What Trophy Should Really Mean

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As a native Midwesterner, the hunting I did growing up focused mainly on filling one's tag and enjoying the camaraderie of deer camp. We hunted mostly public land for whitetails in the forests of northern Minnesota. I don’t have to try very hard to remember a small A-frame cabin and its smells of fried side-pork, coffee, and wood smoke. Some of my most treasured memories are of standing near my father and his friends as I listened to them talk the talk of adults around an evening fire...wondering if one day I might stand among them as an equal. Their conversation was of work and politics and hunting, things I did not always understand well. But one thing came through clearly to my young and forming mind. When we hunt we must work hard, we obey the law, we are ethical, and we are reverent. Every animal taken - young or old, buck or doe - is a “trophy”. They are gifts of the land.

I now proudly reside in the open space of Wyoming. I stand around a fire each fall with fine friends and enjoy good conversation, while my little boy sits quietly near by listening. The gratitude I feel for this good country is profound. This is an area with more big game animals than people, and a place where the hunting traditions run deep. Come each October, school days are cancelled, and families gather in mountain valleys that have served as hunting camps for generations. Strangers talk with each other of mountains and animals and bad roads as they fill up with gas in the chilly predawn darkness. It is an excellent time and place to live.

However, the hunting culture has changed in the last couple generations, and brought with it trends I find distressing. It seems the opinion of many that unless the harvested animal has substantial antlers or horns it isn’t worth killing, that is unless you are a young person or are female. Furthermore, a small spike is still considered somehow better than a legal doe or cow that might actually be larger in body size. I have taught hunter education for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department for 8 years now and get the opportunity to discuss hunting with a variety of people on a nearly daily basis. Over and over, I hear my fellow hunters say things like, "all I got was a doe" or "I don’t want his first elk to be a lousy cow". Despite this, recent surveys by the National Fish and Wildlife Service indicate most hunters are not primarily trophy seekers. There is something of a discrepancy here that is puzzling. Are we afraid to admit to one another we find as much fulfillment in harvesting a doe as we do a buck? Maybe or maybe not, and I would not presume to tell my fellow outdoorsmen how, what, or why they hunt. But I would suggest it is time for us to start reexamining what we are really trying to get out of our hunting experiences.

Many of my friends and family are part of the 94% of America’s population that do not hunt. They do not oppose hunting, but they have no desire to participate in it either. The one thing they seem universally curious about is why we hunters seem so obsessed with killing the healthy dominant male animals in a population. Why not the young, tender ones? Why not the old and barren females? Why not the old buck who is unlikely to survive the winter? The answer is that under field conditions it is very difficult to be that picky. But then the non-hunting public often seems to think the killing of a game animal is a simple undertaking. These same people wonder why hunting programs on television talk about the kill, but not the use of the animal? They incorrectly, yet perhaps understandably, infer that the guy in orange who kills the big buck simply cuts off its antlers and lets the rest rot. Hunters know differently, and I have tried to explain many times that hunters always use the animals we kill, even if we do not seem to talk about it much, as it is not only the law but also something we look forward to. Clean white packages of healthy game meat awaiting use in the freezer, is a very important reward of the hunt. But this information is sometimes lost in the blizzard of images and stories put out by some in the hunting media who bombard us with pictures of huge bucks and bulls meeting their end at the hands of some guy obsessed with antler mass and tine length. I wonder if this the message we want the non-hunting public to hear?

Let me be clear, I do not think it is wrong to harvest a large male game animal and then hang his mounted head in your home. In fact, I have a couple of animals in my den right now. But I do feel strongly that if we are to truly be hunter-conservationists we must closely examine why we hunt, what we get out of it, and be able to explain it when teachable moments arise with those who are curious about our lifestyle. In my experience, the non-hunting public understands, or at least seems ready to grudgingly accept, the idea of hunting as a way to control game numbers, make money for local economies, and to put meat on a person's table. However, they seem to find the hunter who only shows minor interest in the conservation and sustenance his efforts provide highly distasteful. To tell the honest truth, so do I.

I believe the time has come for hunters to redefine what they perceive as a "trophy". Not because I think hunters need to justify their actions, but because hunting is not, and never has been, a competitive sport. For example, Kristina my wife recently harvested her first elk. Kristina is relatively new to hunting and this event was something very special to her. She practiced with her rifle all summer and became a competent shot. She scouted her area, made a plan, hiked and hunted hard, and after several days of effort finally tied her tag to the leg of a big cow she took with a single well placed bullet. I was there. The effort involved in this success brought us closer together, created memories and stories we will relive a thousand times, and put healthy and delicious food in our freezer. The cow she killed lived in an area struck by drought, and unless the herd size was decreased they certainly would have over-grazed their range, impacting not just their own well being, but the health of many other game and non-game populations dependent on that habitat. Kristina is having that cow mounted and even though others have snickered over it, including the taxidermist doing the work, we make no apologies. Every time I look at that cow hanging in the den, I will be able to drift back to the time we shared. The memory is precious to me. Had she not harvested her elk, and I had, would I have mounted my animal? Probably not, as I have been blessed to take many elk in my hunting career. But my first elk, many years ago, was also a cow and I admit I wish I had mounted it now, even if it meant I would suffer criticism over doing so.

My father taught me that killing an animal should never be taken lightly. When I take a life I must be reflective, or I may become callous and develop into a killer rather than a hunter. I risk forgetting the life I took was a gift of the land, and when receiving a gift it is distasteful and rude to criticize or refuse it. When I am in the mountains I am not shopping, but hunting. I take the animal offered to me with a grateful heart, as I suspect any other predator might. Whether that animal is a cow or bull, buck or doe, calf or fawn I do not care. I hope the young and forming mind of my little boy will grasp all of that as he sits around a campfire with my friends and I in hunting camp. I will do my best to help him understand what “trophy” really should mean.


What Trophy Really should mean

Hello Mr. Parsons,

Just to give you some background, I have been hunting in Colorado for close to 35 years now, and the sentiment that you write about is the cornerstone of future hunting--Respect, Reverence, and Ethics. I have shot one 5 point bull in this time, but the biggest "trophy" I have shot was a big cow that forced me to get another freezer. Hunting is about getting out into the woods and spending quality time with family/friends and not really worrying about whether or not you have something to hang on the wall or even if you put anything in the freezer.
It is the adventure. A time away from your job, a time to relax, and to reconnect with the beauty of nature around you. For me, it is not about the killing, but rather as you so eloquently pointed out in your post, the true "trophy" is what you get out of the entire experience.

Retired2hunt's picture

  Definitely a great read and


Definitely a great read and thanks for prividing it Daniel.  I would say that I definitely have taught the same to my children - "When we hunt we must work hard, we obey the law, we are ethical, and we are reverent. Every animal taken - young or old, buck or doe - is a “trophy”. They are gifts of the land."  This can be seen in my second son's first deer that we mounted - a very small buck that many would possibly criticize for spending the money on mounting.  My older also had his first deer, another very small buck, placed on my Dad's "wall of fame" on his pole barn - it is displayed proudly there.  While both of my son's would have shot a doe if they had been the first animal within their sights they were blessed with another deer. 

Now I also have to agree with Boots.  I have allowed a smaller doe or does to go without me harvesting it as my focus was on a buck - maybe a specific buck at that.  You do get a different focus when hunting private land for a period of time and you get to "know" a specific animal. 

To further reflect my "trophy" as every animal all of my original tags this year were for doe or antlerless animals.  It was by chance I was able to pick up a left-over bull tag and actually fill it - with a rag 4X4 - and those antlers are definitely proudly displayed as my trophy.  24 hours later I came across a giant 6X6 and sure I would have loved to harvest that one but I would never trade my 4X4 for it.  Now the Cow Elk is my focus and my next trophy - regardless of size... so I can donate some meet to the hungry as well - just another reason every animal is a "trophy" 

A great article even 7 years later that definitely should be discussed a whole lot more.


Boots's picture

Agree, BUT

I absolutely agree with what you've said (just look at my profile pic).  But I know that for me there's something special about "the big one."  You almost develop a relationship with the buck and everytime you see "the one" then it's kind of like, "good to see you again old friend."  And it seems that everytime the hunt comes around then he's gone, and you see him again next scouting season and you can't help but to think that this old timer knows what's going on, and you're happy to see that he made it through the previous season, but hope that he's in your hands on the next one.  Heck, I just love it for the scouting.  But, there's really something special about the big one that I don't think anything will be able to replace. 

Rem2arms's picture

That was excellent reading

That was excellent reading Daniel. I'm not afraid to admit when I get a nice doe during black powder season, it's allowed buck or doe. Neither would I ever not tell anyone that I took a spike during regular season.

You're absoutly right that alot of hunters say, oh why'd you take that, you should have waited for a better one. Nope, it's legal and I hunted hard for my deer. Granted I will not shoot a bambi or anything like that and some may consider a spike just that. Not around here and the one I got this year was 130 lbs with 12 inch antlers, average size and very good tasting. ;)

jim boyd's picture

Very well written and thought

Very well written and thought inspiring piece.

I love the images of the author as a young man, listening to the grown ups talk and how it came full circle - the author is now the grown up and the one doing the talking as his son now listens in. Great picture shown there.

To the gist of the article... if you look at hunting, fishing, sports, whatever - it is always the biggest, best, fastest, etc that gets the attention.

TV certainly propagates this, of that there is little doubt.

I have hunted for many years and while I do not consider myself a trophy hunter (I do not hunt where there are massive 170" bucks), I do have a set of standards about what I will and will not shoot. Part of it is the desire to take a trophy and part of it is the desire to lessen the numbers of deer I do take.

It is only my wife and I and we can not (or will not) eat two or three deer in a given year.

These are largely personal decisions and I think all hunters should be allowed to make them - and I am delighted when I see someone take a deer that they are happy to get, regardless of what size it is!

I see hunters all the time - and I think this is largely what this excellent article was directed at - that see a hunter with a buck (for instance) and they state in a demeaning way - "he would have been a good one next year" as if there was something wrong with taking him THIS year...

Hunters like this are often just spiteful and for one reason or another - have some disdain for people that do not necessarily share the same ideas as they do...

I often see hunters like this that spout off about only "shooting trophy bucks" and when they do shoot a 100" buck - they classify it in one manner or another as a "cull" to justify shooting it.

Great work, good read.

By the way - Daniel, I see this was written in 2004 - nothing has changed in the years since you wrote this.... there are still idiots out there!!

GooseHunter Jr's picture

To me a trophy is anything I

To me a trophy is anything I take from field, and sometimes that is only memories and pictures.  I have never been a trophy hunter and do not see my self ever being one.  I have never killed a bull elk and only 2 bucks the rest does and cows and I would not have it any other way.

jaybe's picture

Although I watch them all the

Although I watch them all the time - maybe too much - I think that the TV hunting shows have a lot to do with this mentality. When I was growing up in Michigan, bucks were all that anyone could take, so the only difference from one "keeper" (fishing terminology) to the next was the number of points or width of the rack. A few years before I was old enough to begin deer hunting, they started allowing some does to be shot each year. For the last couple of decades, the State has been trying to reduce the deer herd by taking out many does every year, and my family and friends are very glad to be able to assist in that effort since we love venison.

But the TV shows often (not always) glamorize the taking of "trophy" bucks. When a hunter first lays eyes on a buck, he immediately gives his estimation of it's B&C points. Many perfectly legal and beautiful bucks are passed because they'll be "better next year."

I agree with our author that we need to realize that these animals were put here by our Creator primarily to feed people, not to provide a competitive sport where the hunter with the most "points" wins.

Thanks for this good article. 

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