Why are hunters satisfied after hunts with no harvest?

Glassing for animals in Montana

All photo credits: Behind The Tines

From the barren tundra of Alaska to the rugged mountains of Montana, the flats of Texas to the food plots of Wisconsin, hunters prepare themselves for a trip into the wild; a place where caribou run the desolate tundra, elk congregate the mountains, hogs rut the flats, and deer graze the food plots. Hunters spend countless hours making sure that their rifles are shooting as accurately as possible, spend money on gear, and expend energy in search of that elusive wild animal (US Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011). But despite those countless hours, sore muscles, and empty wallets, hunters that come home empty-handed never seem to be disappointed. Instead, they are seemingly satisfied with the hunt no matter what (Hammit, 1989). Researchers have seen a trend over the years that shows that hunters are satisfied with hunts that were unsuccessful (Gigliotti, 2011).

So why are hunters satisfied with hunts that yield no harvest?

Many hunters tend to be content with just seeing animals in the field (Heberlein, 2002), while others are more interested in the social aspect attached to hunting (Gigliotti, 2000). Yet, why put miles upon miles on your boots and exhaust your body mentally and physically all for the sake of the hunt? This research is in search of a greater understanding of what makes coming home from a hunt empty-handed seem OK. It will also take a closer look into the mind of a hunter as the decision to be satisfied with the hunt is made. Therefore, the purpose of this research is to determine what contributes to hunter satisfaction during hunts that yield no harvest.

Specific questions will address whether there is a difference among genders and what specific factors determine the level of satisfaction after hunts.


Data collection

This study used Survey Monkey to collect the data of the participants. Participants were individuals who had “liked” various hunting based Facebook pages. The survey was created to gather information on hunters and why they are satisfied with hunts that result in no harvest. The data collection period was 17 days.

Data analysis

The data collected in the study were analyzed and Survey Monkey produced statistical results. The researcher analyzed the open-ended text box question; a full-text analysis of each response was performed and themes were developed as similarities arose through each individual’s response.


The purpose of this study was to understand why hunters are satisfied with hunts that yield no harvest. There were a total of 194 responses to the survey, 17 females (8.8%) and 177 males (91.2%). The average age of the respondents was 35: the youngest being 18 and the oldest 65.

Differences among genders

Gender was specifically taken into consideration when determining what creates satisfaction among hunters that yield no harvest. When the respondents were asked, “On a scale of 1 to 5 please indicate your level of satisfaction after each situation that resulted in no harvest,” females rated a higher level of satisfaction than males on 31 out of 35 of the situations and when data was consolidated on 10 out of 13 of the situations (Graph 1). There were no real situations asked in which one population had a considerably higher or lower level of satisfaction than the other; both populations were always within the same level of satisfaction (strongly dissatisfied, dissatisfied, neutral, satisfied, strongly satisfied) (Graph 1).

There were four general instances in the study that resulted in a greater level of dissatisfied individuals than satisfied individuals (multiple missed opportunities, wounding an animal, shooting and missing an animal, and guided hunts). All four of these instances had a level of satisfaction (1 to 5) averaging neutral (3) or below for the entire population: 3.0, 1.6, 2.9, and 2.75 respectively (Graph 1).

Satisfaction rating after a situation that resulted in no harvest
Graph 1: Consolidated results from question seven of the survey, “On a scale of 1 to 5 please indicate your level of satisfaction after each situation that resulted in no harvest.”

Importance ratings

All of the respondents were asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, please rate the importance of each on why you hunt,” (I hunt for the experience, I hunt to put food on the table, I hunt for the antlers, I hunt for the exercise, I hunt because it is a tradition, I hunt for personal achievement). Males rated personal achievement, tradition, and antlers higher than females while females rated the experience, food, and exercise higher than males (Graph 2). Both males and females (49.48% of respondents) rated “I hunt for the experience” as “Very Important”, (0.52% of respondents) rated experience as “Not Important”, while (3.09% of respondents) rated “I hunt for the antlers” as “Very Important”, (19.58%) rated antlers as “Not Important”. The experience was rated the most important reason to hunt; the antlers were rated the least important reason to hunt (Graph 2).

Importance rating of why you hunt
Graph 2: Results from question six of the survey, “On a scale of 1 to 10, please rate the importance of each on why you hunt.”

Satisfaction of filled tags

Respondents were asked, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you in each of the situations?” (filled no tags, filled some tags, filled most tags, filled all tags). There was no difference found among genders as a whole even if tags were not filled; the general population was (neutral), neither satisfied nor dissatisfied. Once a single tag was filled the population was satisfied, and the same level of satisfaction was carried out through filling most and all tags (Graph 3).

Satisfaction rating after filling tags
Graph 3: Results from Question nine of the survey, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you in each of the situations?”

Open response analysis

One open-ended discussion question was asked, “Please describe a time that you went hunting and did not harvest an animal, but were satisfied with the hunt.”

There were four themes that arose from the data:
1) closeness to nature
2) family and friend filled memories
3) learning experiences
4) experiences afield.

Hunting harvest quote

Theme 1: Closeness to nature

The first theme that arose with respondents tended to be satisfied with hunts that didn’t result in a harvest when they were able to actually be close to animals. This involved seeing and hearing the animals as they acted in their natural environment.

Respondent said:

“On archery hunt last year, I watched a group of young bucks in a spot I could not stalk them, play fight and mill about for an hour or two. Then as the sun was setting I watched a group of antelope come over the nearby ridge. I don't think I'll ever forget that hunt.”

A second response stated:

“My brother and I were nestled in the middle of 300 elk on the last day of the archery season. They were bugling their tails off. We knew we had no chance at tagging one, but we still sat and listened to them bugle for three hours.”

Another respondent said:

“Every year I sit on the stand and catch the movement of deer and they may not come close enough for an arrow. But that doesn't mean the experience wasn't rewarding. Because the sights, sounds and smells one gets to witness with just one sit on the stand can last a lifetime. I hunt for the closeness of nature. Can't get that feeling on the couch or a barstool.”

Theme 2: Family and friend filled memories

Aaron Johnstons Montana elk with his brother and father
Aaron Johnston's Montana elk with his brother and father.

The next theme that stood out was formed through a significant number of respondents saying they enjoy making memories in the woods with their families and friends.

A respondent said:

“Spending the time with my daughters makes it an enjoyable hunt. I get to spend time showing them what I love about hunting.”

A second respondent stated:

“Love that lean protein and the mount on the wall to remember the hunt and pay tribute to the animal and the adventure. But at the end of day, it is all about making memories and having a good time with a few close friends and family.”

Another respondent said:

“So far this deer season (on day three) we have yet to fill a tag. But I wouldn't trade a single moment of long hard hikes, sore exhausted body, for the time I've spent teaching my son how to enjoy nature and what it means to be a great ethical hunter who never gives up. I love hunting and I'm so glad that I've been able to teach my kids and husband to love it too. It really got me when on the second day when my 9-year-old looks up at me as we just hiked 14 miles to the top of a mountain and we're looking at the view, "Mom, we are the lucky ones, not many people get to see something like this and get to enjoy nature like this." That to me is what it's all about.”

Theme 3: Learning experiences

Respondents said throughout the responses that they enjoy the learning experiences that come from hunting even when they don’t kill an animal. They said that they end up learning something to better themselves as hunters.

A respondent said:

“Went hunting in eastern Oregon with my dad and a couple of his buddies. Seen tons of bulls I would be plenty pleased to take but with archery, there are no promises. Always see the bull of a lifetime but not coming home with one is okay. Cause I get to see the bulls that a lot of people only see on tv. I take the challenge of any mountain or canyon shed hunting to big game hunting at the end of the day I pushed myself and learned about my capabilities and the animals I go after before and after the season.”

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A second respondent said:

“Hunting whitetail deer on National Forest Land behind a gated road with a two-hour hike in. Saw a few deer but nothing legal. On this trip, I had a bobcat walk with 15 yards of me and saw turkeys and a black bear. These types of hunts are satisfying because of the outdoor experience, but also because I learn something new about the ways of the forest and the mountain each time I go. Which in the long run will make me a better hunter.”

Another respondent said:

“Elk hunting a familiar spot. Finding the sign, tracking animal patterns, and learning something new every trip. One can never be too wealthy in experience. A person who says they know everything about hunting is a liar. My favorite aspect of getting out is feeling the excitement brought on by the anticipation of the unknown.”

Theme 4: Experiences afield

Danny Johnstons Montana elk with his two sons
Danny Johnston's Montana elk with his two sons.

The last theme that was found within the responses was the most popular response by all respondents. This was based on the simple realization that the individuals just enjoyed the experience of being in the outdoors and enjoying all that the hunt had to offer.

A respondent said:

“Last year, my brother and good friend had just picked up bowhunting and it was their first season. I had been bowhunting for several years. We got on multiple bulls bugling very early into an early morning hunt and decided to split up a little bit and try and get on at least one. I went one way and sent the other two a different way. We ended up on the same bull, a small 6, I watched from about 150 yards as my brother and friend attempted to work this bull into range. Neither one of them were able to get a shot before he spooked, yet both were ecstatic that they had a bull that close screaming and coming in. Neither one of them had ever experienced a bull bugling at such a close distance, so that was really a neat thing to get to experience with them. It was also really fun to sit back and watch this all unfold from a close distance, knowing full well that this was not going to be my opportunity. Watching was still really intense, not knowing if they were going to get a shot, or if he would spook. Very similar to a live hunting show.”

A second respondent said:

“Ha, that's almost every time it feels like. Take last weekend, we were hunting upland game birds and went out for six hours, didn't see anything bigger than a chipmunk. But, you know what, had a wonderful day, playing in the woods and on the back roads with my wife, just enjoying being in nature; it's that simple, being in nature, exploring, and adventure are the real reason for being there, the harvest that provides sustenance for the family is almost a bonus, a necessary bonus at times, but still not the sole reason for going out.”

Another respondent said:

“A large percentage of tree stand sits result in no harvest. As do most call setups on elk. It's the nature of the game. I wouldn't want it any other way. It's about the experience and the work not about blood on my hands. Meat in the freezer is icing, a privilege not a right. While a cow elk brought out whole from a private ranch hunt is nice occasionally, that's grocery shopping not hunting. Earn your food!”


Boiling elk skull while shooting bow

The results from the survey suggested that the main influence of hunter satisfaction from hunts that yield no harvest comes directly from the experience hunters have afield. When the respondents were asked to rate the importance of why they hunt, both the males and females rated the “experience” as the most important aspect of why they hunt while they also rated “antlers” as the least important aspect. When speaking in terms of the hunt that yields no harvest, hunters believe in the experience of just being in the outdoors as the main reason for their hunting, as one individual said, “A large percentage of tree stand sits result in no harvest… It’s about the experience and the work, not about the blood on my hands.” Respondents in the survey rated the situations geared more around specific experiences observed in the field (sat and watched desired animal in natural habitat, witnessed a rare sighting of a mountain lion, encountered a calf elk at 5 yards while hunting bull elk, and watched two bighorn sheep have a duel) with the highest level of satisfaction compared to all other situations (see Graph 1).

Some experiences observed by the respondents in the field align with the situational questions asked in question seven of the survey. One respondent said, “On an archery hunt last year, I watched a group of young bucks in a spot I could not stalk them, play fight and mill about for an hour or two. Then as the sun was setting I watched a group of antelope come over the nearby ridge. I don't think I'll ever forget that hunt.” This is closely related to the situation in question seven: we sat and watched the desired animal in natural habitat. This specific instance was rated among one of the most satisfying reasons why hunters who come back from hunts without a harvest are satisfied. It was also a frequent response in the open-ended question that asked hunters to state a time in which they went hunting and didn’t harvest an animal but were satisfied.

Most instances presented resulted in a general level of some satisfaction greater than just neutral satisfaction, but there were a few that resulted in neutral to dissatisfied. When hunters had missed opportunities at getting an animal or they took a shot and missed/wounded an animal, then they were generally dissatisfied with the hunts. Also, on guided hunts, they rated these as more dissatisfying than actually being satisfied on the hunt. These results, when compared to other instances presented in question seven, generally could be perceived as instances when the actual opportunity to harvest a game animal is greater than the other situations, resulting in more dissatisfaction. Hunters, while they are on average geared more on the experience of the hunt and are usually satisfied with the hunts, when the perception of an increased opportunity to harvest a game animal is present, the expectations to harvest an animal rise. Thus, when the hunter is not successful in the field during these instances, they are more dissatisfied with the hunt.

Colton Johnston bugling for elk

When hunters were asked to rate the level of satisfaction for when they did not fill a tag or when they filled some/most tags they rated each above a neutral level of satisfaction. There was an increase in the level of satisfaction from filling no tags to filling some tags, but after some tags were filled the level of satisfaction was consistent while more tags were filled. With a rating of neutral or higher for each of the situations, it means that filling the tags (harvesting an animal) is not the biggest factor for why people hunt. Instead, this relates directly to the hunters rating experience as the main reason for their hunts. One individual on the open discussion question stated, “We knew we had no chance at tagging one, but we still sat there and listened to them bugle for three hours.” This individual put it perfectly, the hunters didn’t fill their tag, but the experience they had in the woods still made the hunt satisfying; seeing the game in the field enhances hunter satisfaction (Herberlein, 2002).

A trend that was found through the open-ended question responses was the social aspect that was attached to the hunts. Hunters constantly responded to the question stating that spending the time with friends, family, and making memories in the field were all that was needed to make for a satisfying hunt. One hunter responded, “But at the end of the day it is all about making memories and having a good time with a few close friends and family.” The time that the hunters are able to spend with their families and friends is the main reason that hunters are satisfied with their hunts that yield no harvest. Being in the field with another person and having a social experience can enhance the overall experience (Gigliotti, 2000).

Gender was taken into consideration when analyzing the results and it was found that there was not a considerable difference between males and females in situational aspects. Females did tend to be more satisfied in general than males, but the difference between the genders was virtually undetectable. There was a slight difference among genders when they were asked to rate the importance on why they hunt. Females were focused more on the experience, the exercise associated with hunting, and the food while men rated the tradition, antlers, and personal achievement higher than females. Both groups rated the experience as the main reason they hunt. The rating of experience as the most important and the antlers as the least important solidifies the belief that hunters are not fully intendant on harvesting an animal every hunt, but that they are out there to enjoy the hunt (experience). The hunter has a focus on gaining a general experience as a hunter, spending time with their family, creating memories, enjoying the animals in their natural habitat, and learning from each hunt to make themselves a better hunter to increase their odds of successful hunts in the future. One respondent said, “If I give it my all and don’t tag out, yes I'm disappointed, but very satisfied knowing I tried my best but was outdueled by the very creatures that I thought I had mastered. That brings me back to field, knowing the animals still master me.” The overall experience a hunter has in the field is the ultimate indicator of the satisfaction level they are going to have whether they harvest an animal or not. If there is an experience to be had while out hunting, harvesting an animal is only an additional pleasure to the already satisfying hunt.


The sample population is not generalizable to the actual population due to convenience sampling. The population was not randomly selected but took the survey based on convenience. Some questions among the survey may have been confusing for the respondents and could have led to inaccurate depictions of a respondent’s actual answers.


Hunter enjoying the morning sunrise

The purpose of this research was to determine what contributes to hunter satisfaction during hunts that yield no harvest. The overall experience of the hunt, seeing and hearing animals act in their natural environment, the time spent with family and friends, learning about themselves and ways to better themselves as a better hunter all lead to a greater level of satisfaction during hunts. The respondents rated the experience as the most important reason they hunt and rated the antlers as the least important reason. Future research will look more into the different aspects of the experience and investigate the relationship between family and friends and also the intimate relationship between the hunter and the animal.

“A hunt is a hunt. A harvest is the bookend to a hunt. A skunked hunt is 98% of the experience of a "successful" hunt.”



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Gigliotti, L.M. (2000). A classification scheme to better understand satisfaction of Black Hills Deer Hunters: the role of harvest success. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 5, 32-51
Gigliotti, L. M. 2011. 2010 Black Hills Deer Hunter Survey Report. Report ID#: HD-5-11.AMS. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Pierre, SD.
Hammitt, W. E., McDonald, C. D., & Noe, F. P. (1989). Wildlife management: Managing the hunt versus the hunting experience. Environmental Management, 13(4), 503-507.
Heberlein, T. A. (2002). Peer-Reviewed Articles Too Many Hunters or Not Enough Deer? Human and Biological Determinants of Hunter Satisfaction and Quality. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 7(4), 229-250.
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Shrestha, S., & Burns, R. (2009). Big Game Hunting Practices, Meaning, Motivations, and Constraints: A Survey of Oregon Big Game Hunters. Retrieved from http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr-p-94papers/01Shrestha-p94.pdf
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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