Exploring the gap between what we eat and where we get it.

JT Van Zandt on the Ethics, History, and Responsibility Behind His Hunting Life

  1. Fishing rebel crickets
  2. Regrets with a .410
  3. John C. Townes' Winchester pump
  4. The honesty of hunting

There are a lot of difficult questions in life with no real answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not valuable to ask those questions. There are lessons in the middle, on the journey toward some sort of resolution. For JT Van Zandt, he excels at asking those questions for the sake of asking them. As many people probably know through his podcast, or in the films in which he’s been featured (like this one, or this one, for example), he’s a thoughtful guy.


This especially holds true for hunting. As people who wield weapons and kill animals, there’s nothing more important than being intentional about everything we do. JT has been on a lifelong journey with hunting, from not-so-savory moments to somewhat of a balanced relationship with the sport. He’s built his career on fly-fishing, but he fills the freezer through hunting. It’s a relationship that’s being lost, but still retains an intense value for anyone:


“I think it's really important for humans to recognize that there's a gut pile associated with everything that they consume, whether it's a drive-through hamburger or chicken from the grocery store,” JT said in our conversation. “I mean, people have a hard enough time with the little pouch inside the chicken that's got the gizzard and the neck in it. There's just a valuable part of being human in that. I think a legitimate reason to eat more vegetables is because, in the past, you’ve had a hard time wringing a chicken's neck.”


There are no shallow conversations with JT and I had the opportunity to dive in headfirst to talk about his journey in hunting. We talked about his first experiences in the sport, the types of animals he prefers to target, and where he stands on the gun-control debate. 


Here’s professional fly-fishing guide and avid hunter JT Van Zandt.


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Steve: Did you start hunting after you started fly fishing?


JT Van Zandt: Actually, it’s the opposite. I got a .410 when I was roughly nine years old after passing a series of safety tests established by my uncle to prove I was responsible enough to have a firearm. I had to clean everything and I had to eat it, so I killed a lot of squirrels. I killed a cardinal one time and actually had a funeral service for it with my grandma. I put it in a shoebox with a bunch of Indian paintbrushes, to kind of represent the mourning I felt for doing something that stupid.


Then, I killed a raccoon and it took like seven shots with the .410 from where he was in this Sycamore tree to get him to fall. I ended up clubbing him at the end of the deal and I started fishing more after that—just cane poles, using stink-bait for big catfish in Lavaca County.


I was an only child, so I did all of these things religiously. I went from having pieces of plywood with treated skins of squirrels on it, and one raccoon, to catfish heads on the fence post. I accidentally discovered a bass was in our lake, which was actually a three-acre pond in Hallettsville. Then, it turned into ultra-light tackle with those little Rebel crickets, the little dive baits. And that turned eventually into a fly rod.


Just like that?


Well, I skipped a period of time where I was a fairly rowdy Houston kid and was way into BMX bikes. When I was going to the [University of Texas], I was jumping these jumps we'd made on Knight Street and Lamar—I think it was in '91—and I got this terrible spiral compound fracture in my lower tibia and fibula. Once I had that injury, I reevaluated my life. I was really depressed from the months of immobility.


At the time, there was a store called the Austin Angler. It was above a Mexican food restaurant on Congress Avenue downtown. I was in an above-the-knee cast, so getting up the stairs with my crutches was super treacherous. They were really nice, but when I got into the door, they were like, "How the fuck did you get in here?" But, they ended up giving me a Sage outfit, a DS2 six-weight, and some instructional videos.


I couldn't get enough of it. And, the result is what you have before you now. I drink too much, but I'm pretty hard. I'm strong. I think I'm stronger for it than had I pushed the pencil thinking about doing it. But it goes way beyond fly fishing. It's a great place to put time and energy as you sort of stumble through and try to put meaning to all the rest of it. I think it's a real safe zone to spend time. I think it develops the soul. It certainly doesn't take away from it. Anything you can find to do these days where you can break even in terms of your integrity, you should do it. It's getting tougher and tougher, but I'm so privileged to live in the way I do.

 

So, after your introduction to hunting as a kid, you found your way back?


Oh yeah. I'd say within the first couple weeks of January, I pretty much have the protein I need for the year. This year, I shot a couple of axis does. I shot a nilgai. I shot two pretty big sow pigs. That's a good chunk of what my family will eat throughout the year. I shot some quail and I plan on getting a turkey this season. Just the opportunity to be outside and study wildlife is an opportunity to learn. Whether you're crawling on the ground trying to get up close with a bow or if you're sitting in a tree stand over a feeder, you're still in the state of observation of outdoors, which I think is fantastic. 


I do know that I can justify killing, personally, when we’re talking about invasive species. I can always hunt axis deer. They taste better than whitetail, and they compete with indigenous animals in Texas. They need to be controlled, otherwise, there's a possibility they could eventually eliminate indigenous species. They devour a lot of songbird habitat. The same is true with pigs. Pigs are everywhere. I really enjoy hunting pigs. I find them to be super fascinating. I probably bow hunt pigs once or twice a week.

Photo Courtesy of Tito West


Do the people close to you hunt as well?


I don't necessarily celebrate on Instagram the hunting aspect of my life, because my Instagram page is business-oriented to my fly fishing business. But, the people who I spend time with outside of work also hunt. It's very, very common for me, my friends, and my family to share wild game. Most of the protein we consume as a family, I would say, is caught or killed. And that's a newer development. Within the last decade, I've had the luxury of free time to hunt, and have had more invitations to be on private land to have those opportunities. To me, the most privileged a human being could be is to have the ability to hunt and fish.


Especially today, right?


Yeah. There's really no greater excitement, no greater fulfillment than pursuing and capturing and preparing your own wild protein. That's just a freaking blast.


Do you find yourself feeling conflicted about hunting?


It's hard to justify, for me, if I'm killing stuff that doesn't need killing. I think the ultimate example would be going back to that cardinal I shot, with my .410, because it just happened to land on a branch within range. It's super shitty. I think that's important. It’s important to be truthful to ourselves about things like that. 


On the other hand, with whitetail, if you have a place that qualifies for a wildlife exemption, you've got to kill like 30 does a year. There's an obligation to control whitetail, not to mention the fact that there are blackbuck and all these other species that have escaped exotic game ranches in Texas that actually compete with those animals. Axis deer in Texas need killing, and they're a beautiful deer and a delicious deer and a very hard deer to stalk.


But, back to your question about going back and forth, the answer is no, absolutely no. I don't waver on hunting at all. One thing I try to keep an eye on within myself is the desire to hunt and what that's about. I think there's a super fine line in terms of the humanity of it, where it goes from being beautiful to perverse. Hunting for me lies within the intent. I'm always going out, usually, to cull an animal. 


I've had very few opportunities on super big, trophy whitetail bucks. First, that's an expensive pursuit. Second, it's just not really why I hunt. I hunt to provide a free-range form of protein, a protein that's never suffered in its life up until that moment where I kill it. And hopefully, it's a clean kill. That's what I strive for. Archery is a lot like fly fishing. You have to get much closer and you have to understand the animal a little better. You have to be really sneaky. There's a lot of suspense. 


It seems like there’s a lot of value baked into the difficulty of hunting, too, don’t you think? It’s pretty easy to go to the grocery store.


Yeah, they’re polar opposites, right? With bow hunting, I'd say for the average person, if you're going out with a bow on an elk hunt on public land or something, you should expect to basically have a really long walk while carrying a bunch of stuff. The idea that an animal might be possible is a cherry on top of the experience, which is long and arduous. It’s not for everybody.


I think it's really important for humans to recognize that there's a gut pile associated with everything that they consume, whether it's a drive-through hamburger or chicken from the grocery store. I mean, people have a hard enough time with the little pouch inside the chicken that's got the gizzard and the neck in it. But, it wasn't very long ago that if you wanted to eat a chicken, you had to pluck it and take its guts out. You had to cut its head off and deal with it, right? There's just a valuable part of being human in that. I think a legitimate reason to eat more vegetables is because, in the past, you’ve had a hard time wringing a chicken's neck.


Claiming that eating animals is wrong is very out of touch with being human. I like the honesty and the pain and having to confront the difficult aspects of life on Earth. When we eat something, it had to die. Hands down, hunters and/or anglers across the globe who I've met have a way better understanding of those animals than biologists, botanists, zoologists, enthusiasts, and watchers. Hunting animals requires the greatest understanding of those animals out of any sect of the population.


How do you think it can carry on in our modern society?


Everything we have now is a modified version of that original template of happiness and security, which is basically an unlimited resource of food, game, and water. There's no better history of that than central Texas, really. The Hill Country in Texas is the utopia of the state. There are flowing limestone creeks and tons of deer, tons of fish. You’ve seen it. It was a place worth battling the Comanches for, which is saying a lot, right?


I think It's a balance. That's why I love people like Jesse Griffiths, over at Dai Due here in Austin, who's bringing this awareness of how wonderful wild game can be prepared with education or a reeducation, if you will, as to old-world techniques that make tastes we're not really accustomed to anymore. But it’s also about their accessibility to the working man, trying to make it to where it's an accepted cultural norm to hunt and fish and to keep fish and keep what you kill, most importantly for cooking with friends and with family. 


I think it’s a really beautiful thing, and if people who are able to engage in that do, then they just become better educated towards the natural world. I think that automatically introduces optimism as to whether or not we can survive a long time.


So, do you think more people should hunt?


Not in my favorite spots. [Laughs]


I was going to ask where you were planning to find that turkey.


Hmm, let me think about that for a second. I think more people should be introduced to marksmanship and archery as children. I think that those are innate experiences that everyone benefits from, whether those people choose to hunt or not. I think it's relevant to the learning of those skills and the respect for those devices, those machines. They’re important tools in the development of man. To totally disassociate with guns is idealistic and non-realistic. We've just lost the balance, right?


Seeing a gun in the rear-view mirror of a pickup truck was really common when I was a kid. I just thought that all old men had a gun for gophers or for turtles in the pond. I couldn't imagine them ever being pointed at a human being. It just never made sense. I own an AR. I wish they'd done a more serious background check. I wish it took me six months to qualify for it because I would have probably just gotten over the desire to buy the stupid thing. 


It's cool, but it's not like I dream about it or anything. When it comes to someone saying they want to take it from me, I'm also thoroughly opposed to that. But I'm also one of the last candidates you'd ever think would need or want one of those things. But, I have several really nice deer rifles. I have probably four .22 lever actions. I have some guns from my great-great-grandfather, one is a 1906 .30 Winchester lever-action, octagonal barrel. It’s a beautiful gun.


I also have a model 1912 Winchester pump, 12 gauge, from the same man, John C. Townes. It's just an important part of my culture, and the people who want guns controlled lack education, and the people who abuse the right to own a firearm lack education. Now, how can you have an argument without having an educated stance on something? You have two sides arguing about something they know nothing about. It's crazy.


And both tend to argue in absolutes. 


No one is reaching anyone else. But, I've seen it happen. If you bring someone from Manhattan who grew up with an idea that there's no modern need for guns, and you take them hunting in South Texas for quail or deer or a pig, they will instantaneously understand the need and desire and privilege and right to own that weapon and pursue game in that manner. There's no argument. It's the most fun you can possibly have on Earth, cruising around a giant ranch with an MLD (Managed Land Deer) Permit.


Ultimately, it's really not a political argument for me. I hate the political argument because that's just the politicians on both sides trying to serve their money interests. It has really no meaning or reference to the people and what it means to them. I just ignore the politics and focus on my own personal opportunities to hunt. I'm just in a really good spot. I'm never caught up in a debate. It's never a moral question for me. I live in my own sphere.

Photo Courtesy of Tito West


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