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The old joke runs: Teach a man to fish, and you’ll get rid of him every weekend.

As this weekend’s opening of the 2016 big game season approaches, hunters might benefit by learning from fishermen. Because they’ve got some lessons to impart on the comparative advantages of hunting with friends or keeping your secret spots to yourself.

Most western Montana hunters will head out in pursuit of whitetail deer and elk this Saturday. A few will cross the Continental Divide in hopes of finding mule deer in better numbers. Deer hunters tend to travel in larger parties, while successful elk hunters often stay solo. At least, that’s the perception of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game-check station watchers over the years.

But that division may not pay off, mathematically speaking. According to the authors of a new study released on Thursday, independent hunters should have more success with the more abundant deer while the harder-to-find elk should draw teams of gunners.

Matthieu Barbier of Princeton University and James Watson of the Stockholm Resilience Centre published “Prey-foraging: The collective search or lone-wolf approach” in the journal PLOS Computational Biology. The team looked at West Coast fisheries data, because frankly, there’s a lot of it. Commercial fishermen record years of information about harvests, licenses awarded, number of crews and personnel, and other statistics. That gave the mathematicians plenty of numbers to load into the spreadsheets.

“Fishermen tend to share information about salmon or other migratory species,” co-author James Watson of the Stockholm Resilience Centre said. “But they’re more secretive and even territorial about fish stocks that remain more or less in the same place. In Scandinavia mushroom hunters are quite secretive about the location of wild mushrooms in forests, for example.”

Their goal was to see if there’s a formula explaining how hunters find success pursuing prey. Their conclusion reads: For prey that’s easy to find and quick to consume, go lone-wolf. For targets that are harder to find or manage once caught, run with the pack.

“For example, tuna travel in large schools, but they’re very mobile,” Barbier said. “It helps to have people working together when you find a school. With groundfish such as halibut, they tend to be in smaller, isolated areas that take skill and knowledge to exploit.”

Like all good things, the tradeoffs eventually ruin the rule. Too many fishermen (or hunters) teaming up on those hard-to-find targets can eventually overwhelm the prey population. Anyone who’s read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” knows what happens when you can’t bring your catch home by yourself.

“For almost every elk I’ve killed, I was alone,” said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “But the teamwork comes in once you have one down. Then it’s nice to have a friend or two.”

Gevock agreed that Montana hunters tend to travel in groups in pursuit of deer, while elk hunters typically go solo. That’s partially because the skill level involved in elk hunting punishes amateur mistakes. Spook a deer, and it may run over the ridge. Spook an elk, and it won’t stop until it’s in the next county.

But there’s a lot of tradition tangled up in there as well. Relatives may get together for group hunts on opening weekend, then go solo later in the season until rejoining around the Thanksgiving holiday and end of season. They might be advised to compare their relative success for deer or elk on those different trips.

“When we had conversations with fishermen about their strategies, we found they were very interested in what the science has to say about this,” Barbier said. “Sometimes the competition within companies is very strong, and that can prevent strategy changes. They were trying to disentangle which of their methods comes from the species they pursue, versus the constraints of being part of a company.”

One big caveat to keep in mind – Montana law prohibits using radios or other electronic communications to hunt game animals or avoid game-check stations. So the teamwork discussed here has to be old-fashioned, football huddle play-calling. Radios and cell phones can be used for personal safety, but not to direct colleagues or report animal sightings.

Fishing boats can report the location of a tuna school, but then they risk lots of other boats sharing the bounty. Barbier and Watson found that a new factor comes into play – the number of cooperators. Once the advantages of being a lone wolf are outweighed by the need for partners, choosing the right size pack is crucial. Unexpectedly, Barbier and Watson found larger groups tend to outperform smaller ones, if the prey base can handle the harvest.

“And remember,” Barbier said, “part of this is a gamble. Skill is a large part, but then the rest of it is how you distribute your luck.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.