Choosing an Outdoor Adventure

As ammunition becomes increasingly costly and scarce, brushing up on your falconry skills now isn't a bad idea.

It may be best to let the adventure choose you

by Teresa Mull

The Great American Outdoor Show, held every February in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is a lot like Las Vegas’s SHOT (Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade) Show, except to me, much more enjoyable. The nine halls of “guns, archery, fishing tackle, tree stands, boats, RVs and more!” are manageable compared to SHOT’s delirium-inducing 18 acres of stuff. Plus, the Pennsylvania show is held at the Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, so the occasional sweet whiff of horse manure and hay mingles with the irresistible scent of Hoppe’s No. 9 for a truly sensory experience. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the PA Dairymen’s Association milkshakes—required sustenance for a long day of inspecting the latest and greatest outdoor products.

My favorite thing to do at the Great American Outdoor Show is to saunter, milkshake in hand, among the booths of the “more than 400 outfitters and boat captains from around the world” who pack two of the exhibition rooms, and pretend I’m Hemingway or someone else with unlimited funds and free time. Would I hunt moose in Alberta, or pursue elk in Montana with a Sam Elliott lookalike? I could opt to shoot sea ducks in Maryland, take care of a few pesky hogs with some Georgia good ol’ boys, or should I live out my Meryl-Streep-in-Out-of-Africa fantasy with an all-inclusive safari in Kenya?

The 2024 Great American Outdoor Show, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

I hadn’t even ventured to visit the sea captains yet (Costa Rican sportfishing, anyone?), and already I was feeling the effects of Choice Overload (albeit only hypothetical). How should a person go about choosing a hunting and/or fishing adventure? They almost all boast of—and display as proof—impressive trophies, top-notch accommodations, knowledgeable guides, and scenic locales.

“What makes your hunt better than the others?” I ask one of several outfitters from Newfoundland. “How do you set yourself apart to potential clients?”

Well, apparently there are a lot of moose (120,000) and not very many people (520,000) in Newfoundland, and “deer are everywhere.” There’s one main road on the province, a ferry required if you’re trying to drive, and the “fly-in country” is “absolutely beautiful.” Also, there’s better fishing there than in Alaska. Or so I’m told.

To hunt big game in one of the most remote areas in the Lower 48 (between Cody and Jackson, Wyoming), I’m informed that I’ll “have to like horses.” I can choose to spend between two and ten days camping, though five days is the length most people prefer. I’m not crazy about horses, except for their wonderfully earthy smell, but five work-week days spent horseback as opposed to sitting at a desk in front of a screen suits me just fine, pilgrim.

I learn from the Maryland duck hunters the best way to choose a hunting or fishing expedition is to ask around. Sure, there will always be “one or two assholes” dissatisfied with their experience, but word-of-mouth recommendations, meeting your guide and discussing goals and expectations beforehand, and determining the best time of year to go, will go a long way in making your trip a good one.

“Hunting is only 25 percent of it,” an African guide tells me. The rest is culture and terrain. You want to trust your guide, especially when you might need to rely on his skill and expertise to waylay a charging Cape buffalo. “Your guide should be somebody you feel safe with,” he says. Ask for references. Speak to past clients. Make sure, if you can, that you get along with your guide before embarking on your trip.

As I slurp down the rest of my now very melty milkshake, I’m more knowledgeable about outfitters and the inducements of a lodge in northern Manitoba, but I’m no closer to choosing an outdoor trip for the proverbial “bucket list” (not my favorite term). I amble into an end aisle, and my attention is caught by a sign advertising hunts in the Scottish Highlands. Deer and pheasant hunting in a majestically untamed landscape is intriguing, but wait… do my weary eyes deceive me or it that… a falconry package!? As in the ancient sport that substitutes feathered projectiles for steel ones…?

They say you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it, and that was the case in my hunt for a theoretical guided trip. People enjoy taking a day with the birds when they’re in the Highlands for deer stalking or to shoot pheasants, Johnny tells me in the dialect of Michael Caine. A New York couple, for instance, was already on a trip to Scotland, and he took them out, hunted with a gyrfalcon (from the Arctic) and caught a duck with him. With a golden eagle, they caught a roe deer (“a bit smaller than a whitetail, with a funny-looking set of antlers that are quite distinctive”). And with the goshawk, the “most versatile” of the hunting birds, they preyed upon a mallard duck, a pheasant, a hare, and some pigeons.

Johnny uses an English setter to find the pheasants. Once the falconer is in position, the setter flushes the pheasant, and the falconer launches the bird from his glove. If it’s a falcon you’re hunting with, as opposed to a hawk or an eagle, he’ll be wearing a hood to keep him calm until it’s time to fly. When you release the falcon, he’ll fly as high as 1,000 feet in the air and then “come out of the sky at, like, 108 miles an hour and try to whack a duck in front of you.”

Johnny obliges my request to view a video of this feat, and it is just as thrillingly primeval as he described it. I don’t know how, as a comparative literature major who specialized in Arthurian legend, I was unaware that falconry was still so prevalent—there are some 5,000 falconers in the UK, says Johnny, but in the US, it’s “not as common. You have to get a license and do an apprenticeship to be able to do it. It’s quite difficult to become a falconer.”

“I thought you guys had a lot more rules than we do?” I challenged the polite Brit.

“Normally we do, but not when it comes to falconry.”

It was then that I decided resolutely on the imaginary outdoor adventure I absolutely must have. To escape to the rugged Highlands and hunt in the style of a medieval knight while encouraging a rare instance of British legal laxity is an experience none of the other outfitters I spoke to could offer.

Nor, most importantly, could they guarantee a scapegoat (bird?) were I to come home empty-handed.

Teresa Mull believes that the best outdoor adventure is the next one.