(Un)Fair Chase: Finding Perspective in the High Fence Debate
April 23, 2012
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.