Following hunting regulations is easy when the game warden is looking over your shoulder. The true test of a bowhunter's character lies in the decisions that must be made alone in the field.
There are plenty of ways to test a person's character, but I can't think of a better one than bowhunting.
For starters, bowhunting is literally a matter of life and death. And even if the life in question is that of an elk, turkey or whitetail deer, it's still damn serious business, as BOWHUNTING Adventures Editor Patrick Meitin is fond of saying.
Of course, only the very worst "slob" hunters are truly callous toward the killing of game, and even serial poachers take pains to hide their cheating ways, lest they become pariahs in the hunting community.
The vast majority of bowhunters -- myself included -- would never dream of taking an animal out of season or exceeding the legal bag limit. Those sins are too blatant, akin to a pastor having an affair with a member of the congregation or stealing money from the offering plate.
But in smaller, subtler ways, all of us face character tests every time we head afield; and how we respond to those tests speaks volumes about not just who we are as hunters, but as people. Don't believe me? Well, read on.
Have you ever been tempted at the conclusion of a particularly good evening hunt to stay on stand "just 10 minutes" past legal shooting hours? How about setting up a treestand "just a little bit" over the neighbor's property boundary? Or forcing an arrow toward a trophy buck standing "just a few yards" beyond your maximum effective range?
Now, let's say you find out someone in your local bowhunting club is the kind of guy who does all those things regularly. Is that the kind of "sportsman" you want to share a hunting camp with? I'll bet it isn't. Moreover, I'll bet it isn't the kind of person you'd want coaching your son's Little League team or taking your daughter on a date either.
As the old saying goes, character is who you are when no one is watching.
In Decisions Made Alone (p. 51), Minnesota archer Taylor Kendall relays a touching, real-life story about the kind of private decisions that reveal our bowhunting character.
Confronted with the gruesome sight of a three-legged fawn -- and with only a single, either-sex tag in his pocket -- Kendall had to make a quick choice: put this suffering animal out of its misery or continue his obsessive trophy quest for the monster buck he so badly desired.
He chose the former, not because there was a written regulation that required it or because he wanted to win the approval of others -- simply because it was the right thing to do. That, my friends, is an ethical bowhunter and the kind of example we can be proud to share with the non-hunting world.
In my bowhunting career, I've had only one experience similar to Kendall's. It happened years ago when an obviously wounded 6-point buck came past one of my Pennsylvania treestands. This smallish buck was definitely not what I had my sights set on, and Pennsylvania regulations allow hunters to take only a single buck per year.
Still, my gut told me making an attempt to kill this deer was part of living up to my end of the bowhunting bargain. The problem was, the buck was going to pass behind a forked tree, offering only a fleeting shot opportunity between the two main branches of the trunk. I drew my bow, settled the pin on the vitals and squeezed my release. Thwack! My arrow lodged squarely in the left branch of that tree trunk, and the buck trotted away.
Part of me -- the compassionate part -- felt sick to my stomach as the buck disappeared from sight. Another part of me -- the selfish part -- felt relieved my buck tag was still attached to my license. But at the end of the day, I could lay my head on the pillow and sleep soundly knowing I had at least tried to do the right thing.
Chances are, you'll never encounter a situation like the one Kendall faced. But you'll surely face temptations to compromise your ethics in exchange for a shortcut (or at least a perceived shortcut) to success. Most of the time, we bowhunters don't have anyone around to witness our actions, and let's face it, with the woefully small law enforcement staffs most wildlife agencies employ, the odds of actually getting caught for a rules infraction are slim. Because of that, the inner devil sitting on your shoulder may tell you bending the rules really doesn't matter, but you know better.
Because it's not just a hunt. It's who you are.