IT'S ABOUT MORE THAN THE KILL
Hunting is more than the act of pursuing game. It consists of respect, camaraderie, humor and innocent appreciation, and nothing brings out those elements like the traditions of a great hunting camp.
Hunters enjoy and look forward to good gatherings as much as being in the field, and camp pranks, toasts and time-honored rituals complete the experience. Recently, Realtree posted a shout-out on social media to ask folks about their best hunting camp traditions. We can't include every response, but the ones mentioned here paint a picture of life when hunters congregate.
Hunting camps would be poorer without a toast or two to the quarry, hunting dogs, fellow hunters or bygone acquaintances. We're not advocating irresponsible drinking, of course, but there's nothing wrong with a cheer to the hunt.
David Zumbaugh's group gets up at 4 a.m., drinks a shot of Old Grand Dad and sings God Bless America. Matt Wettish and crew used to take the European route by toasting with a shot of Jaegermeister.
The word means hunt master, and it used to be a ceremonial drink to give thanks to the animals taken and that will be taken, he said. The cross on the logo stood for the sacrifice of the animal, and the original drink had stag's blood in it.
Jason Hart, of Charleston, South Carolina, and fellow turkey fanatics at Osceola Outdoors in Okeechobee, Florida, hold a toast in the field after successful outings.
After you are a part of a turkey kill, you have to kill another (a mini bottle of Wild Turkey 101), he said. It is done out of respect for the bird and our turkey hunting buddies that have passed.
Everyone loves practical jokes, and hunters often take things a step farther. Tyler Smith, of Puyallup, Washington, said his group sometimes throws firecrackers in a pan inside their hunting cabin. Mike Wolden, of West Salem, Wisconsin, said a stuffed coyote and stuffed skunk provoke laughs at his camp. Michael McCullough, of Galeton, Pennsylvania, uses an old favorite: turning the clocks in camp and fellow hunters' trucks forward.
Matt Banks, of Victoria, British Columbia, used an extended and stinky prank on a fellow hunter.
I cut off a moose tongue and put it in his dry box in the back of his pickup, he said. It took him months to figure out the smell.
An elaborate prop played a critical role in a favorite camp joke of Alex Sokolik, of Colorado. Members of a private hunt club placed the mount of a 10-pointer by the stand of a hunter who'd never killed a buck.
He shot the mount about six times, and the members drove over to his stand in four minutes to see the mount he shot, he said. He was in tears but handled it well afterward. At least [he] hit it.
Britney Starr said her father and uncles went for shock value with a recent gag.
They know I have a fear of clowns and happened to run across these masks at a garage sale, she said. They plotted scaring me for two months and pulled it off during our recent grouse hunt.
Much hunting camp tradition revolves around mealtime, and it's easy to see why. After a day in the woods or marsh, people are often ravenous and ready to relax. That's spawned some great eats.
Aileen Varner, of Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, and his campmates always have fried potatoes and onions for breakfast and supper. Michael Swan, of Oakdale, Minnesota, and his crew observe a traditional favorite and cut the inside tenderloins out of a deer when it's back at camp, cook them rare and feast on them as quickly as possible.
Kathy Spahn, of Madison, Wisconsin, said her family starts deer season with a solid breakfast.
My husband and son always get up early to have Spam and eggs before they go out for opening morning, she said. Why? Who knows?
Tim Sandford, of Orlando, Florida, takes breakfast to the woods.
We get up, get dressed, grab a quick bite to eat and hit the woods, he said. After the morning hunt, we all meet at a predetermined spot on a dirt road. We break out the Coleman stoves and cook eggs, bacon and sometimes pancakes on the tailgate. Nothing is better than eating breakfast in the deer woods.
William E. Sullivan, of Mulberry, Florida, credits his father with his family's favorite camp fare.
Any Saturday night in the woods, my dad and I would always grill a steak and boil cut-up potatoes for dinner, he said. Dad passed in 2009, but any time my kids and I are in the woods on a Saturday night, we know what we're having for dinner.
TIME-HONORED (AND SOME SILLY) TRADITIONS
Traditions often have vague origins. Sometimes, they grow out of necessity or practicality. For example, Chuck Miller, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, said his deer camp begins opening morning with a well-known quote from old lumberjack camps: Daylight in the swamp. Everyone out of the rack.
Other rituals, however, seem to defy explanation.
Every year at deer camp, we watch Nacho Libre in the RV, said Stephen Kaye, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I don't know how it started, but it's been going on since that movie came out, and we will all stay up quoting it till the final scene. That is the only time of the year most of us watch that movie, but I look forward to it every season.
Meanwhile, David Lewis Brown, of Efland, North Carolina, and friends, lighten things up on the final day of deer camp.
If the deer are just not moving and everyone is in agreement on the last afternoon, the deer rifles go up, and the shotguns come out, he said. Our deer camp is on top of a ridge and there is a 500-foot straight-down drop-off about 75 feet from the old cabin. We would set our skeet thrower behind and above the shooting station and launch the skeet targets over our heads and into the void in front of us. If we did not break it quickly, the updrafts or downdrafts played with the target. We all got to shoot our fill, and there were plenty of laughs over missed shots. The only drawback was no one ever came up with a recipe that could tender up a clay pigeon.
And then there's this…um, interesting tradition from Cameron Martz, of Raleigh, North Carolina.
I grew up near some of the best trout waters in Pennsylvania, he said. When my buddies and I would go fishing, anyone who didn't catch a fish had to ride home in just their underwear. It was 100 percent stupid and 100 percent hilarious to us all the same.
Seriously? Hey, hunting camps provide some of life's best moments, so why not throw love into the mix? Tom Cruickshank, of Shelton, Washington, does.
My wife goes on all hunts with me, he said. Her birthday usually falls right in the middle of our annual caribou hunt. I've 'smuggled' birthday cakes, candles, napkins, noise makers and party hats on our 700-mile road trip plus hour-long boat ride to our camp to surprise her.
HUNTING CAMP ETERNAL
Here's to all the great jokes, cheers and rituals hunting camps provide every year. May they live forever. So, what are your favorite hunting camp traditions?