Three Lessons Learned from Small-Game Hunting (Hunting Ethics)

Callahan’s wise advice is particularly appropriate for small-game hunters, for the many species of animals and birds they may hunt present a broad array of hunting challenges.

 1. Humility and Judgment

A young hunter seeks direction on a pheasant hunt. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
A young hunter seeks direction on a pheasant hunt. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

“A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
Harry “Dirty Harry” Callahan, “Magnum Force”

Callahan’s wise advice is particularly appropriate for small-game hunters, for the many species of animals and birds they may hunt present a broad array of hunting challenges. Todd Schmidt, Colorado hunter education coordinator, emphasized during an interview that small-game hunting is a foundation for developing skills and traits important to all types of hunting. “The lengthy, five-month hunting season, not only enriches the hunter through a broad variety of experiences, but it can also nurture good character,” said Schmidt. “Terrains differ, as do shotgun gauges, rifle calibers, arrow selection and physical fitness requirements – each offering unique lessons.”

Acting honorably in diverse environments with different firearms demands humility and judgment. Some years ago I was on a varmint hunt sponsored by a major firearms company. I had a .22 Magnum that had not been sighted in to my standards. A colleague challenged me to shoot prairie dogs at about 200 yards. I declined. Although otherwise quite sufficient, my skill level would be compromised using this rifle and the likelihood of unethical shots would increase.

Melissa Bachman, host of her acclaimed hunting show “Winchester Deadly Passion,” did not take a shot at a turkey, well within range of her archery skills, because of persistent wind. Because of her humility, Melissa’s judgment about the risk of wounding the bird dictated her action despite her ability to make the shot in ordinary circumstances.

The small-game hunter can thus learn that judgment is the result of experience, wisdom, analyzing details and anticipating consequences. Humility is the acknowledgment of the limitations of one’s abilities and knowledge. Humility, thus, inspires virtuous judgment. In both instances above, skill was not the variable that determined whether a shot should be taken but rather humility regarding the limits of one’s skill in a specific instance and the judgment about the ethics of the shot.

2. Self-Discipline

A young hunter draws on a hen pheasant but does not shoot.  Identifying birds is part of NHP curriculum.  Photo by Jerry Neal (CPW).
A youth draws on a hen pheasant but does not shoot. Photo by Jerry Neal (CPW).

The most powerful person is he who has himself in his own power.”
— Seneca, Roman philosopher

Seneca’s insight is as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago. Knowing the right action is meaningless unless the hunter has the will to do what is right. Humility and judgment are but hollowed husks unless the hunter has the discipline to impose these virtuous qualities on his actions. Self-discipline brings humility and judgment to life and is the foundation for moral character. Opportunities to enhance these qualities abound in small-game hunting. It may be tempting to take that long shot with the rifle or release an arrow in the wind, but self-discipline can override those temptations.

“First-shot placement is everything when it comes to the successful hunting of any game animal,” writes professional hunter Kevin Robertson in his outstanding book, Africa’s Most Dangerous. Because of the large variety of animals and conditions presented to the small-game hunter, that first-shot placement can occur in challenging environments. Thus, much self-discipline is required of the small-game hunter.

The small-game hunter is not confronted, of course, with an array of dangerous game. But whether sighting on a pine squirrel, a bobcat or a marmot, the ethical hunter will control excitement, fatigue or adrenaline by imposing self-discipline to get that proper first shot and then all others.

A hunter education student exhibited admirable self-discipline while plinking with a .22 LR using standard-velocity ammunition. She was shooting aluminum cans when a rabbit dashed by. She did not take a shot at the rabbit because she did not have the best hunting ammunition. “It was an ethical decision,” she said. “I owed that to the animal.”

The larger point is that doing “good” is not easy; being an ethical hunter is not easy. Hard-earned character traits of humility, self-discipline and judgment must guide all actions.

3. The Duty to be Informed

An adult and youth sharing time afield.  Video capture by ©  Jerry Neal/CPW.
An adult and youth share time afield. Video capture by © Jerry Neal/CPW.

Schooling is not about information. It is about thinking about information. It’s about understanding, knowledge and wisdom. And that’s all worthless if you don’t have character and values.”
Daniel Goleman, “Emotional Intelligence”

The responsible small-game hunter, during the course of the lengthy season, must possess considerable information because of the wealth of hunting opportunities. Are you aiming at a bobcat or a lynx? The first is legal to hunt; the second is not. What’s your daily bag-limit on chukar or pigeon? Does your buddy in the duck blind have toxic (lead) shot in his or her jacket? Toxic shot, either in shotshells or as loose shot for muzzleloading, cannot be in a hunter’s gun, on his/her person or near a hunter taking or attempting to take waterfowl.

Being informed is important. An error can have significant legal and financial consequences. The small-game hunter should soon realize that being informed is more than storing data in the old brain; it is fulfilling a moral duty. More is required than staring at a PowerPoint presentation. The lessons must become infused in the hunter’s soul. The responsible small-game hunter makes a moral commitment to be informed and then, as discussed regarding self discipline, to act consistent with that information.

Mr. Schmidt told me, “Educating people in the virtues of small-game hunting as a foundation for conservation, environmentalism, big-game hunting and land stewardship is part of a cycle that can take several years.” “As the experiences accumulate,” he added, “the small-game hunter can become a better big-game hunter, not only in terms of skill but in the terms of joy of knowledge and commitment to conservation.”

Lessons learned from small-game hunting cultivate being a good hunter and create the human capital which builds hunting’s future. More important, these lessons are transferable to all aspects of life. The responsible small-game hunter becomes a better person.


Michael Sabbeth is a lawyer in Denver. He lectures on ethics and rhetoric to law associations and hunter education classes. He is the author of the newly published book, “The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values.” For more information on hunting ethics, see Sabbeth’s article, “Ethically Speaking,” in the 2014 Colorado Outdoors Hunting Guide.


One Response

  1. I intended to begin a conversation. Hunters confront significant challenges: how to sustain and increase political support for hunting; how to defend against attacks against hunters; how to persuade the majority that hunters and hunters alone sustain wildlife and how to increase hunting and shooting safety. I welcome comments.

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