A recent comment I received questioning whether hunting is a sport prompted me to do a little research. The results were enlightening.

The origin of the word “sport” is late Middle English, “an abbreviation of the word “disport,” which means “a pastime, entertainment, a diversion from work or serious matters.” I’d say that offers a decent explanation for why many people partake in the sport of hunting. So does another definition: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual competes against another or others.” The others, in this case are animals.

Of course, it wouldn’t be good sport if the adversary didn’t have a reasonable chance of escape. The average success rate for a deer hunter in Maine is roughly 10 percent. I’d say that represents a sporting chance.

Ancient records indicate hunting for sport was largely a pastime of the noble classes or their equivalent in Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia as early as the 5th century, though it almost certainly dates back long before that.

Evidence suggests that prehistoric humans hunted primarily – but not exclusively – for food.

Were the former the case, any game would suffice. Yet cave drawings and pictographs show that even ancient hunters glorified their exploits, targeting specimens with large claws, horns or antlers that they wore in ceremonies to appease the spirits and recognize the skills of the hunter. Status was bestowed upon the best hunters, a trend that was much later reversed when hunting became a privilege afforded only to those of noble status.

That remained largely the case until settlement of the New World. Fleeing oppression from many things, not the least of which was access to natural resources, prompted colonists to develop a new ethic with regard to game. Hunting in North America began largely as a matter of necessity. With the establishment of governments came a new system wherein wildlife was considered common property.

Later it became a commercial commodity, which led to the decimation of many wildlife populations. That, in turn, started the modern conservation movement, which eventually evolved into the North American model of wildlife conservation, wherein fish and game were considered the property of all citizens, to be held in trust and managed by government agencies.

Another product of that era was the modern sportsman, a hunter who adhered to an ethic of fair chase. Restrictions on seasons, bag limits, hunting methods and weaponry – called for largely by hunters – were enacted to prevent over-exploitation and ensure that game had a fair chance.

That remains the case. In fact, many sportsmen adopt a philosophy of voluntary restraint, electing to impose even greater limitations on themselves. Some choose to hunt with a bow instead of a gun. Some take only males of the species.

Even those who accept the above may still malign the so-called “trophy” hunter. At first glance he or she may seem callous and interested only in personal satisfaction and reward. But that view may change when you consider how many animals they voluntarily pass up waiting for the “right” one, which may never reveal itself. It turns out the trophy hunter is often more interested in the chase, the contest, the sport of hunting. A successful conclusion, if and when it comes, is merely validation for extra effort.

Hunting is a contest between very different beings. Hunters head afield armed with exceptional brains, knowledge and often modern technological advancements. But they enter a realm in which their prey is intimately more familiar. Far more often than not, the prey wins, but the hunter wins just often enough to keep him going back.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

bhunt@maine.rr.com