Eye in the Sky

Drones are great fun and units that produce high quality images are increasingly affordable. Just don’t use them to harass wildlife

By Rob Breeding

I was hunting turkey on the Kaibab National Forest just north of the Grand Canyon years ago. I was there with a couple friends, and as it was a fall permit we ended up hunting the country kind of like we would big game. In Arizona that often means sitting on the nearest water, or going for a walk.

It was unfamiliar country and I didn’t have much time to hunt. I knew my chances of killing a bird were slim, so I opted for the walk as I’d at least get a chance to see the country.

My buddies did the same and after coffee we went our separate ways. I never saw a bird, and neither did my buddies, but in the afternoon they did meet up and spotted a couple nice mule deer bucks. As most know, the North Kaibab herd is world renowned for the trophy bucks it produces. The boys weren’t carrying deer tags, but they did have a camera, so they set out for a stalk.

They also had a set of walkie talkies. After a bit of work trying to get close, they realized that they were going to have to move around a small hill to get close enough, and in the process they’d lose sight of the deer and possibly spook them. So instead, one hung back, on another ridge where he could keep the bucks, and the stalker, in sight.

He’d use the electronics to coach his friend into position. They spooked them anyway, and other than a single blue grouse, our party went home without filled turkey permits or even a couple photos of a monster Kaibab mulie.

Later, as we talked around the campfire, the discussion turned to the failed mule deer stalk. I don’t remember who brought it up, but our chat focused on the ethics of using electronics while hunting. That stalk — if my pal had been hunting with a firearm rather than a camera — would have been both illegal, and a violation of the fair chase codes all ethical hunters follow.

Lately there has been something of a kerfuffle about another bit of electronic gear: drones. Outdoor types are beginning to play around with these unmanned aerial toys, and some fear drones will be used by hunters to unethically scout and kill wild game. To that I say, “maybe,” but I’m not hitting the panic button just yet.

It’s possible that drones could be used for a type of advanced scouting, but even with a high quality drone I doubt it would be as efficient as more old fashioned techniques, such as finding a good spot and sitting on your butt until an animal makes itself available.

It’s possible, if the technology had existed 15 years ago, that my buddies and I could have sent a drone up out of camp above the North Kaibab timber in search of turkey. I’m just a hobbyist drone pilot, but I know enough to realize the odds would have been on us losing the drone rather than killing a turkey.

I’m against the use of any electronics that violate the basic principles of fair chase hunting, be it walkie talkie, cell phone or drone. But the circumstances in which a hunter might send up a drone in a legal flight spot an animal, then step out and legally kill it are remote.

Should they be banned during hunting season? If that’s your plan, I suggest you do the same with cell phones. If there was cell service on the North Kaibab my friends would have been better served by a couple of iPhones.

Drones are great fun and units that produce high quality images are increasingly affordable. Just don’t use them to harass wildlife or hunt unethically. But then, if you need to be told that, you’re probably too busy spotlighting deer to read this anyway.

Rob Breeding writes and teaches when he’s not fishing or hunting.