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Sportsman- What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name?” This popular line from Shakespeare applies to more in life than you might realize. A name or descriptive terminology for something often has much deeper roots than we’ve been taught to believe. Such is the case with the term “Sportsman.” For years I’ve had a problem with us as Americans referring to hunting and fishing as a sport – because it isn’t. Hunting is a lifestyle, a passion – not a sport.

Years ago I was able to hear one of the most recognized wildlife biologists, researchers and biggest proponents of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation speak at a wildlife management conference in Bismarck, North Dakota. His name is Dr. Valerius Geist and he very eloquently put the history of the term Sportsman in its proper context, complete with historical perspective from England and Germany on truly where this descriptor of those loving the outdoors came from.

The fact of the matter is this: hunting is not a sport, it is a passion. In America, for decades we have perverted the term to have competitive connotations because the word sport is in the description. The term Sportsman is in fact an old English term simply describing the relationship between the hunter and other hunters, the hunter and the land and the hunter and the wildlife resources they are helping manage through wildlife conservation. To be a Sportsman meant you were a gentleman and treated other hunters, the land and the wildlife with profound respect. 

Too often we hear stories of irrational behavior exhibited by fellow hunters in the field – someone piggybacking on your hunting spot after you simply shared your story of success with them in passing, another person trying to beat you to an animal in a basin you have clearly been hunting before anyone else, an individual tagging an animal you just shot and claiming it was actually them who shot it when they just saw you shoot the animal and quickly arrived upon the dead animal, tagging it before your arrival. The list goes on and on (notice I didn’t refer to these slobbish people as hunters or sportsmen since they are nothing of the sort – true hunters/sportsmen do not act this uncivilized toward their fellow hunters/sportsmen).

These horrific stories are the exact opposite of what the term Sportsman means. Hunting is not a competition between you and other hunters. It is not a competition between you and the animal. Sure, there are supreme challenges that exist in hunting which test your merit and fortitude, but there is no scorekeeping, or at least there shouldn’t be. To be a Sportsman is to be a gentleman in all senses of the word. A Sportsman will go without filling a tag rather than push others out of the way to get first crack at an animal. A Sportsman will share hunting tactics and secrets with other Sportsman because they thoroughly enjoy seeing others have success in the field.

This level of respect runs much deeper than just respect for a superb mature animal with magnificent antlers or horns. It incorporates appreciation of the supreme table fare the animal offers, the spiritual uplift we feel when “hunting in lonely lands” as Theodore Roosevelt put it, and the deep satisfaction that we as hunters have since we acknowledge we are part of a much bigger picture than just us and the singular animal we pursue and attempt to harvest in the fall. 

Growing up, I witnessed more good examples of what it means to be a Sportsman than bad ones. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that I watched a paradigm shift in our country toward a more selfish approach to “enjoying” the outdoors. The hunt became more about the kill than the journey toward the harvest, more about the chest-pounding bragging rights of the volume and size of animals that were taken than the thrill of the pursuit and potentially going without. This mindset is detrimental to our future as hunters in this country, maybe even more so than this same mindset was in the late 1800s.

Hunters are conservationists in the purest sense of the word. In our modern culture the term “conservationist” is often mistakenly given to extreme animal rights groups with ludicrous political agendas. In fact, these are not conservationists at all. They milk our wildlife and land management agencies out of much-needed funds for sound management practices to be used instead for frivolous lawsuits trying to further causes that are anything but friendly to wildlife management and the American citizenry. These same funds that run the aforementioned agencies are mainly supplied by hunters and fishermen, true sportsmen and hunter-conservationists, who have willingly taxed themselves for over 100 years to ensure our wildlife and land resources are there in perpetuity.

Much of the American and Canadian wildlife management thought process has been wrapped up in one neat little package called the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. In this model there are seven proponents, or tenets, that are often referred to as the seven sisters. These are: 1) Wildlife Resources Are A Public Trust, 2) Markets For Game Are Eliminated, 3) Allocation For Wildlife Is By Law, 4) Wildlife Can Be Killed Only For Legitimate Purpose, 5) Wildlife Is Considered An International Resource, 6) Science Is The Proper Tool To Discharge Wildlife Policy, 7) Democracy Of Hunting Is Standard.

Two gentlemen who have been some of the most prolific in connoting and promoting this model are Valerius Geist and Shane Mahoney, traveling the world over preaching this methodology and doctrine to illustrate the undeniable fact that North America has the most amazing story of wildlife conservation and management in recorded human history. This is an inarguable fact. We must remember the importance of the model isn’t only because of the successes of our wildlife management strategies over the last 100+ years, but also because of major mindset changes that occurred in this country in the late 1800s to early 1900s thanks to individuals like Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, George Bird Grinnell, Ding Darling and Gifford Pinchot, to name a few. 

In that time some of our wildlife populations plummeted to all-time lows due to the unregulated market hunting that was occurring and also the belief by many of the time that our nation’s wildlife resources were limitless. European settlers were amazed at the amount of wild game that they had the new freedom to pursue. The mindset at this point in history seemed to be on bragging rights on the sheer number of animals in which one would harvest, similar to that of present-day slob hunters mentioned above.
Eventually, however, the handwriting was on the wall with respect to the dwindling wildlife populations and a new ideal began to take hold in America; the notion of wildlife conservation and selective harvest, i.e. trophy hunting as we’ve come to know it. This new train of thought was not brand new but was gaining in popularity as people such as Theodore Roosevelt began to propagate it through the Boone and Crockett Club as well as other venues such as the 1909 North American Conservation Congress. 

Roosevelt said to Congress in 1907, “To waste, destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed.” 

Soon the thought of sportsmen taxing themselves and paying fees for hunting and fishing licenses became a reality in order to fund the management of these replenishable resources.
While the work of the early pioneers of wildlife management who were mentioned above is admirable and was necessary to spearhead these efforts, the work of wildlife management and conservation is not limited to those in the limelight. The conservation and wise use of our natural resources depends on folks like you and me just as our behavior as sportsmen toward fellow hunters is up to you and me.

Thankfully, Sportsmanship isn’t completely dead. Two falls ago, Scott Reekers and I were on the trail hiking into an area that few backpack hunters go. We ran into several horse hunters who were pursuing elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. More than once we received their looks of puzzlement when asking us what the heck we were doing back there without horses. After we all laughed and exchanged pleasantries, each and every one of the hunting horsemen were more than eager to share locations of critters with us in the spirit of camaraderie. What a breath of fresh air! I hadn’t seen sportsmen cooperating like this since I was in high school! It was a refreshing reminder of the not-so-distant past and it came from hunters of all ages on that trip. The same thing happened again last fall in the same area.

Scott and I have often discussed how this mindset was missing in large prevalence in today’s American hunting culture. Ironically, Scott never shared a story with me that happened to him on the mountain many years prior, exhibiting the true spirit of the Sportsman. To illustrate, our editor had received an email from a subscriber who was happy to tell the full story since he recognized Scott’s name in our Journals and ran into him on the trail those fateful years in the past. 

He stated, “A few seasons ago I backpacked into a remote camp the day before the Wyoming deer opener. Not long after setting up camp, another hunter arrived in the same general area. We met up and began chatting. This guy asked me where I’d be on opening morning and graciously offered to move farther down the ridge. Two days into the season I was fortunate to kill a beautiful buck that went over 190″. Unbeknownst to me, upon hearing the shot, he then proceeded to drop 1,000 feet in hard-earned elevation to meet up with me. 

When I described the fallen buck to him he replied, “That sounds like the buck I was after.” 

Oddly, he was excited about it and was ready to help me pack the buck back up the mountain he just came down. It was dark and cold by the time we hit the top and the man offered to make room in his wood stove equipped tent. I now can honestly say that Eastmans’ staff member Scott Reekers is one of the kindest men I’ve met. In a time when he easily could have been abrasive or simply went along with his hunt, Scott went out of his way to give a fellow hunter a hand and it’s something that won’t be forgotten.”

Now that is the definition of a Sportsman! 

Aldo Leopold, often called the father of modern wildlife conservation, stated, “A peculiar virtue of wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers.” 

This quote is just one more authoritative reminder of the meaning behind the term Sportsman. Scott’s story should be the norm, not the exception that it sadly is today.

In today’s culture of selfishness and entitlement mindsets, each one of us needs to work even harder to win back the values of the American Sportsman. If we don’t, our future time afield will undoubtedly be in jeopardy. The voting, non-hunting public will make sure of that. Remember that when you are in the field or in the convenience store or grocery store on the way to the field, you are representing much more than just yourself. People are watching, including other hunters. Act according to the code of the Sportsman and that will influence other hunters to do the same, plus it will leave a lasting impression on those who think that hunters are just a bunch of slobs that seek thrill killing on a high-fenced game preserve and nothing more. 

It’s our choice. How will we act on the trail toward our fellow hunters and the wildlife we are pursuing this fall and the falls after? 

Maybe the Fair Chase Statement from the Boone and Crockett Club will help you in your decision, “The ethical Sportsmanlike, lawful pursuit and taking of any free-ranging, wild, native North American big game animal in a manner that does not give the hunter an improper advantage over such animals.”

About Brandon Mason

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  1. Bravo, Mr. Mason, Bravo! What a wonderful article you’ve crafted! The decline in sportsmanship is a societal epidemic right now – it’s not limited to hunting. Sadly, the Golden Rule has been left in the wake of society’s race to the bottom of the trash heap…

  2. Great piece Brandon. You mentioned B&C’s Fair Chase Statement, here is a snippet from the Club’s essay on Fair Chase that talks about “sport” hunting.

    The literal meaning of fair chase is complicated by the fact that “fair” has many meanings and uses in the English language, e.g., fair ball, fair weather, fair skin, fair chance, fair play. When the word “fair” is paired with “chase,” it implies that hunting is fair or equal. It is not. Hunting is not a field sport like baseball or football where the participants agree to the rules of engagement beforehand. In hunting, the hunted has not agreed to anything, nor does it have an equal chance in most cases to kill the human hunter. For most species, escape is the only option. Therefore, the meaning of fair chase is based on the definition of “fair” that relates to legitimate, honorable, genuine, or appropriate, given the circumstances. To complicate matters further, hunting itself is often labeled sport hunting, even though hunting does not resemble any sport played on a field or court. The term “sport” as used in hunting means offering the animal a chance to escape. A sporting approach recognizes the advantage of human capabilities, including technologies, and a desire to constrain ourselves. More often than not, this means prey will avoid the hunter. Knowing what improper advantage means comes from experience, but if there is any doubt, the advantage should go to the animal. That is fair chase.

    Something else to throw into the mix… Fair Chase is fundamentally about self-restraint, which is a discipline conservation itself is built upon. That’s one of the reasons why Fair Chase is considered part of an overall conservation ethic.



  3. This is probably the most balanced article I’ve read since the explosion of the so called “hunting industry”. Our, all Americans, wildlife and natural resources are not a mere commodity. Trophy specimens are for fools. A basic American value is, “don’t play with your food”.

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