Can't We All Just Get Along?

Flashlights approaching from the direction of the parking area meant one thing to Mark Brendemuehl: Somebody was headed his way. So, the 42-year-old Minnesota duck hunter shined his own light in their direction to let them know the spot was already taken.

“It didn’t faze them,” recalled Brendemuehl, an Avery Outdoors territory manager from Kerkhoven, Minnesota. “They kept coming like I wasn’t even there.” Not only did the two men continue toward him, they ultimately tossed out their decoys in an adjacent pothole just 60 yards away. Then they proceeded to bang away at birds working Brendemuehl’s spread.

Encroachment in the marsh and woods isn’t new. Hunters have been squabbling over territory for as long as humans have been hunting. Native Americans fought over prime hunting and fishing grounds. Even trappers and market hunters from the 19th and early 20th centuries clashed over turf.

Things haven’t changed much. It’s not a matter of life or death these days, but it can get downright ugly in the woods: turkey hunters move in on a fellow hunter working a hot bird; deer hunters set up near someone else’s ground blind; duck hunters encroach on another party’s spread. It seems like no group is immune from rude, unethical and selfish behavior these days.

Brendemuehl, a life-long hunter, can’t say if things have gotten worse in recent times. Incidents might just get more publicity thanks to internet hunting forums, social media platforms such as Facebook, and electronic news sources. But one thing’s for certain: If you hunt long enough, you’re bound to run into a jerk or two.

A 1995 survey of hunters who used Illinois’ Rend Lake Public Waterfowl Hunting Area found that half of those surveyed had other hunters move in too close. Twenty-one percent felt as if they were being threatened or intimidated. Of those who submitted written comments, 50 reported verbal threats. Two said they witnessed fist fights, and six said firearms were involved in a confrontation. That’s scary.

“Unfortunately, the de facto or ‘actual’ condition appears to be an arena in which waterfowl hunters are pitted against each other to determine who’s the toughest and most tenacious,” wrote the report’s authors. “As the chief overseer of sport hunting in the state, Illinois Department of Conservation must take action to bring the condition in line with the objective for this area.” The Illinois Division of Wildlife Resources (IDWR) did make some significant changes soon after area managers pored over the survey results.

“We staked the Casey Fork impoundment and went to a daily lottery system,” said IDWR District Wildlife Biologist Richard Whitton, one of the survey report’s co-authors. “Now everybody has to draw a specific (staked) spot, and that’s where they hunt for the day.” That pretty much took care of everything. Nobody is sleeping at the boat ramp to prevent others from getting to the best spots first anymore, and no one is fighting over a spot. It had really gotten out of hand.”

Another large tract of the Rend Lake public hunting area will be under a similar lottery and stake system starting this year, also a result of hunter-to-hunter behavior. Lots of other public hunting areas have switched to a limited-entry setup as well, in part because of complaints related to other hunters.

It’s easy to blame rude behavior in the field on the “me-first” generation, particularly those younger hunters fixated on instant gratification, but it isn’t just 20-somethings who encroach on their fellow sportsmen. Plenty of middle-aged bullies roam the woods and marshes, too. Rudeness knows no limits on or off the pavement. According to a 2009 Rasmussen Reports survey, 75 percent of respondents felt Americans are “becoming more rude and less civilized.”

In most instances, it likely has more to do with the decline in access to high-quality land, says Illinois Natural History Survey Human Dimensions Biologist Dr. Craig Miller. One study found that 2 million acres of open space is lost to development each year. Another study conducted by Rutgers University found that New Jersey alone lost 506 square miles to development between 1986 and 2010. That’s a lot of ground. Although the total number of hunters has declined during the past 30 years, the gradual but steady loss of suitable land is forcing those hunters who remain into smaller parcels of private land and limited public hunting areas.

“There is certainly more competition for topnotch hunting opportunities,” Miller said.

Aside from special rules and regulations that limit hunting pressure, there isn’t much a state wildlife agency can do to prevent a guy from being a jerk in the woods. Many states are working to create more opportunities through private land lease programs or by purchasing additional properties for hunting. Money is tight, though, and it’s unlikely any state or federal government agency can buy enough land to give every hunter all the space he or she could want.

There isn’t much an individual can do to prevent it, either.

“The best way to prevent bad behavior is to not become one of those people,” Brendemuehl said. “Set a positive example, especially if you’re hunting with kids or beginners who might not understand it’s not OK to interfere with other hunters. If somebody else is already where you wanted to hunt, find another spot.”

Above all, don’t escalate a potentially explosive situation. As Minnesota hunter John Killeen learned last year, it could land you in the back of a police car. He was charged with a felony after he fired two shots in the direction of another hunter who, according to reports, set his decoys in the vicinity of Killeen. Witnesses said he also made threats and shouted expletives before the victim called 911. Or as two Pennsylvania deer hunters learned, it could land you in the hospital. Jason Frey and Anthony Contino both ended up in a local hospital in 2011 after they fought over a dead deer.

“I would never get into an argument with a guy with a gun,” Brendemuehl said. “You just never know who you’re dealing with. No duck is worth getting shot over. Besides, I’ve got other places I can hunt, or if I don’t, I’ll go try to find some new ground.”

Leaving might be the simplest way to avoid a conflict, but if you were there first, it might not hurt to at least talk to the other hunter or hunters. Most people are generally good and have no intention of stepping on their fellow hunters’ toes. Brendemuehl has met lots of them.

“I think most guys are more than willing to work with you if you just talk to them without being an ass yourself,” he said. “They might refuse to leave, but they might be willing to move. It’s amazing what a little communication can do to ease an uncomfortable situation.”

That’s what Brendemuehl did one morning when two other hunters tried to set their duck decoys just a short distance from his. Instead of asking them to leave, he invited the two men to hunt with him and his friend. The four ended up killing a bunch of ducks and having a great time. Brendemuehl actually hunted with the two other men on several occasions after that first encounter.

“There was no point in all of us having a bad day, which is exactly what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone over and talked with them, or if I tried to be a jerk,” he said. “I look at it this way: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Sometimes it doesn’t always work out so well. When Brendemuehl finally approached the two duck hunters who set up close to him a few years ago, they essentially ignored his plea for a little space.

“They said, ‘It’s public land. We can hunt wherever we want,’” Brendemueld added. “It was public land, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to hunt on top of someone else. They did eventually leave, though. Judging from their clothes and their gear, they didn’t seem to have a whole lot of experience, so they might not have known any better.”

Although many hunter safety instructors include such ethical issues as hunter-to-hunter etiquette in their classrooms, they can’t cover every possible situation and still include all the vital safety lessons that make up the bulk of a hunter education course. Ethics are best taught by a mentor, someone who can show right from wrong in a variety of real-world situations. Unfortunately, some adults teach their children poor behavior.

That’s where you can have a positive effect. Instead of belittling and berating an encroaching hunter, spend a few minutes chatting. They might have no clue that it’s in poor form, not to mention dangerous, to slip between a hunter and a hot gobbler, or to set up downwind of another duck hunter. Or they simply might not understand the consequences. Younger hunters (and plenty of older ones) are in what some call the “limit stage.” They want to bring home as much game as possible, even if it means stepping on the toes of their fellow sportsmen. A few are so determined to kill a duck or a deer or a turkey that they’ll even threaten another hunter to get their game.

That’s when it’s time to call in the professionals. But there usually isn’t much a game warden can do when he has only two sides to a story, says Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Enforcement Division Chief Kevin Dodd.

“They can basically play referee at times, and they have arrested hunters who assault others,” Dodd said. “However, in most cases they simply listen to both sides of the story and either tell both parties to go somewhere else or give the spot to the hunter who arrived first if he can figure out who that was.”

It’s unfortunate that something as petty as a hunting location or even a dead deer can bring two hunters to blows. It doesn’t have to if everyone obeys a single, simple tenet, says Brendemuehl: Treat others as you would like them to treat you.