I have been struggling determining how to broach this subject here for some time – since we began the blog as a matter of fact. I ask that you read the following with an open mind and welcome your questions and discourse as you’ve read it. This, the first in what will be several articles on hunting for food, is simply sharing some of the common conceptions and misconceptions on what we do. I have tried to write it from a balanced view as I have been on both sides of the fence on this one. With more cooking shows featuring the benefits and concepts of foraging and hunting, it is my belief that some may find this interesting while understanding that it may offend others. I will attempt to respect all sides of what can be a divisive difference of beliefs. I welcome comments and will publish all that are respectful of all sides of this discussion and will do my best to be a neutral judge of such. It is my experience that most people who have not interacted with hunting first-hand may find much of the following surprising or interesting.
I grew up eating, amongst other things, wild meat. Deer and moose were the most common examples of game in my house but there were times that other treats were served. We tried bear, several varieties of grouse/ partridge and a trip to my mothers homeland of Nova Scotia most certainly meant a chance to walk a trap line and check for wild rabbit that would be turned into a magnificent stew. All forms of seafood were common due to the same Eastern roots; my Mother is from a small fishing village in Cape Breton.
Hunting for food is a tradition that runs deep on both sides of my family. My roots in Canada trace back to pre-confederation when distant relatives hunted to survive. The tradition continued through my Father and after a lot of deliberate thought (including a 5-year stint when I did not eat red meat, pork or wild game at all and considered this to be an ethical decision), I continue this tradition. I occasionally hunted during this time and committed to eating anything we harvested (I was never tested as we did not succeed when I hunted at this stage in my life). I dated a vegetarian for almost 5 years after that and remain good friends with several vegetarians, whom I actually believe I have a stronger bond with because of our relationship to food, nature and the decisions we make to consume what we do. I now lead our camp – at times successfully and at others I struggle.
I understand that this topic will send a chill to some. I am not here to defend nor convince others about the ethics of hunting and, at it’s root, the act of taking a life for sustenance. I can only speak from my own perspective and experience and share that of those around me. The decision to raise a gun to harvest a meal was one I made over a 10-year period and was not an automatic decision based on breeding or conditioning. I am empathetic to those who do not advocate what we do – in fact I believe in many cases we are looking at opposite sides of the same coin. We will likely never agree and are often seeing diametrically opposing views of the same experiences.
I am not trying to convert, influence or claim that I am right. I am only attempting to share my own experiences and views of this very important piece of my life that some may find interesting, curious or otherwise. There are many questions people have about hunting and a few general misunderstandings on how hunting works that I hope to shed some light on in a series of articles through well preserved. All of this writing is based primarily on my first-hand adventures in Southern Ontario and of those I enter the bush with.
A lot of people find it interesting to discover that Moose Hunting generally occurs over a 6-day period in October. Deer lasts a total of 12 days (for rifles; bow hunting and shotguns have extended seasons in some areas). There is talk of possible expanding Moose season by 1 day and deer by 2 as some areas are now permitting Sunday Hunting (something that was still forbidden province wide until the past few years).
I have hunted deer or moose for 20 years. At first this was limited to extended weekends and missing a day or two of school to accommodate. As I became an adult I was able to take the full week and have hunted at least one full week a year (for moose) for the last 12 or so years. I have never shot a big game animal – nor have a shot at one. I have seen Deer during Moose and Moose during deer. I almost had a chance 3 years ago when an female adult moose approached me but we did not have the appropriate license to harvest her and I watched her walk away. I have killed several birds.
A successful hunt for us is seeing an animal – it is not based on a kill. A kill is indeed seen as a bonus and we eat everything we shoot. In addition, the hide of our animals is donated to Native Canadians and the jaw is given to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) to study the health of the local animal population. In the last 12 years our group of 14 hunters have come home from 5-6 days of hunting (9 days in the woods) with no moose. Deer hunting tends to get less hunters due to limited vacation time, family and life commitments. There have been many more times that we have returned with no deer after a two-week season. These weeks become very disappointing and frustrating – part of my frustration in these years is knowing that the winter will lead to consuming more large-farm produced meat which often includes medication, growth hormone or other additives which are unknown.
Tracking animals often begins in late August and early September. My Father and My Mother spend as much as 5-6 weeks in the woods during this time, often by themselves, enjoying fall colors, hiking, four wheeling, splitting wood and looking for signs of animals. Partridge season opens during this time and we generally have 5-6 birds in time for Canadian Thanksgiving when Dana and I head up for our last weekend at the camp before it turns to hunting only. Despite what may seem to be an illogical statement, the hunters I hunt with have a great passion for the animals we hunt and would, indeed, tell you that they loved them in a weak moment. When seeing a deer or a moose outside of the proper season the immediate reaction is not often “I wish it was hunting season” (though that does happen from time to time, especially if the animal is particularly large). A light snow is highly desired as it makes tracking a whole lot easier. A heavy snow or any amount of “crunchy” snow is a bad thing – think of trying to sneak across a field in the middle of the night while being lit up by the spotlight of a helicopter.
We wear very little camouflage when we hunt. The province of Ontario requires that we wear more than 400 square inches of Hunters Orange (it’s florescent) and it is a violation of law not too. We do not hide in tents (that is largely for duck and waterfowl hunting) and have very few, if any tree stands. Many of the areas we hunt are in thick bush and we can only see 30-50 feet in any given direction. Bullets are deflected by the smallest of branches and seeing an animal this close certainly does not guarantee that you will fall it. It is forbidden to shoot an animal in water and rifles are generally never fired across open bodies of water; bullets can skip and become unpredictable. You can hunt from a boat but not shoot your rifle from inside of it.
The number of animals we can harvest is strictly controlled by the MNR and is largely based on how many animals were harvested and how many were seen in the previous year. One of the less reported benefits to hunting is that the hunters actually report how many animals are seen in a given year. This can only be accomplished by having a large group of people in the woods at the same time – hunting is indeed a key factor in conservation. For moose, this means that we can, generally, only harvest one adult male (Bull), 1 adult female (Cow) and multiple young (calves) per year. This system ensures the viability and health of the population – Moose numbers have generally increased year-over-year for more than 35 years in our designated area (called a “Wildlife Management Unit” or WMU). Shooting the wrong type of animal is not something you want to do – the penalties include massive fines, loss of vehicles, property and can include the loss of your cabin. Game Wardens are armed and have more power than police officer (including the ability to search property without a warrant or cause).
I actually have a very difficult time killing bugs – most of the ones I find inside are transported to the saftey of the outside. I also dislike killing mice – however I recognize that we are bad roommates and reluctantly set traps to kill them. I find it very difficult to kill something that will not be used for food.
This may be tough for some to read. The killing of an animal has a very clear sobriety when the impact you have on nature is very real, very conscious and very deliberate. It is often followed by a certain unexplainable euphoria and is indeed part of why we do what we do. Perhaps it’s a primal reaction, relief of months of work combining to a single moment, an impulse back to an ancient chromosome or simply a moment of self-involved ego. Many of us have had a similar feeling when a fish bites a hook. I am doubtful that many of us would continue hunting without this feeling. I also believe it is the same reaction that keeps many people away from hunting.
Another extreme view that many may struggle with: in recent years I have started to consider hunting a means of healthy survival. Store-bought meat is becoming more suspect with additions of things like Bovine Growth Hormone (which does not have to be reported in Canada), contamination of our food supply (such as the extreme case of Maple Leaf), addition of Carbon Monoxide (not allowed in Canada to this point, the addition of CO2 can make rotting meat look fresh), antibiotics and altered diets such as force-fed corn leave me a little hollow with our commerical food chain – ethically and biologically.
Booze and bullets do not mix. When we open our first beer we put our guns away. That’s the law of Toyland where we hunt and it’s not to be broken. You also cannot drive in vehicles or on ATVs with loaded weapons. It is also illegal to have a loaded gun 31 minutes after sunset or 31 minutes before it’s rise.
I don’t know if the other guys do the same – every time we fall an animal I steal a reflective moment with the corpse (typically in our hanging shed) to thank it for it’s sustenance and it’s sacrifice. This is a private and quiet moment that very few people, if any, have known about until I wrote it here. This is an important part of the ritual for me and is one that I travel back to every time I eat meat from that fallen animal with very few exceptions and often extends to a similar moment of reflection when I consume other meat/ animal products.
Our cabin of 14 men includes 2-3 generations of fathers and sons every year. 7 of our members were fathers or sons of each other. Our oldest member is almost 80, our youngest is 33. I have hunted with many of the same families and hunters for all 20 years – my father has hunted with them for more than 40. It is odd for many to realize that this means he has spent more than a year of vacation with these men (and without his family) – in my case it’s about 6 months. I consider most to be as close as family though we only see each other this time of year. Beyond the time actually hunting, much of who I am has come from time in isolation with these guys. During hunting season our camp is male only. I understand that part of this tradition is “male bonding” however there is an equal part of respect to families and wives who are not in the camp at the same time.
I actually don’t believe most people have ever eaten anything that tasted “gamey.” This generic term is a poor descriptor that would leave most of us confused. Deer and Moose are extremely lean and overcooking will render almost all fat out of the meat – this results in a chewy, strong-tasting piece of meat (due to the lack of flavor-providing fat) which many call “gamey.” I contest that overcooked meat with no fat is not gamey – it’s simply overcooked. It is my experience that most people cannot tell the difference between lean ground moose and lean ground beef unless it is pointed out to them. Deer is the stronger tasting of the two. Like commercial livestock, the younger animals are more tender. Unlike most livestock who are fed a consistent diet (often corn which they were not intended to eat by nature), different animals can taste differently. We are all what we eat in the end.
Hunting is largely boring and few would have the patience for it. We often wake up between 4.30-5.00am and head outside before light. It tends to be very cold as we climb onto 4-wheel drive ATVs and head into the bush. Each of us is dropped at a designated space and we wait for the sun to rise. 30 minutes before the sun hits the Horizon it becomes legal to load your gun. Most of the hunters will now have to sit extremely still in the cold for 5-6 hours. It is important to stay awake and move very little. This process is something I would recommend to everyone to try at least once (you can do it without a gun of course; the longer you sit, the more the woods become alive. It’s similar to looking at the stars at night – the longer you look, the brighter they become. In this case, the woods become louder and louder until a squirrel sounds like an elephant running through the woods. This is ironic in that an adult moose can run at full gallop and not make a sound that can be heard from 30 yards away or less.
So there’s some of the basics and some information that I thought others may find interesting and/or eye opening. With time I will post more about hunting in general and what we do specifically. I welcome questions and ask that this forum remains a respectful place where it’s acceptable to disagree with one another as long as we are respecting the right of each of us to have our own opinions.