to use the word "sacrament".

The meanings of words are notoriously slippery as well. When recreational "huntin', shootin' and fishin' " were the pursuits of gentlemen they were sports, and athletics, football or various kinds and hitting things with bats were games. Then, somehow, games became sports, and the lower orders took to receational hunting, shooting and fishing. Perhaps some notion of "fair play", giving the opposition a chance, and sticking to the rules ties the old sense of sport with the new one, but "what sport do you play" could never have an answer to do with fishing or hunting.

I also dislike the word or term "sportsman"; maybe there was a time it worked? Does the term outdoorsman work? Maybe if you hunt, fish, trap and maybe even gather morels or grow a garden. I think we are more keepers of traditions, the environment and lost arts; I am not sure what you call that but the term river keeper or huntsman seem to portray what I and so many others do. Maybe a pursuer of primal adventure? I don't know that there is the perfect term because we all do it for similar but sometimes very different reasons. I find great peace on a river or behind my bird dog but to sit in a deer stand is not my thing. But to my earlier comment it is the pursuit of a connection to where we have come from and where we would prefer to be something very primal but refined in a certain way.