Flash in the Pan 

The loser school of hunting

The less successful a hunter you are, the more practice you get. Failure to close the deal means that you have to go back out there again, and again, giving you numerous opportunities to figure out what’s wrong with your game. Plenty of chances to get better.

And if you bagged your beast early, evidently you didn’t need the extra practice.

This kind of education is what I call the Loser School of Hunting.

But what, exactly, are you learning? Many factors must come together in order for a hunt to be successful. You must be in a place where there are animals; you must find them, sense them before they sense you (or at least before they spook), get a good shot off, and then find the animal. Leave any one of these factors out and you’ll lose.

Some factors, like the weather or other hunters showing up, are out of the hunter’s control, but can be worked with.

Another factor, dumb luck, may seem out of your control, but it isn’t. 

It’s still up to the hunter to capitalize upon luck—hear the animal that just happens to be walking toward you, find it in your scope, make a good shot when it pauses. If you end up missing, how lucky was that?

When you create and capitalize on your luck, I think that’s what they mean by mojo.

It can be tough to put your finger on what, exactly, mojo is, but you know it when you see it.  Certain people with the mojo see lots of animals and shoot them, consistently. 

You know it when you don’t have it, seeing it from the outside, or when you’ve lost it. Because the thing about mojo is, it can come and go. Did you get too cocky? Did you do something to anger the gods?

According to one old hunter, “Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it’s time to go back to square one.” 

The last few years my mojo’s been flowing like dry ice. I’ve had a string of down-to-the-wire seasons that have been saved by some ninth-inning heroics. Two years of finally getting elk in the last week of the season makes for a long and adventurous autumn. But pushing on and on just to face the obnoxious breath of failure gets old. 

Here you are again, long before dawn, in the twilight of the season, your aching back against the wall. Too many important parts of your life are neglected. You want the season to be over. But you’re planning another trip, getting your gear and food together, going back for more cold, more pain, more chances to blow it.

Hunting has a way of cutting through the layered fibers of your being, like a river revealing the veins of the earth, and exposing what you’re made of.  How will you handle the stress?

There are many reasons why people hunt. For some, the joy is in the killing, which is kind of whack. For some, the joy is in the horns, which is also weird, but slightly understandable. While I’m no trophy hunter, I can’t deny the beauty of a nice rack.

“You can’t eat the horns,” says my neighbor, Wild Bill, and I agree.

For me, the joy is in the meat, and the concept of earning your animal protein with sweat, blood, and grit.

Usually, meat hunting is not cost-effective. The process may be tougher than a $2 steak, but when you add up all the money on gas, gear, bullets, Advil, and missed work, sometimes that steak ends up costing upwards of $20 a pound. You could have bought a pig and a cow from farmer friends instead.

I do it instead for the unquantifiable joy I feel, all year long, as I eat on my meat stash and savor not only the flavor, but also the connection it forges between me and my surroundings, a joy based in part on the uncertainty of success. And I do it to earn the right to eat whatever meat I eat. Because paying pennies for flesh is too easy. Eating the flesh of another animal should be a big deal. Hunting is how I take it seriously.

And I have beautiful moments hunting, in the enchanted places where elk draw me, munching on jerky from last year’s animal, and peaches, pears, and apricots I dehydrated last summer.

Alas, as the season wears on, hunting becomes a chore I must force myself to do. I might give up were it not for the third party in the room, my ego.

But as my self-esteem gets carved into a million pieces, I’m aware that somehow I get carved into a better piece of myself by the Loser School of Hunting. The extra practice might not get me an animal every year, but if it doesn’t kill me, it will make me stronger.  And if I don’t bring anything home, at least I’ve helped earn my right to eat the meat I have to buy.

Ask Ari: For sweetbreads, go to source

Q: Dear Ari,

I’m looking to acquire some local sweetbreads—you know, thymus glands and/or pancreas. I like to shop local, so I don’t want to order them online.

I imagine most elk hunters leave the sweetbreads behind in a gut pile in the woods—but since sweetbreads should come from younger animals, an adult elk may not be ideal. And I don’t know enough (successful) elk hunters to make that happen.

What do local butchers and slaughterhouses do with the offal? Any advice on a local hookup?

—Desperately Seeking Sweetbreads

A: Unfortunately, DSS, the local butchers I contacted don’t want to deal with those little glands. They’re too small, too much of a pain to remove, and they’d have to charge too much to make it cost effective. That said, one area meat packer, who wanted to remain anonymous, did admit to saving the sweatbreads for a particular favored customer. So if you get on the good side of your local butcher, and/or offer a generous sum of money, you might get your goodies.

Another option would be to get on the nice side of a local livestock producer who will have more pull than you with the butcher and can ask to have their animals’ sweetbreads saved.

As for finding them in elk guts…gosh, it’s been so long since I’ve faced an elk gut pile I don’t even remember. But I have looked for them, briefly, in the past, before getting on with the pressing task of packing the meat out. Gut piles are messy, especially in the hands of a tired hunter who is moving quickly.

I think befriending a farmer is your best option. They have the power to deliver the prized organs of the finest specimens.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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