Rather than tell people I'm going hunting, I should probably say I'm going to walk a great distance across a lonely landscape with the hope of getting very close to some specific animals. It would be a more accurate description of how I spend my time, certainly, and perhaps it wouldn't trigger the occasionally negative response people sometimes have with the word "hunting."
Hunting is a word that many people associate simply with killing. While a "successful" hunt is usually understood to be one that includes the harvest of the target animal, reducing the activity of hunting to the killing moment is a gross misunderstanding of the activity. It's unfortunately a misunderstanding that is practiced by both those who see hunting as morally repugnant as well as those who possess an offensive eagerness to dispatch wild game.
Most of hunting is actually waiting, walking, listening, watching, often in some of the most beautiful settings you can imagine. Hunting is, or should be, about treading carefully and lightly through an ecosystem, paying attention to the details of weather, terrain, lighting and wind, trails and tracks. And it's very often an activity that doesn't result in a killing moment, but is nonetheless "successful" in many, many other ways.
In the fall I have been hunting for deer over the last several years, and this last fall I joined my brother for a couple of days of deer hunting near Yakima, Washington. This is rolling desert country, covered in sage and grasses, with steep foothills climbing to long ridges. When we hunt we walk - a lot - as a way of distancing ourselves from the relatively crowded dirt roads where pickup trucks, bristling with rifles, cruise slowly up and down the hills. Walking cross country puts us into direct contact with some beautiful and relatively untracked spaces. And though this year it didn't put us into any harvestable deer, we certainly enjoyed the vistas, spotting and observing groups of mule deer and elk, spying on loping coyotes, poking our heads into thickets and hollows hidden in the crevices of sage-covered slopes.
I hunt because I love to wander across landscapes like this. I hunt because when I'm hunting my senses are all heightened: I listen more, look more closely and carefully, pause to observe more details. And I hunt because, when my efforts are rewarded with a successful harvest, I enjoy making the very best use of the animal I've harvested. I think that if more people [responsibly] hunted, more people would also have a strong sense of advocacy for the preservation of publicly accessible wild resources -- oceans, rivers, forests and mountains, deserts and prairies -- and for the enduring success of the animals that live there.
In any case, the only things I harvested from this last trip were moments like the one in the picture above -- a vast landscape lit up by the first rays of a rising sun. When we walked over this rise we encountered a group of five mule deer bedded down in the grass. They sprang up and bounded down the hill and into one of the drainages below. We watched through binoculars as the first group kicked up a few more groups of animals deep in the shadows of the drainage, collecting over a dozen deer by the time they reached the far side of the valley floor. No bucks were among them, which meant all of these animals were just for watching. They slowed on the lower slopes of the hills across from us, fanning out to graze in the morning light. We had walked a great distance across a lonely landscape in the hopes of getting close to some animals like these...another successful hunt.