Eliot Berz remembers once watching a bobcat stalk two turkeys along a dry creek bed in Marion County. For nearly 30 minutes, he watched in suspense as the cat methodically closed its distance — then sprang. But the turkeys got away, he says.
"You can do everything right, but it doesn't guarantee a successful hunt," says Berz, who grew up hunting deer with his family in Tennessee. By college, it had become one of his favorite outdoor pursuits. Now, 31 and an avian researcher with Tennessee River Gorge Trust, the sport, he says, isn't all about the harvest, anyway.
"There are few endeavors where the goal is to sit so quietly in nature that nothing is aware of your existence," he says.
In September, Berz and five friends planned a two-week trip to hunt pronghorn in Casper, Wyoming — Berz's third season chasing the antelope-like animal.
Pronghorns are the fastest land animal in North America — second in the world only to the cheetah. Native to wide-open shrublands in the Western U.S., they have keen vision, which gives the animal an advantage, and the hunter, a decided disadvantage.
In the Eastern U.S., says Berz, hunting white-tailed deer often involves sitting in a tree stand, sometimes for up to 12 hours, waiting for the animal to come to you. It's a method of hunting with its own set of challenges — boredom, among them.
"You're not moving. You get cold; you get hungry. I let myself stand up every hour, and I spend a lot of time looking forward to my breaks," Berz says.
But hunting pronghorn is more rigorous, requiring the spot-and-stalk technique, suited to open landscapes. After the herd is spotted, usually miles away, a hunter begins the stalk, swiftly hiking and belly-crawling across the terrain to get within range.
"You need to be in good enough physical condition so that you're not breathing too hard to take a shot," Berz says. "I won't take a shot that's over 300 yards away. You have a higher chance of missing the vitals the further you are."
But the effort begins long before the animal ever enters the scope. It begins before Berz and his friends even pack their truck with camping gear and meat processing equipment and make the 1,200-mile drive.
Leading up to his trips, Berz spends months studying both the pronghorn and the landscape.
"The scouting starts at home on maps," he says.
Animals tend to move between the same points on a regular basis, he says. They want visibility, cover and a path of least resistance. By understanding their behavior and the topography, one can make predictions on where to find the herd.
The first day in Wyoming, "You ground test your predictions. We call it an armed scout. We bring our rifles, but we're really just trying to get a lay of the land. We'll try to find a good, high vantage point and stay hidden," he says.
And there, they'll sit for hours.
During one trip out West, Berz remembers scouting from a small cliff, wearing full camouflage and pressed against the rock. It was dawn, and as he and his friends sat quietly, they began to hear a high-pitched bird call — then, loud flapping.
"A golden eagle flew right in front of our faces, like 15 feet away. Its nest was just below us. It never even knew we were there," he says.
On day two — once the herd has been located — the stalk begins.
"That's usually where things go wrong," Berz says.
The herd may be more than a mile away. There are no trails, so to get closer Berz tries following drainage ditches or dry creek beds.
"You just need an 8-foot hill. You don't want to silhouette yourself. Sometimes you're on your hands and knees for a quarter-mile. You do all this work to get within range, and then you look over the ridgeline and eight pronghorns are staring at you. That happens more than I like," he says.
But on his most recent hunt, Berz bagged his first pronghorn by 8 a.m. following his first stalk. Ultimately, he harvested two does, filling his tag, which, he says, is shooter slang for saying he took the maximum number of animals his permit allowed.
The processing begins almost immediately, he says. "I like to do it all myself from start to finish."
First, its innards are removed. Then, it's quartered, separating the backstraps, tenderloins, hindquarters and front shoulders. At camp, he makes the final cuts before putting them on ice and driving them home to Tennessee where they'll be added to his deep freezer alongside his venison, turkey, duck and trout meat.
Wild game comprises most of the meat he consumes, he says, and the culmination of his efforts — that pronghorn steak in red wine marinade — comes with a mix of excitement and sadness.
"I think about the ethics and morality surrounding hunting on a daily basis. Life and death are part of the natural world, but I don't ever want that to not be a serious thing. We live in a world that's so disconnected from our roots," he says. "Hunting lets me get back to them, to become just another organism in the woods, interacting with the world around me."
Hunting and Conservation
Hunting, many proponents argue, is a pillar of conservation in the U.S.
Take the wild turkey, for example. In the early 1900s, the species was almost extirpated in Tennessee due to unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. But through reintroduction efforts by the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, today, the wild turkey is found in every county in the state, with an estimated population of 300,000.
"I'm not sure that would have happened if the turkey wasn't a game species," Berz says.
The sport, he argues, creates supporters of the outdoors — and those supporters help directly finance wildlife conservation projects. Through the Pittman-Robertson Act, passed in 1937, hunters help fund such projects via a tax on their firearms, ammunition and other hunting-related equipment. To date, that tax has generated more than $14 billion for conservation.