Hunting is defined as the determined search for or pursuit of wild animals, so it’s logical that Merriam-Webster defines a hunter as “one that searches for something.” In fact, that phrase resonates for many hunters. We search for our game, we rattle, we call, we wait, and still we often trudge home empty-handed.
Hunting takes work. It’s an investment of time, effort, and money – because guns don’t feed themselves – and a lifestyle I’m proud to be a part of, even when I’m skunked.
Then there’s high-fenced hunting.
Here’s the thing. In many states, high-fenced hunting is legal. Since it isn’t tightly regulated we don’t know exactly how many high-fence properties are currently operating but we do know they number in the thousands. Many high-fence owners and managers admit their clientele aren’t there for “the hunt” so much as they are the experience of the fun of their hot tubs, bars, and world-class chefs.
Sure, the amenities vary by property, but they are usually geared towards well-to-do businessmen looking to drink and relax with a side trip of shooting a monster buck. Because it will be a monster buck, crazy-big bull, or an exotic such as a zebra or an oryx; it’s a high-fence, so it’s going to be someone’s idea of a trophy.
Although such trophies are scored, Boone and Crockett doesn’t and won’t include them in their record books. When someone shoots a buck with an enormous rack on a high-fence property and takes to social media to show off its “score” they rarely mention that it was a high fence hunt or that it won’t be touched by B and C. They tend to launch straight into bragging rights, becoming incensed when the inevitable commenter appears asking if it was high fence. (Let’s face it, you can usually tell.)
For the Boone and Crockett Club, fair chase has been a topic of discussion since their founding meeting in 1887. Today they define fair chase as “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.” They also say “something illegal can never be fair chase…just because something is legal does not make it fair chase. This is because fair chase extends beyond written laws.”
Fair chase is a relatively simple concept. Hunting deer and ducks that are wild and not confined by barriers is fair chase. It requires wide open spaces and a sense of fair play.
If you find it odd I included ducks in my example, here’s why: there are businesses where ducks are released for you to shoot. No worries about calling or waiting, just wait for them to be released and boom, birds down (assuming you can aim). High-fence isn’t limited to ungulates. It’s all-inclusive. A high-fence property owner once bragged to me that if a client wants something, he could get it for them, no matter what. Money talks.
So, is high-fence hunting legal? Yes. Is it ethical? You might not like my answer there, so let’s try a different angle. Is it sportsmanlike? No. Sportsmanlike behavior requires you act with fairness, respect, and good temper. Shooting animals in an enclosure doesn’t fit those parameters.
In Idaho there are quite a few high-fence properties for elk that are 10 to 60 acres; in Texas some are over 1,000 acres with a smaller percentage being thousands of acres. Those bigger properties are sectioned into parcels, though, and some parcels are quite small.
Fellow outdoor writer Hal Herring spoke to Doug Schleis, publisher of Wild Idaho News, about this very issue a few years ago. As an outdoor enthusiast and Idaho resident, Schleis has understandably strong opinions on the matter: “The essence of elk hunting in our state is the experience of wild country and the effort it takes to hunt an elk. We have [shooter bull operations] as small as 10 acres, one at 25 acres, one at 60 acres. The hunting public here doesn’t want this place to become like Texas.”
Is a 1,500-acre enclosure better than 10 acres? Of course. Are the animals confined to a space where they know meals come like clockwork and they think humans are friends, not foes? Yes.
The word count is rising, so let’s get to it. Fasten your seat belts, boys and the few girls here, because this is how interweb brawls begin.
I neither like nor support high-fence hunting. It is not sportsmanlike and falls under the heading of “shooting” not hunting. My heart breaks when I see farm-raised bucks weighed down by misshapen, abnormal antlers, heads askew and necks bowed. I despise the thought of shooting a placid animal who thinks I’m their buddy there to feed them treats. I cringe at the idea of piling up ducks that were sitting in cages mere moments before.
But wait, there’s more.
I also have little patience for those presenting themselves as hunters when they are nothing of the sort. This morning I scrolled through an Instagram feed of one such person, taking the time to check out the websites of outfitters listed under their photos. It was a smorgasbord of high-fence spots, right down to the hogs. It’s a theme repeated on countless social media feeds and pages and yeah, it’s often women. Guess what? It’s dishonest.
Be honest about your hunts. If you shoot high-fence animals, admit it. Don’t try to pass yourself off as a hard-core hunter.
Hunting involves many time-consuming factors. Before seasons begin there’s scouting to be done both on foot and through trail cameras, food plots to be planted, blinds to be maintained, and gear to be prepared and trained with. Once the season hits you have hours of waiting ahead of you whether you’re hunting your own property, a lease, or public land. Hurry up and wait. Glass. Call. Rattle. Listen. Wait.
Hunters know they might go home empty-handed. They know that buck they’ve spent years waiting patiently to grow into a monster might not show up (might not appear all season). They know that sounder of hogs may or may not hit the corn; they just know those hogs need to go because they’re damaging the land and running off wildlife. In hunting, there are no guarantees. There’s just you, the land and hard work. And when it pays off it’s awesome to the extreme.
Let’s call it what it is: high-fence shooting. As an outdoor writer and a longtime hunter, it is not for me. It may be legal but I prefer the thrill of the hunt, and I don’t mean a guide who purposefully drives in areas he knows the animals don’t hang out to give the shooter the false appearance of work (yeah, some guides at high-fence properties say they do that). I want to hunt. I want to get tired from lack of sleep, dirty from stalking and sitting on the ground, and ecstatic when – if – I finally connect.
I’ve seen the arguments: it protects the environment, they say, and improves the animals’ quality of life (you can’t be serious). Proponents argue it reduces the invasion of pests on the property, brings new hunters into the fold, and that if deer really wanted to escape, they could. The latter statement is outright ludicrous and usually accompanied by the belief Whitetails routinely jump 15-foot fences, just for funsies. They don’t. High-fence properties are designed to keep the money-makers inside, not to give them the option of leaving.
High-fence shooting is the participation trophy of the industry. For enough cash you, too, can have a gargantuan buck, all without even mussing your hair. Boone and Crockett won’t accept it, but you can still measure it and post about it on social media as though they will.
The late philosopher Jose Ortego y Gasset said it well: “One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted. If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift, he would refuse it.
Life is a terrible conflict, a grandiose and atrocious confluence. Hunting submerges man deliberately in that formidable mystery and therefore contains something of religious rite and emotion in which homage is paid to what is divine, transcendent, in the laws of nature.” (From “Meditations on Hunting”, 1972, published by Scribner after Gasset’s death in 1955.)
Be Gasset’s ethical sportsman. Be a hunter.