The subject of hunting has inspired almost as much writing as the subject of love, and it tends to be a lot more fun to read. Here’s a rundown of some of the best hunting books of all time – at least in my opinion – having to do with hunting. Since the list includes such disparate genres as cookbooks, history, biography, literature and how-to, you should not assume that they are listed in any meaningful order. Each is a must for anyone who loves hunting.
Hunt High, by Duncan Gilchrist
No, this is not a book about the benefits of smoking weed while you hunt. Rather, this book is essential reading for anyone who yearns to venture above the tree line in search of big game. Gilchrist, who died in 2002, worked as a forester in Maine and Alaska before turning himself full-time to hunting and writing. He published about a dozen excellent books on hunting, including the invaluable All About Bears and several works on mountain sheep, but Hunt High is arguably Gilchrist’s finest work. Drawn from high country experiences in places ranging from Alaska to Montana to New Zealand, it is packed with alpine observations, hunting strategies and camping tactics that will make you a better and more informed high-country hunter.
My Life with the Eskimo, by Vilhjalmur Stefansson
In the early 1900s, the Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson traveled the Canadian arctic on several multi-year expeditions while living almost entirely off the land. His near-death accounts of starvation and survival are mesmerizing, but the greatest strengths of this book come from his descriptions of living and traveling with Eskimo hunters around Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island – many of whom he is credited with having made first contact. In great detail, Stefansson describes their hunting methods, their wild game preparations and the elaborate systems of taboo that governed their activities as carefully as our own modern game laws. After reading this book, you will find the thoughts and strategies of the Eskimo creeping into your own hunts.
Just Before Dark, by Jim Harrison
Most of Jim Harrison’s fans know this Michigan native for his fiction, including Legends of the Fall, Dalva, True North and his hypnotic first novel from 1971, Wolf, though Harrison is also a brilliant composer of essays on hunting, fishing, and wild game. Some his best pieces, many of which were originally published in Sports Illustrated back in the 1970s, are collected in Just Before Dark. In these pages, Harrison offers up humor, moral insight, and a fair share of depravity and excess. He also takes time to explain why he doesn’t hunt Africa, why he loves hunting woodcock and why it’s a “sin against God and man” to skin a game bird rather than pluck it.
Whitetail Access, by Chris Eberhart
Whitetail Access is for anyone who laments the gross transformation of whitetail deer hunting into a sport where “teammates” hunt high-wire – and high-dollar – properties with a tape measure in their pockets and not an ounce of soul in their hearts. Eberhart describes a fall that he spent living out of a van for four months while he pursued deer with a bow in North Dakota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan and Ohio. His total budget for the excursion was $2,911.15, which included over a thousand dollars in gasoline for his Chevy Astro. In addition to being a great travelogue and hunting story – he kills three bucks – this book is also packed with low-budget strategies on hunting public land, cold-rolling into new territory, and finding bucks in places where other guys would never think to look.
The L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook by Angus Cameron and Judith Jones
This 1983 classic, published by Random House, is the gold standard of wild game cookbooks. On the one hand I hate it, because it serves as a continuous reminder that I’ll never produce a piece of writing about wild game that is anywhere near as comprehensive. But on the other hand, I love it because it comes to the rescue whenever I’m struggling with a vexing question about how to judge the age of a raccoon, or roll a stuffed roast of bighorn, or prep a squirrel for a pot of Brunswick stew. The recipes range from super-simple campfire cooking to uber complex home preparation. It would take a lifetime of hunting and cooking to do everything that is described in these pages.
Heart of the Hunter: Customs and Myths of the African Bushman, by Laurens van der Post
Laurens Van der Post, the Afrikaner author, is a hard guy to pin down. He’s been described variously as a war hero, farmer, humanitarian, conservationist, explorer, philosopher and political adviser. But his best-loved writings are about his experiences with the Bushmen of Africa’s Kalahari in the years following World War II. The Bushmen were the masters of their landscape, knowing in intimate detail the habits and life histories of their quarry. By living and traveling with them, van der Post discovered a world in which hunting formed the very basis of a people’s physical and spiritual existence. The modern American hunter has plenty to learn from these people, particularly the reverence with which they walked their beloved hunting grounds.
Boone: A Biography, by Robert Morgan
It’s impossible to understand the culture of American hunting without understanding the most famous American hunter of all time. Even though Morgan separates the myths from the facts in Boone’s life – Boone did not like coonskin caps, for instance – Boone still walks away looking like the ultimate badass superhero. The most stunning passages in this book are those describing Boone’s extended, sometimes solo, hunts into the undiscovered regions of Kentucky prior to the Revolutionary War. There, Boone discovered a land where you could kill over a hundred black bears a year, along with a fortune’s worth of deer, elk, buffalo and beaver. The man knew how to fabricate his own gunpowder from native materials, he could boil his own salt, he could make his own clothes, and he knew that the best way to detect an Indian hiding in the brush was to look for the unnaturally straight barrel of a rifle. Boone has inspired young hunters for a couple hundred years, and there’s no reason to think he won’t to do so for a couple hundred more.
A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport, collected by David Petersen
A best of the best collection from some of the smartest hunters out there, A Hunter’s Heart is a great primer on the ethics and philosophy of hunting. The anthology includes writings from Jimmy Carter, Dan Crockett, Russell Chatham, Richard K. Nelson and Ted Kerasote, among many others. Their perspectives on hunting are too varied and complex to sum up in a simple paragraph, though a passage from Thomas McGuane’s essay, “The Heart of the Game,” does a good job of capturing the book’s overall spirit. In the essay, the author recalls a conversation in which a non-hunter challenges a hunter:
“Why should (deer) die for you?” the non-hunter asks. “Would you die for deer?”
“If it came to that,” the hunter replies.