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Damn right I was happy. I was downright ecstatic, and the photos showed it.
My buddy Mike and I left our spike camp a full hour before sunup, stumbled behind our headlamps through a boulder field up to a low pass and dropped into a hidden basin where we had glassed a pair of heavy mule deer two days earlier from 3,000 feet lower down the mountain.
When the sun came up, we dissected east-facing slopes with our binoculars until I found one: a tall, deeply-forked buck with a couple main-beam stickers, bedded on the edge of a stringer of subalpine fir. It took the rest of the day to work in on him, being mindful of capricious winds and stalk-blowing exposures, before I killed him with a good shot.
It took another 30 minutes to reach him, and when I did, I whooped like a prospector who had found a rich vein. Mike’s camera caught me in mid-elation, my fists pumping and my mouth shaped in a primal howl. I was proud of my achievement, but maybe I should have kept the moment on the mountain. I posted the photo to Facebook and Instagram, and instead of atta-boys, I got heaped with derision.
“Hope you scratched your itch to kill,” wrote one commentator, a friend of a friend.
“Since when was hunting about trophies and egos?” said a buddy of mine who has a room devoted to trophy mounts.
Another suggested I was compensating for diminished manhood.
I was taken aback by the reaction, but removed from the context, I sort of see their point. I look like a bug-eyed goon in the photo, staking claim to a bleeding deer. It’s a look I recognize in other trophy photos on my feed, and when I cringe at them, I have to remind myself that without context, the photo of any successful hunt — those horn-holding “grip-and-grin” pictures — can appear more like conquest than conservation.
But that wide-smile celebration of a successful hunt trumps the alternative. You may have noticed another strain of photos on your social-media feeds, that of carefully staged anguish, the hunter gazing mournfully down at the animal he or she has just killed, wearing a look of either deep contemplation or pre-spew nausea.
Devoid of context, the look is laughable, more like grip-and-groan.
A few years back I killed the only 180-class whitetail I’m likely to ever encounter, on my family’s farm with my late father’s 7x57 Mauser. I was weeping with accumulated grief and relief as I lifted that buck’s head, and the photos show the depth of my emotions. Mine wasn’t a pose; it was a raw moment of meaning. But I made the mistake of posting that photo, too, and you can imagine the reaction.
“After you see your taxidermist, better see your therapist,” wrote a commenter.
Tyranny of the Hashtag
Those caustic comments are little fissures in a fault line that runs through the hunting community. You can see incremental separation every time we criticize each other for the methods we use, the camo patterns we wear, or the way we describe our methods and portray our successes. The tectonic plates close a bit when some external force—threats to recreational access or gun ownership—causes us to rally around our shared values.
This is nothing new. Tweedy, double-gun-swinging grouse hunters have been sniffing about pump-gun-shooting, Lab-owning duck hunters for generations. Traditional bow-hunters don’t understand the first thing about compound shooters, and neither camp has much time for crossbows. This compartmentalism is not unique to hunting. Fly fishers look down on “worm-drowners,” bass anglers deride catfishers, and Formula One elites think NASCAR fans are appallingly primitive.
But the lens of social media magnifies our differences and shrinks our commonalities and, intentionally or not, makes these tribal affiliations more exclusive than inclusive. The instant feedback loop of commentary on social media posts can create a sort of groupthink that self-censors dissent and homogenizes imagery.
As an example, a number of wild-food-minded hunters promoted what they called “#gripandgrin2point0” a couple years ago, a way to move beyond the traditional happy hunter behind horns or antlers and into a celebration of food as the true trophy parts of a wild animal. So far, so good, but the suggestion is that the traditional #gripandgrin photo is an anachronistic throwback, despite the fact that we’ve been taking these heroic kill photos as long as we’ve been carrying cameras into the field. Maybe as a result of the 2.0 campaign, I’ve seen fewer traditional grip-and-grins on my feed lately, and I mourn the loss of this traditional imagery.
Or take the nascent movement to celebrate and defend recreational access to public land. Part of the crusade to elevate awareness of the values of public land was a loosely coordinated social-media hashtag campaign — #keepitpublic — a stamp of specialness on photos of hunting and fishing in threatened landscapes.
If you have a social-media account, you have probably seen these photos. They effectively reminded viewers of the rich wildlife value of our public lands. But there was another outcome, one that my friend Doug demonstrated. Doug shot a whopper of an elk on an irrigated alfalfa field in Utah’s San Juan Basin. He worked for years to get access to the private land he hunted and applied for 22 years to draw the late-season elk tag. He passed dozens of bulls before spotting his trophy.
His bull measured 383 inches, and in the grip-and-grin photo he posted to Instagram, he used the shopworn hashtag #keepitpublic. When I asked him about that — the bull was hunted and killed on private land, after all—Doug told me that he felt he needed to add the hashtag in order to be accepted by the tastemakers of the internet, those hunting influencers with thousands of followers and brand sponsors. He also maneuvered the bull so that a center-pivot irrigation wheel wasn’t visible in the background, in order to perpetuate his fiction that the trophy elk was shot on public land.
That cannot be the intent of a high-minded campaign like public-land awareness, but it can be the unfortunate effect.
That same tyranny of example influences the choices of the gear we use. Take the recent 6.5 Creedmoor rifle craze. I’d bet many of the shooters and hunters who bought new 6.5s would be just as happy shooting .260 Rems. or .243 Wins. But because the hunting-industrial complex and key influencers started promoting the bejeezus out of the caliber on social media, it gained attention, then traction, and then momentum, partly on its merits, to be sure, but partly on the sizzle.
That same influence extends to camouflage, surely the most visible sign of our various tribal affiliations. Are you a Mossy Oak man? Or a Sitka woman? Maybe you lean toward Kuiu. Or you’re an Under Armour Ridge Reaper.
Our social media feeds serve us with aspirational images of peers wearing these uniforms in the field, usually doing something “epic.” Because it’s a human desire to join tribes, we associate ourselves more and more with our brand group, while at the same time distancing ourselves from other tribes wearing other brands.
This tribal affinity can cause us to casually shut out from our attention the works of rival tribes; we focus on our friends at the exclusion of our neighbors. But at its worst, it can cause us to vilify tribes that don’t look or act like us. The fault line widens, the continents drift.
One of the definitions of sportsmen (to a lesser extent, from what I’ve seen, sportswomen) is that we like the idea of fellow sportsmen but despise seeing them in the places we like to hunt and fish.
That’s natural, since we’re often competing for a limited resource, whether that’s a special animal, space in a marsh, or time in the field.
Think of how that dynamic has played out in your own life. I bet you’ve been filled with fellowship if you’ve ever attended a conservation banquet — for Pheasants Forever or Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or one of dozens of other nonprofit habitat groups. At those events, we celebrate our collective identity, as high-minded sportsmen giving back to the wild critters that define us. And hopefully winning a raffle gun in the process.
But now think of opening day on the public duck marsh. You spot someone in “your” spot, and before the sun has risen, you’ve called them every dark name in the book of curses. When they start to shoot, you reflexively assume they’re skybusting birds or shooting more than their share of hens. Even though the fellows you demonized are probably the same fellows who shared a meal with you at the Ducks Unlimited banquet.
It’s when the opportunity becomes most limited and the competition fiercest that those tribal lines become most sharply defined. And here’s the irony: The things that really divide us are our similarities. You can’t stand that fellow duck hunter mostly because he’s a duck hunter. If he were a bird-watcher or a bowhunter, you wouldn’t have nearly so much angst about his presence in your world.
But the things that separate us are petty and temporary compared to all the things that unite us. Whether you hunt ducks in the same marsh or grouse over a setter or deer over a food plot, we depend on the tolerance of the public to keep some land available for wild things. We require a wildlife agency that manages public wildlife equitably and sustainably. We require tolerance from our neighbors to allow us to access public properties. And we need enough other folks just like you and me buying licenses and gear to keep feeding the funding machine that ensures we keep America’s wild places and wild animals.
One of the first jobs any public-facing depiction of hunting should do is not alienate the non-hunting public on whom we depend for permission to continue to exercise our activities. But just as importantly, we need each other. We need vibrant and visible numbers of sportsmen and sportswomen to ensure that this American archetype, the yeoman hunter, doesn’t become a curious relic or a footnote of history.
“I don’t care if you hunt with a bow or a gun, hunt deer or doves,” said David Allen, executive director of the International Hunter Education Association. “If you hunt, you’re my friend.”
He’s right, although I’d add two important conditions in the social-media age. The first is an encouragement to show hunting in the most appealing context possible. This is where my mountain-muley post failed. It showed egoistic barbarism, not respect for the animal. Expect that plenty of non-hunters will see your post, and as long as you show the best of hunting—the encounter with difficulty and uncertainty, the hard work and joy of the experience, and respect for the animal you pursue—then you will have conveyed the context that’s missing from most grip-and-grins.
The second is this: One characterization of a sportsman is tolerance. There’s room in our camp for a wide range of hunters, methods, and motivations. You want to grin like a meercat from behind the rack of a deer? Go right ahead, but try to explain the context of the moment. You want to lower your head in respect and gratitude for the life you just took? Be my guest. It’s your right and a natural response to the gravity of the situation. But do it because that’s the authenticity of the moment, not because you’re trying to meet some expectation of social-media mavens.
Hunt the way you want, as long as it’s legal, ethical, and respectful. Cherish wild meat, even if you do overcook it. Post photos of your success in the field; the rest of us want to see how you’re doing. Yes, we may still pitch you crap if you smile too broadly or grieve too intentionally over your kill. We may still question your choice of camouflage or gear or method. But don’t take the flak too personally. We’re just being tribal, same as we’ve always been.