Hunting traditions have ardent followers

The human species is known for honoring traditions handed down generation by generation.

In the U.S., traditions dominate our behavior - holidays are a good example. Valentine's day candy and cards, fourth of July picnics, thanksgiving feasts and Christmas gifts and family gatherings - to name a few. And we can't forget Superbowl parties.

Hunting traditions, while unfortunately carried on by fewer and fewer participants these days, have perhaps the most ardent followers. These traditions vary from region to region and even from family to family - but they are an important part of our culture just the same.

In many ways, hunting traditions are simply paying tribute to our hunting heritage. German hunting traditions, for example, are quite complex - involving among other things, honoring the noble stag by placing a twig in its mouth.

Native Americans paused to honor the quarry, and give thanks for sharing its life so they might have a winter food supply. Most modern U.S. hunters seldom practice such a ritual, but many experience a brief moment of sadness and reverence immediately after taking an animal's life.

Other U.S. hunting traditions, though, are alive and well. A friend of mine always hunts with family members Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings, but the hunters quit in time to join the non-hunters in the family for a noon-time feast. In my family, we always hunted all day at Christmas, packing a pocket full of nuts and raisins (that Santa brought the night before) and maybe a Baby Ruth candy bar for lunch.

The opening day ritual is a big deal in our family too. It starts with squirrel season. We always opened squirrel season in Perry County where Dad grew up. We'd leave home at 2:00 a.m. and eat breakfast at a truck stop - then be sneaking in the woods in Furnace Hollow just before daylight.

Our hunt would be short - just the weekend - and our camp was simple. A campfire, sleeping under the stars with just a blanket, and putting a watermelon under the spring for an ice-cold, noon-time feast.

Opening day of dove season is important in some families. Coolers of coke, the smell of gunpowder, and plenty of friendly teasing at missed shots are all part of the package.

The opening of rabbit, quail, duck and many other seasons are important to other families.

But perhaps the opening of deer season is the most traditional. In the south, the traditions practiced at dog-hunting deer camps are probably the most elaborate. It usually starts with hunters arriving at the cabin the day before.

You can always tell the old veterans from the newly initiated. The old timers, dressed in clean, but broken-in clothes, carrying rifles or shotguns with shiny, well-worn receivers, excited, but hiding it under a calm disguise - moving deliberately to the most comfortable bunks.

The camp cook, revered and appreciated by all, unloading all the supplies - he came prepared for a lot of hard work, but the real reason he came was to enjoy the fellowship.

The dog owners and handlers keep busy feeding and penning the straining, excited dogs. Camp stoves roar during card games and the telling of stories of past hunts. Old timers tell the same old stories, always appreciative of new sets of ears and wide-eyed faces of the new hunters.

And snoring - well, that's a part of deer camp too.

Opening morning, you wake up to the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of frying bacon. Hunt leaders announce the rules, load the people and the dogs, place hunters on stands and release the dogs.

Shots are always counted and the source of the shot always noted.

After the morning hunt, there's hand-shaking, smearing blood on the face of the first-time successful hunters and the cutting the shirt-tails of unlucky ones who missed. Hanging the game and later butchering and dividing the meat among all hunters is another ritual.

Northern - and many southern - camps which don't use dogs go through most of the same rituals, all but those that involve dogs and placing hunters on a stand. Also, most non-dog hunting camps don't divide the meat.

Campfires or wood stoves are a strong part of the hunting tradition. It doesn't matter whether it's cold or hot, who can deny that a fire is a necessary part of most hunting camps. the sounds, the smell, the warmth and the light - all the senses are stimulated by a good fire. On top of that, hunting stories are enriched by a good fire, no two ways about it!

Most individual hunters have their own personal traditional (or as some might say - superstitions). What hunter who has hunted for at least a few years doesn't have a favorite hunting cap, rifle, pair of hunting pants or other such item"

An item usually achieves a revered status only after the hunter has used it to successfully take game on several occasions. Even after the item is completely worn out, the hunter still takes it along for "luck."

And if the item is lost or damaged, the hunter usually swears that any failure to take game is a direct result. I once had a favorite deer hunting rope. I used it to pull my bow or gun up into the tree stand, to pull my deer out of the woods, and then hang my deer from a tree.

I always meticulously untied the rope, tied it into a coil and replaced it in my pack. One day in south Georgia, a friend - who didn't know me as well as he thought he did - cut it into four pieces to lower my deer to the ground. Broke my heart - and severely reduced my deer hunting success for months afterward!

These are just a few of the thousands of hunting traditions that are carefully carried out and passed down every year. Hunting traditions may sometimes change in a slow evolutionary way, but you can be sure they are still alive and well. I'm glad. Wouldn't it be a shame if hunting were reduced to nothing more than an exercise in the most efficient way to get the job done?

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