If you see two hunters, two anglers, two kayakers, and two backpackers going their separate ways for the weekend, you can bet that the kayakers and backpackers to return Sunday night feeling more satisfied with their time outdoors than the hunters and anglers.
You’ll win that bet more often than not, according to research over the past four decades that consistently found “consumptive” recreationists report significantly less satisfaction than their “non-consumptive” counterparts. The researchers generally defined consumptive activities as hunting, fishing, gold-panning, and mushroom hunting. Non-consumptive activities included canoeing, hiking, backpacking, climbing, and camping.
Professor Jerry Vaske at Colorado State University first studied satisfaction rates for those groups in 1982, and predicted the differences between their satisfaction levels wouldn’t change much over time. After all, hunter-gatherers typically have specific goals like shooting a deer or catching a trout. And even though they choose which habitats to hunt, what gear to use, and which tactics to employ, hunters and anglers can never control wind, weather, animal activity, or fish feeding habits. Further, they can’t easily substitute their ultimate goal: bagging fish and game.
In contrast, non-consumptive recreationists have more general, less-defined goals and expectations. Campers and backpackers might be motivated to experience nature, test skills, experience solitude, or be with friends. They can achieve such vague goals throughout the entire experience, not just in one climactic event. They also don’t depend on achieving a specific result or acquiring a specific item like meat.
Further, they can control more aspects of their outing, including their route’s scenery and length, the campsite’s general location, or a rapids’ degree of difficulty. By planning outings that best test or match their skills and interests, they increase their satisfaction. But their goals are “more easily substituted if one goal is not satisfied,” Vaske wrote,
Vaske and his research assistant, Jennifer Roemer, recently expanded and re-examined his 1982 findings. Their analysis reviewed 125 studies—59 on consumptive outdoor recreation and 66 on non-consumptive activities—for satisfaction levels since 1975. Despite the large sample, the results differed little from Vaske’s 1982 findings.
Not every hunter and angler feels dissatisfied, of course. Many succeed, and many more say they enjoy most outings whether they shoot a duck or catch a crappie. It even says so on many bumper stickers: “The worst day hunting (or fishing) beats the best day working.”
But memes and decals often quote wishful thinking, not a universal truth. Vaske and Roemer found that “seeing, shooting, and bagging game” remain the most important factors for evaluating hunting and fishing experiences, and “the strongest predictors of overall satisfaction.” Vaske noted that hunters and anglers certainly have other goals that affect satisfaction—such as solitude, camaraderie, and being alone in nature—but the surveys found those factors were only “partial substitutes” and of “secondary importance.”
And even though hunters and anglers find as much pleasure as non-consumptive recreationists in a violet-hued sunrise, fog-shrouded valley, and snow-crusted cedars, we’re still likely to judge snow’s utility, praising it for showing tracks or highlighting blood trails, or cursing it for muffling hoofsteps or hindering our view. Likewise, we might appreciate a cool breeze on hot afternoons, but then blame it for ruining casts or blowing scent to deer.
All those varying goals and lack of control create endless distractions and frustrations, even for the most optimistic hunters and anglers. Perhaps that’s why high percentages of hunters complain even when deer numbers, elk success rates, and waterfowl flocks are peaking.
In Wisconsin, for example, the Department of Natural Resources annually surveys 10,000 randomly chosen hunters after each gun-deer season. The survey includes a question asking them to rate the quality of their deer season after considering these factors: weather, seeing deer, seeing bucks, killing a deer, shooting opportunities, not seeing other hunters, and time spent with friends and family.
After Wisconsin set a state-record deer kill (528,494) in 2000, the majority opinion—41% of hunters—judged the season’s quality “about average.” After its No. 2 gun-deer season (413,794 kills) in 2004, the majority—52%—ranked its quality “low.” And after tallying its No. 3 gun season (402,563 kills) in 2007, the majority—54%—also ranked it “low.” Those totals weren’t flukes. From 2001 through 2015, an average of 55.2% of Wisconsin hunters annually rated gun-deer hunting as low quality, 30.5% rated it average, and 14.3% rated it high.
Over half of the hunters (52%) each year also believed the deer herd declined from the previous year, even in years when the buck kill increased. From 2011 through 2015, for example, only 7.6% of hunters thought the herd increased one year to the next, even as they combined to kill over a half-million bucks (525,039) those years, and averaged 105,008 bucks annually.
Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said results like that aren’t unusual. Satisfaction and “happiness” ratings often don’t correlate with increasing and decreasing deer harvest.
“Those are subjective values with endless variables,” Tonkovich said. “For example, hunters in recent years are more likely to pass up the first buck they see if it’s young, which can reduce the buck kill one year to the next when there’s actually more bucks on the landscape. More hunters might be ‘satisfied’ that particular year because they saw more bucks, even though they didn’t shoot one.”
Bob Holsman, a Wisconsin DNR sociologist, said hunter satisfaction can also vary by age and hunters’ historical perspectives. Those who started hunting in the late 1960s through early 1970s, for instance, grew up with low expectations, given that deer were relatively scarce statewide. But those who began hunting in the 1990s and early 2000s during the deer herds’ boom years think that’s the norm. As deer numbers declined from those unsustainable peaks, many hunters judged it a disappointment, even if they shot a deer.
“One survey we’re doing shows that hunters who dropped out because they weren’t seeing enough deer are more likely 35 and older,” Holsman said. “People tend to set their expectations based on when they were first socialized into an activity. Those who started hunting more recently, when herds had fallen after the peak years, don’t have the high expectations we had in the 1990s. Meeting expectations is a big part of hunting satisfaction, no matter what you’re hunting.”
Holsman’s colleague Lauren Bradshaw, a fellow sociologist at the Wisconsin DNR, studied 10 years of waterfowler surveys for insights into hunter success and satisfaction. The best indicator of satisfaction was how closely hunters’ harvest totals matched their preseason expectations, no matter how high or low their harvest numbers. A hunter with little free time was likely happy with four ducks if he entered the season with modest hopes of shooting five. But a hunter who entered the season hoping for 50 ducks was disappointed if he put “only” 30 in the freezer.
Bradshaw said, however, that the most successful duck hunters were typically serious individuals who invested the necessary time, money, and labor into their overall hunting experience. If ducks quit using one area, the hunters scouted elsewhere and moved to better sites. She wrote: “Duck hunters who spent more days afield, scouted prior to hunting, stayed mobile during the season, and utilized public lands harvested substantially more ducks than those who did not put effort into these behaviors.”
And much like deer hunters, annual expectations often take shape in a duck hunter’s formative years. Bradshaw reported: “Hunters who have experienced exceptionally good seasons or have been hunting for many years could have unrealistically high harvest expectations. Experienced hunters might find it difficult to adjust their expectations compared with hunters with less hunting experience.”
High Passion, Great Expectations
Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the Minnesota DNR, said he’s not surprised that non-consumptive outdoor recreationists consistently report more satisfaction than do hunters. In some ways, their expectations don’t rise to those of a typical hunter.
“Hunting is one of the most passionate, exciting things people can do,” Cornicelli said. “The more passionate you are about deer hunting or duck hunting, the more eagerly you anticipate the hunt. It’s usually a condensed period of time, and you can’t get rainchecks if things don’t go right. All that camaraderie and time with family is part of a long-held tradition. You plan for it year-round, and you can’t sleep the night before. I doubt you see that kind of passion for golf, camping, hiking, or cross-country skiing. If you can’t go golfing one Saturday, you just go Sunday or next weekend. It’s much easier to reschedule.”
Further, dissatisfaction with individual hunts doesn’t necessarily mean a hunter is dissatisfied with hunting. Despite complaints about “declining herds” and low-quality hunting, most hunters in the Wisconsin DNR’s post-hunt surveys said they still enjoy deer hunting. Starting in 2014, that survey asked a simple question: Was your hunt fun? In 2014, 56% agreed it was fun, 25% were neutral and 19% said it wasn’t fun. In 2015, 52.4% said it was fun, 26% were neutral and 22% said it wasn’t fun.
Tonkovich said it’s easier to understand such apparent contradictions by viewing them as yet another human complexity.
“Everyone who’s married knows something about their spouse that frustrates them or makes them mad, but it’s not a deal-breaker,” Tonkovich said. “You still love your spouse. You consider the whole package. You realize the rewards outweigh the negatives. Serious hunters do the same thing. They don’t let one bad day or season ruin everything. Nothing offers them a more rewarding challenge than hunting. That’s what keeps them coming back.”