Louisville Magazine

MAR 2012

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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J on Gassett is the commissioner of the Kentucky Depart- ment of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the state's hunting and fishing chief. His knowledge of the outdoors is both academic — Ph.D. in biology — and empirical: He's been hunting since he went out for squirrel at age six. Tim Farmer hosts KET's Kentucky Afield, in its 59th year as the nation's longest continuously running outdoors TV show, which Fish and Wildlife produces. Farmer's probably the state's second-best-known living sportsman after Animal Planet's "Te Turtleman," who got his start on Kentucky Afield. But with the handsome looks you'd expect from a Marine Corps veteran now on TV, the ladies, they probably prefer Farmer to "Te Turtleman." Also with us is Nathan Sangster, a videogra- pher and editor for Kentucky Afield. He's recording all of this. And me? I'm a Boston-born, Highlands-dwelling, ACLU- belonging, latte-swilling, Obama-supporting, Mac-using, truffled cheese-eating liberal elitist. Stereotypes don't invent themselves. While I'm a decent shot (a skill I was surprised to discover I possessed on my rare visits to shooting ranges), I mostly honed the talent through Duck Hunt and Operation Wolf on the original Nintendo, not time in a tree stand. I've fired a real gun fewer than a dozen times in my life and, until recently, never at a living creature. I'm no vegetarian; the Blind Pig's wait staff can testify to that. Before working on this story, I couldn't fathom taking pleasure in killing something and had little problem judging those who do. Gassett, Farmer, a wounded 185-pound deer (yes, his esti- mated weight increased as time passed) and I are at Licking River Outfitters in November in Sunrise, Ky., 14 miles north of Cynthiana and about two hours east of Louisville. Licking River is a nonprofit that takes people with disabilities, wound- ed soldiers, kids and the occasional writer hunting. Gassett's parents, Robin and Ellen, manage its 600 acres, whose feed- ers and rows of corn attract wild, free-range deer and turkey. Wooden huts with space heaters, strategically placed tree stands (one with a wheelchair-friendly elevator), and a 150-year-old barn with tobacco leaves hanging from its rafters to mask the scent of humans facilitate shooting these animals. To ensure his schedule matches that of the 14 automated feeders that attract deer to his land, Robin doesn't roll back his watch to acknowl- edge the end of daylight-savings time until deer season ends. Robin and Ellen moved here from Georgia, less to be close to their son than because of Kentucky's abundance of cheaper land and bigger deer. Last year, the nonprofit cost the Gas- setts $30,000 to operate. Tey received $6,000 in donations, and the balance came out of their pockets. Since 2004, they've hosted for free any child, wounded soldier or person with a disability or terminal illness who wants to hunt deer or turkey. After nightfall (when it's illegal to hunt) and between morning and afternoon hunts, guests share hearty communal meals the Gassetts prepare in a compound decked out with tools and animal trophies. During my visit, breakfast is eggs, thick slabs of bacon and hash browns; dinner is chili. A couple of bunk- rooms to the side of the main space provide a cozy place to crash. So how did a leftist greenhorn wind up hunting with two accomplished outdoorsmen at the Garden of Deerden, sport- ing a hunter-orange hat and a similarly colored vest over new camouflage coveralls? (Te law mandates the orange; the camo was to look authentic for TV.) As is often the case for a young buck such as myself, it came down to a woman. And food. [42] LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 3.12 M y wife Margaret is an assistant attorney general of Kentucky and the counsel for Fish and Wildlife Resources. "Hunters and anglers give more money to the environment than any other group," she's been telling me since we met and she learned of my anti-hunting stance. Manufacturers of guns, bullets and other hunting equipment are taxed 11 percent federally, with the proceeds allocated to state fish and wildlife agencies for conservation efforts. Te amount received is contingent on the number of hunt- ing licenses a state sells and its geographical size. In 2011, Kentucky, with its 300,000 licensed hunters, received almost $7 million. Additionally, proceeds from hunting and fishing licenses and permits benefit environmental projects in the same way; combined, they brought the state $24 million last year. (Fish and Wildlife receives no money from Kentucky's general fund.) I've learned that many animals being hunted, including deer, need to be culled lest they destroy their habitat and dissemi- nate their population, eat your CSA's organic crops or smash through the windshield of your new Prius. To ensure hunt- ers don't overkill, most animals can only be hunted at specific times of the year (spring turkey, which opens on April 15, is the next popular season). And strict kill limits exist. For deer, it's usually one buck a year, while the number of doe depends on the part of the state. Game wardens enforce these laws. My resident hunting license cost $20, the deer permit $30. I borrowed a gun, so the only other costs I incurred were $18 for the orange vest and hat, $50 for the camouflage coveralls and $81.60 for bottles of Basil Hayden's and Woodford Re- serve to give to the Gassetts as gifts. Buying two documents and answering 15 easy true-or-false questions (question No. 2: "A hunter should always identify the target visually and never shoot at sound or unidentified movement") for my one- year hunter education-exemption permit were the only legal requirements to being able to hunt. I accomplished all of it online. After being with Margaret for six years, somehow I had the idea of writing an article about the trauma of trying to kill an animal for the first time, while also including hunting basics and exploring how outdoorsmen support conservation. Ten, after Margaret witnessed my prowess skeet shooting while on vacation in Montana last summer, she was less enthusiastic about this assignment, realizing I may in fact be able to hit a deer and unsure if I could handle said trauma. (She believed an experience with me and a dying bird in our driveway testified I could not.) Her parting advice was more practical than exis- tential, though: Any instruction to douse myself in deer urine to mask my scent was likely a prank. As for the food? I love eating game, but it's illegal to buy wild game meat from a hunter, because historically, market hunt- ing — the unregulated taking of wildlife for consumption and sale by private individuals — has led to a lot of wildlife atroci- ties. Deer, turkey and waterfowl, among other animals, were all almost market-hunted out of existence. "I think in the 1920s there were fewer than 1,000 deer left in the state," Gassett says. So if you want to know that the game you're eating is fresh, wild and organic, you can't just know a hunter. You must be a hunter.

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