Monday, August 15, 2022

Versus Week Finale: What’s the Best Game or Fish Species?

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As hunters and anglers, we don’t agree on everything. We’ve even been known to argue on occasion. That’s why this Versus Week is all about figuring out who’s right and who’s just plain wrong. Every day we’ll be posting stories to get to the bottom of hunting and fishing’s most important debates—like 870 vs. 500, summer sausage vs. venison jerky, and fly fishing vs. spin fishingFor our final installment, we asked our writers and editors to make their case for the ultimate game or fish species to pursue. Spoiler Alert: There is no wrong answer on this one.

Elk by David E. Petzal

If the sound of a bull elk bugling doesn’t excite you, you might want to quit hunting. John Hafner

I vote for elk. I might have voted for Cape buffalo, but they’re usually covered in dung and elk are not. I started hunting elk in 1971, and since then, they have cost me more heartache, bitter disappointment, and backbreaking effort than any other species. I don’t even like the meat, especially. So why do they wind up in first place?

Because elk have provided me with drama. On one, I got kicked in the face by a horse at mid-morning and killed an elk at very long range (even by today’s standards) at absolute last light that same evening. On another, I watched two enormous bulls having a real fight—not a shoving match—at twilight. It was a spectacle you see once in a lifetime. I watched a band of elk run up a cliff face, way, way up on a mountain, to get away from us—a cliff so steep that the elk’s mamas must have had relations with mountain goats. When they got to the top, they stood there heaving and gasping for air, and I said, “It’s nice to see you sons of bitches doing that for a change.”

I also remember a bull in the rut, wallowing in an elk wallow, which is a depression in the ground that they make by rooting and groveling, and then when it’s deep enough they piss in it and roll around some more. Bulls emerge covered with reeking mud, stinking to high heaven, and ready for love.

Except this bull didn’t have his mind on romance. He was pissed off. He was growling and squealing and ready for a fight. I didn’t shoot. It seemed unfair, and the funk was too intense for me to field dress him.  

Other animals don’t give me those kind of memories. 

Mallards by T. Edward Nickens

mallard flying
A drake mallard comes in for a landing. Getty/Jared Lloyd

​​They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but whoever they are, they’re not duck hunters. Not mallard hunters, that’s for sure.

The ducks are above the treetops, their in-flight chuckles a sign that they are happy and just might be looking for company.

“Birds,” I whisper, and my buddy Mike doesn’t move. Which is the good move when mallards are close. The ducks cut the edge of swamp and turn, flashing white wing bars. Here, in this North Carolina beaver swamp, mallards are never a guarantee. But when the big fronts roll down from the northeast, and the thermometer dives, they’ll come. They can fill a swamp, and there’s no time to waste. They can be here today and gone tomorrow, so you keep your morning calendar clear, and the decoys in the truck.

Mallards are the most common duck in the bag across most of the country, but that doesn’t diminish the thrill of these ducks over the decoys. Wood ducks are a gorgeous staple in these parts. Gadwalls might save the day, when those brown ducks fill the bag. But greenheads make the hunt. A big, brawny, red-legged greenhead, fully plumaged in the late season, is a bruiser that will sag across two hands. You can feel the fat on the breasts, and imagine him on the edge of ice pack somewhere up north, snowflakes on his dark back, stashing a last feed before riding the storm south.

Mallards are a classic, but that doesn’t mean we have them all figured out. And these days, we’re peeling back the layers on just what a mallard is—and isn’t—across the country. Mississippi and Central Flyway birds claim roots that reach back to the last Ice Age, but genetics studies are revealing how Atlantic Flyway mallards are largely the offsprings-gone-wild of released birds of generations—maybe even a century—ago.

But for me, that doesn’t diminish the thrill of greenheads overhead. Every flight of mallards feels like the duck gods shook their robes, and sent their best and their green-noggin’d brightest to liven up a duck hunter’s dawn.

I hear the hen chuckle, closer now. I answer with a mallard drake’s softly garbled whistle. I search for the telltale contrast between the male’s chestnut breast and pale underbelly. 

There you are. Come on down. Just another 10 feet. It’s always good to see you.

Pheasants by Phil Bourjaily

pheasant hunter and German shorthair pointer
The author and his younger GSP, Zeke, enjoyed a good late-season pheasant hunt. Phil Bourjaily

You know it’s right there, because the rigid dog tells you so, but no matter how hard you stare into the grass, you can’t see it. You hear the flush before you see the bird, and there’s an instant before you know if it’s a rooster or a hen. It’s that extra moment of suspense that makes pheasants my favorite upland bird.

Where there was nothing a second ago, now there’s a rooster in the air, unfurled like a bright banner in a stiff wind. No matter how many years I do this, there will always be two or three birds a season that make me come completely undone and whiff in the worst way.

Then there’s the dogwork, which is all the more thrilling because it’s not in the least bit classic. Pheasants rarely sit passively and let themselves get pointed. They run, they sneak, they flush wild, and a pheasant dog learns how to creep and relocate as many times as it takes to corral a bird, which may sit for mere seconds before flushing. As the hunter, you hustle to keep up, and it’s hard to tell how much of your breathlessness comes from exertion and how much comes from excitement.

One pheasant makes dinner. Bringing home a single bird feels like success, bagging a limit like an embarrassment of riches. And if I do come back empty-handed, I’ve at least had a walk and the dog has had a run. I am grateful to pheasants for all of this, but mostIy I am thankful that they are here at all. We have plowed up all the prairie grouse habitat, grubbed out the draws bobwhites used to call home, and let our grouse woods mature. If it weren’t for the miracle that a bird from halfway around the world can make its home here in the grainfields, we’d have no birds to hunt at all. Pheasants are a blessing, and sometimes it seems as if they are far more of one than we deserve. —Phil Bourjaily

Tarpon by Colin Kearns

fly fisherman with a tarpon
The author shows off his first tarpon caught on the fly. Colin Kearns

Some nights, the break-off keeps me awake. To try and fall asleep, I close my eyes and try reliving the scene. 

Flipper, my guide, stands on a large cooler and stealthily push-poles the skiff into a cove. It’s early, with the tide low enough for tarpon fins to scythe the surface. In the mirror-flat water, I can see two flamingos coast overhead. Flipper notices a disturbance in the shallows and says, “To your right.” A tarpon feeds inside a loose tangle of mangroves where there’s a small, arch-shaped opening—just big enough for me to needle a tight cast and drop the fly in the zone. My first two stabs fall short. My third try, money. 

“Strip,” Flipper says, casually. Then his tone quickens. “Strip. Strip, strip. Stripstripstrip… SET!” 

I tug-of-war the fly line. For an instant—a nano-dream—I feel the fish. I’d landed a nice one earlier, but already I can tell that this one is bigger. Stronger. Then, it’s as if my leader were a lit fuse. The knot snaps. The water explodes. The limp fly line whips back toward my face. 

I begin to flinch and—

My eyes panic open.

If you told me today that all I could do outdoors for the rest of my life was fly-fish for trout, I’d mostly be fine with it. Giving up bluegills and creek bass would be painful, but I could deal. Where I would draw the line, however, is with tarpon. Even though it’s a species I’ve targeted on the fly exactly once in my life, it’s tarpon that I live to chase again. It’s tarpon that keep me up at night.

That first—only—day of tarpon fishing occurred last spring in Holbox, Mexico. I met Flipper on the beach before sunrise. From there, we waded toward the anchored skiff, then motored across a calm Gulf for an hour before we entered the flats. In the six hours we fished, I attempted casts at dozens of fish. I landed just three, and all came before lunch. In the afternoon, the water rose, and the wind strengthened, and I was useless. I couldn’t see or cast accurately to the fish Flipper saw. And I couldn’t have cared less. Because all I could think about were the three fish I had caught—and the one I lost—in the morning. 

I’ve never sight-fished to a more thrilling target. I’ve never seen a fish jump and head-shake with more strength and wild rage. I’ve never been more afraid to lose a hooked fish. 

And, I’ve never released a fish that was quite as gorgeous. They’re called silver kings, but in hand, beside the boat, their scales assume a purple-blue-green hue that I can only describe as tropical.

One last thing: I was fishing for babies. Truly. Juvenile tarpon on an 8/9-weight fly rod. My biggest might’ve maxed out at 25 pounds. To think, shots at tarpon six times that size—and probably 12 times as strong for all I know—are there for the taking. 

I’m going back to Mexico this spring. I plan on bringing a stronger rig. Maybe now I can close my eyes, and dream of catching a giant.

Whitetail Deer by Scott Bestul

whitetail deer buck
Many hunters will agree: The whitetail deer is America’s finest big-game animal. John Hafner

As a boy, whenever my family took a road trip, I would inevitably kick off a backseat boundary dispute with my kid sister, Jo, within minutes of departure. Eventually, my mother would turn and say in a calm voice, “Scott, look for deer.” And I would stare quietly out the window for the rest of the ride. That should give you some idea of the spell deer had on me then. I’m still under it.

Of course, I’ve chased other big-game species and loved every minute of it. I’ve tagged bull elk and muley bucks in spectacular mountains. Stalked and shot pronghorns on the prairie and javelina in the desert. Plucked a black bear from the big woods and a bull caribou from tundra so vast I felt like the only human being on the planet. And most recently, while packing 100-pound loads of meat from a bull moose—bow-killed on a DIY hunt in Wyoming’s Jim Bridger mountains—on my back, huffing to beat sundown and scavenging grizzlies with every step, I remember thinking, I’m not sure it can get any better than this.

Each of those hunts had a dream-like quality—the fulfilled fantasies of a kid obsessed with hunting. But as incredible as those adventures were, if I had to trade them in for any given season in whitetail country, I’d do so without hesitation.

Whitetails are hard-wired into my—and virtually every American hunter’s—DNA. If you’re a big-game hunter in this country, you likely live within a day’s drive of good whitetail hunting, and most of us can chase deer for a whole lot less effort than that. From the hardwoods of Pennsylvania to the swamps of Georgia, from the foothills of the Rockies to the farm fields of the Flyover Country, if you’re a big-game hunter, chances are that the first, and most recent, animal you hunted was the whitetail deer.

And the meat–the most honorable reason for hunting–is exceptional. There are plenty of wild-game species that offer great eating, but so many come with the qualifier, “Provided you take the proper steps in preparation.” But delicious venison is the rule, not the exception. Serving a great meal of whitetail steaks, chops, or burgers is really just a matter of not screwing up rather than following some elaborate process. 

Finally, there is the challenge. Of all the P&Y and B&C critters walking North America, virtually any record book specimen can be bought if your checkbook is fat enough. But not the whitetail. I know hunters who’ve spent fortunes hiring guides, buying land, and hunting America’s best counties pursuing a net Booner whitetail—and have yet to accomplish their goal. From a kid seeking his first forkhorn to a veteran seeking that buck of a lifetime, whitetails simply have something for everyone. If I could hunt nothing else for the rest of my life, I would happily remain under the spell of whitetails.

Wild Turkeys by Will Brantley

turkeys gobbling
A pair of gobblers let loose. John Hafner

I could simply say there is no finer critter to eat than a wild turkey. I’ve never heard anyone who’s eaten both claim to prefer the flavor of a domestic bird over a wild one. Venison is good, but it’s not beef. A fat farm duck tastes better than a wild mallard. But a damn wild turkey breast is delicious, better than anything else that walks or flies in the woods.

But that’d be a cop-out—if it were my only argument. Truth is, even if they tasted like merganser fattened by shad, I’d still choose to hunt turkeys over everything else. Elk are fun. So are whitetails and mule deer, antelope, moose, bears, and pigs. But none of them gobble or strut, and none of them will cause me to lose my mind like an 18-pound bird can and does every April.

There is a scoring system for turkeys—one that, thankfully, serious hunters almost universally ignore. Sure, we’ll admire a thick beard and long spurs, and I might call up to the school and interrupt my wife at work if I shoot a genuine 22-pounder. But time and again, the “trophy” from a turkey hunt is not in the physical memento. It’s from the experience and the interaction. It’s frowned upon for veteran hunters to shoot jakes…unless it’s a jake that comes in strutting and gobbling and acting like a long beard. At that point, the differences in length of beard fibers or tail feathers are ignored. 

My favorite turkeys, the ones I’m proudest of having killed, are all birds that I called a “son of a bitch,” or something worse, on previous consecutive days—but then could’ve cried after they were dead, knowing they weren’t there to hunt again tomorrow. I couldn’t tell you how big or small most of them were, but I could walk you to the exact tree where I was sitting when I pulled the trigger.

That there is no other game animal I so consistently want to escape a few times before I kill him answers the why of this one. Also, the sons of bitches are good to eat.  

Bass by Ryan Chelius

fisherman with largemout bass
The author holds a healthy largemouth. Ryan Chelius

My frog made a splat on the mat. It was a last-cast-of-the-day Hail Mary sort of deal. I twitched the frog once, twice—and a bass exploded through the thick vegetation. I did one of those overemphatic hooksets, because there’s no better way to let your buddy know you’ve got one on the end of the line. After a few serious head shakes, the bass swam for cover. I reeled in a cluster of weeds and dug through it to pull out my heaviest urban bass to date—a 3 1/2-pound largemouth. 

I never expected this sewage-tinted canal, overgrown with vegetation, in the middle of a suburb to have any fish—much less a lunker. My buddies and I must’ve walked past this stretch a hundred times over the years before I finally threw that cast, but from that day on, we coined it the Frog Spot. If I learned nothing else from that fish, it’s that bass can live just about everywhere. 

Over the years, I’ve also learned that bass have a flair for the dramatic. They make you do stupid things, say stupid things, and they always leave you wanting more. During my senior year of college, my roommates and I decided to have a bass tournament over the course of a month. This led to sneaking out in the middle of the night to fish, following each other to secret spots, and an excessive amount of cutting class. It also gave me some of my best college memories, including cutting my knees while sliding down a rock bank, then falling into a dirty pond to help my friend land a 4-pounder. Somehow, I was still ecstatic.

One summer evening, while fishing in Maine out of a kayak, I found myself in the middle of a smallmouth feeding frenzy. No matter what I threw at them, they ate it. I switched from jigs to moving baits and finished the day with topwater frogs. The smallies crushed my lures and put on an aerial show that rivaled July 4th fireworks. It was one of those rare couple of hours when everything came together and there was no break in the action. To a fisherman, it was paradise. 

Bucketmouths and bronzebacks are ferocious, wary, adaptable, and can spit a hook while looking cool at the same time. They push my fishing skills to the brink, and I’ve yet to target a species that’s more accessible, more intelligent, more powerful, and more exciting than bass. They are the perfect game fish. 

Mule Deer by Matthew Every

big game hunter with a mule deer
The author took this mule deer buck while hiking through a drainage in Wyoming. Matthew Every

Why do I love hunting mule deer? Two words: spot and stalk. Sure you can hunt elk the same way, but if you’re not into a herd of elk from the get-go, you’ll need to do a lot of walking to find them. Mule deer on the other hand could be anywhere. Not only do they occupy varied terrain—from high-country timber to desert canyons and even midwestern prairies—but a big buck could also surprise you and stand up from the shadow of a juniper or from behind a boulder you’ve been glassing all day.

Mule deer are better than whitetails, too, which pains me to say, because I’m from the northeast. I grew up hunting—more like waiting for—whitetails in hardwoods and small farm fields. I still enjoy sitting in a treestand or slowly walking a ridgeline hoping to bump into a bedded buck, but because of the dense edge habitat whitetails are drawn to, it’s rare to get a chance to find one with your binoculars and go after it. Instead, you stay put for a deer that might not even show up.

Muleys are also more polite than whitetails. Whitetail bucks rut and tear up the woods like angsty teenagers, while mule deer fight for dominance out in the open like grown-ass men. And like teenagers, whitetails are touchy and sensitive to pressure, while mule deer don’t get their feelings hurt easily.

Easy-going confidence might be the fatal flaw of the mule deer, though. If you bump a buck while on a stalk, there’s a good chance that instead of walking out of your life forever, he’ll turn around to see what’s been chasing him all this time. When a muley does this, he usually gives a perfect broadside view of his vitals, as if to concede like a gentleman.

Trout by Sage Marshall

cutthroat trout
One of the many great things about cutthroat trout is their willingness to hit dry flies. Colin Kearns

I park the ’98 Subaru Outback at the pull-off where the Dolores diverges from the highway. My younger brother Luke and I hop out, ready to hit the last stretch of river for the day. It’s a warm August afternoon in the San Juan Mountains, though some of the aspens are already breaking into gold.

Earlier in the day, we fished downstream, where the river slows, widens. The fishing hadn’t been great, but we’d netted a couple of nice ones using dry-droppers at the deep pool by the footbridge. Now, though, we snip the tippet off the hook bends of our size 18 Parachute Adams flies and put the nymphs away.

We hurdle the road’s guardrail, skid down the slope, and follow a faint path up the valley till it fades completely. We bushwhack through several thickets of willows before connecting with the narrow stream. When I first started fishing high alpine creeks like this, I was surprised trout could live in such small water. Now, I know better.

We wet-wade along the side of the stream in sandals. Soon, the cold water makes my ankles numb. Here, the wild cutthroat trout spook easily, so we crouch low when we reach pockets of slower water, where Luke and I take turns trying to fling flies with finesse. Despite having little room for backcasats, I’m able to get a couple of presentations clean enough for small cutties to gulp down my fly.

Luke struggles. He’s only recently developed an interest in fly fishing and keeps getting hung up in the tamarisk—keeps watching fish dart upstream when they see him. He calls it a day and sits on the bank. “One last trout,” I tell him.

I’ve joined the crowds nymphing at famous tailwaters for big rainbows and driven hundreds of miles to hit Salmonfly hatches—but on days like this, there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I cast into the next pool from a distance, lose track of the fly, and set on instinct. My 3-weight comes to life. I strip the fish in, then hold it in my palm as I slip the hook out. I savor the moment, admiring the speckles on trout’s body, the blush of pink on its underbelly, the slash of red beneath its jaw, before I dip the trout back into the stream, and it flashes away.

Cape Buffalo by Richard Mann

cape buffalo hunter
The author’s son lets the end of his first Cape buffalo hunt sink in. Richard Mann

The African buffalo is an intimidating beast; he has a monster inside him looking for an excuse to do monstrous things. Though I don’t think hunting buffalo is terribly hard. You will walk and sweat—a lot. I also don’t think killing them is that hard either. Your shot should be close, and the buffalo’s heart is a big target. The pulling of the trigger, however, that’s the hard part. It’s hard because you know once pressed, chaos is unleashed. If you merely wound him, he might stomp you into a pool of dirt and blood. If you shoot well, he’ll just lay down and die. Buffalo hunting is a test of patience and luck, with fear and elation intertwined and wound tighter than a banjo string.

Though taking a buffalo is not really a rite of passage, maybe it should be. I remember after my 17-year-old son took his, for a motionless moment he stood by the animal, then knelt and placed his hand on the horn. That’s when the dirt, grass, and winds of Africa, embraced him as a hunter and simultaneously punched me right in the gut. He was no longer a kid, and we both knew it.

However, a buffalo hunt is, for sure, a magnificent adventure. You must travel to an exotic unfamiliar land and walk many miles. Then you must kill with precision—all while a horned devil, a professional hunter, and God watch you do it. It will humble your soul, boost your ego, drain your energy, and add garnish to every hunt you’ll take for the rest of your life. Like a lifetime reduced to mere moments, successfully hunting a buffalo will permanently tattoo your very being; it changes you. If it doesn’t, find a priest. You need one.

Robert Ruark wrote that a buffalo looks at you like you owe him money. Though a talented writer, Ruark was more of a drunken sportsman than a hunter. Craig Boddington is a real hunter, and he said, “Whether I feared him or not, it was clear that he didn’t fear me.” And there we find the essence of buffalo hunting. Short of facing your nemesis on the dueling grounds of Weehawken, New Jersey—Burr and Hamilton style—buffalo hunting gives you a chance to find out if there’s a monster within you. And that’s something every hunter desperately needs to know.

Bighorn Sheep by Jace Bauserman

bighorn sheep archery hunt
The author, center, tagged a bighorn ram on a bow hunt last fall. Jace Bauserman

The larger of the two rams delivered a hammering blow, sending a loud echo up and down the craggy canyon. The lesser ram stumbled but kept his balance despite the icy ledge. It was a magnificent display of strength and athleticism, and I was fortunate enough to watch the battle for a solid five minutes. 

That was the first time I’d seen Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. I was 10 years old, and my father had pulled the Ford Bronco to the side of the road to let me tumble some salmon eggs down the Arkansas River before resuming our November road trip. I’ve been enamored with bighorns ever since. 

Thirty-one years later, a miracle happened. After putting my name in Colorado’s annual bighorn draw for 19 consecutive years, I’d convinced myself sheep tags weren’t real. I viewed the hunt as a pipe dream. It wasn’t—and an emailed letter from the Colorado Division of Wildlife confirmed it. 

The preparation made this hunt my all-time favorite. The hundreds of miles ran, the weights lifted, and arrows slung… The scrutinizing over gear and testing that gear repeatedly… Pulling our Jayco camper over the same mountain pass five times with family and friends to go scout—live with the sheep I’d be hunting in some of the most magnificent settings in the world… The mid-day Mountain House lunches eaten on pine-dappled hillsides while watching bands of summertime rams buck and kick and flick their ears at pesky insects… I loved it all.

It was a privilege to watch these animals walk out on ledges, spring off the shelf, and land gracefully on a boulder below. See your breath turn white on a crisp July morning in the high country as you scan hillsides with a pair of 15s. The tingle that shoots up and down your spine when your glass hits a gray hide and horns that seem to glow with just a touch of sun. 

I was blessed to take one of the rams I’d lived with for more than a month. That ram was the king of the mountain, and when my arrow hit home, and the brute collapsed within sight, tears welled in my eyes. I could hear the distant “whoops” of my buddies who’d watched the entire stalk go down through spotting scopes on the fickle mountain wind. Damn, there’s nothing like sheep hunting.  



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