Editor’s Note: Celebrate the hunt.

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By Andrew Johnson

First light was only a few minutes old when I heard the crisp bark of a rifle cascade across the rolling terrain. Two of my friends, Ryan Bortnem and Matt Gabbert, both from Hartford, S.D., and I had split up on opening morning of South Dakota’s West River deer season a few years ago. While it was still dark I slipped down off a bluff in the southwest corner of the ground we were hunting and set up in a tangle of tumbleweeds in a fenceline. After dropping me off, my partners drove around the big block of short-grass prairie where they entered the property from the northeast corner. The plan was to hunt until midmorning, then meet up somewhere in the middle.

Goose bumps crawled up my arm after hearing the shot. Because the young season was only minutes old, I was guessing one of my friends must’ve seen and shot — or at least shot at — a mature buck, as tagging out this early on a doe or smaller buck wouldn’t have made any sense, especially when we had three whole days of hunting in front of us.

After sitting for another hour and not seeing much action, I slowly made my way northeast toward the rendezvous point, glassing as I went. A few does scurried across the prairie in front of me, but the only other movement I saw came from a flock of sharpies flitting from parts unknown into a cut sunflower field.

An hour or so later I crested a hill and saw my friends dragging a deer toward the road. They were still a couple-hundred yards away, but I didn’t need my binoculars to see the buck was a trophy.

There are big deer, and then there are giants. This, without a doubt, was an absolute toad.

I couldn’t wait to hear the story and admire the deer, which ended up scoring over 180 inches, a trophy by anyone’s standards. Bortnem shot the deer, and shortly afterward Gabbert sealed the deal on a big-bodied whitetail buck of his own, I came to find out. We took some photos of the two deer and then basked in the sun, amazed at our luck. My friends had both scored on huge deer, and although I wasn’t next to their side that morning, I still felt as if I was part of their hunt.

What’s more, nearly two-and-a-half days later, both Bortnem and Gabbert helped me haul out a whitetail buck of my own that I was able to track down on hectic spot-and-stalk hunt that went down shortly before we had to point the truck east and head back home. After their early success, my friends glassed, scouted and helped me in any way they could.

They didn’t have to. They could’ve slept in and watched football for two days as I wandered around. But they didn’t. And that says something about them, because they wanted to celebrate my hunt as much as they had celebrated their own. Now, you tell me, which is the greater trophy — the deer, or the fact three guys had one heckuva hunt?

I’m sure many of you have hunting companions that fall into one of two camps: those who will stick it out with you through thick and thin, and those who wouldn’t. Sadly, it’s quickly becoming apparent that more hunters are falling into the latter category not only in the field, but also from behind the screen of their computer or mobile device.

In the world of social media, it’s easier than ever to share in another hunter’s success, but, at the same time, it’s become even easier for people to become critical of other hunters’ achievements. For every positive post on social media, it seems there’s a negative one, and it’s not just from the non-hunting crowd. Rather, harsh or judmental comments often come from other so-called hunters who feel empowered by anonymity to tear others down in an effort to make themselves feel better.

It’s unfortunate this trend seems to be growing, especially during a time when hunters need to band together as we face critical factors such as habitat loss, the current assault on public lands, and attacks from anti-hunting groups that don’t understand conservation or the sport of hunting. Now, more than ever, hunters need to support one another, pass on the hunting heritage to the next generation and celebrate the hunt. If we don’t, we’ll soon lose it forever.