Stalking small game while barefooted, the young boy supplemented his family’s mealtime protein intake, but remembers dreaming way back then of one day hunting leopards. Mentored, in part, by the most iconic archer in history, that boy has since hunted far and wide, and loves duck hunting. Steve Comus has been Editor-in-Chief for Safari Club International’s Safari Magazine for over 2 decades. “We are our truest selves while hunting,” he explains. With experience – and humility – that can only be gleaned from 70-plus years hunting, Steve shares some surprisingly interesting perspectives in this episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. This is Ramsey Russell, Get Ducks. It’s Duck Season Somewhere. I’m in Reno today. We’ve got SCI convention, which is probably my favorite week of the year to not be in a duck blind. Really, I love coming out here. It’s one of the largest shows in the world. You see everything from— I’m not kidding, the first time I was out here, the guy behind me was selling rabbit hunts over beagles in the state of Missouri. Two doors down was a guy selling everything in the world you’d want to shoot in New Zealand. Three doors down from him was a guy selling big markhors and big sheep and everything else. You walk around, you prowl around, and you see just every single kind of hunt imaginable. You see hunters from all over the world, and I absolutely love coming out here and spending time. It gets my imagination going. Kind of how we made our splash in the pond, so to speak, at SCI, was the fact that we’re the guys that sell all the duck hunts around the world. Today’s guest is Steve Comus. He is the editor of Safari Club Magazine. Steve, how are you today? I appreciate you meeting me.
Steve Comus: I’m doing fine, Ramsey. Nice to see you not in a duck blind. Last time we were together, we were out there shooting ducks and geese.
Ramsey Russell: Every time I’ve spent time with you, we’ve been killing birds. Which, I’ve got to tell you, Steve, it kind of surprises me that you’re such an avid bird hunter, because you’re already editor of SCI. How long have you been doing this, working for SCI?
How SCI Was Formed
“Hey, they’re starting up this hunting club. We ought to stop out and take a look at it and stuff.”
Steve Comus: I’ve been on the staff for a little over twenty years, but I was there when the club started. I was not one of the founders, but I was there when they started it.
Ramsey Russell: Really? How’d you even get involved with being there at the beginning of Safari Club?
Steve Comus: Well, it was over in Los Angeles where C.J. McElroy founded the club. At the time, I was working for the Hearst Corporation. One of the guys on the newspaper there, The Examiner, was a guy who knew McElroy very well. He and I were working together, and he said, “Hey, they’re starting up this hunting club. We ought to stop out and take a look at it and stuff.” So I did. I went out there and met with them and everything. I went to several meetings, and that was when they formed the club, back in ‘71 or ‘72.
Ramsey Russell: ‘71 or ‘72. Man, that’s been more than twenty years, Steve.
Steve Comus: Well, yeah, but I’ve only been on the staff for twenty years. Before that, I was just a member.
Ramsey Russell: I can remember, back in the ‘90s, working down in Texas on a ranch, and that’s where I first became acquainted with SCI. A lot of the guys I worked with were big into it. They were chasing collections of whitetails or collections of North American animals. They kept talking about SCI and SCI Record Books. Up until about five or six years ago, I’d have told you that SCI was just a bunch of hunters that got around and smoked fat cigars at big banquets and hunted. I really and truly had no idea, until I showed up at convention to exhibit, of just what SCI meant to me as a hunter.
Are We Born Hunters?
“Now, granted, we can learn things and everything else, but I think it’s in our DNA.”
Steve Comus: Yeah. That’s one thing. A lot of people have a misconception. They think, “Well, all they are is a bunch of rich guys going around shooting African animals and stuff like that.” That’s not true. I mean, yes, we do have that, but it’s everything. For example, I never started out being risky at all. In fact, when I was a kid, if we were going to eat meat, we had to go out and shoot it. To give you an idea, when I was a little kid, we’d get a pair of shoes every year to go to school. Well, when we went out hunting—in the summertime, you didn’t wear shoes at all—I wouldn’t take my good school shoes, I’d just go barefoot. That’s one way I learned how to stalk animals. When you’re barefooted, you can be a lot more quiet. Anyway, as a result of that, quite frankly, some of my most fun hunts are squirrel hunts or rabbit hunts and that kind of thing, because that’s what we used to do to eat.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. That’s a long way from some of the bigger hunts you’ve probably done as editor of the magazine.
Steve Comus: Oh, yeah. Well, to give you an idea, when I was a little kid, you weren’t even allowed to imagine that you would ever do much. This was right on the edge of Appalachia, back there. I would dream about going to Africa and shooting a leopard. I don’t know why, but that was my dream as a kid. I had a little Stevens Favorite single-shot .22, a little falling block .22. That’s what I’d shoot squirrels with. Well, when I was out shooting squirrels in trees, I would imagine that I was in Africa shooting the leopard with a Farquharson single-shot rifle. I never had any ideas, at that time, that I’d ever even get close to Africa. Since then, I’ve been there a lot of times. I’ve done a lot of hunting and everything. It’s kind of living the dream, really.
Ramsey Russell: You saying that about that old Stevens .22 reminded me of a pump-up Benjamin .22-caliber air gun that I’d shoot squirrels, rabbits, blue jays, and everything else with as a child. The hunt was the hunt. I can remember, in my imagination, that I was somewhere else hunting something else.
Steve Comus: Yeah. What SCI is, really, is hunters. I don’t care what anybody says, hunters are born. Now, granted, we can learn things and everything else, but I think it’s in our DNA. We’re just hunters. If you look at it from another perspective, we ought to be a guarded minority because we can’t help it. We’re genetically hunters, and, therefore, we have to hunt.
Ramsey Russell: I think we ought to push that. I think that ought to be an SCI initiative. Minority privilege.
Steve Comus: Yeah. Why not? Because, quite frankly, if it is—and I truly do believe it’s in our DNA—then it should be. Then we’d get rid of a lot of this other crap that’s going on out there with the antis and everything else. But, no, it’s been a heck of a life. I’ll tell you what, the reason why I like bird hunting so much is that, number one, you get to shoot more. Number two, it’s just downright fun to watch those birds work in the sky and come in and everything else.
Ramsey Russell: I agree entirely. I feel like I’m having a conversation or negotiation with those birds. I feel like it’s a very interactive sport. And I do shoot big game, I have been on some big game hunts, but when I’m chasing a deer—waiting on a deer, hunting a deer—I don’t feel a relationship with him quite like I do when I’m duck hunting. It’s like I’m outside the flock, and I’m inviting them to come join my imaginary flock out here. Whereas, with a deer, I’m just trying to close the distance between prey and predator and get within range. To me, it’s just a different relationship. I enjoyed, Steve, how I got to know you. We were hunting down in Mexico and some other places where we’re sitting in a duck blind, and, in between the volleys, you just get to visit with and know people and hear stories. That’s what I enjoy so much about bird hunting, especially duck hunting.
Creating Avid Hunters
“I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I try to bring in at least ten new people a year into hunting.”
Steve Comus: What I like about any kind of hunting, especially bird hunting, is that you’re part of nature in a way that you can actually do things. Like, say, when you’re envisioning that you’re a flock, over here, and getting them in there—literally, you’re getting inside of their head, but, more than that, you’re getting inside of nature. That’s what’s so nice about hunting. You’re out in the natural world doing the natural thing. To me, that’s really important. That’s one of the reasons why I go out of my way to bring new people into hunting every year. I don’t know if I ever told you this, but I try to bring in at least ten new people a year into hunting.
Ramsey Russell: You go into a year with a goal like that?
Steve Comus: Yeah. I started hunting in 1949, so that’s a lot of people that I’ve been able to introduce to hunting who otherwise wouldn’t be there. I’m talking about people who, because of their own circumstances, probably never would be a hunter. For example, one time this single mother called over there at the office. She had a daughter who wanted to learn how to hunt. Well, the mother didn’t know anything about hunting. So she said, “How do you do that?” I started thinking to myself, “Boy, you know what, if you started from square one, it’d be kind of hard.” That’s why I said, “Well, look, bring your daughter. We’ll go out, and we’ll go through the motions and stuff.” So I taught them how to, first, shoot a gun and stuff like that, and then how to hunt. By the time it was over, both the mother and daughter were hunters. I told the mother in the beginning, I said, “You know, you can’t just be on the sidelines, here. You’ve got to be part of your daughter’s thing in order to, number one, encourage her, and, number two, so that you understand it.” Well, it turned out that both of them loved hunting. Now they’re both avid hunters. But, yeah, every year I try to do at least ten. I figure that, that way, we’re not only increasing our ranks, but we’re allowing people to realize themselves. I don’t know if you ever talk much about this, but, when you’re hunting, you are more who you are than any other time in your life. When a hunter’s in the field, that’s when a hunter is in his or her own element. It’s so great. I hate to see people not be able to do that.
Wise Words from the Father of Wildlife Management
“I feel my greatest sense of self there, and I would wish that on anybody.”
Ramsey Russell: I have thought about that. In fact, Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management, a forester who actually founded the North American wildlife management program way back when; the government was managing wildlife resources as a depleting resource—when it’s gone, it’s gone—and he came in and brought sustained yield and management and conservation into the equation. He actually penned in a book of his, A Sand County Almanac, one time, exactly what you said: that you are your truest self when you’re hunting, especially as it applies to ethics. It’s one thing, who you are when everybody’s watching you. It’s something else entirely different when it’s just you alone in nature conducting yourself the way you know you should be conducting yourself. I hear a lot of people refer to being outside as their church. I know that being outside on slow days or fast days or good days or any day— I feel a connection. I feel my greatest sense of self there, and I would wish that on anybody.
Bow Hunting with Fred Bear
“As long as you follow the basic things, you’ll be right. It’s so beautiful.”
Steve Comus: Yeah, the guy that helped instill that into me was Fred Bear. That was in 1949, as a matter of fact, when I first learned how to bow hunt. I bow hunted first, and I made my own bow and my own arrows. It was Fred Bear who taught me how to hunt with it. That was nice. He was a real evangelist for hunting. He would go around. I forget what little group I was in, there in the town I was in, but he came and showed all us kids how to make our bows a little better, how to hunt and stuff like that. He was big on that there was an ethic when you’re hunting. He preached that, and that’s where I got going on that. Before that, we’d just go out as kids. We always had potatoes and stuff, but sometimes we didn’t have meat, so I’d have to go out and get a rabbit or goose or something like that. What he talked about was that there was an ethic to that, and that stayed with me all my life. I’ll tell you what, I learned one thing about that, and that is ethics are absolute in that, if you ever have to ask yourself, “Is it ethical?” then the answer is no. Everything that’s ethical is, on its face, obviously ethical.
Ramsey Russell: True. We know it intuitively.
Steve Comus: Yeah. You it is, and anytime you’ve got to hem or haw or make an excuse, you’re wrong. It isn’t. Again, back to hunting: it’s real basic. As long as you follow the basic things, you’ll be right. It’s so beautiful.
Ramsey Russell: It’s fundamental. And I hunted with a couple of pro baseball players back in December, Adrian Houser and Archie Bradley. A couple of Major League pitchers, man, big-timers. I’ve always said this, but I asked them—just because they’re the real deal, and I’m not a baseball player yet—I said, “At some level, when you’re out there pitching in the Major Leagues, is it the same as when you were a child throwing a baseball with your daddy?” Archie explained, “Yeah, it’s fundamental.” He was talking about how he’d got into a pitching slump. He said, “You know, to fix it, I went all the way back to grade school fundamentals, just going through the basics.” I think hunting is a lot like that. It’s fundamental. Which brings up a good point. The last time I talked to you, a few months ago, we were on the phone—I know not to call you because when we get to talking like this, Steven, it doesn’t turn into a ten minute conversation, it usually turns into an hour—I had told you about a project I did. Back when I was fifteen years old, my grandmother lived in the same house she was born in, and she had rummaged around the attic and found this old shotgun, this old family heirloom. As best I can run back through and put the clues together, it probably belonged to my great-grandmother’s father. My grandmother didn’t know that. She doesn’t remember her great-granddaddy having owned a gun or them being hunters, but, nonetheless, they did. It had old Damascus barrels. I couldn’t go and shoot it. I couldn’t shoot it with conventional loads, I couldn’t even shoot it with old black powder loads because the bores were bad. So I got to talking to an old guy that knew something about these old guns, and he said, “Well, go through the firing pin, go through the spring. It’s a very simple gun compared to now with these semi-automatics, but the bores are not going to take the pressure. Whether it’s the first shot or the thousandth, they’re going to burst.” I said, “Well, I didn’t want a shotgun to just hang up above the mantel like cracker barrel, I wanted something I could shoot. I wanted to connect with my ancestors. They were duck hunters. I wanted to take this gun duck hunting.” He suggested that I bore out twenty gauges, send it to Briley, and then it’ll shoot conventional loads. Well, I’ve shot some bismuth with it. We actually did that hunt last month, and, man, the gun had a huge drop compared to what I’m used to. I was sitting there thinking, as the first duck hooked up, “When do you pull these hammers back?” Because once the hammers are—click, click—pulled back, you’re live. You’ve got one in the pot ready to go, and who knows? Double triggers? I’d never shot double triggers, with my old clumsy middle finger. But it was something. When that single mallard hooked up downwind—click, click, those hammers came back instinctively, and he set up. It’s just like my ancestors were pulling him into the decoys. He set up right in the pocket, sat there and fluttered like a butterfly. Boom, boom, double tapped him. I ended up shooting a limit of ducks. Missed two because I got crazy trying to shoot wild at a far duck, but I literally shot my limit of ducks, to include a double. It was such a connection. What I’m beating around the bush by talking about that old gun is getting back to the fundamentals. That morning we just threw out some old battered-up cork decoys. We were wearing the old granddad green canvas, shooting those old guns. In this day and age especially, it seems to me that a lot of the industry marketing narrative is to substitute technology for fundamentals, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It really doesn’t.
The True Meaning of Duck Hunting
“We’re duck hunters, we’re proud of it, and we’re going to keep doing it. The world is going to be a better place because of it.”
Steve Comus: Technology will never, ever substitute for knowledge and skill and ability and paying attention. It can get you ducks, it can get you a limit, but it won’t get you the same feeling. I truly believe there’s such a thing as soul. With that old gun, there was soul.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, it was.
Steve Comus: For example, I’ve got a flintlock musket that my ancestors used in the revolution.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Steve Comus: And I took it turkey hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Steve Comus: That was fun. I got a turkey with it. That was fun. But also I’ve got an old side-by-side hammer gun like you’re talking about. My grandfather was very old; in other words, he was born in 1876. Anyway, he and his brothers were market hunters back when they were young. I’ve got not only one of their old guns, but I’ve also got their loading block where you load fifty rounds at a time. Those all brass shells and stuff. I’ve taken that out and gotten ducks with it, and that’s fun. Yeah, that tie to the past is something. There’s a culture and tradition and everything else in hunting that goes back to the beginning of mankind. We are the ones that do have the culture and the history, and the rest of society doesn’t have that. I’ll tell you what, you can see that they don’t have it by how screwed up they are. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed it, but true hunters are not screwed up socially the way that a lot of other people are. It’s kind of weird. It’s not an angle a lot of people think about, but it actually is true. The reason why is, they’ve got a meaning in their life. Hunting is that meaning. To me, every day that a hunter doesn’t celebrate the fact that he or she is a hunter—they’re missing the boat, because it’s something that is beyond pride. Yes, we’ve got a lot of pride in being a hunter, but it’s beyond that. It’s something that we’re saying, “Okay, we accept who we are and what we are in this world. We’re duck hunters, we’re proud of it, and we’re going to keep doing it. The world is going to be a better place because of it.” See, the one thing that hunters do is actually meaningfully conserve wildlife. That’s something that nobody else does. You can talk about all these other outfits. Well, yeah, they have these conservation projects and everything, but they’re not out there in the field doing the real work that hunters do. That really does separate us from the others. I very rarely find myself in the company of anti-hunters. I just don’t. Not because I choose to; I just don’t because I’m not around them. One time I accidentally was in the middle of a bunch of them. So we were talking about this stuff, and I said, “Look, you idiots: stop and think about it. Are we going to sit out here and shoot to extinction the animals that we love to hunt? Not on a bet. What we’re about is making wildlife abundant so that we can hunt forever. If anything, we not only don’t keep it even; in the end, there’s more than there was to start with.” I kept telling them, “That’s the way it works,” and they just kind of sat around there, “Oh yeah, but you guys yadda yadda yadda.” I said, “No, no, no. What you guys are doing is mixing apples and oranges.” They were talking about over in Africa where the poachers were getting ivory. I said, “Those aren’t hunters. Those are poachers. Those are criminals. It would be the same thing as if you want to demonize one entire group just because part of them are bank robbers. That’s not right, because the bank robbers are bank robbers. Well, poachers are poachers. They are the enemy of wildlife, and they are the enemy of mankind. So we’ve just got to get rid of them, and that’s the way that works.”
Ramsey Russell: Hunters are very good at getting rid of them. I know, the times I’ve spent in Africa, that there’s a lot of anti-poaching that is funded and spearheaded not by birdwatchers but by hunters and hunting organizations.
Steve Comus: Absent that, there wouldn’t be any money over there. A lot of people don’t understand that, in Africa, they don’t have the excess money to throw at things to solve problems like we do here in the United States. If it weren’t for hunters over there not only funding it but also sometimes even participating in some of these things, there wouldn’t be any at all. Then it’d just be wide open. The next thing you know, there’d be nothing there.
The Nature of Hook-and-Bullet Biologists
“We want an endless supply of wildlife for everybody.”
Ramsey Russell: You bring up a good point about hunters versus, let’s say, non-hunters or anti-hunters. Working for the US Fish and Wildlife Service when I started my career, I was astounded at how few hook-and-bullet biologists there were. I didn’t understand that. I’m from Mississippi and went to Mississippi State. I didn’t understand guys that got into that field that didn’t hunt or fish, that just loved nature, but I worked with them and they did good things. The distinction, to me, between a birdwatcher and a duck hunter is that a birdwatcher is happy to see a mallard—a bird, one—to check off his list. We duck hunters want to see so many ducks that they obliterate the sun when they pass through the sky, and we’re willing to put our time and money into a great excess of wildlife. That’s what I see.
Steve Comus: Yeah. We want an endless supply of wildlife for everybody. Birdwatchers are great people, they’re nice and everything, but they’re different. What they want out of it is different, but we both take advantage of being able to go out there and watch wildlife. The way I look at it is— Okay, let’s suppose you’ve got the war in the Middle East or Vietnam or something like that. A bird watcher is the guy that watches it on TV. The hunter is the guy who’s out there in the rice paddies.
Ramsey Russell: Boy, that hits home right there. That’s a very good way of articulating that thought, Steve. I didn’t mean to put birdwatchers at odds, because they do contribute a lot of money through the Pittman-Robertson Act and everything else into conservation. Speaking of which, we all hear that hunter numbers are declining, but, to drive the point home beside it just being game animals that we’re conserving, it’s all the aside when it hits the state budgets and the federal budgets. I was reading the report just yesterday that was going around all over the internet about lack of funding and the threat to endangered species because of declining hunter-generated dollars. I believe it was Indiana or Wisconsin, one of the states, that had a massive honey bee pollinator-type program in their state budget that they no longer have money for because there’s not hunters.
The Dynamics of Declining Hunter Numbers
“You can complain about a situation, or you can roll up your sleeves and fix it.”
Steve Comus: Yeah. It’s an interesting double-edged sword, as far as I can see. One thing is, yes, the number of hunters may be going down, but it’s not as steep a decline as a lot of people would have you believe if you really look at it. The way I see it, there’s a difference between quantity and quality. The hunters who are hunting now are more serious hunters than before. I think the only flaw in the financing system is that that system is set up on volume of hunters rather than quality of hunters. I think, quite frankly, that if they realign the way that they get those dollars, they would end up with a lot more dollars just from hunters alone. When you’re a serious hunter, you don’t mind paying a little bit more. Obviously, in the beginning of Pittman-Robertson, we said, “Yeah, we’ll pay 11% more.” I think a lot of hunters would volunteer to pay even a little bit more on some of this stuff. We’ve got to be somewhat careful on this funding because if a majority of the funding comes from anti’s or non-hunters, then all of a sudden hunting gets blocked out. There’s a way not to have that happen and still have everybody come out on top, and that is to have these others fill in the blanks on the dollars that hunters have been paying for stuff that has got nothing to do with hunting. For example, a lot of the stuff that hunters have financed has benefited animals and stuff that never have been and never will be hunted. Even bees and insects and stuff like that. That’s fine. Finance those programs separately, but keep the hunting stuff as it is. I don’t think it’d be too hard to come up with a system like that. In the end, no matter how that works out, if society decides that it will not, of its own, finance the future of wildlife, then not only is wildlife doomed, but I think people are doomed. Quite frankly, I don’t think people on this planet will last very long without a bunch of wildlife. There’s a natural situation there among all of us critters. In absence of that, all of a sudden we would probably start tearing ourselves apart. There’s a dynamic there that, to me, is really fascinating. I think, right now, that all we’ve got to do is do what we do and do it better and more seriously, and we’ll be fine. Especially if we can continue to recruit serious hunters. I think this decline in numbers, if you look at the overall situation, is explained very easily. Right now, you’ve got to go a little farther to go hunting. It takes a little more to go hunting than it did before. When I grew up, I could literally be hunting fifty feet from my house. Well, that doesn’t happen much anymore. The harder it is to go hunting, then the marginal people fall off. When I was a kid, every kid hunted. Girls hunted, everybody. That’s because A) it was handy and B) it was something to do. A lot of them fell off later on in high school because they had other things to do. Well, we didn’t. I think what we’re seeing right now is, on a bigger scale, the same thing. As it’s becoming less convenient to go hunting, those who are marginal drop out. The serious people never will. Let’s face it, guys like you and me, if there’s only one place in the world to go hunting, we’d be there. That’s just the way it is. But yeah, I think that’s what that is. It’s like everything else. It’s a figures don’t lie, but liars figure kind of deal. People can look at those statistics and get a lot of different ideas out of them, but, to me, all it really says is that, in contemporary society, it’s a little harder for people to go hunting. Therefore, the marginal ones drop out. That’s where it behooves us as hunters, though, to, number one, recruit people who will be serious hunters and, number two, do what it is and do it even better than before.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. That’s a very interesting thought there, Steve, that I’ve never considered. I would say they either drop out or they get on social media and complain. You can complain about a situation, or you can roll up your sleeves and fix it. No, that’s a very, very good thought. Tell me this, you talk about quality and about serious hunters. I don’t know a more provocative word in what we do than the word “trophy.”
What is Trophy Hunting Really About?
“That’s what makes up—I think, maybe—the difference in shooting versus hunting.”
Steve Comus: Yeah. I love that term. That, to me, is a term where hunters in general have dropped the ball, in my opinion. That’s something we ought to be proud of. I can’t help going back to the beginning, in 1949, when I started hunting. The very first animal that I shot with my little bow and arrow was a rabbit. The rabbit was running, and I shot it running with a bow and arrow. I got it. In fact, he was running away, and it went right through the back of his head and went out his mouth and stuck him in the ground. He did a little flip. Since that day, I have never shot—and I’ve shot record-winning animals—I’ve not shot any animal that is a bigger trophy to me than that rabbit. The reason why was that, number one: I made the bow, I made the arrow, I went out hunting, I was on my own, and I got the rabbit. To me, that was the epitome of a trophy. So it kind of depends on how you want to define a trophy. The problem that we’ve had, I think, is that we’ve allowed the anti’s to define “trophy.” They give the idea that all we do is go out there and just use something, that we take the antlers off of it and leave the rest of it to rot. That’s the idea that they’ve put out.
Ramsey Russell: They’ve created that narrative.
Steve Comus: Yeah. Shame on us as hunters for allowing them to do that, because they have really perverted the term. What we need to do is set it straight, and that is that all that animal gets eaten and stuff like that. If it were up to them, they say, “Well, you guys ought to breed the animals so that all it is a set of antlers walking across the field and you just go out and shoot the antlers or something.” No, what we need to do is redefine that term into something that has meaning. In a true trophy situation, it’s a genuine honor to be able to take a trophy animal. It’s an honor not only for the hunter, but—I’ve had people really look funny at me, but—you’re honoring the animal. That’s one difference between Safari Club and some other operations when it comes to measuring animals and stuff like that. The Safari Club system measures everything the animal grew. To me, that’s very important. Whether they fit a particular thing of what we think is right is kind of irrelevant, because that’s nature. Whatever that animal grew, well, you honor that. Because what you’re after is that you want to take something that’s representative of that species. That’s what it is. If it weren’t for the “trophy thing,” if you think about it, that would be much, much worse on the conservation front. Chances are, if that were the case, we’d go out and shoot a bunch of does and little babies and stuff like that. What we are not is a bunch of cold-blooded mass killers. That’s another thing that we’ve been accused of that isn’t true. I’ve never had buck fever, so I don’t know what that feels like, but there is a feeling that you get when you’re going to take an animal that is unlike any other feeling you’ve ever had in your life, for people who’ve never done it. Hunters who have know what I’m talking about. That is when you truly are one with nature, because you’re part of nature. Again, back to the birdwatching thing; when you’re birdwatcher, you’re watching nature. But when you’re a hunter, you are part of it. Like we were talking about earlier, when you are a part of nature, all is well with the world. It really, truly is.
Ramsey Russell: I appreciate big animals. I walk around—like all the other tourists—at the SCI convention with a slack jaw and eyes big and phones going. Because it’s just astounding, the high quality. I was with a group not too long ago. We were sitting around talking over drinks, and something like this topic came up. We started talking about big animals and trophies and Africa and different things. I’m like, “Well, I’m not a trophy hunter.” They go, “How can you not be? Because you go all over the world shooting these birds.” I said, “Well, I think that’s what’s changed my thoughts.” When I was young, I wanted great big whitetails, and now I chase something a little bit different. It’s like this, Steve: the first red-crested pochard you ever put your hands on is a trophy. It’s a real big prize. You went a long way. You played the game. You got the bird. The next hundred are just like the first, because it’s a duck. They’re all the same. What I find different about myself now versus twenty or thirty years ago when I started hunting, is that I want an old animal. I want a mature animal. I don’t want the doe. Look, down South, we shoot a lot of does. A whole lot of them; we have to shoot them to manage the deer herd. Nonetheless, we’re after quality animals. It’s hard for me to articulate to people why. An observer doesn’t make a distinction. “Oh, there’s a beautiful white-tailed deer.” But to us hunters, there’s something different. There’s something different about chasing an older, mature, bigger antlered buck than is in just chasing a deer. That’s what makes up—I think, maybe—the difference in shooting versus hunting.
The Methuselah Award & Mature Animal Hunting
Steve Comus: The Safari Club, actually, within the last year or so, has come up with what they called the Methuselah Award, which is designed specifically to honor those who go out of their way to take the older animals, the ones that are no longer reproducing and stuff like that. In Europe, they’ve been doing that for a long time. I took a roebuck over there, one time, in Austria, and the locals got all excited and everything because it was an extremely old deer. That was great. I liked it because the only reason I shot it in the first place was that there was something about it. I just liked the animal, so I did. To them, it was even more meaningful. Yeah, that old animal thing like that is a lot of fun. One time I was out hunting—this was years and years ago before I really realized how a lot of this stuff fits together, but I guess even then I had the beginnings of it—and there was a deer. This was on the first day of deer hunting, and there was a deer that was crippled and was in a lot of pain. He had not been shot by any other rifle shooter anything like that, there was just one leg that had gotten broken somehow. He was having a hard time getting around. Even through my binoculars, I could even see the pus on it and everything. That deer was in agony. I had one tag, and I thought, “Well, I can look around here and wait till I see a really good deer.” The more I sat there—and it took only a few seconds, but it seemed like a long time—I said, “Nope, that deer right there doesn’t deserve to suffer anymore,” and so I shot him. I put my tag on him. That’s just the way it is. Each situation kind of dictates your tactics. I think hunters do the right thing. That deer would not have lasted long in the area we were at. There were an awful lot of coyotes and stuff like that. They would have gotten that deer within a day or so because he was already becoming very sick. So, rather than being eaten alive, I just put him down. To this day, I’ll never be ashamed of it. I’ll put it that way.
Ramsey Russell: Nature can be a lot more cruel than a hunter. Nature’s indifferent.
Steve Comus: Yeah. When you’re out and watching some of this stuff happen, nature can be very cruel. These animals literally eat the others alive. They’re eating on them while they’re still alive, and that’s kind of different to watch sometimes. Even when you watch a couple of deer or elk fighting; they kill each other, but it doesn’t happen real quick. They die really slowly. Again, as part of nature—if we’re going to be that element of it, then we need to be very efficient and effective at it. That’s why I think it’s very important for people, especially hunting big game animals and stuff, to practice ahead of time so that when you do make your shot, it’s one shot and then the animal’s down.
How Has Hunting Changed Over Time?
“You’ve seen a lot of changes in the habitat and in hunters themselves.”
Ramsey Russell: Steve, I know you’ve seen a lot of changes since you met Fred Bear and he helped you tune up your bow as a child. You’ve seen a lot of changes in hunting. You’ve seen a lot of changes in the habitat and in hunters themselves. I haven’t seen near as many changes, but I do think that with the advent of social media— Maybe it’s the way it makes me think. I don’t know. I struggle with it sometimes, but it seems to me, in my world, in my glimpse of the world through my social media, that a lot of duck hunting, or hunting in general, seems to be driven more by ego. I see a lot of these big piles of birds and this big stuff, and it seems to be that some of these hunters—and I’m not saying this is what it is, but it’s what it seems to be—seem to be defining their sense of self and ego and worth on the backs of big bucks or lots of animals or different things like that. Have you seen a transition in that? I’m not saying like award winners that are vying for trophies that are big or Methuselah awards or collections—I’m just saying a difference in the mindsets of hunters. Let’s face it, nobody that I know, anymore, is going out strictly to subsist on game animals. I eat a lot of duck, I eat a lot of deer, but nobody, really, today in America, is putting food on the table like you did when you were a little boy.
Steve Comus: Maybe only in Alaska does that happen much anymore. Now, I’ve got kind of a different take on that. I think, to a degree, that that’s always been there. I think social media merely allows everybody to see it. The way I look at it is that I think hunters go through phases. When you’re young, you kind of get all full of vinegar and everything, and you want to go out and shoot everything there is because you can. As you get older and more experienced, you look for different things on it. Then, I think, when you get to be an old geezer like me, you really have a totally different outlook on it. Okay, I’m 75 years old. I live in Arizona, and I love to go quail hunting. I’ll go out there. I don’t have a dog because I’m not around the house for long enough times to take care of one. So I’ll go out and just walk. I’ve got a .410 shotgun I take out, and I’ll walk out there in the desert, kick up quail. Well, on average, I’ll kick up a quail about every mile. Takes about a mile of walking to kick up a quail. You don’t shoot 100% on that. There’s a lot of days I’ll go out and walk ten or fifteen miles and shoot one quail. Now, to me, that has been a successful hunt because I’ve gotten out in nature, I’ve done what I want to do. To me, it’s not a hunt if you don’t get a shot. Then it’s just wildlife watching. As long as I get a shot—if I miss, that’s my problem, but I’ve actually hunted. I don’t have that limit mentality, but I think a lot of people have through the years. I think social media has brought it to the fore. The one thing I think social media does do that’s kind of bothersome is that it can infect others to think the same way. That is, that we’re going to go out and get the biggest and everything. There’s nothing wrong with having that as a goal, but anybody who says, “Okay, the only thing hunting is for me is some big animal or some big string of ducks or something”— Actually, I feel kind of sorry for them, because they’re missing a lot of the real enjoyment of hunting. I’m not going to shame them. As long as people stay within the legal limits and everything else, that’s fine, because that’s all part of game management. But I would invite anybody who is doing that kind of thing to take a look at it and say, “There’s another level of enjoyment that I’m missing in life that I could have if I just go out and don’t say, ‘Okay, if I don’t get a limit today, it’s been a bad hunt.’” No, it hasn’t. If you go out, number one, the fact that you went hunting, that’s a good day right there. But, number two, if you’ve finally gotten anything, then you’ve completed that circle. It can take one bird, and that one bird is so great. Even when you’re out in the middle of things where you’re shooting a lot of birds and everything, you don’t spend the time looking at that one bird as much as you do if that’s the only bird you’ve got in your hand. I’ll be out there looking at quail, and I’ll study that thing. I have been studying quails now for years, but every time I look at them, I see something different. It’s great.
Ramsey Russell: Steve, I thank you for your time. Folks, I thank y’all for listening. Get out in the blind. Get out in a deer stand. Connect to your truest self. @RamseyRussellGetDucks on Instagram. We’re streaming out all the time, every time, around the world. Also check out official_SCI. If y’all are unaware of what this organization is and does for you as a hunter sitting there listening today— These guys are on top of all the issues. They do for hunters what the NRA does for firearm rights, is exactly the way I should describe them. As a member, you do receive a lot of valuable emails. I don’t read the Federal Digest. I don’t know what our federal government is doing with regard to hunting or hunting rights or hunting laws. They do. They have a staff that does and then puts it in fourth grade terminology and sends it to you to make you aware of things you really ought to be aware of as a hunter. Anyway, thank y’all for listening. Live from SCI. See y’all next time.