Looking Back On Hunting And Social Change

By the late 1980s, the wandering of the previous decade was largely over. The “Me Generation” took hold with a vengeance. Mercifully, its reign was as self-destructive as it was brief. The arrogant excesses that landed one-time financial stars in jail also forced the nation to appreciate its more enduring gifts. A quiet rebirth of social conscience and a respect for the values of an abundant land came to the fore.

buckInternationally, the economics of the Cold War were taking their toll. Russia was in decline and perestroika was in the wind. America was once again facing a strange dichotomy–forced to look both outward as a world leader and inward at its own domestic problems. The same generation that had protested the bombing of Cambodia was raising families. What legacy would they leave for the generations that followed?

When more than a million acres in Yellowstone Park went up in flames in the summer of 1988, Americans were once again reminded of the vulnerability of their environment. The nation would have to adopt a new stewardship role in caring for wilderness lands worldwide.

Winning the Gulf War in 1991 gave President George Bush the highest popularity rating ever for a president, yet seven months later he would be defeated by William Jefferson Clinton, the Arkansas governor who campaigned on a platform centered on domestic policies.

Animal rights, global warming, the destruction of rain forests, acid rain, water pollution, subsistence rights, saving the spotted owl–these were the dilemmas the Baby Boomers would face in the ’80s and ’90s. The world had changed; Outdoor Life was changing, too.

In this decade, we see the reinstatement of a new Outdoor Life Conservation Pledge, with wording updated to make a greater acknowledgment of the environment. Strong editorial focus was also brought to the conservation issues of the day in a new column titled “Taking Aim.”

After a long absence, the Outdoor Life Conservation Award was brought back in 1998. And the new Outdoor Life Conservation Fund, dedicated to funding game conservation projects throughout North America, was launched. On May 13, 1998, Outdoor Life held a special celebration at the Explorers Club in New York City. The little magazine that J.A. McGuire had started on a shoestring in a tiny office off Curtis Street in Denver had finally turned 100.

O’CONNOR’S LAST STAND

For 31 years, Jack O’Connor served as Shooting Editor of Outdoor Life. He was a living legend–a legend that no one wanted to see grow old. In the fall of 1977, he took his last hunt with Jack Atcheson Sr., the man who had booked so many of O’Connor’s hunts from Alaska to Africa. On this hunt, Atcheson would act as guide:

The whitetail buck was enormous, bigger than any I’d ever seen before. Though I’d hunted around the world many times, I’d never been as excited as I was at that moment….

The buck’s size wasn’t the only reason for my excitement. Jack O’Connor was sitting a few feet away from me, and yack wanted a big whitetail, bigger than any he’d ever taken….

At least 20 other whitetails were with the big buck, including two other very large bucks that looked like twins but which were easily outclassed by the giant. But Jack was positioned so he couldn’t see the deer….

I whispered loudly to signal Jack, but my voice spooked the buck. He whirled and crashed into the willows, bounding off in a way I knew was for keeps.

I was heartsick. Why did so many bucks present themselves, and why were we so unlucky?

Then, the impossible happened. The huge buck stopped running and trotted right back to the very place he had just left. It was too much. I raised my rifle, aimed at his heart, but could not pull the trigger. I was staring at what might have been the biggest buck in Montana, but I couldn’t shoot….

This was Jack’s hunt, not mine, even though he had insisted that I shoot if I had an opportunity.

The enormous buck spun and ran off, this time for good. I turned and was shocked to see Jack standing with his rifle to his shoulder, aiming at the buck. He was grinning from ear to ear, and I realized that he had seen the buck, but for some reason had refused to shoot.

“God, what a buck,” he said simply. “What a buck!”

As we left the woods, our hunt over, I couldn’t bring myself to ask Jack why he hadn’t shot. Perhaps he’d seen me drawing a bead on the buck and wanted me to take it.

Perhaps. Or maybe he hadn’t fired because he believed that once you take the biggest buck of your life, there’s nothing to look forward to.

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