A Hunter’s Heritage – Tribute to a Great Hunter

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This week I will be in Las Vegas with my wife, mother, brother and sister-in-law for a bit of a family reunion. We will all be attending the Friday night awards banquet at the Grand Slam Club Ovis convention, where a special member of our family will be honored.

In November of 2015 my father completed the lifelong dream of a North American sheep Grand Slam (I’m going to assume some non-hunter readers of this blog and explain this: a “slam” is taking one of each of a specified group of animals – in this case, one of each of the four species of wild sheep in North America: Dall, Stone, Rocky Mountain Bighorn and Desert Bighorn). Anyone who knows anything about sheep biology and habitat knows that these are tough hunts, mostly at high elevation with lower oxygen and in nasty, rugged terrain that only a…well, wild sheep, would want to travel! This kind of hunting is not for the meek, nor typically for the “chronologically seasoned”.

My father completed this feat with his final two sheep (Rocky Mountain and Desert) at the “seasoned” ages of 73 and 74, respectively!

desert bighorn
The authors father, John O’Brien, with his 2015 Desert Bighorn Ram.

In a previous post, I wrote that my dad (and a few others) were hunters in the Michael Waddell sense of the word. But when I think of my dad another great hunter comes to mind too: Jack O’Connor. Hunting to my father is not just a sport to engage in; for him it’s more of a calling. And he takes it seriously – not because he has all the latest name-brand gadgets, gizmos and clothing (he doesn’t – but he also doesn’t skimp on what he needs) or because he’s constantly striving to up his spot in the Boone & Crockett record book (he isn’t – but he’s selective about what he takes). He’s serious about hunting because he knows “success” is far more than ending up with a carcass in the back of the truck.

My father is a hunter because he takes time to study his prey and its habitat, to recon, observe and learn the lessons of the field. He’s a hunter because he puts the time in to train, mentally and physically, before a hunt, so he can pursue prey where it lives, not where it intersects the next OHV track. He’s a hunter because he’s ethical about the how, when and where he takes an animal; he knows the rules and regs, but more importantly he lives the concept of “fair chase”. He’s a hunter because he respects the prey and because, at the end of the day, it’s really not about the take: it’s about the experience; the education, the community of friends and family; the efforts to conserve wildlife, habitat and the hunting heritage; and it’s about the spirituality of the experience, from the moment he meets the first sunrise of the first season opener until the last sunset of the last hunt day.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. When he drew the Desert Bighorn tag, my first conversation with him was along the lines of “well, now you just need to kill a sheep and you’ll have the slam”. You would have thought I’d learned, but that’s not my father’s way. “No”, he said, “I’ll have a good hunt and hopefully take a good ram, but I’m not killing one just to complete a checklist….if necessary, I won’t fill the tag”. I was aghast, but should not have worried – first, my father was a much better hunter than I was giving him credit for, and second, hunting for the sake of checking off a box wasn’t the point.

rocky mountain bighorn
John O’Brien with his Rocky Mountain Bighorn Ram.

He introduced his sons to the hunting heritage early in our lives (and later, to our mother, who has become quite the huntress in her own right). We learned about more than hunting and shooting from adventures with dad – we learned how to be safe, how to find your way, and how to minimize disturbance to the landscape (we were “treading lightly” long before it became a national mantra). Most importantly, we learned to live the experience and treasure the moments, whether they ended in a harvested animal or not.

My brother walks the same footsteps my father does, and is another one of those hunters in the mold of everyone we used to read about in Outdoor Life when we were kids. My path veered into academia and a much different world. But my father’s mark was imprinted there as well. Although my personal hunting experiences waned, my interest in aboriginal hunting, my field experiences and research interests all reflected a childhood learning at the foot of the Master. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the ease with which I melded into a society of hunter-gatherers in East Africa had everything to do with what my dad taught me and prepared me for.

Yes, like all father and sons we still have those moments of not seeing eye-to-eye (he’s been a staunch Leupold man most of his hunting career – I bucked family tradition and switched to Vortex!). But we’re all proud of him for this achievement, not just for merely obtaining the goal, but more so for the manner with which it was achieved: ethics, hard work, training and patience. It was the essence of true hunting.

Congratulations Dad!

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