The Fifth Stage of Hunting Life

The days have come when sometimes a warm fire is more important than shooting ducks. (Photo: Ross Malone)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am officially and certifiably into the Fifth Stage of my hunting life.

Many may have heard of the five stages of life a hunter goes through, according to scientific researchers. I’ll explain in full detail later, but first, the reason why I know that I am in the fifth and final stage.

Thirty years ago, like most people, I worked a “real job” where the boss actually expected me to show up five days a week. I was allotted a limited number of days as “paid vacation.” Routinely, sometimes to my family’s dismay, I reserved some of that vacation for duck season. For two solid weeks, plus every weekend or holiday, I was in a duck swamp. No matter the weather, no matter the number of ducks and sometimes (sadly) no matter what was going on at home – I was duck hunting. It was routine for me to hunt at least 30 days, sometimes 40 during the 60-day season.

Fast forward to today. I no longer work a “real job.” I am self-employed as a fishing guide (and freelance writer). The downside – there are no more “paid” vacation days. The upside – I am my own boss with no one to dictate when I must work. And as you can probably imagine, during the winter – especially the Ice Age we’ve experienced this winter – the demand for my fishing guide services is extremely low.

In other words, I have the freedom to duck hunt pretty much every single day. I have a duck boat sitting beside the house, loaded with decoys, staring me in the face and reminding me of that fact every day.

Incredible sunrises are welcome sights these days, even if they don’t include ducks silhouetted against the sky. (Photo: Richard Simms)

However most of my duck hunting friends, for whatever silly reason, continue to work or maintain other responsibilities. And I have found that as a “60-something senior,” 10 degree mornings are much harder on my hands and feet than they used to be. But more importantly, and most telling of all – my desire to kill stuff is not as powerful or compelling as it once was.

Sure, I still enjoy pulling the trigger and watching stuff fall. I enjoy watching my retriever hit the water as if her life depended on it. But what is most important are the people beside me… hunting has become mostly about hanging with good friends, whether the ducks are flying or not.

Let us examine the Five Stages of Hunting and perhaps you will better understand why I am not as obsessed or driven as I once was.

It was in the late 1970s’ when two professors, Robert Jackson and Robert Norton from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse surveyed 1,000 hunters. The results of their studies form a widely accepted theory of hunter behavior and development.

This stage, the beginning hunter, basically cares only about pulling the trigger. They typically don’t care what creature is in their sights, they just want to shoot it. Imagine the 11-year-old wandering the neighborhood with a BB gun in search of sparrows, blue jays or perhaps the occasional cat or dog. Just give him something to shoot at.

This hunter has evolved past the sparrow/blue jay stage of his or her life. Now they are only interested in killing a limit. They will remain afield as long as it takes and suffer through the most arduous conditions, all in order to “kill a limit.”

This hunter has done well. He or she has proven to their peers that they can typically take all the game the law allows. Now the goal is to take the biggest and the best. Limits are still fun, but now they’re all about taking a record-book buck or monster elk. Maybe the rarest of waterfowl in exotic places will entice them afield. Pick your favorite TV host hunter and I bet you can identify most as falling into the Trophy Stage.

This hunter might revert back to the basics… forget the most or the biggest. Now it’s all about the equipment and the technique. Maybe they’ll hunt with a flintlock or a longbow. Using non-traditional gear and paying much more attention to the techniques of the hunt, rather than the end result of fallen game.

Here I am. You normally won’t find these guys on TV. Our type isn’t very exciting and we don’t buy a lot of advertiser’s products. We care most about the camaraderie of the hunt. I’m not this far along, but some might call this the “Camp Cook” stage. They won’t ever pick up a gun. They just want to be beside the campfire for the story-telling at the end of the day. Satisfaction is found in the total hunting experience.

Our duck hunting network annually awards what we call “The Coot Award.” It is given to the member who does the stupidest thing throughout the season. I am proud to say I am in the lead this year, and could, perhaps, become the first two-time recipient since the award was created. Without going into detail, suffice to say, if I win the plaque will say something about a “lost gun” and a “punctured eardrum.”

The (usually) good-natured ribbing about the Coot Award has been far more memorable than the number of ducks I’ve killed. Being in the field, enjoying the company of friends and family, and immersing yourself in nature outweigh the need for dead ducks.

The days I stay home now, I don’t usually miss shooting ducks… but I do miss this. (Photo: Richard Simms)

We are 52 days into the 60-day duck season. I can tell you that I have duck hunted 13 days (and one day for sandhill cranes). Truth be told, I probably could have hunted 40-plus days, I just didn’t want to.

Many hunters, including me, have been knocked out of hunting days due to the extremely cold winter resulting in duck hunting spots that are frozen solid. (Photo: Ross Malone)

That saddens me a little bit but I quickly get over it when I peer at the outdoor thermometer hovering at 13 degrees. I know younger men who are out there breaking ice as I write these words. More power to them.

I am not so far away from the previous hunting stages that I don’t miss them. I do.

I miss the limits of ducks after suffering through whatever it took to get them. I miss the effort it took to scout for deer for days on end and I will miss the endless hours perched aloft watching for hoof or horn. I continue to do those things, but only when I want to…. not because I feel compelled to.

The scientists say that not all hunters go through all the stages, or go through them in the exact same order. And in fact, it is possible to go through the varying stages at different times for different species of game.

But go through them you will.

And when that day dawns… when you realize your friends and your times together are more important than killing the game you pursue… it will feel right.

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