Hunting – What you kill vs. How you kill it

Beginning sometime in early August my email account, Facebook feed and Twitter timeline have presented me with endless photos of antelope, elk, bear, mule deer, and whitetails that have been harvested all across the country.  The thing that is missing from most of these “trophy” photos is the story about the adventure that went harvesting the animal.

Some of these photos have come from people who are proud of their kill, and some of these photos have been posted by companies that are apparently using them as evidence that their products work.  Either way, what is missing from these photos is any details about the story, the adventure, the hunt.  These photos show us one thing – an ending.

Is the end what matters most?

I can’t think of a single book in which I have enjoyed the last chapter more than the rest, and I certainly can’t imagine reading only the last chapter of any story.

The end doesn’t stand alone; it must be a conclusion of something.  Life is not about how you die, it is about how you live.

I happen to feel the same way about hunting.  It isn’t about what you kill; it is about how you kill it.

On the ground, looking over

All hunters know this fact – that the ends are related to the means.  However, what I don’t think that we fully recognize is that we are making ‘ends’ versus ‘means’ decisions all the time.

Our focus is so set on the goal – the end – that we often don’t even think of our tactics, our gear, and our weapon as means.

Sure, all hunters recognize the polarity in the spectrum of hunting methods…

On one hand you have someone that is hunting in the wilderness with minimal equipment, and what he does have, he has fashioned himself from raw materials.  This person relies on no outside assistance, no modern technology, and will make no attempts to exert any control on the wild habitat and the creature that he is pursuing.

On the other end of the spectrum you have someone that pays to “hunt” within a high-fence enclosure using a high-powered rifle, which he wields from the comfort and safety of an enclosed shelter.  This individual will take every advantage that he can get, accepting nothing that will diminish his chances of success.  He relies not on himself, but on creating an environment where all he has to do is show up, select an animal and pull the trigger.

It is easy to recognize the differences in these two real-life examples, and I am sure you fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes.  But beyond deciding to adhere to what is moral, legal, and generally acceptable, do you give much thought to the means by which you seek to hunt?

Gear on the ground

The means matter to me.  Actually, the means are the primary driving force behind why I hunt.  It is why I primarily hunt with a bow and it is why I have begun to hunt from the ground more this year.  (I am certainly not against rifle hunting, treestands, or other “means”, which I will continue to use at times.)

Yes, the end, specifically the meat, is one reason that I hunt.  But when I head to the woods what I am really after is an adventure.  An experience.

And so, my hunting is largely dictated by methods; even if such methods diminish my chances at “success”.

View from the ground

Hunting from the ground with archery equipment, without a blind or other unnatural cover, is a thrilling challenge.  Just this week I was able to come eye-to-eye with bucks on two separate encounters – one at 6 yards, and one at 4 yards.  It was amazing to observe these animals at such a distance, on their level.

The first buck that I encountered had a mature body with a smaller, symmetrical 7-point rack.  I spotted him when he was about 80 yards away and slowly moving towards me.  He was the type of buck that I would have passed at this point in the season if I were hunting from a tree.  But in this hunt the means were more important than the ends and I was hoping that I would be able to get a chance of killing him from the ground.

He closed the distance to about 35 yards and took a trail which put a dense thicket between us.  I took advantage of this moment of visual disturbance and rose to my feet as I eased my bow string back, anchored, and settled in at full draw.  I was expecting him to clear the brush at any moment, providing me with a quartering-away shot of just 15 yards, if he remained on course.

Just as the buck’s head came in to view on the other side of the thicket, he turned and started heading right at me.  His steps continued and before I knew it I was eye-to-eye with this buck from a distance of no more than 6 yards.

I stood at full draw, trying not to shake.  He wasn’t able to see me or smell me, and contrary to what I would have thought, apparently he couldn’t hear my heart as it tried to pound its way out of my chest cavity.

The standoff continued for what felt like minutes, though it probably only lasted 45 seconds.

The buck turned to browse and provided me with a broadside, point-blank shot.  It was then that I noticed one wayward branch that was directly in the way of the short path that my arrow would need to fly if it was to pierce the buck’s vitals.  I tried to crouch slightly, slowly, quietly.  I am still not sure exactly how, but the buck caught my movement and darted off.

He fled just 40 yards and then he stopped, turned broadside once again, and looked back in my direction.  It was almost as if I could see the curiosity in the buck’s eyes.

Retreating and stopping to look back is common behavior for a mule deer, but it has been my experiences that the skittish whitetail will usually flee well out of sight with little care or curiosity about what spooked them.  Though this buck gave me a quick shot opportunity at 40 yards, I wasn’t confident that I had a clear shooting lane, nor was I sure that my pulse had settled to the point where such a shot would have been worthwhile.

Soon he turned back and continued up the hill, out of range, and then out of sight.  Now alone, I was able to process what had just happened in the previous minutes.

Had I failed?  Did I “blow” a hunt?  Was I upset?

No, not at all.

Although it would have been great if that story ended with backstraps in my freezer, I got what I was truly seeking from that hunt.

What ultimately matters to you? Is it what you kill, or is it how you hunt?

The Author

Mark Huelsing is a regular guy with an irregular passion for bowhunting and the outdoors. Learn more about Sole Adventure or get in touch with Mark...

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  • Tom Sorenson

    One of my most memorable hunts ended with a cloud of dust and no arrow released. Once I had a doe and fawn walk right by me. The fawn even sniffed at my pant leg. I continued to stalk the buck they were with and ended up in the middle of three bucks – I was focused on a nice bedded three point when a forky got up to start feeding again at only 4 yards. He stood with his back to me, so I melted back to the ground. Eventually the bigger buck stood, and I drew – a 15 yard shot, but a doe stood directly behind him. I waited for him to clear, but he knew something wasn’t right and bounded away for no apparent reason. That was one of the most intense hunts I’d been on – and it hooked me on stalking mule deer.

    • SoleAdventure

      Great story, Tom! A lot of people around here think that hunting from the ground is a waste of time. And though it is difficult (especially if you are after whitetail with a bow), I still think it is a valid method.

  • Fair Game Huntress

    I had a very similar experience with a doe on my first day bowhunting. I’ve made light of it (probably too light really) in my post ( but it was amazing being on the ground, and staying so still, and have her wander toward me… I almost felt like I shouldn’t take the shot, as she had given me such a great experience. I didn’t, in the end, and I’m really happy I just loved being out there. I’m with you – hunting on the ground, with a bow, is exhilarating (except if they’re not around, in which case just being out there feels good).

  • Al Quackenbush

    Love this post, Mark. I know a lot of people who should read this and truly think about it. Great decision making and love your take on why you are hunting. Makes me want to get back in the woods right away and hunt from the ground. Love it!

    • SoleAdventure

      Thanks, Al! I’m loving your series from your CO elk hunt!

  • SoleAdventure

    Thanks for sharing the link, I would love to go read about your experience. Good luck with the rest of your season!

    • Fair Game Huntress

      Thanks! It’s a bit light-hearted given how it really felt and affected me, maybe I should do something about that in future posts. And good luck with your season too! I’m pretty excited about it :)

  • Scott Lessard

    It’s not even about what you kill, or how you kill it, but that you were out there in the first place. I often blog about my hunts, and how much I enjoy hunting, even when there is no kill. It’s about the process, and the people with whom you do it.

  • Yani

    The journey we choose is the essence of our life and by this we define our being. I like your post!

  • Jordan

    I record most of my hunts in story form and plan to publish a book someday, and it’s just fun to record and share my experiences. As I hunt I’m always thinking “will this make a good story?” or I write the story in my head as I’m going. The stories I love to tell are the ones that end with a good lesson learned, or an exciting, unique encounter. They often don’t end with a filled tag. I live for the story, and sometimes the story is several chapters or volumes long before it ends with a filled tag!