Why I'm apprehensive about hunter-apprentice programs

I recently saw a different side of hunting through another hunter’s eyes and was dismayed as I came face-to-face with an attitude I’d only read about.

I'm a hiking hunter, partly because I enjoy being out in it and partly because I was trained that way. But my dad wasn't my teacher. In the 1970s, most dads didn’t think of taking their daughters hunting, even in Montana.

After college, I ended up in South Dakota as a fresh new lieutenant, saw my peers excited about hunting and decided to teach myself to hunt. Fortunately, some of the older guys in the squadron were willing to guide the new kid, much like an apprentice hunter.

They took me along on pre-season scouting trips in the Black Hills, taught me ethics along the way and maintained that if I had to shoot more than 200 yards, I wasn’t hunting right.

Since then, I’ve taken pride in the way I hunt, even if it meant that some years I didn’t get any meat.

In recent years, when I’ve read about hunters shooting from roads or "flock shooting," I’ve always thought of them as “those guys.” I never figured I’d run into one.

Then last week, a friend asked if I wanted to go hunting. He'd given me a package or two of venison in the past when I hadn’t been able to get out, so I agreed.

He suggested a possible site on national forest land, so we headed a short way up the forest road. Then he stopped the truck, donned his hunter orange and loaded his rifle. I expected that we’d find a spur off the road and get out and walk. But he got back in the truck and we kept driving.

As we drove at 15 mph for the next three hours, peering through the pine trees picketing the road, his comments made his intent clear.

“Let’s not go downhill after anything. I don’t want to drag it back up.”

“Mark says you should shoot uphill so they roll down and land in the back of the truck.”

As rain splattered the windshield, I tried to cajole him into going for a walk. I was finally successful one time when we came to a roadblock, but my friend didn’t want to get too far away from the truck or wander off the overgrown two-track.

I was caught by surprise. I’d considered this man a friend for at least a decade and would have never pegged him for a road hunter.

As I asked him how he’d gotten into hunting, I learned that he’d fallen into the wrong hands.

My friend – I’ll call him Felix – moved to Montana from the East Coast in 2003 when he was about 55. He had never hunted before, but finding himself surrounded by a hunting culture, he took it up. Felix said he hunted happily but unsuccessfully for a few years until he met a younger coworker, Mark. With Mark, Felix became an apprentice hunter, but evidently he didn’t learn the things I learned.

From the sounds of it, Mark and Felix have spent a lot of time either glassing the land behind Mark’s house or driving miles of roads. Very little time has been spent following game trails or scouting areas ahead of time. Mark taught Felix how to hunt conveniently.

Is this wrong? Technically, no.

For many who are disabled or further along in life, it’s the only way they can still get out. But for those who are able-bodied, it’s not fair chase, and to me, it wasn’t very fun or rewarding. And a preponderance of road hunting can lead to problems.

Road hunters can’t really do the work of pushing elk across the landscape. They may be less successful, leading elk populations to increase. As Philipsburg hunter Charles Aherns recently said regarding elk shoulder seasons, “We don’t need longer elk seasons. We need people to get their lazy asses off the machines and hunt."

Road hunting causes noise, traffic and wear and tear on roads. And it increases the temptation to shoot from roads, a situation that results in citations every season. It’s just one reason that Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 3 created the Hunt Right program to encourage ethical hunting.

So has Mark been a bad mentor? Felix enjoys hunting success, so is that good enough? Given the choice, I prefer my mentors.

I’ve often wondered why Hunter’s Safety isn’t encouraged for adults. Felix isn’t the only one I know who has taken up hunting later in life, and without the proper knowledge, anyone can be steered in the wrong direction.

Now as a result of House Bill 140, FWP has created the Youth Apprentice Hunter Program, giving teenagers the opportunity to apprentice at an earlier age than Felix. But like Felix, they may be apprenticing without having taken Hunter’s Safety.

That’s too bad because Hunter’s Safety can introduce youngsters to ethical hunting practices before they possibly end up in the hands of a Mark. Mark isn’t an anomaly in Montana, and now I worry that the Marks might multiply.