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(Un)Fair Chase: Finding Perspective in the High Fence Debate

by Ben O'Brien   |  April 23rd, 2012 26

Unfair-Chase_001

The gate was taller than I expected and more imposing. The fence sported checkered wire and iron bars worthy of Shawshank prison, with sharp barbs to bring home the point. The message was clear: Nothing gets out.

As our truck inched forward, I almost expected a white-bearded Englishman to jump out of the bushes and yell, “Welcome to Jurassic Park!”

Soon we were driving on manicured blacktop as the fence disappeared in the view. Thankfully, I started to feel less like “fresh meat” as we entered the opening portion of 6,000 huntable acres of Greystone Castle Sporting Club, a Texas high-fence resort known for its extravagant lodgings, great bird hunting and exotic big game. The club, which sits two hours outside of Dallas, is also known for its deer…really big deer.

It was only a few minutes before Greystone proved its worth. The first opening we came to was full of whitetails: a few does, small bucks and a giant mainframe 10-point with more mass than the crowd at an all-you-can-eat buffet. We stopped the truck to watch as he chased a hot doe across the road and back again. He was a four-and-a-half-year-old buck in what looked to be full rut, but he was not yet the mature 200-inch raffle ticket he needed to be before some lucky hunter could shoot him. I realized this was the biggest buck I’d ever laid eyes on, and if I were hunting in any other place, I might have had my trophy in under five minutes. But it was house rules, and this gagger buck wasn’t even an option for our hunting crew.

As you’ve probably guessed, I was skeptical, to say the least, of this high-fence Texas paradise. Greystone Castle is a place where 180-inch bucks seem to be the norm, and every mature four-legged creature carries a price tag. As a hunter and general horn-porn advocate, I was excited. I knew that just being able to capture these freaks in my binos would be enough to send me home happy.

But to say such a “trophy” kill would be tainted seemed an understatement. It would be like catching a world-class marlin in an oversized fish bowl…and paying for it.

Joe Coogan, host of the Outdoor Channel’s Benelli on Assignment, had been here and done this, though, and he assured me that if I underestimated these bucks I’d get my ass handed to me.

After a pretty poor deer season back home, I quickly gobbled up Coogan’s invitation to come south to film an episode of BOA, in hopes of killing a nice buck and experiencing some real hunting time behind high fence. After all, I thought, whitetails are whitetails. You can put them in a cage or behind a fence, but their natural instincts will win out in the end.

It was my first trip to Texas for deer. I’ve spent most of my young life obsessing over the chase in my home state of Maryland while sprinkling in a few trips to the Midwest and Canada. It was clear from the start I had a lot to learn about Texas—a culture that we Northerners consider brazen and base—and its history of enclosed hunting. I mean, look, the core competency of this state is filled with all the things a real American man loves: barbecued meat, football, belt buckles, cool hats, and other various oversized things. It stands to reason that hunting behind tall gates and high fence might somehow fit the model of macho swagger.

So, with mild prejudice, I set off to find some perspective in the fair chase debate I had heard about for so long.

Defining the Debate
Many hunters nationwide look down on “canned hunts.” High fence is seen by many as more of a shopping trip than a real hunting experience. Others charge that these enclosures allow the anti-hunting crowd a very healthy argument against our sport, a weak point in the pro-hunting’s fortified defenses.

But what this surface debate lacks is real perspective. Not every high-fence property is a 100-acre pen used to breed freak-show bucks for profit or even a game farm used to cultivate populations of non-natives and service trophy hunters.

By most accounts, there are three different types of hunting: fair chase hunting, managed high-fence hunting and captive hunting, each of which is legal in some areas of the U.S. and brings income to both private businesses and local economies.

Some people define fair chase as simply pursuing an animal without a perceived unfair or artificial advantage. There is a large sect that would tell you hunting over a bait pile or at a waterhole isn’t fair chase and others who believe hunting methods (sans crossbows and ARs) to be the only way to truly achieve the experience.

But these folks would probably tell you that hunting inside high fence isn’t just wrong, it’s unethical. Some fence jockeys claim that if the enclosed hunting area is big enough and carries all native game it can be considered fair chase. But that fence looms large. Even with 10,000 acres or more and managed hunting pressure, the deer population is restricted, and fair chase seemingly can never be achieved.

As far back as 1960, Texas landowners knew that if they wanted to manage a healthy deer population, grow big bucks, and stem the tide of poachers, a fence was needed.

If you downgrade the parcel of land to a few hundred acres and add in bucks bred to unreal proportions for unreal price tags, you’ve got the last, and most hated, type of hunting. Bucks that didn’t make the breeder pool are trotted out in a semi-tame state and shot down without even the hint of sport.

Nobody can claim that this $4.5 million a year high-fence hunting industry isn’t a legitimate business. There’s one hell of a demand inside and outside of the hunting world for operations like Greystone. They offer certainty to the guys who are in this game to fill their walls full of trophies—or at least as much certainty as you can expect in any hunting situation. They’ve helped grow hunting in Texas and brought jobs—and monster whitetails—to the state.

John Fredericks, property manager at Greystone Castle, grew up hunting in Minnesota and spent eight years guiding upland birds, waterfowl and fair chase elk and mule deer. Nowadays he handles the operation for the Castle, cultivating its big-game populations, prime whitetail habitat, and helping to ensure the hunting experience is worth every penny for its high-dollar clientele.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time looking at cameras and trying to figure out where the deer are; it’s still hunting,” he said. “We have the guys that want to bow hunt for whitetail, but it’s just like hunting outside the fence. You have got to have the wind right; everything has got to come into play. During the rut, the deer are a little more vulnerable. Outside the rut, pre-rut, and post-rut, there’s a different story.”

But Fredericks has no delusions of fair chase.

“What [hunters] can expect here is, just like anywhere in Texas, it’s a little more of a shopping trip than hunting,” he said. “You’re going to see greater numbers of whitetail deer, so you can pick and choose. I’d say 80 percent of the deer here are native to this land. We’re phasing out our breeder program altogether.”

Fair chase hunters all over the country track their deer with trail cameras, make hit lists, name their bucks, and manage their properties like private deer-killing enterprises. While it may not be private enterprise for all, it is for some. They manage every inch of their land and are as connected to it as high-fence properties like Greystone. They plant food plots and manage the land to attract and hold deer all year round, only killing mature deer.

But that big, demanding fence sets these two factions worlds apart. I guess you’re either on one side of the fence or the other, but as a hunter, you can’t really have an opinion without experiencing both sides.

Finding a New Perspective
The rut was on in Texas. The early December weather turned out like I would’ve expected back home, cold and wet with consistently cloudy skies. It didn’t seem to dampen the chase in the open food plots and thick cover on Greystone’s palatial estate. The bucks were primed.

Coogan, Fredericks, and I were joined by veteran whitetail writer and former editor of North American Whitetail magazine Duncan Dobie on our first evening trip. We grabbed a Benelli on Assignment cameraman and stuffed ourselves into the truck like five clowns at the circus.

Only a few minutes after we had left the castle and the nearest gate was closed behind us, Fredericks stopped the truck and we all pulled out our binoculars. A buck, flanked by two does, was bedded down only 50 yards from the road.

“Anybody want that buck, he’s a shooter,” he said, as I finally zeroed in on the chocolate-horned 10-point.

I looked at Coogan and he looked at Dobie and Dobie looked at me. No takers. He was a nice buck, but we all knew it was too early. We were shopping, and there was no reason to put my Benelli R-1 in .30-06 to the test just yet.

The whole thing seemed rather muted, though, less intense than I knew it would be on a fair chase hunt. The vibe was almost casual, as we weaved through muddy ranch roads and around feeders attracting exotic game. When every foot of twisted undergrowth could reveal a monster buck, how selective should you really be?

“They’ll let you drive the truck almost right up to them,” Fredericks said. “Especially when they are locked on a hot doe. But don’t be fooled, these deer won’t let you get out of the truck without bolting. It’s not as simple as it looks.”

We had a few more encounters on our first go-round before retiring back to the castle. In one afternoon at Greystone I had probably laid eyes on the three or four biggest deer I’d ever seen.

“What did you think about tonight?” Coogan asked, obviously tuned in to my mix of excitement and trepidation.

“It was awesome to see those big boys up close,” I quipped. “But I’m certainly not in Maryland anymore. This hunt just has a whole different vibe…what incredible deer.”

In the next two days I followed Coogan and Dobie as they both took mature 8-points. We sat on stand each morning for about two hours, but on both occasions the deer were spotted from the truck and we gave chase, playing cat-and-mouse until they finally relented or made that fatal mistake.

By the last day of the hunt, everyone in our hunting camp had already killed. They were all on camera, and they were all wall hangers. It was time for me to take my turn.

After a rather uneventful final morning sit in a box blind, we took to the truck again and drove down the same ranch road from day one with the fence to our right. Like the two days earlier, we stopped to glass for deer in the brush and watched as bucks flashed in and out of the thick stuff, trailing does.

It was down to the wire and time for me to punch my ticket. I wasn’t about to leave Greystone after all the trophy-class deer I’d seen without slamming a big buck down.

Almost immediately as we stopped to glass, I was staring head-on at a nice 140-class buck with a dark red complexion, nice mass, and eight-inch brows.

“That’s my buck,” I told Fredericks. “Let’s drive up a ways and sneak back after him.”

We parked about 100 yards away from the buck and made our approach. It didn’t take long before he spotted us and bolted. I only caught short glimpses of him as he took off. We hustled through the thick stuff and onto the edge of a muddy field ahead. Suddenly, he was coming back through the trees, after a doe about 150 yards away, and I had my chance.

As I looked through the scope I took a quick, deep breath and exhaled…dumb mistake. My scope fogged, and the buck disappeared behind the grey tint. My heart pounded as I waited for what felt like an hour for my scope to clear. In that moment fair chase didn’t mean a thing. Fence or not, I was as jacked up as I’ve ever been on a whitetail hunt.

My sight picture now clear, I locked in on the buck as he trotted from left to right through the mud with his crimson rack pointed toward his doe. I put the crosshairs on his shoulder and squeezed.

He stumbled forward on impact and did the customary chin up belly flop into the mud just a few yards from where he stood. He was a great, old 9-point with tall, twisting brow tines and great character, and despite all the talk of the lack of real challenge on a high fence estate, we hunted hard.

As we took photos of my muddy deer, I looked over at the feeder on the edge of the field. A bigger, 170-inch buck was staring right at us about 100 yards away. He had been standing there the whole time.

“Damn, they’re everywhere,” I thought, shaking my head. “He never spooked…only behind high fence.”

As I looked back at my kill, I thought of one of my favorite quotes of all time from Hunter S. Thompson: “Do not confuse love with lust, nor drunkenness with judgment.”

I will never confuse my love of hunting with the lust for a high-fence trophy or my addiction to the thrill with the reality of fair chase. It’s the experience, the challenge, that keeps me coming back to this game.

Though I was obviously more educated on the subject than when we first passed through Greystone’s gate, my opinion hadn’t changed. It wasn’t exactly the whole marlin in a fish bowl thing, but it wasn’t what I call fair chase, either.

  • WilliamH

    While the author cited the entire ranch as 6000 acres, he failed to mention the size of the pastures.
    So the question, Is the ranch broken down into smaller high fenced pastures?
    My neighbors ranch is about 40,000 acres with one or two 1000 acre pastures.

  • Bob S.

    I have gone to Tx. 3 times, have hunted free range and high fence both. The high fence(2 times) was 7200 acres with only 1 pen,which I never entered, for gestating does. I hunted on about 7000 acres. I have no problem with that. A 40 a. pen I would not do, but how can anyone say that 7000 a. is not free range, what with the cover and terrain. I just got back 2 weeks ago from a hunt in the high fence. I was after 4 animals and only saw 1 of the 4. That is the way it goes. I drove from northern Mn. and was ok with this. The cover, absolutely no feeders this time of year and the rolling terrain lend to favor the animals. As I said, that is the way it goes.

  • WilliamH

    Dear "you suck", Which would you prefer? High fences to protect our livestock from poachers and us from litigation, or no high fences and shoot poachers for fun and sport?

  • Walkerman

    Hunting has become a sport. We go because of what each participant gets out of it for themselves alone. Some enjoy the outdoor experience and bringing home meat is the icing on the cake, but they always enjoy the cake. Some aren't interested in the cake, They are there just for the icing. Just what method one chooses,bow, gun, still, tree stand, shooting house over bait, dogs, going to a country where a helicopter is used to spot the game then the hunter and guide get dropped off to make a stalk or whatever other means one uses is the decision of the hunter paying the bill. Just like going to the market to buy beef, the buyer putting the money down makes the decision to buy hamburger or porterhouse. Or like going to a restaurant, hunting today comes with a menu to choose what one wants and can afford.. The choice is up to the consumer and I do not see anything wrong their choices. High fence game animals are just are just another commodity to be bought by a consumer.

    • Ben_OBrien

      Great points, Walkerman. Thanks for reading and writing!

    • You people suck

      And just like the person going to the market, there is no sport in your hunting method. You're nothing but lazy sons-of bitches that have totally lost sight of what it is to be a sportsman.

  • JHJ

    No thanks, i like to hunt.

  • John ODonnell

    I dont criticize other hunters and thier methods very often but this is the exception. First, in my home state of New York, fenched hunts do not required a huntng license. You are hunting on a preserve and the animals "game" are captive farm raised privately owned . Excotic breeds are imported (see Russian Boar) and do escape to cause damage to the habiate of native species. CDW seems always to have its beginings among penned animals . High fences do not allow the "game" to move freely.. I know Ive heard all the arguments about helicopters unable to spot game animals inside high fence enclosures. Its not hunting. Its shooting and I would be ashamed to mount anything taken under that circumstance. You have to live with yourself but be honest and think about it. Wouldnt you really rather hunt and kill your trophy under true fair chase conditions. You be the judge.

  • Bud Dee

    I think I saw Ben O'Brian at the pet store, stabbing the parakeets through the cage bars.

  • David

    To each his own I say……while I would love to kill a monster buck I will take my chances outside the fences for now. That being said those who decry the practice are usually just jealous of those who can afford to pay for such a hunt. Shooting a tame animal in a high fence pasture, spot and stalking on 7,000 acres is something else altogether. While not completely free range in the strictest sense of the word, it is certainly not like shooting fish in a barrell.

    Kudos to the author for taking on another controversial topic.

    • Joe

      I agree,to each his own,if you can afford it go ahead and do it! I personally cannot afford nor would I attempt to hunt a fenced area! I could not be proud of a trophy like that nor would I display it in my house!

  • Tony

    I have hunted a fenced in ranch before. Buffalo on a Turner Ranch. The fenced in area did take a little away from the hunt but standing in a 5000 acre open pasture with a single shot 45-70 black power carterage rifle and a possible charging buffalo the adreniline was still pumping. I hunt 99% fair chase but would consider a game ranch for exotics.

  • John M

    I've hunted high fence in Botswana on a roughly-300,000-acre spread, a working cattle ranch with absolutely no internal game fences. Totally wild game (as opposed to the tame critters that the bunny-huggers photograph and coo at in places like Kruger Park), hard hunting, free chase in the truest sense. Loved it, but would not do it again. High fences, in conjunction with regulated hunting, protect game from poaching, protect habitat from destruction and, at least in Africa, have brought several species back from the brink of extinction to healthy, burgeoning huntable populations. I have nothing against the practice or those who avail themselves of it, but I must admit that the mere existence of the fence, though unseen and usually miles away, definitely detracted from the experience as a whole.

    • Mark K

      John,
      As you said, the fences protect game- that is true, but from poachers. 99% of those animals can clear a high fence if they were so inclined, they are not captive. Besides, why leave a 300,000 acre spread? The cats can certainly get in and out, so there is natural predator/prey relationships.

      Also, I've hunted the border regions with Kruger, which has no fence anymore. Believe me, they are not tame. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      I invite you to spend a week in the bush there, and leave your gun at home. I predict you would cut that vacation short-

  • thehousedad

    I hunted at the 777 Ranch in Texas as part of a media deal years back. It was for exotics and it was fun. I wouldn't want to take a North American big game animal there, but for something I wouldn't otherwise be able to hunt, it was ok.

    • http://huntingholumstyle.wordpress.com Holum

      I too have taken exotics on large ranches in Texas. It was hunting, no doubt, and the species are unobtainable anywhere else in the world. The money goes to perpetuating their existence for the future. Win Win

    • doc

      I totally agree. I have hunted several ranches for exotics only. Can not bring myself to hunt North American big game but have had fun with the exotics. And for those people like my 88 year old grandfather it was priceless to see him shoot his Texas Dall ram

  • Neil

    To each his own, but personally I like hunting free ranging deer. When/if i ever get my 200+ B&C whitetail, I wouldn't want to shoot it on a high fence ranch. I've hunted low fence places in west Texas and have seen some 170-180+ B&C bucks and have killed several 150s+ and one 172 Gross non typical. I prefer the challenge and the excitement of the 'unknown'…not knowing if the next buck that steps into view might be that buck of a lifetime. You can't get that on a high fence place.

  • jp338

    People are free to do what they want on their own land in accordance with established laws and acceptable morals and ethics in regard to the hunting and treatment of wild animals. These game farms aren't for me though. It takes too much away from "real" hunting where the risks, physical effort and final outcome of the hunt vary widely, and are pretty much decided upon and controlled by the individual hunter.

  • trustfunded

    Take the same money that you pay for these canned hunts and buy beef.

  • Josh Dahlke

    Nice article, dude.
    J. Dahlke http://www.HuntingClub.com

  • J.R. Verdugo

    I've read stories about "well seasoned" professional hunters hunting in Africa for lions. One story read: As he hunter for several days, he became weary and tired, and decide to stop and go back. That's when the lion leaped out; startled–but able to raise his rifle to make contact on the lions chest–he managed to pull the trigger as he fell backward from the 5 hundred pounds of meat-eating animal. The lion roared as if he had conquered the day, then slowly past out from the heavy bullet lodged in his spine. Big Game Hunting, in reality, is not a game gentlemen. In this one of many stories, the hunter made several mistakes: never hunt alone, always be aware that big cats hide before the "pounce," they can easily tear you to shreds without hesitation–their presence alone will scare the life out of you. You're not going to catch me out there without reliable help.

  • T. W. Naegely

    Your "fair chaise" debate is one of the most absured and destructive exercises in sportsman"s culture.
    Did you miss the word "farm" in game farms ? These people raise these beautiful animals on private land
    at thier own expense. As long as these animals are well cared for and killed cleanly, this is no less moral or humane than the farms that feed our country. Unless you intend to start demanding fair chaise beef from
    your grocery store, get off your high plastic horse and stop taking shots at your fellow sportsman to the
    delight of the anti's

  • Harry Carlin

    I don't object to this at all !! To my mind it's 'horses for courses'……. Hunting Public Land is a time consuming experience, particularly without a guide of somesort. Or you've put in many days/weeks to recce the place yourself with absolutely no luck at all. For those who are relatively 'money-rich & time-poor' fenced Hunting provides a 'win-win' for everyone !! A mate had been hunting for quite a few years without success, so I suggested he do a 'canned hunt'. He bit the bullet, forked over his money and came back with a very respectable head, and some very nice venison. He is a happy boy and feels he got 'value for money'….the Game Ranch people are also 'happy', because they 'got the money'………..which allows them to keep on doing more of the same. If I added up all the fruitless days/weeks/months/years 'hunting' without firing a shot, it occurs to me that; it would havebeen a lot cheaper both timewise and moneywise tp have done the same myself !!

  • john fredericks

    I have enjoyed every ones coments about the artical Ben wrote. If i may let me tell a few people who have no idea of what they are talking about.You say fair chase , what is fair chase? to me fair chase would be you naked with a stick, good luck on that mighty hunters who are full of bull snot , most of you have no idea how to hunt or even what to do when you get in the woods. Ben i do rember you not being able to shoot a few deer because you did not have the hunting or shooting skills it takes to get the job done , did i say that oh sorry . We are talking about a high fence hunt and these animals cant get away or sooner or later they make a mistake , i wonder how all the boon and crocket deer get shot , is it because man is just that much smarter than a white tail deer, i guess acording to all you expert hunters out there. Hey i do this every day for a living and i am not pro or con high fence hunting but believe me its still hunting and the animals are wild living breathing creatures.

  • bertski

    I grew up in a hunting family and I continue to be an avid hunter. My father taught my brothers and I, through no act other than just doing, that a hunter should get more out of a hunt that just the killing portion. The hunt should be more about the camaraderie and the enjoyment of God’s great gift, instead of the want of a deer. People are so overstimulated with the desire to always have action, don’t get me wrong, I love to shoot me some deer. I guess that my only point here is that perhaps I have a different understanding and definition of what respect means for the sport. A fence is a fence is a fence. If I had all of the money in the world I would never stoop to that level as a hunter.

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