With hunting being such a long-standing, time-honored tradition in this country and around the world, it only stands to reason that over time, a number of practices or “traditions within the tradition” have developed among regions, cultures and particularly among individual groups of hunters.
Some are serious and revered, while others are, well, just plain strange to the uninitiated. Here’s a short list of traditions that run the spectrum of good, bad and just plain ugly.
As in many aspects of life, prayer figures prominently in the hunt where sportsmen of faith — though often varying degrees of practicing it — can all agree that the time outdoors we enjoy, the friendships forged through a common love of hunting and nature, and particularly, the game we take are all blessed events that reflect the Lord’s grace. As such, as soon as the game has hit the ground, there are many hunters who, before any game is moved or even tagged, will kneel or bow before the fallen creature and recite a prayer, honoring the animal with both blessings and remembrance.
In the Southeast, where the deer hunting with hounds culture still reigns in shrinking rural pockets as it has since colonial times, a tradition that is also dying with the rush of modern culture is the “holding of court” at the end of the day when organized hunts are held. Growing up hunting at the former United Hunt Club in Southampton County, Va., I have fond memories as a boy standing among the men in the freezing night air and gathered around the open skinning shed as court came into session. In all my years there, I only remember two different men serving as judge and they would open court allowing any hunter who had missed a deer that day to throw himself on the mercy of the court. Few did as the banter that ensued was much more entertaining for everyone when an accused attempted to deny that he had missed and blame the shots on somebody else. Ultimately, those found guilty of missing often had to pay a fine by having their shirt tail cut — typically an inch for each fired shot — though on rare occasions, the hijinks got so animated that I saw the hat brims removed, entire shirts slashed, and once, a removed boot chopped by a meat cleaver! This tradition played out through varying degrees throughout the South and underscored the social nature of this type of club hunting. Even though the old clubhouse sits largely unused these days, shirt tails, many more than 40 years old, still blow in the breeze beneath that skinning shed roof.
Lighting the Fire
Missouri outdoor writer Tony Kalna Jr. grew up hunting the Ozarks with his dad, grandfather and uncle, and they would pitch deer or turkey camp, depending on the season, and hunt for a whole week every year. While in camp, they would use pine wood collected from old stumps that remained from past forest fires or had become almost petrified and formed fast burning lightered wood to always start their fire in camp. In 1983, family members bought a farm closer to where they lived and quit hunting the mountains shortly after. But on their final hunt, a turkey hunt, Tony and one of his relatives hauled one of these huge pine stumps out of the woods and back to their farm. Every year since, they have chopped a small piece of wood from the stump and used it to build the first fire at each season’s deer camp. The stump is half gone by now, but because it takes so little of the flammable wood to ignite a good burning fire, Tony figures it will outlive him.
There are a number of long held — and sometimes odd — traditions surrounding the taking of a person’s first deer and the blood, or more rarely consumed organs, of that deer. Some are really kind of cool, including a “blooding” rite as it is sometimes called whereby the lucky hunter’s forehead and/or cheeks are dabbed or smeared with blood to initiate them among them among the ranks of accomplished hunters. If not all hunters have celebrated their first kill in that manner, they have likely at least heard of it. A twisted twist on that experience is to remove the heart or liver from the still warm animal and take a bite from it. That one may be a little too Legends of the Fall for most folks, and with concerns over blood-contaminating illnesses such as CDW or hemorrhagic disease, may not be the best way to continue that tradition. Some people even drink some of the deer’s blood, which unless you’re auditioning for a scene in the next Twilight movie, is just a bit ick. A cool twist on the practice comes from Brian McCombie in Wisconsin, who says successful hunters will sometimes simmer the deer’s heart in water, along with celery, onion and beer, then slice and eat it. That’s one many of us could work with.
Drinking Night Before the Opener
For all the ink and genuine acceptance of women among the ranks of hunters, by and large, many hunting camps remain a “boys only” affair, where friends and male relatives annually gather to not only hunt, but also enjoy the comradery of men with a shared interest in hunting. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in deer hunting where, as with most male-oriented activities, social time is spent drinking an alcoholic beverage or eight the night before opening day. This can lead to ready laughter and a plenty of good stories of stupidity that will be shared for years to come, but on more than a few of these occasions, I’ve personally witnessed hunters too hung over the next day to even crawl out of bed and hunt — or on rare occasions, were still inebriated so where they weren’t allowed to hunt. Enjoy a frosty beverage, or even a few, but try not to get so wild you miss opening morning. That’s just plain out stupid.
Clearing Out the Camper
Not so sure this counts as a tradition, but in researching this article, I came across this one in a thread on camp traditions. One hunter posted how his and his buddies’ hunt camp consists of many trailers, and on the Friday night before the deer opener, they all gather to B.S. in one of the campers. However, as often occurs when among a group of dudes, someone “cuts the cheese,” as this hunter explained, at which point, everyone would get up and gather in another trailer. The conversation would resume until another “airing out” instance occurred and then they would move on to the next. Not sure what you do if you only have one cabin or tent for everyone to hang out in. Could be an unpleasant tradition to start on your camp.
One Alabama hunter shared this tradition with me — a throwback to her dad’s younger days before there were cell phones, texting and even walkie-talkies. To this day, her dad and some of his contemporaries still follow the practice, but when they kill a buck and field dress it, they hang the severed genitals from a tree so anyone who happens past the gut pile will know the deer taken there was a buck. They can then excitedly hurry back to camp to see how big the trophy was taken by one of their hunting partners.
No Razors, Please
Another extremely individualized tradition among deer camps includes the resistance to shaving while hunting. On a message board, I found one hunter whose entire camp of guys doesn’t shave for the entire two-month long hunting season. It worked for Robert Redford as Jeremiah Johnson — until his squaw trimmed him — and everyone knows how well it has worked for the Duck Commander boys. “Best marketing strategy ever thought of and it doesn’t cost us anything,” Willie Robertson once told me concerning his father Phil’s decision to let the beards grow. Of course, if you still spend the majority of your time during hunting season in an office or shop instead of the woods or filming a hunting show, the ZZ Top look might garner you more Deliverance-minded stares of fear than smiles of admiration.
I apologize, but I had to go out of country for this one, and it really is kind of a cool tradition once you know the history behind it. But at first glance, anytime you catch a video of men in knickers and lederhosen dancing in circles with each other sporting heavy racks above their heads, you have to stop and wonder. What I’m talking about is the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance in Staffordshire, England, this year to be celebrated Sept. 10 in the village of, where else, Abbots Bromley. The dance was first performed as part of the Barthelmy Fair in August 1226. That means for 786 years, each year, dudes have been dressing up and dancing with antlers to celebrate the hunt. Not sure if it blesses a hunt or just serves a rural curiosity among visitors these days (most likely the latter), but I can imagine me trying to get a bunch of hardened Dale Earnhardt-looking Midwestern hunters to dress like the sky ride attendant at Busch Gardens and dance daintily with antlers above their heads to the sound of a gonging chime.