My mother did not like the taste of game, and wouldn’t cook it. To her wild meat recalled childhood poverty, when her father was short of work and so would pick up his rifle and go into the Maine woods to hunt. As an adult I had opportunities to try several kinds of wildfowl prepared in traditional ways and was surprised at how good they tasted. Today subsistence hunting as my mother remembered it is still a common feature of rural life and game dishes mark the seasons of fall and winter.
Though some hunts may be close to home, hunters often leave the world of towns and grocery stores and may spend days camping and tracking game before they are ready to return. In this audio example, Kenny Lively, a hunter in southern West Virginia, explains his relationship to wilderness to folklorist Mary Hufford in 1995, saying he sometimes just watches the deer without shooting one and “we like to take care of our woods.”
The hunter’s ventures into the woods create a world where storytelling resumes its place as a central form of entertainment, and spinning a good yarn is an appreciated skill. If the facts of the story are a bit exaggerated, all the better. The stories linked to in this article are from the Center For Applied Linguistics Collection of narrative examples of American dialects (AFC 1986/022) and the Coal River Folklife Project documenting folklife in the Coal River Valley, West Virginia (AFC 1999/008).
In any settled area, hunters usually explored the land before settlers. Names hunters give to the natural features often stick for generations. Some stories explain how an area got its name, such as the story of Raccoon Creek, as told by Bob Francis of western North Carolina in a recording made by Joseph S. Hall in 1956 (the first story on this recording).
Subsistence hunters today usually seek small game. They often say that they rarely hunt deer, elk, bear or other large animals because big game hunts bring out people who are inexperienced hunters, and so open seasons for these animals may be the most dangerous time to be in the woods. This is common sense. But it is also true that hunts for larger game are usually allowed only for a brief period of time and the number of animals permitted per hunter may be as few as one per year, while small game animals that are plentiful may be hunted in larger numbers and for longer open seasons during the fall, winter, and early spring. About five minutes into this recording, an unidentified sixty-seven year old man in West Virginia, tells interviewer Donna Christian that he does not hunt deer because “I object to getting killed.” He then talks about the game he prefers to hunt and how he likes it cooked.
What we can learn from hunting stories is often a mixture of wisdom and foolishness. It may be left up to the listener to sort out which is which.
Some stories that turn out badly for the hunter carry advice on mistakes to avoid. The same West Virginia man quoted above told Donna Christian a story about catching a “big coon” (starting at about two and a half minutes into the recording). After a lot of effort capturing the raccoon and fattening him on apples, the meat was so poor he says “I would just as soon eat a tom cat.” This tale does not glorify the hunt and so cautions that the biggest animal may not be the tastiest. Rebecca Bills talks with a mail boat captain from Tylerton, Smith Island, Maryland about duck trapping, once a traditional form of hunting that is now illegal except for banding and research. He explains how a funnel trap works and the consequences he endured when he was caught. He objects to the law and feels it is applied unfairly, but does seem to agree in principle with wildlife conservation. This story could also serve as a warning, despite the ambivalent point of view of the teller. (The discussion begins about halfway through the recording or at the ten minute point.)
Another function of hunting stories is to teach others about animal behavior and the battle of wits between hunter and prey. Raccoons are particularly intelligent and there are many stories of them outsmarting hunters. In this story Howard Miller explains to Mary Hufford how raccoons may use a strip-mined area to escape.
A story worth telling may be of a hunting adventure that was unusual or especially dangerous. For example, this twenty-one year old man from Mississippi tells Walt Wolfram the story of killing his first deer with, as he says, “a lucky shot.” (This story begins about two minutes into the recording.) An elaborate story of a dangerous hunt for a large wild hog is told to Joseph Mele by a thirty-two year old man from Oakdale, Tennessee (about five minutes into the recording). These stories are surprising, but still believable. A story told by Cuba Wiley of West Virginia, “Everett Wiley and the bear,” in which a relation of his killed a bear with a pen knife, stretches the limits of credulity. Though it cannot be said to be impossible, the story has a suspicious similarity to fictional accounts of Daniel Boone  and David “Davy” Crockett  killing bears with a knife.
When a really tall tale is told, the listeners may be fooled partway through the story, but are usually in no doubt that they have been had by the end. Mary Hufford recorded friends Elbert Pettry and Dave Bailey in storytelling sessions in West Virginia in October and November 1997. A story about coon dogs holding a groundhog for the hunter told by Elbert Pettry starts out sounding like a story of intelligent and well-trained hunting dogs. But when one dog goes for a bucket of scraps to feed the pack while they wait, the listener is alerted that something funny is going on. Pettry tells another story of “a man who could outrun the shot” that is clearly a joke from the start. Dave Bailey tells a story of “a gun that would bag squirrels,” surely a gun that every squirrel hunter would like to have.
If you would like to continue exploring this topic, many more stories about hunting game, fishing, and gathering wild foods may be found in the Center For Applied Linguistics Collection and in the presentation of the Coal River Folklife Project called Tending the Commons. Searches on “hunting” and the names of game animals are a good way to begin browsing related items in these online collections. Tending the Commons also includes several essays that deal with hunting wild foods.
1. This story, among others collected by Joseph S. Hall, was published in his book, Yarns and Tales of the Great Smokies, published in 1978.
2. The story of Daniel Boone killing a bear with a knife shows up in dime novels, but probably has its origins in the largely fictional Biographical Memoir of Daniel Boone, the First Settler of Kentucky: Interspersed with Incidents, by Timothy Flint, 1845, pp. 69-71 (online via American Libraries).
3. Popular stories and illustrations of David Crockett killing a bear with a knife (often without aid of any kind), probably grew out of Crockett’s tall tales on himself found in his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee, 1834, pp. 174-194. He described killing bears with a knife when the animals were held down by dogs. The relevant chapter, “Bear Hunting in Tennessee,” is available online as part of History Matters from George Mason University.