What is fair chase?

fresh tracks

Photo credit: Josh Kirchner

Everything was perfect. I had just bedded an old troll of a mule deer buck about an hour beforehand. My pack and boots lay at the top of the hill with the buck below me. Inch by inch, I crab-crawled my way down the hill with my bow. “There it is,” I said to myself. The very thicket I saw the buck go into last. He was in there, enjoying his middle of the day slumber before heading out for an evening of chasing does. There is a feeling that comes over you when you get the impression that things are working out to your advantage. I had a great wind direction, the ground was quiet and that buck hadn’t moved from the last time I saw him. Better yet, there was only about 100 yards that stood between him and I. He got up and was slowly feeding away from me. I never could catch up with that buck, being in my socks and all in the desert. Out of my life he went. Fair chase in its purest form and me, beaten, as I should be.

"Fair chase…is the ethical, sportsmanlike, and 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." ~ Boone and Crockett Club

What you just read was a classic story of fair chase hunting and I’m sure a fair amount of you have been in this very situation a time or two. Even though I had everything going for me in those moments, the animal still slunk away from me unscathed. He had every opportunity to get away from me and that he did. Sure, I could have taken a wild shot at him, but my respect for the animal outweighed my lust for fresh venison in my freezer. I had my chance to pursue him, but he bested me fair and square. Even though I didn’t wrap my tag on him, just having the opportunity to go through that experience with that animal was worth all of the sweat on my brow and cactus needles in my feet, ready to hunt another day, always craving the eternal chase.

Is fair chase alive and well?

hunting firstlite

Fair chase is something that has definitely changed a bit over time, if you ask me. The overall principle is the same, but the boundaries of it seem to stretch as the years roll on. This is due to our technological jumps each year with gear making us more lethal and more efficient out in the field. What wasn’t ethical many years ago equipment-wise is now extremely doable with modern advancements. Look at compound bows. There was a time when 50 yards was one heck of a poke for a bowhunter. Nowadays, it’s considered a chip shot too many. Folks are grouping softball-sized groups out to 80 to 100 yards. That was unheard of in the past. I think this stretch isn’t only due to our fancy bows and rifles, but also our quest for progression as hunters. We want to be better than ever and many even train for it now.

Our optics are another thing that has evolved leaps and bounds. We can accurately and effectively look at animals miles away as if they are right next to us in a crystal clear image. To boot, we are recording videos with our phones from that far. The binoculars that I used to use when I was a kid gave me a headache. These days, I can look through my binos all day long with no issues. The same can be said for spotting scopes. The first spotting scope I ever used, I couldn’t even look through it was so darn blurry. That turned me off to them as a kid. Today is a way different story.

Is it fair?

glassing zeiss

So, is all of that still fair chase? Is being able to watch an animal from miles away fair? How about setting up trail cameras to take photos of those animals when we aren’t there? Is that fair? Do these things give us “an improper advantage over such animals” or is it just part of our own evolution as hunters? I’m not trying to start a war by saying these things, but I think they are honest questions and ones that should make us think a bit. We have a choice out there in the hills with how we pursue game. Asking ourselves questions like this keeps us honest. Of course, I’m not saying to give up using your binos; it’s just food for thought.

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New eyes

Recently, I had a gentleman ask me if I had ever used a thermal scope to locate game at night. He told me that it was legal. I never even looked to see if he was correct because, for me, it was preposterous to do such a thing. We all have moral boundaries and that crossed mine; however, our moral boundaries can be different, which is something that I think causes a lot of animosity between us as hunters. If something is legal, it’s legal. That doesn’t mean I’m going to take advantage of it just because I can. You can’t control what other people do, but you can control what you do. As a friend of mine stated years ago, “Hunt your own hunt.”

buck down

Photo credit: Jake Kirchner

Something that is interesting to me is that, while our equipment may have advanced at an insane level making the impossible possible, we nowadays seem to have more respect for the animals we chase than ever before. I never heard or saw hunting looked at the way it is today when I was a child. To me, this is a good thing and a step in the right direction. They are living breathing creatures roaming our wildlands. Respect is deserved in all manner.

Why we should promote fair chase hunting

game bags tree

Believe it or not, there are a ton of people out there that think hunting is just going out and shooting an animal. Murder essentially. Like it isn’t hard or a big deal to do so. They are completely unaware of our “fair chase” mentalities and reverence for the animals we hunt and the places that we hunt them in. Conservation is something that just happens magically, if they even know about such things. Some don’t even know that you need a license and tag. This is why we need to promote such things. It is for the betterment of our future as hunters. Shedding light on what really matters to us is essential for acceptance in today’s world. We are not bloodthirsty killers. We are stewards of the land and conservationists. We are a part of the natural cycle in the natural world. We are hunters and forever will be.

Closing thoughts

firstlite truck

Whenever I think of that old mule deer buck that got the best of me—or other accounts like it—it makes me smile. It reminds me of why I love to do this stuff so much. I’m never going to master this hunting thing and that’s fine with me. Not being in complete control out there is humbling and I think all of us need some humble pie every now and then because it sets us right. Fair chase hunting will do that to someone. The kill is a welcomed byproduct, but it is just that, not everything. If hunting were easy, it wouldn’t mean what it does to me and I question if I would even do it. At that point, I would welcome the hardship of those cactus needles in my feet.

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