John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
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This week’s column takes a hard look at today’s hunting videos:
Question: Just how realistic are the hunting videos that turn up on cable TV and on the Internet?
Answer: Most of them aren’t realistic at all. In my opinion, those that aren’t do more to harm the public’s image of hunters than they could ever hope to advance it.
Almost all of these videos are taped on private game ranches or hunting preserves. Some of them are even taped on so-called “high-fence” preserves where the animals are herded into 1- to 3-acre pens to be shot. And even on unfenced preserves, the animals are often lured within shooting range with bait.
As someone who once worked in the television industry, I completely understand why hunting-show producers choose such locations for their video shoots. Video crews are expensive. The sooner the necessary footage can be secured, the lower the production costs.
Why send a crew out for a week on heavily hunted public land, where the host/hunter probably won’t bag a trophy-sized animal, when they could spend a day or two on a private preserve and videotape a true trophy hunt? The show’s host pads his or her “street cred” as a hunter and the producers save money. It’s a no-brainer.
As successful as that approach appears to be, I see at least six problems with it.
One, it results in an ever-escalating “arms race.” If Show A’s host bags a heavy-antlered 10-point buck on his show, rival Show B’s host feels compelled to bag a 12-pointer or larger to avoid losing face. In the process, viewers are subjected to an endless procession of hunts they could not remotely hope to experience for themselves.
Two, the hunts in their final, heavily edited versions seldom reflect what actually happened. In an effort to create flow and continuity, producers and editors often take a snippet from here and a snippet from there and patch together idealized versions of what they conceive trophy hunts to be.
Three, the videos often create unrealistic expectations, especially among inexperienced hunters. Face it, real-world hunting is usually much, much more difficult and time consuming than the Fantasy Island hunts depicted on videos and TV. Hunters who aren’t wealthy – or who aren’t privileged TV hosts – sometimes spend entire seasons perched in their tree stands without getting a single shot at a trophy animal.
Four, consumers are starting to wise up. Jimmy Houston, a popular fishing- and hunting-show host, lost a ton of credibility several years back when word got out that one of his trophy-buck hunts was taped in a small enclosure on an Indiana high-fence preserve. Houston had depicted the hunt as fair chase when it was anything but.
Five, hunting-show producers’ emphasis on canned and baited hunts cost hunters a ton of good will with the non-hunting public. Anti-hunters will always be against hunting, and little can be done to persuade them otherwise. Most non-hunters take a more neutral stance. As long as hunters abide by the law and subscribe to fair-chase practices, the vast majority of non-hunters will continue to tolerate hunting as a pastime.
But as soon as they perceive hunters as wanton or unsporting, the jig is up. They’ll join forces with the antis, and hunting as we know it will become as extinct as the passenger pigeon.
Finally, producers’ slavish dedication to inserting “impact shots” or “kill shots” into their videos has become downright offensive – at least to me. I understand that those images help create the impression that the host’s participation wasn’t staged, but I also believe that non-hunters find them offensive.
We hunters are used to seeing them, and they don’t bother us. But they sure might turn off some youngsters who, with careful nurturing, might otherwise have become hunters.