The Principles of Fair Chase

Fair chase is a commonly used term within the hunting community. It’s been around for well over 100 years, and many sportsmen practice and live by it, yet may not know it by name or its significance.

In large part, fair chase is more a matter of the “spirit of a hunt” than a set of written rules. However, because fair chase is a morally grounding principle affecting the choices we make, it's a good idea to have them written down.

Fair chase is an ethical way of hunting that enriches human character and virtues, both emotionally and intellectually, with the purpose of fostering the essential relationship between the human hunter and the life/death continuum in a way where hunting is not only in support of sustainable use conservation, but enhances the well-being of the species being hunted.

Although hunting ethics are both a matter of personal choice and those deemed appropriate by the hunting community at large, the actions of individuals do represent all hunters, which can affect the way hunting is either publicly supported or opposed. It’s therefore important for us, and those who do not hunt, to know that fair chase hunters share these important principles.

The Fair Chase hunter:

  • Knows and obeys the law, and insists others do as well
  • Understands that it is not only about just what is legal, but also what is honorable and ethical
  • Defines “unfair advantage” as when the game does not have reasonable chance of escape
  • Cares about and respects all wildlife and the ecosystems that support them, which includes making full use of game animals taken
  • Measures success not in the quantity of game taken, but by the quality of the chase
  • Embraces the “no guarantees” nature of hunting
  • Uses technology in a way that does not diminish the importance of developing skills as a hunter or reduces hunting to just shooting
  • Knows his or her limitations, and stretches the stalk not the shot
  • Takes pride in the decisions he or she makes in the field and takes full responsibility for his or her actions

Five Stages of Fair Chase

The Five Stages of the Hunter is a well-documented look at the progressions a hunter goes through as he or she ages and gains experience. As we age and our experiences accumulate, what we get from hunting and give back changes over time. What defined success, accomplishment, and purpose at age 14 can be very different at ages 24, 34, and 54. Regardless of how careers in hunting evolve, there are some aspects of hunting that remain constant. Doing the right thing is one of them.

Just as there are five stages of the hunter, there are five stages of the fair-chase hunter. Fair chase represents both a personal ethic, as well as that of hunters in general as a community. Fair chase is also based upon principles of how the hunting of game species is to be conducted, which is why it is also the basis of many of our game laws.


For the majority of sportsmen and sportswomen, the choice to be a hunter begins at an early age and grows from a curiosity and fascination for animals. Learning about, seeing, and being close to wildlife satisfies this curiosity. With curiosity comes a sense of appreciation and respect, which are the cornerstones of a hunting ethic. When we care about wildlife, ethical decisions come naturally.


Acquiring the skill and the experience to be a successful and ethical hunter is an ongoing process. The game we hunt is neither helpless nor helpful, which requires us to develop skills. In addition to the skill in knowing animal behavior, where they live, what they eat, how they interact with one another and respond to human presence, skills also include proficiency with hunting methods and weapons. Practice, being proficient with and knowing the capabilities of one’s firearm or bow as well as knowing one’s own capabilities are not only the responsibility for every hunter, they are also the basis of a fair-chase approach.


Having early success is important. A young hunter might shoot his or her first wild turkey resting on a branch, or a duck off the water, or pheasant off the ground. Although not considered in the spirit of the chase, these actions are not illegal, and can be appropriate for a hunter just starting out until they acquire patience and skills. In time, early success like these give way to wanting to experience the challenge of harvesting game a more sporting way.


Having a moral connection to the game we hunt means hunting with a purpose. Success is still the point, but thinking about, planning and preparing to go hunting begins to become more important. Being with family and friends in the outdoors and bringing home healthy, organic protein to share defines a purpose that moves the act of hunting itself above simply killing game. While the reasons for hunting are personal and can vary, they all include a purpose. This purpose helps us achieve the experience we seek. Purpose also includes challenge.

The “no guarantees” nature of hunting is one of its most powerful attractions. Success is built upon success, but in this stage the hunter begins to test his or her experience and skills against more challenging game and conditions. The purposes for hunting have already been established, but now how we hunt begins to matter more. Some choose to heighten the challenge by limiting themselves. Taking up archery hunting is a good example. Being more selective and holding out for a more mature animal—a trophy—can enhance the challenge and a sense of accomplishment.


Just being outdoors, in the woods, fields and wilderness, in camp and on the chase now has a satisfaction all its own, whether game is taken or not. Some would call this this the sportsmen’s or mentoring stage. This is where seeing or helping others get their game replaces one’s own hunt. This is also where feeling the need to give back to the wildlife and hunting itself becomes stronger. Passing on skills and knowledge to others or the next generation is now a reward in itself. Passing on how you do things is also how fair chase and a conservation ethic gets passed on from generation to generation.

Fair chase is a code. It's a contract we make with ourselves. We are both born with it, and we learn it from others and our own experiences. The parts of it we are born with trace all the way back to man being an animal himself. The rest we learn in stages, and then pass on.


Origins of Fair Chase

"In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”―Theodore Roosevelt, founder Boone and Crockett Club

An ethical code of conduct, that which was viewed as the right way to approach hunting, was a concept that originally developed in Europe. This did not, however, carry over with the settlers to the New World. America was the land of abundance and opportunity. A life of independence, free from servitude and filled with promise, was there for the taking. All one had to do is be resourceful and take. How we hunted did not matter back then. There was no need or room for an ethical approach to hunting. Game was plentiful and hunting was not for sport, but for survival and profit.

In time, when enough land was cleared for reliable food crops and domesticated livestock, food security became less of an issue for those living in more populated areas. These same human developments and decades of overharvesting had left wildlife population in scarce supply. Hunters had to venture further and further into the wilderness to bag their game. The concept of hunting for sport began to develop at this time, as did the need to restrict the amount of game taken so it could replenish and there would be game to hunt tomorrow. This is when the notion of conservation first began to appear, and along with it an ethical approach to hunting that showed restraint.

By the late 1800s, unregulated sport and commercial market hunting had taken its toll. Wildlife was no longer abundant or even present in all but the furthest reaches of remaining wilderness. Sportsmen already knew what was happening, but the broader public was just beginning to take notice of the extinction of some species and the near extinction of others. The logical solution was preservation and protection, which included an end to hunting. Those closest to the situation had a different idea.

Influential sportsmen who valued the game they sought and the spirit of the chase stepped forward; most notably was Theodore Roosevelt. He formed a group of his friends into the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887 to address the rapid decline of big game populations on a national scale. Their solution was to promote a new system of natural resource use they called “conservation,” and they promoted regulated hunting as the foundation for this new system.

The earliest recorded usage of the term “Fair Chase” is in the fifth article Boone and Crockett Club’s constitution, adopted in February of 1888. At this time in history there were no laws governing the talking of game for food or for sport. Water-killing deer (driving deer with hounds or pushers into lakes where shooters waited in boats to either shot, club or cut the throats of deer) was also a widespread practice, especially in the Adirondacks.

Article X of the Club’s constitution declared that the killing of game while swimming was an “offense” for which a member may be suspended or expelled from the Club. Later writings by Club members Theodore Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, and Aldo Leopold articulated the term “fair chase” to the public through books and magazine articles. Most notable of these where the Club’s Acorn book series on hunting (1893 – 1933), Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac, and Grinnell’s Forest and Stream magazine – now Field & Stream.

Conservation was based on the fact that people need and will use natural resources, including wildlife, but this use would now have to be regulated and guided by science. For society to accept this new idea over complete protection, Roosevelt and the Club began to promote another new concept: one called fair chase.

If hunting was going to be allowed to continue, how it was being conducted and the character of the hunter now mattered. Fair chase became a matter of pride and status. It separated those who hunted for personal reasons from those who hunted for profit, ie., the commercial market hunters who had no code of honor.

Fair chase became a part of an overall conservation ethic. It defined a true sportsman as one who could kill game, yet use self-restraint and stand guard to ensure that wildlife populations would never be threatened again. It didn’t mean hunting was a sport like other contests, but rather its participants used a “sporting” approach. Fair chase defined the rules of engagement that elevated sportsmen to being highly respected members of the community, both for their skill as woodsman and providers, but also for their commitment to something greater than themselves.

Talking About Why We Hunt

As hunters, we all will inevitably be put in a position to explain, either in person or online, why we hunt. Sometimes this will be in response to someone who is simply curious. Other times we could be confronted by someone who has already made up his or her mind that they oppose hunting in general, or some form of it, and is just interested in winning an argument. How we respond individually and collectively will have a significant influence on how we, and hunting in general, are viewed and then accepted or rejected.

So, how do you answer this question: Why do you hunt?

It’s good advice to first gauge who you’re speaking with. Since people who are dug in against hunting are not going to change their minds over a truthful and sincere response, sometimes the best play is to not play at all, rather than swinging at low pitches in the dirt. Others who are sincere in their curiosity are simply that—curious. Neither person should be considered the enemy. If we immediately jump to the defensive, things typically don’t go well from there. It is therefore always a good idea to be prepared and know, if possible, who you are talking to.

As hunters, in answering the question of why do we hunt, we need to be honest—not just truthful.

It’s true—hunting is a significant mechanism for conservation and game management. But getting up at 4:00 in the morning, slinging on a backpack, and venturing out into the cold to participate in wildlife management is not why we hunt. It is not conservation calling when that alarm goes off. It is also true that conservation and wildlife management is funded in large part by sportsmen’s dollars, but paying into this system is a benefit from hunting, not why we hunt.

Repeatedly quoting how much money is funneled into wildlife conservation from hunting as a justification for hunting can actually do more harm than good, especially when confronted by someone who already thinks hunting is all about ego worship and paying a high price to kill something.

Supporting wildlife management and helping fund these efforts are part of the bigger picture we need never apologize for when and if we have the time to tell the whole story to a willing listener. People asking why “you” hunt is a more personal question that requires a more personal answer.


The truth is, there are many reasons why we hunt, and any one of them would suffice. One reason that should resonate with everyone is, in a word, freedom.

There is nothing more personal than freedom, and everyone understands what freedom means, or should. One of the greatest benefits compelling us as hunters is exercising our freedom to hunt, which is not a freedom for everyone in many countries. Just as game species may be the truest indicators of quality, natural environments, hunting is an indicator of quality natural freedoms. In a very real sense, public hunting is a very American way of viewing natural resources like wildlife.

The hunter is probably as free as it’s possible to be in this fast-paced, instant information overload, techno-society of ours. Free, not because we abandon civilized codes and restraints when we go afield, but because we can transport out of and beyond the commonplace, and insert ourselves into a quieter, deeper, wilder and older world from whence we came.

I was in a hunting camp several years back. The day had been successful; three of our party had filled their deer tags, and sprits were high. After the game had been cared for and supper was digesting in our bellies, the scene was alive with talk, stories, laughter and anticipation of the next day. As I watched this group of hunters engage with each other, it dawned on me. These men were free.

Our freedom has arched the trajectory of human existence across all time. It was freedom from oppression and servitude that loaded the ships destined for the New World and a new life. It was freedom that endured the hardships of carving a new nation out of the wilderness. It was the belief that all men are created equal and should be free that eliminated slavery. It was freedom that sends our troops into combat. Freedom is therefore not only an American ideal but a human one.

“Hunting exercises, expands, and enhances my freedom.” Tell them that.


Our Shield Against the Antis

It would be tough for anyone who hunts not to be disturbed by the rhetoric being put forth by anti-hunting groups. They’re among that 10 percent of the population who not only does not hunt, but they are trying to make a living out of ending all hunting.

This vocal minority never seems to let the facts get in the way of a good argument, which is frustrating to watch. They can no doubt stir up trouble; but they are also just that, a minority—no different in the sense that hunters are a minority. This vocal minority is partly responsible for non-hunters turning away their support for hunting. The question is, what to do about them?

One solution is support and practice fair chase hunting. Hunting being conducted under laws guided by science that are established to ensure the well-being of game species is an inconvenient truth for the anti-hunting agenda. Their workaround to this is to ignore this fact or bring their own junk science to the table to refute real science. But what they can’t work around is this truth: beyond game laws, the majority of hunters limit themselves for the benefit of game populations by choosing to hunt under the highest of ethical standards.

The code of fair chase is the anti-hunting boogey man. It says hunters are not the uncaring, blood sport thugs with no honor or values they often try and portray hunters to be. Fair chase is the shield their arrows bounce off of. Each one of us has this shield. If we all use it, that’s the best thing we can do to drown out anti-hunting noise.


Our Permission to Speak

All significant human activities, sooner or later, are conducted under a code, or set of guidelines, that direct appropriate behavior. Without this order there would simply be chaos and the activity would become unacceptable.

This website presents many aspects of hunting ethics and fair chase, including what an overall code of ethics says about hunters being principled men and women committed to something greater than themselves.

It’s a fact that not everyone hunts or understands hunting. It is also true that hunters are a minority. Combined, this means hunting has and is repeatedly under question and often criticized and debated in a now-global forum.

There is one rule in an open public debate about anything. To have your points of view heard and listened to, whether they are accepted or not, you must first have earned the permission to speak. This means you have the experience and credibility to be a part of a productive debate to be taken seriously and not dismissed. In the broader public debates about hunting’s modern relevance and personal and conservation benefits, fair chase is our permission to speak.

The concept of fair chase dictates that hunting has a code, and there are guidelines, principles, values, and standards being practiced and met. It validates that hunting is not random, lawless, and without purpose.

People may not participate in an activity themselves, but they have proven they do not oppose others who participate when there is proof that good behavior is celebrated and bad behavior is not tolerated.


Man-made in the USA

Man-made; adj. Made by humans rather than occurring in nature; artificial or synthetic.

A conversation about hunting and fair chase would be incomplete without talking about the pursuit of “game” that has been genetically manipulated to produce abnormally large antlers, which are then sold as “trophies” in artificial hunting situations. Why is this an important conversation to have? Because for the hunting community to allow this practice to continue unchecked is “whistling past the graveyard” for the future of hunting.

Let’s set aside for the moment the question of the impact on the species being altered by genetic engineering, including the use of hormones, blood thinners, excessive minerals and protein. Let’s set aside what the introduction of a false product means for the value of the real thing, and the value we place on nature. Let’s also set aside the issue of wildlife health and diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) that can be spread from the transport of these captive animals from one state or province to another and then from captive to wild populations. These are all legitimate concerns that drive the distaste the majority of sportsmen have for this practice. As ethical hunters what should be our focus is no longer ignoring the fact that this type of “hunting” has and continues to foster a perception among the non-hunting public that “this is what hunting has become.” There are already signs where hunting is being rejected over this wrongful association, and the lid isn’t really off this can yet. Fake news is a dime a dozen these days, and this is not fake news. This will get picked up more than it already has and fed to the public creating more brush fires against all hunting.

This type of commercial enterprise has been made legal in some states, so these businesses are established. It will take legislative action and restrictions to undo what’s been done. This very well could be an expensive, and long drawn out process, but there is another solution.

A case can be made that the breeders and operators of these businesses are just providing a service to willing buyers, and they currently have a legal right to do so. Businesses rely on customersno customers, no business. It is therefore up to the customer to decide if this is the type of hunting or product for them, or whether they consider it legitimate hunting at all. Thankfully we’re already seeing a trend coming from a handful of people who are saying, “been there, done that, not a hunt, not booking again.” As sportsmen concerned about the future and traditions of hunting we need not only nurture this trend, but also do everything in our power to distance hunting from these activities for when the ax does fall, and it will fall. The non-hunting public will see to that, if we don’t.

Lessons From Coaching

Hunting is not a sport like basketball, football, or soccer, but there are lessons that can apply to hunting from the coaching of these sports.

Coaches are taught to identify two different personality types in their athletes so they can adjust their coaching style to best benefit both the athlete and the team. The two personality types include task-involved and ego-involved.


  • Measure success by personal improvements
  • Focus on what they are doing to get better at the task
  • Perform to the best of their ability
  • Feel confident and successful when they get better
  • Values the process and the experience
  • Looks to make other teammates better and celebrates their successes
  • Has a fairly even attitude and self-confidence when things are going good and not so good
  • Understands that to get better they must try harder, choosing challenging tasks, and persist in the face of adversity

  • Winning is the measure of success
  • Pre-occupied with their ability compared to others
  • If winning can be achieved with less preparation and effort, all the better
  • Avoids challenging tasks that might expose a weakness
  • If self-confidence is low, is preoccupied with whether they are good enough
  • If self-confidence is high, is preoccupied with how to prove rather than improve their ability
  • Are more likely to engage in unsportsmanlike behavior
  • When winning is everything, ego-involved will likely do anything to win

Using a basketball as an example, a task-involved point guard who misses two or three shots at the beginning of a game will continue to try hard to get open, work within the flow of the offense, and shoot when given the chance. If an ego-involved point guard misses their first few shots they are more likely to hide their inability and pass up shots, not try as hard, not execute their role, look for excuses, and blame teammates or the offensive game plan. If he or she makes their first few shots they are more likely to keep shooting—sometimes too much—without regard for their teammates or the game plan.

When winning is everything, it defines the person and the activity, and what each person gets from participating. It is no different in hunting. When a kill defines success, that’s all there is. This places more value on the result than the process or the experience. This is especially dangerous for young hunters who will not always be successful every time out. It can make them question their abilities, look for shortcuts or the easy way out—or even quit hunting altogether.


"A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this fact."Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

While professional sports leagues continue making tweaks to their refereeing system and booth-review processes, it makes one wonder if hunting has had it right all along: We police ourselves and call our own shots.

To be fair, hunting is not a field or a team sport with a long list of participant rules that need enforcement administered by impartial referees or umpires to keep the play safe and fair. Hunting has game laws of course, but the rest of the rules in hunting are either personal or part of a group to which we belong.

A group of friends who share a hunting lease may decide everyone must shoot a doe before taking their buck, or that bucks under 2½ years are off-limits. If you break one of these rules, you might be looking for anew place to hunt next year. On the personal side, we have our own standards by which we live and hunt. These are not written down, and we don’t hand this book to someone and say, “Watch me.” We referee ourselves. It’s one of the special natures of hunting. We’re the ones who have to live with the consequences of taking a shortcut or making a bad call; that is, until this reflects negatively on all hunters and hunting. That’s when we are called upon to be a referee.

Technology Unchained

Taking the “hunt” out of hunting.

There are many things that challenge the notion of fair chase, and the use of new technologies is one of them.

Is this really what is going on with the quickened place of technology’s influence on hunting? Some would say yes. They tend to be among the older generation where the phrase “Is that really necessary?” gets tossed around a lot. Others who have grown up with apps and Bluetooth expect the newest technological adaptations, think nothing of it, and shun the “back in my day” crowd telling them otherwise. An argument can be made from both points of view, but what does all this mean for hunting’s future? Can we simply say, too much of anything can be a bad thing?

It's a balancing act. On one hand, old-fashioned American ingenuity and innovation are what built this country. Our society normally embraces technology without question because it is seen as advancement for the better and, to an extent, is a symbol of status. New gear and gadgets can be beneficial, such as those that help elderly or physically handicapped people continue hunting. Technologies that advance human safety, the recovery of game, secure edible meat from spoilage, and make hunters better marksmen are also positive advancements. Ensuring a quick, humane death without unnecessary suffering is one of the responsibilities of every hunter.

On the other hand, new technologies can overly tilt the scales in favor of the hunter. Here, the affects can be felt in different ways. On a personal level, and one that the traditions of hunting are built upon, when hunting becomes too easy, too predictable, and less challenging, something very special can be lost: the very nature of hunting itself.

Hunting has always been more meaningful than just shooting game. The overuse, or an over-reliance on technology has the potential to reduce hunting to an unrecognizable, mechanized from of lethal shopping that is unacceptable to both hunters and non-hunters.

Advancements in technology adapted for, or made specifically for hunting can also make hunting success so easily attainable that it might result in a harvest rate beyond which some game populations can sustain. New technologies can increase a hunter’s advantage to the point where game no longer has a reasonable chance to escape. States and provinces respond by establishing laws to restrict the use of certain equipment in order to ensure that their use does not negatively affect the game populations for which they are responsible.

“The true hunter counts his achievement in proportion to the effort involved and the fairness of the sport.” —Saxton Pope

Beyond what is legal, it is ultimately up to each person to choose how they hunt, including whether using a specific hunting technology is necessary and will still provide the type of experience they seek. Individual choices also reflect on hunters and hunting as a whole.

Hunting confronts us with many choices. It both teaches and challenges us, which is why it is such a unique and deeply rooted tradition. Such traditions are supported as long as those things that make it a tradition have not been stripped away. If hunting is reduced to pushing a button on a device, it will be impossible for hunters to maintain any claim the hunting is both challenging and rewarding.