Hunting in the United States is arguably some of the best hunting in the world. Very few countries have the amount of opportunity, diverse landscapes, and conservation efforts as we do here. Hunting is a great way to connect with the natural world and decompress from your day to day life. It is a reminder to enjoy the present while giving us plenty of time to reflect and create life long memories individually and with friends/family.
I got introduced into hunting when I was 18 during my freshman year of college. An ex-girlfriend and I discovered Steven Rinella’s show, Meateater while scrolling through shows to watch on Netflix in my freshman dorm room one weekend. My then girlfriend and I fell in love with the food represented and the beauty of the scenery and decided to create our own hunting adventures. We both took our online hunter safety course and got certified together. Having very little hands on experience about firearms, I went to a local pawnshop in my college town and purchased a used 12 gauge Remington 870 Wingmaster. I then took it upon myself to learn how to shoot it and while back home for winter vacation I decided to show up to local sporting clays shop and ask if one of them would teach me how to shoot it. Luckily, one man volunteered, and managed to help me shoot a few clays in the air after the first 25 or so dodged my shots. Since then, I have gone on a few small game and big game hunts, upgraded my weapon arsenal to contain an old bolt action .22 and a new 6.5 Creedmoor rifle for big game.
Though I haven’t been successful yet, I count success differently than a grip and grin picture and meat in the freezer, though those are nice too. Realistically, I have only been able to hunt sparingly a few seasons as I did not have the time due to school, work, girlfriends, family, etc. I also had to dedicate a lot of time to learning how to hunt and scouting which cost me a few days where though I was hunting, I am sure I scared most of the animals away due to poor skill. I have, however begun catching the behavior of animals, observing trails they walk and areas to set up at. All of this takes time and boots on the ground to learn. If you do not come in to observe a spot and take note of what it is trying to tell you, you’re probably not going to have the highest chances of success.
I hope to teach aspiring new hunters the steps it takes to just get out into the fields and woods, as well as help people learn from my mistakes so they don’t make a fool of themselves or potentially hurt themselves, someone else, or make a poor shot on an animal.
1. Take Your Hunter Safety Course
After discovering your newfound unquenchable thirst for hunting the most important thing you can do is look up your states department of fish and wildlife or natural resources. These websites will typically give out great information and let you know where you can take hunter education classes. Don’t be discouraged if coworkers or friends try to make fun of you for taking hunter safety because it’s “for kids” they are ignorant. We were not as fortunate to have a parent or relative guide us into hunting. In my class alone there were more teens-adults than there were children anyways.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, even the online courses in my state required a field day where you attended an 8hr event and take your final written test and reviewed various safety videos. Post lockdown, some states still haven’t allowed for in person hunters education courses to return, though I speculate it is only a matter of time. Now, you can take it online through the NRA for free and it does not require a field day or in person requirement to obtain your certificate. You only have to take this course once, when you finish it you can hunt anywhere in the United States given you follow all other rules and regulations in that state/region.
Hunter education is crucial to understanding the basics of hunting, learning about all the different types of gun actions/types, archery/crossbow basics, muzzle loading, ammo knowledge, hunter ethics, the history of conservation in the United States, and most importantly gun/hunter safety. All of the knowledge covered is things that you should pay attention to. They allow you to understand all the avenues of hunting that you can choose to do, as well as making sure you and everyone else hunting your area has a positive and safe experience leaving the field that day.
2. Research State/Federal Public Land in Your Area as Well as Private Land (E-Scout)
Typically, while at your hunter ed. course the instructor will give you a paper atlas for the hunting season showcasing all the states, federal, and state leased walk in areas you may hunt at within a specific region or date. My state offers both an atlas as well as a digital GIS based satellite image map that you can have on your phone. It is the free version of what paid applications such as the OnX hunting app, though without all the added layers/tools. These tools are crucial as they help give you an idea of the hunting area around you. They also allow you to begin scouting areas and access points prior to actually going there on foot which can help save you a lot of time if trying to get a broad idea of what spots you’d like to hunt based on cover, accessibility, water access, wind, and the species you would like to pursue.
3. Pick a Niche of Hunting That Interests You
The realm of hunting is vast. There are many hunters out there who try to hunt whatever they can, whenever they can. Then there are those that choose to only focus on one or two species to hunt all year. Neither preference is better than the other. Some people prefer to hunt in groups that are constantly moving or with dogs; these types of people are typically bird or small game hunters. Some prefer to hunt alone in more of a stationary position such as a blind or tree stand for larger game such as turkey, deer, elk, and antelope.
There are also different ways/methods of harvesting animals; each method has its own pros and cons. Many hunters like to use rifles for big game due to their efficiency at killing game at long distance and the accuracy of the shot. Rifles are an ethical way to quickly dispatch animals if scopes/sights are sighted in and distance/wind/incline are adjusted for before taking a shot. Rifles are lethal at very far distances so it is very important to make sure your shot has a safe backdrop to catch your bullet such as a mountainside or hill, if not it can potentially damage property and even kill or injure someone. Some states/hunting area don’t allow for rifle hunting so make sure you check your state and local rules and regulations.
A lot of hunters use shotguns to hunt most of their game with. Shotguns are probably the most versatile weapon you can hunt with. They can take anything ranging from squirrels and rabbit to deer and bear (depending on range and gauge). They are powerful weapons, but a little less accurate at long distances and don’t possess near the range that rifles do.
Some hunters like the challenge of hunting with a less efficient weapon such as a muzzleloader, bow and arrow, or crossbow. Don’t get me wrong, all of these options are more than enough to kill a variety of game, but they have their limitations to how far they can shoot and their accuracy over long ranges.
4. Look for a Mentor/ Read Literature on Hunting
Depending on your previous knowledge around hunting and experience around firearms or bows, I extremely recommend trying to find a mentor to teach you how to safely handle your weapon on a range and in a field as well as becoming proficient at using your weapon. This will greatly increase your chance of success in the field and reduce the chance of injuring or missing game in the future. If you cannot find a mentor, don’t be afraid to join a sporting clay/hunting club if you can or take lessons from a local gun/bow shop.
I personally recommend checking out some books about the niche of hunting you choose as there are plenty of books to choose from. If starting out brand new, I personally recommend Steven Rinella’s intro to hunting books The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game Volume 1 and Volume 2. I personally own both of these books and found them easily one of the best introductory books you could get. Steve goes over things such as weapons, camping equipment, packs, clothes, technique/strategy, safety, game identification/range, etc. It’s everything you need to become a relatively prepared and proficient hunter in relatively little time.
5. Buy The NECCESARY Gear And Weapons
If you do so happen to pick up some into level how-to hunt books, you will soon notice that there is a lot of marketing. A lot of hunters who write books (especially the ones with TV shows and sponsors/companies) will market brands/gear that they have a personal stake in or are sponsored by. This may be unintentional as they are just showcasing the gear they use, which they get a lot if not most of their gear for free. A lot of the gear they market is good quality gear, just very expensive as it is “name brand”. Understand that people have been hunting the animals you plan on pursing for thousands of year in some cases. They were doing it with what they were able to scrape by with and they still were successful. You will have to tailor your gear to yourself and your style of hunting though so keep that in mind. After one season of hunting you will know what you need to add/remove or upgrade based on comfort and efficiency. Lastly, don’t shell all your money out on your gun, I understand that you want to increase your chances, but realistically you will use your gun a lot less than your boots or socks.
6. Become Familiarized With Your Gear And Weapons Prior to Hunting
Some of the best hunters I know all plan out their hunts and are familiar with their gear weeks-months prior to going into the field. The last thing you want is to wake up at four in the morning, drive to your spot in the freezing cold and have something go wrong or be forgotten. This has happened to me personally. I don’t recommend it. Take the time prepare/log your gear/emergency supplies and to learn your weapon in and out WEEKS before the season begins. Understand how to use your gear and what and where it ALWAYS goes in your pack. Prior to even hunting you should have some level of proficiency with your weapon and if hunting with a scope make sure your scope is still sighted and understand bullet drop/wind for your gun so you’re not missing those crucial opportunities because of improper planning.
7. Research The Organism(s) You Plan on Hunting And State Regulation
As I previously mentioned in my 6 Trout Fishing for Beginners blog post, it is extremely important that you research and understand the general behavior of the organism(s) you hope to hunt. This is what has allowed me to see animals I wish to hunt every year. I am not suggesting that you create a peer-reviewed research paper over the dispersal habits of x species, but I am suggesting that you understand when the animals are active, what habitat do they prefer, what food do they like, how do they move in windy conditions, how do they move in cold/hot conditions, etc. All of these factors play a role. Understand that even if you do all your research animals are sometimes unpredictable and you need to be able to adapt to this factor. Lastly, make sure the method your wish to hunt with is legal in your state, if you wish to throw atlatl darts or use stone points and homemade bows, make sure they qualify and are up to par prior to using so you don’t hear from the warden or injure an animal due to a self-bow that only pulls 20-25ish pounds at your draw length. The animal(s) deserve more respect.
8. Spend More Time Scouting on Foot And Taking Notes Than Actually Hunting
After researching the academic generalities of the species you plan to pursue it is now time to generate real world knowledge based on your own observations. For this I suggest looking at state population counts and success rates based on county/region if available to the public as to give you an idea where the highest amount of animals are. Then begin E-scouting and marking locations that look promising based on the habitat/food/cover and proximity to roads/towns and water. Once you have E-scouted a decent amount of plots allocate a weekend to check out the plots that you believe are the best based on its habitat and geography. Try to go to these areas about the same time you would if you were hunting. Try to do this a season or two before your actual hunting season as to prevent bumping animals from the spot before opening day. Also take note of any other hunting seasons as you don’t want to be stomping through the woods on public land if it’s opening bow/muzzleloader weekend you don’t want to ruin someone else’s hunt or risk injury to yourself. After you’ve done all of this, you want to take out some binoculars and look around at places you think they would be at. Look for signs of fecal droppings or tracks. These are great signs to find at a spot especially if they are fresh make sure to write these down and write where they were at and look at where they were going and where they were coming from. Animals are usually habitual and may follow these trails daily or every other day based on food/cover/water availability or predators in the area.
9. Understand That Hunting is Hard Work
The biggest misconception that a lot of new adult hunters have is that hunting is easy. We are sold a lie when we watch hunting shows or watch YouTube videos where the hunters are always successful. What we don’t see are the guides they pay to either give them local knowledge or guide them to areas. Hunting can be made easy if you are willing to pay and toe the line of what is ethical in the realm of leasing property and hunting areas baited with salt blocks and corn. If you have access to a family farm that hasn’t been hunted in 40 years you may one of the few who has holds a potential piece of nirvana. For the majority who hunt public though, we need to bust our ass to even be ELLIGIBLE to receive the outcome we are looking for. This includes scouting, using vacation days, prepping everything months in advance just to ensure when we get to a spot there is a high probability that you will be successful. Don’t get me wrong private land hunters may have the hunting part a bit easy, but they also have to consider things such as habitat/food plot development, population demographics/density, and many more tedious variables to ensure a healthy population will actually stay on your property. I have been hunting a few season in areas with high amounts of hunter success and came up short, although I have had some opportunity to take animals, but hey I will still be out there next season to make up for all the things I learned last hunting season.
10. Don’t Burn Yourself Out
Lastly, understand that hunting is addicting. We push ourselves for the adrenaline inducing opportunity to take an animal home and fill our freezer. If not successful the first day it is not uncommon for many people to hunt the following days until they either are successful or until the season ends. Waking up early and toughing it out in the cold is humbling but hard to do day after day with a job/kids, etc. It is important not to push yourself too far and maybe alternate when you go hunting, one day go in the morning, the next go in the evening or switch up location be adaptive. Don’t let whether you have a successful season or not impact how you view hunting. Hunting is meant to be challenging, it is meant to tease you, it is meant to make you respect the environment and the animals you are trying to hunt.
The world of hunting is beautiful. It is becoming more diverse by the day and as more people start to care about the quality of their food and the ethicality of it all I expect to see a continuous upward trend in the hunting world. There are many means to have fun and there are options for everyone, the hobby teaches so much about the environment and our own mortality. Don’t feel like you have to be rich to enjoy the activity (though having money does make things a lot easier) and remember that people have had a lot less than you and still been successful. Enjoy every moment in the woods and make sure you do your best to keep learning, staying safe, and having fun.