Hunting has its rewards and its disputes.
One classic debate has to be seeking a trophy versus a meat-to-eat motive for the pursuit.
Even before arguments are set forth for either trophy or meat reasoning, a faction of folk looks at hunting as nothing more than the killing of animals. That is not the focus, but dispatching animals quickly should be a priority.
Hunters, as with all meat processors and providers, have an obligation to dispatch game animals as effectively and humanely as possible.
Instead of critically assessing hunters and hunting, the sound-minded hunter makes every effort to efficiently use whichever shooting device (bow, shotgun, rifle, or pistol) when headed afield. A well-chosen and well-aimed shot helps to ensure that the animal suffers least and is harvested with minimal stress to meat quality.
All this may seem heartless to non-hunters, but consider where and how we obtain our chicken, beef, pork, lamb, and other commercially-grown meat stocks.
Then there is the verbiage attached to descriptions of the hunt. Most offending is the word "kill." Somehow, as soon as the word "hunt" is pronounced, thoughts of murderer or cruelty to animals dominates thinking and pronouncements.
Case in point: A recent South African plains safari. Last February, wife Jean and I took our third trip to South Africa for a combined visit with the guide's family and a chance for Jean to target her own version of a trophy -- a wart hog.
More than one critic wrote that this kind of reporting is nothing more than killing. One scribe, after reading my stories on hunting in Africa, went on to harangue hunting and killing.
What irony. One thick theme thread woven through all three parts of the feature keyed on death as much or more than just hunters killing. If hunter critics had read even at a skim level it would have been obvious that this writing was in the style of Hemingway -- the content of characters in or near the story's action and that eternal life-and-death struggle that heightens one's awareness of our mortality.
This, and the love of just being outdoors and seeing the wilds and its life, makes the long journey a joy.
Casual-reading critics also failed to notice that I personally did not kill one game or nuisance animal on this trip.
My aim was to take a bushbok with a bow. I took along my Hoyt; Jean used Adolf's .243 rifle to take her trophies.
A bow-shooting opportunity arose when a nearby farmer told Adolf that a big-horned bushbok was hanging around his pond. We went out the next morning, approached the curled up animal, I drew my Hoyt bow, and Adolf noticed it had already died.
Other Hemingway-esque deaths encountered along the way included another bushbok previously blinded and walking a fence line in search of food. That animal was dispatched as a matter of mercy.
That same night, a beef-cattle farmer drove us around his pastures where jackals have been stalking calves. Before we saw the first wild dog, a half-ton cow appeared in the headlights. The carcass showed no signs of external injury.
A morning ride around high pastures revealed an Edgar Allan Poe-like setting. A year-long drought killed off more game animals (impalas, blesbok etc.) than hunters could harvest in several years. At a distance, one skull looked much like a human head. It turned out to be the shell of a long-dead tortoise.
Hunting, for the truly involved and devoted hunter, has to do with much more than just sport. The life-and-death considerations poets, philosophers, and storytellers share are at the core of the hunt -- not just the thrill of the kill.
After all these considerations, what about those trophy-taking versus meat-hunt musings?
One of the greatest objections to hunting has to be a distain for killing an animal as a trophy.
Many non-hunters accept killing game for food sources, but when the consumption is purely for trophy purposes those outings become odious.
As Jean and I checked into the Johannesburg Airport for a connector flight, a baggage-handler inspector type said to Jean, "Please don't kill our animals." She cleverly replied, "We're going to eat the animals we hunt." To which he responded, "That's OK."
Curiously, most plains game antelopes are in average slightly smaller than a North American whitetail deer. If a hunter were to take six impala, blesbok, or smaller game (not a kudu, eland, or other larger bok), one could expect to harvest less than 300 pounds of meat.
A couple will spend more than $10,000 on a trip such as this. Imagine how much beef, pork, and/or lamb could fit in the freezer with a $10,000 red-meat budget.
Trophy status has to be a matter of personal preference as well as Boone and Crocket or Safari Club International points rating. We have a 50-inch Cape kudu on the wall. The record for a Cape kudu (not the greater kudu found north of Johannesburg) is 55 inches.
But a steenbok, the size of a standard poodle with long legs, comes even closer to a species record. A 20-pound steener opposite the kudu mount sports 6-inch horns, short of a record by less than an inch.
Part of a trophy's status has to be the degree of danger experienced when hunting huge, man-killing game.
Our hunts never took us close to water buffalo country. Open-field zoos and game-viewing preserves allowed us to get close-up photos of lions, leopards, water buffalo, etc. But trophies, the result of just driving and walking African plains, have made our trips more valuable than the cost of travel and taxidermy fees.
A dangerous-animal display and a sizable squirrel mount each can serve as a trophy status for the hunter who respectfully and humanely harvested that game.
No opposing viewpoint has more polarity than the meat-consumption pros and cons.
Hunters shoot mountain lions as part of game management programs to control damage to game and domestic animal stock. Few would consider wild cats a meat source. Yet, an international hunter friend, Ray Roll from Lancaster, assured me the back straps from a mountain lion can be a delicacy.
I tried that "delicacy" on a South Africa outing. After taking a caracal I asked the guide to save the back straps. Estelle Kleinhans, an expert cooking instructor and chef at Cape Valley Lodge, prepared the meat something like a filet mignon. The fillets, pure white and flavored something like moose or caribou, had an enjoyable taste -- but no amount of tenderizing could soften the sinewy straps.
The same disparate taste appeal comes when assessing western antelope. During a 'lope hunt with Jeff Pippard of Niagara Outdoors a decade ago, I brought home a medium-sized "trophy" antelope that still stares at us above the TV.
The first taste of that meat and our sharing of meat samples with friends and relatives were confined to other game harvested. The mid-fall season had antelope feeding mainly on sage. That odor haunted every hillside during our hunt near Buffalo, Wyo.
Caribou offer a variety of meat qualities. When taken too early or too late in the fall season, 'bou meat can get booed. But when the animals first start moving off tundra-like northern flats and subsist mainly on lichen growth, a caribou steak, roast, or ground patty might outdo an elk, moose, or even whitetail cut.
How a game animal was harvested affects meat quality. Time of year and forage sources add or detract from game-meal palatability.
Quality deer managers want to harvest trophy whitetail racks; meat hunters want to bring home the venison/bacon. Safari hunters seek massive mounts; even the most bizarre game bird, animal, and many reptiles can render good table fare.
Each trophy and taste bud varies. Pass the trophy pictures, but keep an ample assortment of steak sauces.