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What is Your Fair Chase?


By PJ DelHomme

Sure, it’s legal, but is it right? 

With a high-powered rifle and a pile of optics worth more than my twelve-year-old truck, I assumed filling a couple pronghorn tags in southwestern Montana would be easy. I had two days to get it done. No problem, I thought. In time, though, I would find that all those cactus spines I tried desperately to avoid on my belly-crawl would serve to burst my inflated sense of self and leave me licking my wounds on a very quiet and reflective ride home. 

Driving south out of Missoula to my pronghorn spot, I was ready. My sights were set on the same hotspot I hunted with my eleven-year-old son last fall. On that hunt, I had a nice buck in the scope at 250 yards. Yet with a strong thirty-mile an hour crosswind and my boy right behind me, I passed. I had practiced to 300 yards but never in wind like that. I explained to him why I didn’t feel comfortable with the shot. He was disappointed. The good news was the place was crawling with pronghorn, and I was certain they would be there again this year.

I arrived solo at the spot a few hours before dusk. All was quiet as I walked from coulee to coulee, peering over one patch of sage to the next. As I walked, I noticed more and more pronghorn fawn skeletons. I passed a few sun-dried bovine carcasses as well. Tough winter. I saw not one pronghorn. I came back the next morning. Same story. 

In the afternoon, I parked next to an irrigated alfalfa field and watched at least forty pronghorn mill around a rancher’s pivots. The signs and orange paint made it clear they didn’t allow hunting. I moved to another ranch. Again, pronghorn were stacked up like cordwood next to a pivot, but this time they used the cows for cover. I noticed about five pronghorn a couple of fences and one property owner to the north. I had permission to hunt there. Game on. 

I picked my draw and started to walk. Thirty minutes later, I slowly eased up over a rise to see the herd relaxing about 900 yards away. I backtracked to another draw and tried to put the sneak on them. At one point I was 500 yards away. I had never shot a target that far, much less a living creature. I tried to get closer. 

Hunting pronghorn in open country means careful belly crawls and humble pie.

With little cover in a minefield of camouflaged cacti, I stayed as low as possible. It was no use. The pronghorn spooked, yet they didn’t go far. To get to the spot in the fence where they had squeezed under, they would have had to run right by me. Instead, they piled up in the corner of the fence 300 yards away and waited for me to fill both my tags. 

Even though my son wasn’t physically with me that day, he was on my mind. Would I shoot these pronghorn in front of him? Is this a story I want to relive with him or anyone else, including myself. Earlier that spring, I had burned through two boxes of precious ammo, working to get solid groups in field positions at 300 yards. I knew I could make the shots land where I aimed. 

Forget it, I told myself. You’ve got a whole month of rifle season left and two deer tags. And that’s what I did. I drove home in near silence, no radio, no podcast—just the sound of the wind coming through the driver’s side window that doesn't quite roll up all the way. The hum helped me think. I thought about this concept we call fair chase. 

My Hunt, My Choice 

While I could have easily (and legally) filled those tags, I chose to pass. This makes two years in a row that I spent money on gas, a hotel room, and burned parental capital, which means time away from my fatherly duties on the homefront. Two years in a row I have come home empty-handed. 

I read an essay on the fair chase concept on this website. I also found position statements on everything from baiting to long range shooting. And all three of these topics pertained to my recent hunt. 

If there is one hard and fast rule, it is that something illegal can never be fair chase. Conversely, just because something is legal does not make it fair chase.

Why wasn’t I seeing any pronghorn on public land? Why did they never leave the alfalfa? For one, they’re likely to get shot on public land. Two, that alfalfa is as good as a food plot. I was guaranteed to see some pronghorn anywhere there was a working pivot. The only hurdle was getting permission to hunt there. If that’s all it takes to fill a tag is that considered baiting? And if so, would it disqualify me from entering my record-book buck (that I never shot) in that field? The short answers are no and no. 

In Montana, baiting for deer, elk and pronghorn is illegal. The state regulations define baiting as “...the placing, exposing, depositing, distributing, or scattering of food sources or salt so as to constitute a lure or attraction.” So, in this case, growing a bunch of hay for cows to eat during the winter doesn’t count as bait. 

Now, let’s say I was hunting black bears over a barrel of stale jelly donuts and fish blood. And let’s say I killed a massive boar that qualified for the Boone and Crockett Records. If I were in Idaho, this would be legal and my animal could be accepted into the records. If I were in Montana, I would likely be arrested and fined, my bear confiscated and in no way would it be considered for entry into the Boone and Crockett records. Confused? Don’t be. 

Here’s the thing. Baiting for bears is legal in Idaho and not in Montana. And according to the essay on fair chase mentioned earlier, “It is the Club’s policy that big game trophies taken with the aid of bait are eligible for entry and listing in the Boone and Crockett Club’s Records of North American Big Game program so long as the practice is legal in the state or province where the trophy was taken, and other entry requirements are met.” It matters not how I personally feel about baiting, and the Club’s position makes that clear. “Once the decision has been made that baiting is legal, whether to use bait or not is a matter of personal choice,” the Club states. 

Empty meat pole but a clear conscience. 

I’ve never hunted over a food plot or a barrel of molasses, and I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t like treestands or the color grey, either. But I’m not going to fault someone if that’s their thing or their favorite color. Now, let’s take this concept of choice and apply it to another hot topic such as long-range shooting. 

Going back to that first year of antelope hunting with my son, I chose not to shoot in a stiff crosswind because I did not know where that bullet was going to land. Maybe I would have gotten lucky, but I wasn’t willing to bet on it. Instead, I thought the situation served us both better as a learning and teaching moment. Some hunters might call me a fool, but that is the choice I made based on the conditions in the field and my prowess (or lack thereof) with my weapon. There would have been nothing illegal about taking that shot. Yet had that shot gone south and been burned into my son’s memory as our first pronghorn hunt together, I would have bigger problems than a ticket from a game warden. 

The Club’s position on long range shooting doesn’t put an exact figure on what is too far. Instead, the Club, “...believes the term ‘long-range’ shooting is more defined by a hunter’s intent, than any specific distance at which a shot is taken. If the intent of the individual is to test equipment and determine how far one can shoot to hit a live target and if there is no motivation to risk engagement with the animal being hunted, this practice is not hunting and should not be accorded the same status as hunting.” In other words, know your personal limits and the limits of your weapon. Again, it comes down to personal choice. 

My Fair Chase 

On my hunt this past fall, when the pronghorn were well within range in calm winds, I still didn’t take a shot because those animals had no real chance to escape. Instead of fish in a barrel, think pronghorn stuck against the fence. I had cut off their typical escape route, and a few were struggling to get under a very tight and low bottom strand of barbed wire. 

In fair chase hunting, the pursuit itself defines the experience, while the kill remains a secondary. To the seasoned hunter, a fair chase hunt that ends with no animal harvested is still a successful hunt.

In that essay on fair chase, it states in no uncertain language that, “One of the most basic tenets of fair chase is determining if an animal has a reasonable opportunity to escape. If it does not, the hunt cannot be considered fair chase.” No, these animals aren’t domesticated or raised in a game preserve, but it just didn’t feel right. 

In addition, there wasn’t a mature buck in that herd. Based on the carcasses I had seen at our old honeyhole as well as the lack of any pronghorn there this year, I wasn’t sure I was doing the local population any favors by potentially taking two breeding females. Sure, the state of Montana had issued me two tags presumably meant to reduce the population size, and I don’t pretend to know more than the biologists in that region. But the difference between last year and this year was obvious. 

Perhaps all these reasons are simply excuses, an attempt to piece back together a shattered ego. Perhaps. Then again, imposing self-limits and personal boundaries are what members of the Boone and Crockett Club have been doing for more than 130 years. 

While I do love pronghorn fajitas, my family isn’t going to starve come January. There’s a perfectly good grocery store right down the street. We still have plenty of time left in hunting season, and I have two tags left to fill. Even though my freezer is still empty, my conscience is clear. I’m good with that because that’s my fair chase. 

PJ DelHomme is a writer for Crazy Canyon Media in Missoula, Montana. He regularly contributes content to the Boone and Crockett Club as well as national and regional publications.

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