2018 Patrick Durkin Outdoors

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Anglers, Hunters Embrace Self-Confinement

Until COVID-19 triggered advisories to claim 6 feet of personal space whenever leaving home, I just assumed closer versions of “social-distancing” were second-nature or common courtesy for everyone.


I didn’t view “self-quarantine” as a defining expectation of hunters and anglers. Doesn’t everyone horde their hotspots, sit alone through November gales, and curse anyone who anchors too close or drops in uninvited?


I assumed everyone saw wisdom in John Gierach’s great line, “There are only two types of anglers: those in your party and the a**holes.” That’s true, of course, until you get to know everyone in both parties too well. Then you prefer to fish alone.


In fact, I so often hunt and fish solo that I sometimes feel awkward when joining or welcoming others for a day in the woods or on the water. Do I let them shoot first, chase the first tip-up, put them in the best stand, or claim a group-shot duck? Or do I just yell at them for fouling my line or scratching my cedar boat, and trust bloodlines or friendship to endure?


Yep. Back in the day—roughly last week—I considered “self-quarantine” a personal preference, not government edict. I feel relaxed when hunting or fishing alone, neither imposing or being imposed upon. Besides, it’s less grief when screwing up. I don’t exhaust my imagination on excuses or apologies.


And yes, I know the Aldo Leopold quote: “A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than a mob of onlookers.”


Yeah, well, that’s fine, Aldo, but I’d rather suffer alone when thrice missing a rabbit. I don’t need a laughing mob to rub it in.


Besides, I’ve long sympathized with Huckleberry Finn’s view of ruthless guilt: “If I had a yaller dog that didn’t know more than a person’s conscience, I would poison him. It takes up more room than all the rest of the person’s insides, and yet ain’t no good, no how.”


Maybe that’s why I’ve focused on deer hunting the past 40 years, and on elk hunting the past 15. I usually hunt alone all day, share dinner and camp at night, eat quietly after reveille, and sneak away again before dawn.


I’m alone for hours with my thoughts, whether shallow, juvenile or wistful. Hermits might be onto something. Maybe they know why so many people hunt, fish, hike, run, swim or kayak in solitude. They assume we’re relieving stress or “clearing our heads.” If we craved anxiety or cloudy heads, we’d grab our canoes, order loved ones to the bow, and paddle crowded streams. You wonder why one-person kayaks are the jam?


But COVID-19 is making “alone time” difficult for those seeking solitude outdoors, especially in big cities. As Alex Williams reported in the New York Times on St. Patrick’s Day, government officials still see social, physical and psychological benefits in cycling, running or walking city sidewalks and urban parks, provided everyone stay 2 yards from each other.


Even in Milan, Italy’s COVID-19 “red zone,” residents can take walks or go run “for the sake of outdoor physical activity” as long as they stay inside their imaginary bubble.


But the provisions and caveats of local officials aren’t enough for self-righteous cranks and harpies along the way. Nope, they rain wrath from windows and balconies, chanting “Flatten the curve; stay home!” as lone walkers and runners pass by, beyond reach of elbow-bump greetings.


Sheesh, talk about the terminally outraged. Ship your bullhorns to residents bordering Florida’s beaches so they can chirp at college students crowding the sands and surf. At least their concerns have cause.


Yes, big-city sidewalks can still get crowded, but folks who trod them in search of sanity pose less danger than those pursuing peace by buying their first gun. As COVID-19 spreads and dread deepens, so does paranoia and the impulse to “protect your own” through firepower. Based on surging gun and ammo sales nationwide, many folks truly worry they’ll be mugged or burglarized for their toilet paper, hand sanitizer and boneless chicken breasts.


I wish they were stocking up on fishing tackle, bowfishing gear, and tungsten-pellet turkey loads so they could fish and hunt during the months ahead. With bars, restaurants, ballparks, fitness centers, movie theaters and basketball arenas all shuttered, more Americans should get outdoors to save their sanity and perhaps catch a few fish; whatever comes first.


The more skilled they get, the better they’ll dine. That’s not wishful thinking. Post 9-11 and during the Great Recession seven years later, hunting and fishing increased for much of the country. Lapsed and newbie hunters and anglers suddenly had more time to try sourcing and supplementing their food.


Yes, fewer nonresident hunters chase Western elk and mule deer in bleak times, but more residents hunt and fish near home. Call it coincidence, but Wisconsin sold a record 266,435 archery deer licenses in 2008. It also sold 643,266 gun-deer licenses that year, which was nearly 2,000 more than in 2007 and nearly 30,000 more than it averaged the next 10 seasons.


Meanwhile, hunters and anglers often own two chest freezers, and stock them with meats that money can’t buy—at least not legally. In health or pandemic, we smugly count our frozen caches of venison, crappies, walleyes, bluegills and Green Bay whitefish.


We might have shot, caught or arrowed much of it while alone outdoors, but few things are more satisfying than eating it wherever friends and family gather.


Just add every leaf to your table and sit far apart.

Hunters and anglers know a lot about social-distancing and staying self-quarantined for days at a time. It’s how millions of Americans help feed their families while improving their mental health. — Patrick Durkin photo

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