McKean Minute: Unwritten – The Secret Code of the Outdoors

My friend Pete asked to borrow my 870 Wingmaster for a weekend. He had been invited on a pheasant hunt and didn’t have a shotgun.

So I loaned him one of mine. When I got that Remington back fully two years later, the receiver was rusty and the stock so scratched and dinged that I’d guess it had bounced around a pickup bed filled with fencing supplies.

I took another friend—let’s call him Doug—to a sliver of state land that routinely holds sharptail grouse. We shot double limits. A month later, I went back to hunt on my own, only to find Doug there, with a couple of his buddies I didn’t know. Our unexpected greeting was awkward.

These are just two examples of violations of cardinal rules of the outdoors. You won’t find them written anywhere, but they’re as binding as constitutional amendments, and carry penalties for breakage that can be more enduring than jail time. I no longer count Doug as a friend, for violating this unwritten law: Thou shall not share special spots without asking the person who shared them with you.

Pete’s violation was more than just bad manners. It was insulting, as if he was telling me that he didn’t value my gun, and I shouldn’t either. If you loan someone your gear, you have the expectation that it will be returned in working shape, maybe showing honest wear, but not impaired.

Hunters and anglers have plenty of written rules we have to follow: season dates, bag limits, gear restrictions, slot limits. But the litany of unwritten rules might be longer, and it’s not always clear when you’ve violated one. These cultural expectations serve reasonable purposes—ensuring equitable distribution of resources, for example, or sharing the work and rewards of a successful day in the field.

But for newcomers to hunting and fishing, these rules can serve as barriers to entry. So, to help articulate and explain some of them, here’s a primer on the Unwritten Code of the Outdoors. Most can be distilled into a guide for the rest of your life: Don’t be a dick. Others are a bit more nuanced.

  • Keep Secret Spots Secret – Most of us have worked really hard over a long time to find good places to hunt and fish. If someone takes you to one of these places (and they should!), even if it’s on public land and fully accessible, don’t just go on your own without checking with the person who turned you on to it. And definitely don’t take other people. This one can be tricky. How big is the secret spot? Can you safely hunt the next ridge without violating the rule? Use your intuition to guide you here, but if you think the person who showed you the place would be pissed to find you there, then you’re probably in violation.
  • Don’t Be a Game Hog – My buddies and I took a friend of a friend goose hunting. We were in layout blinds in a pea field, and the shooting was great. But this newcomer claimed that he connected on all the shots, even ones that were on the far side of the setup. Then when it came time to clean our limits, he stood around while the rest of us cleaned the geese, then took more than his share.
  • Don’t Let Your Inabilities Spoil the Opportunity – There’s a spot on the Missouri River where the springtime fishing for spawning rainbows is world-class. You have to make long casts and mend your line to get drag-free drifts over the fish, but you can be rewarded with two-foot trout in full spawning coloration. One of my friends can’t cast well, and in order to reach the fish, he wades the spawning shoal, spooking all the fish for the rest of us and ruining the spot for the day.
  • Take Care of Borrowed Gear – This goes beyond despoiled guns. I’ve gotten borrowed knives back nicked and dull, binoculars with missing eyecups, rifles with fouled barrels, and treestands with missing parts. If you borrow gear, return it in good shape or offer to replace it.
  • Give Credit Where Due – I took a friend to a farm where I had permission to hunt and he ended up shooting a remarkable buck. He celebrated his kill with social-media posts, bragging, and it even made his Christmas card. But he never credited me, or more importantly, the landowner, for giving him access.

There are dozens—thousands, even—more of these unwritten rules. I’d love to hear from you about codes that you’ve seen violated. I’ll write about then in a subsequent McKean Minute.

Meantime, enjoy your time in the field. Be gracious and courteous. Show folks your favorite spots. And don’t be a dick.

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6 thoughts on “McKean Minute: Unwritten – The Secret Code of the Outdoors”

  1. I have had the same thing happen to me with a couple shotguns and one rifle. I learned my lesson and won’t do it again with anyone but my family now days

  2. Opposite of game hog: Game refuser. At the conclusion of a successful hunt, everyone should take some. Obvious exceptions exist like maybe a college kid who lives in a dorm. However, if you, your son, and your son-in-law, all adults with households, are part of 12 person pheasant hunting group, don’t refuse to take any of the meat. Especially when there’s so much that it puts others up against the possession limit. If your distaste for game meat is so strong that you won’t take any, go hunt something else.

    When pheasant hunting in large groups, take your turn blocking.

    When hunting over others’ dogs: don’t criticize the dogs, don’t attempt to give commands to the dogs.

  3. No one respects your property better than YOU. Remember, you know what it took to get your gear, and often it is no small effort. Others that have NO SKIN IN THE GAME (placed no effort whatsoever in the gear you are loaning them or the site you have introduced them to) will never fully appreciate what it has taken, on YOUR part, to own or obtain the knowledge and experience. Best bet, make loaning the last resort. If they want it bad enough, your suggestions will become their actions and they will forever respect YOU and admire YOUR achievements once they see what it takes to EARN it!

  4. I have two guns, 1 is a rifle and 1 a shotgun, that are company guns. That’s what company/guests use here.

    I’ve had many hunters here over the years and they have been great. I don’t charge and they are all told that “if they treat this place like it’s their own, we’ll get along fine. If not, then they won’t be back.”

    If you’re hunting private property and you have to open a gate that is closed, be sure and close it behind you.

  5. From another Doug. I think I could write a book on people breaking unwritten rules – I’m sure many of your readers are the same. For example, In my earlier days, I took a lot of people trapping to let them experience our oldest tradition. One person in particular thought and expected part of the fur take for coming a couple days – catch that barely paid for my fuel and supplies. Pretty amazing how some lose their sense of reality. I’ve also had some really good hunting spots overrun with people when I took the time to find a place where not many had ventured. It’s a tough call to want to, as we need to, introduce others to the outdoors knowing that it will invariably cost us a precious hunting, fishing or trapping spot eventually.
    I guess I need to be a better judge of dick’s before I take them out! Nice writing and great piece Andrew!

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