Ugly Ducking: Hunting Show or Hunting Porn?

  • New Shotshells DO Shoot Farther and Kill – BE CAREFUL
  • Hunt for the Camaraderie, the Excitement, the Deep Spiritual Meaning

for-sto-01042017-hunting-picture-1of3By Jim Low

I don’t ordinarily watch hunting shows on television, but the Hunt Channel caught me in a weak moment.  I’m still coming to terms with the fact that my 2016 duck hunting season ended without me firing a single shot at a mallard.  Sad.  So sad that when I saw a duck-hunting program listed on my satellite TV menu, I clicked in, hoping at least to share the experience of luckier hunters.  What a disappointment.

All the physical elements of a duck hunt were there – guys, guns, decoys, dogs and the factor that has eluded me this year, ducks.  Yet somehow it didn’t add up to hunting.  There was plenty of killing, though.  Five minutes into the program I had already seen more birds fall out of the air than would have been necessary for me to call a day in the marsh a success.  But something was missing.

For one thing, there was none of the banter that enlivens a morning spent with hunting buddies.  No reminiscing about past hunts, no good-natured jibes about shooting ability or choice of ammunition.  Mostly it was grim determination and gear talk. Long shots were the order of the day.  Despite the presence of large numbers of ducks that readily worked the decoys, only a few managed to get closer than 40 yards before the three hunters unleashed a barrage of expensive non-toxic shot in their general direction.  The implicit message was that hunting skill is superfluous when you can simply buy bigger, better shot shells capable of knocking down ducks at 60 yards.  Never mind the large proportion of crippled birds.

Neophyte waterfowlers would not have learned much from the endless series of money shots.  The hosts offered no observations about wind or other weather variables and how they might affect hunting strategy.  There was no explanation of how the decoy spread was structured to invite passing ducks to land.  No wonder, since the spread showed no sign of forethought.  It was an amorphous wad of bobbing plastic, with no opening to lure birds into shotgun range.

Time spent with friends – two- and four-legged – is one important aspect of hunting that doesn’t depend on killing game.
Time spent with friends – two- and four-legged – is one important aspect of hunting that doesn’t depend on killing game.

Violating the most basic rule of duck calling, the trio continued to blow loudly on their calls even when the birds were swooping toward the decoys.  When ducks fell, the party’s lone retriever piled into the water unbidden, a serious breach of retriever etiquette.  The only dog work and handling that viewers got to see was when the Labrador Retriever delivered a duck to hand.  All you saw was a wild barrage of shooting, one or several ducks falling and – if you were lucky – a dog climbing back into the boat with a duck.

There was plenty of product placement, however.  To be honest, that description implies a level of subtlety the show’s producers did not possess.  “Product placement” implies that hunters are shown using particular brands and models of equipment.  To compensate for a lack of careful filming, ham-handed editing superimposed huge product photos over the hunting video when a sponsor’s gewgaw was purportedly in use.  The whole thing would have made the brazen pitchmen of AMC’s Mad Men blush.

Devising a decoy spread that takes wind, sun, cover and other factors into account is critical to bringing ducks close enough for quick, clean kills.
Devising a decoy spread that takes wind, sun, cover and other factors into account is critical to bringing ducks close enough for quick, clean kills.

Three-quarters of a century ago, Aldo Leopold lamented the fact that outdoor media were becoming mere billboards for outdoor gadgets.  He said he was glad he wouldn’t live to see the end result.  I know how he felt.  I don’t mind gadgeteers making a buck by peddling bigger, better, faster and generally over-rated products.  I even end up buying some of them and then laughing at myself.  I once bought a box of steel shot shells touted as “hypersonic.” When my hunting buddy ran out of ammo, he teasingly asked me to lend him a couple of my “hyperbolic” loads.  Made me laugh and blush simultaneously.

Up to a point, commercializing hunting doesn’t bother me.  It’s good for the economy and real hunters quickly figure out which gimmicks work and are compatible with their standards for fair chase.  What really troubles me is reductive treatment of blood sports.  New hunters, potential hunters and non-hunters who watch shows like the one I saw would never guess that hunting is about more than killing things.  The Spanish philosopher and hunter Jose Ortega y Gasset said that he did not hunt to kill, he killed in order to have hunted.

I wanted to kill ducks this fall, I really did, but I still considered my time in the marsh with friends worthwhile, in spite of the scarcity of killing.  It would have been even more satisfactory if ducks had deigned to visit my marsh, even if I had failed to kill one.  I will continue to hunt as long as there is a possibility of ducks cupping their wings and sliding into a cleverly-conceived decoy spread, whether it happens or not.

I don’t consider the guys in the hunting video bad people or unethical hunters.  I strongly suspect they understand, deep down, the truth of y Gasset’s view of the relationship between hunting and killing.  However, I do consider them and the producers of their show to be thoughtless and embarrassingly inept storytellers.  If you are going to portray hunting in a public forum, please don’t cheapen it by reducing the experience to hunting porn.  Do your best to capture the art, the camaraderie, the excitement and the deep spiritual meaning that comprise hunting at its best.  I know it’s not as easy as stringing together a bunch of kill shots, but it’s more truthful.