So you want to learn to hunt? If so, you are about to embark on a journey that, while quite involved, can literally change the way you look at the world. Contrary to popular belief, hunting is not just about picking up a gun and killing an animal. It’s about a culture of respect that embraces nature and everything in it.
Learning how to hunt is a multi-step process. Of course, you will need to become licensed, acquire all the necessary hunting gear, acquire hunting tags, and become well-versed on all the relevant hunting safety rules—rules that will help keep you and the people around you safe. You will also need to practice your shooting skills, which holds true with whatever kind of hunting weapon you elect to use—a gun, crossbow, etc. And you will need to consider some of the philosophical questions surrounding hunting, including your justification for killing an animal and how you will explain your love of hunting to those who might not share your views. The process for learning how to hunt correctly and compassionately can be a long one, but if you were to ask someone who has undergone the process you would learn that it is definitely worth the effort.
Below we will methodically take you through the various steps you will need to undertake in order to learn how to hunt properly, including the basic licensing tasks, the long process of gaining hunting knowledge, tips to improve your marksmanship, and how to dress your kill for ultimate consumption. We will also outline a few hunting-specific tips and make recommendations on the type of gun and ammunition you should opt for as a beginner just starting out on his/her hunting journey.
Getting Your Hunting License
One of the most popular activities in the U.S. and beyond, hunting can be a very enjoyable pastime when gone about the correct way. In this country alone, there are literally thousands of public acres zoned for hunting, giving residents of every state an opportunity to learn how to hunt while enjoying the great outdoors.
Before you can enjoy the activity of hunting, however, you will first need to secure a legal hunting license—a hunting license that is specific to the type of hunting you plan to pursue. Various regulations, put forth by the federal government and each individual state, are currently in place to ensure would-be hunters are completely legal before they set out on their hunting expedition.
Hunting licenses can be secured through the wildlife department in each individual state. These departments, which go by various names, license hunters to hunt in that particular state; and some states even offer licenses that permit hunters to pursue the activity countrywide. Regardless of your state’s precise licensing requirements, there are several things of which you need to be aware before commencing with the licensing process.
State Hunting License Requirements
The exact documentation and standards for obtaining a hunting license vary from one state to the next. However, there are some factors that every licensing agency takes into account when approving—or rejecting—an individual’s license application. These factors include:
- Criminal record. Depending on the crime for which an individual is convicted, many of the state licensing agencies may reject those applications, especially if the crime in question involved a firearm.
- The area in which you plan to hunt.
- The time period in which you will be hunting.
- The method you plan to use to “bag” your game. Methods may include a crossbow or a compound bow (archery), modern firearm, primitive firearm, etc.
- The type of game you plan to pursue. Game options include everything from waterfowl, duck and turkey, to deer, bear and bighorn sheep.
- Your state residency status. Many state licensing agencies will only permit people to get licenses in the state in which they reside.
In addition to the above factors, people applying for a hunting license will usually have to take a hunter education course (explained below in the section entitled “Hunter Education Requirements”) that covers some of the basic safety rules and regulations that every hunter should know and follow.
A good majority of the states in the U.S. offer hunting licenses based on season (dove season, deer season, etc.), meaning licenses are only issued for that season and that season alone. Hunting licenses are only offered to individual hunters; they cannot be borrowed, shared or transferred in any way. In addition to the hunting license, when people are on a hunt that must carry their photo ID, as they must always be prepared to confirm their identity should they be stopped and questioned by a game warden.
Most hunting licenses are offered for a specific group—or a specific type of animal. For instance, in many states people can apply for either a small game or big game license, which allows them to hunt any animal within that group as long as it is “in season.” Other states have licenses that are specific to a certain kind of animal, such as a turkey or duck license, an elk or deer license or a bear or moose license.
The fees for hunting licenses vary from state to state and from season to season, and depend largely on the type of game being pursued. Residents of a given state typically pay far less than non-residents. The fees collected from the license purchases, together with the fees from the hunting education course, help to preserve the wildlife and wilderness throughout the state and country.
Federal Hunting License Requirements
In some cases, the licensing requirements of the federal government take precedence over the regulations of the state licensing agency. One example of the way the federal government supersedes the state is when the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife enforce that all hunters who plan to hunt migratory ducks and other birds must first purchase a “Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conversation Stamp,” which is also known as a “duck stamp.” The U.S. government also prohibits any hunter from pursuing an animal on the Federal Endangered Species list, as these animals are protected under federal law. Failure to comply with any of the federal government’s rules and regulations as it pertains to hunting can result in a heavy fine and even jail time for offenders.
Hunter Education Requirements
As we briefly mentioned in the section “State Hunting License Requirements,” all states in the U.S. require hunting license applicants to first take and pass a course on hunter education and safety. Depending on the state, applicants for this course must be at least 10 years old to 14 years old on the low end of the age spectrum. The hunting education course usually consists of two general areas: classroom or textbook instruction and field experience. Some states offer the classroom portion of the hunter education course online for an extra fee, while others insist that hunters show up in person.
In some states, there is the option for children to obtain an “apprentice hunting license.” This license allows children to accompany a licensed adult hunter, usually age 18 and above, thus allowing the “apprentice” to gain some valuable real-world experience before they apply for an actual hunting license when they become of age.
There are an abundance of topics that are usually covered in the hunter education course, whether in the classroom or during the field experience portion of the course. Some of these topics include:
- Conservation. Hunters are taught to protect and conserve the wilderness and the wildlife, ensuring that other hunters and outdoor enthusiasts can also enjoy the same areas.
- Proper hunting techniques. Hunting is essentially an art form—an activity that should not be pursued by reckless people with no regard for the proper technique.
- Safety. Gun and hunting safety is a major portion of both the classroom and field portions of the hunter education course.
- Wildlife Identification. Under this topic, would-be hunters are taught how to identify certain types of animals. This not only makes them better hunters, but helps to avoid shooting an animal that is out of season—or an animal for which they do not have the proper licensing and tags.
The main purpose of the hunter education course is to create environmentally-conscious hunters who are safe and follow all of the rules and regulations as set forth by the federal and state wildlife agencies.
Getting Your Hunting or Wildlife Tags
If you’re new to the pursuit of hunting, “tags” can be the most frustrating and time-consuming part of the activity. Tags are additional permits, required by most states, which must be obtained on top of the basic hunting license. Tags permit hunters to go after certain animals—typically big game animals such as elk, bear, antelope, deer, wild boar and even moose. To hunt and kill one of these big game animals, hunters must possess a tag for it—a tag that is good for a single animal of that species.
In reality, a tag is a physical permit that one must carry on his or her person—a permit that must be attached to that animal once it is killed. Most tags have spaces in which hunters must record certain details about the kill—such as the date and time of the harvest, the location in which the animal was killed, and/or the sex of the animal. Most tags have punch holes that hunters can mark to record all of this information. If a hunter fails to “punch his/her tag (fails to kill an animal) during the permitted time frame, he/she will be out the money they paid to get that tag, and cannot be reimbursed.
The system for awarding tags can be very complex and selective, and it varies from state to state. Unlike hunting licenses, which are typically awarded to most everybody that applies, tags are very limited in number due to conservation efforts. Some states have what they call tag lotteries, in which they only give out a certain number of tags each year for a given animal. There are also specific tags for rifles and archery.
Of the thousands of people that apply for tags each year, only a small fraction of them will obtain all the tags they desired—and some will not obtain a tag at all, meaning they are out of luck when it comes to big game for that year. Naturally, more tags are awarded in states where the game is plentiful, and in less wildlife populated states the opposite is true. Limiting the number of animals that are permitted to be killed each year helps to conserve certain species, and the huge fines and penalties for disobeying these terms dissuades poachers and irresponsible hunters from even taking a chance.
Like hunting licenses, the price for a given tag—for a given type of animal and a specific kill method—varies from state to state. And like hunting licenses, the price tag for out-of-state residents is much higher than that for residents of the state in which the game will be pursued—sometimes as much as 10 to 20 times the resident rate.
Getting the Right Hunting Gear
Naturally, the right hunting gear begins with your weapon of choice and the ammo you plan to use. Whether you intend to shoot with a rifle, a shotgun, or some type of archery-based implement (crossbow, compound bow, etc), you will need to read the directions carefully to determine the right type of ammunition. You will also need to become skilled at loading and using that weapon (described in the sections below), and understand all the safety precautions that are in place to keep you and the general public safe.
Apart from your weapon and ammo, there are other pieces of equipment you will need to consider. Although not all of this equipment is required on every hunting outing, the following suggestions may help you better plan and prepare for your upcoming hunting excursion.
Do You Need Camouflage Clothing?
When most people think of hunting and hunters, they unwaveringly think of big burly men dressed head to toe in camouflage clothing, hats and footwear (think Duck Dynasty). But do you really need to wear camouflage when hunting? The answer to that question is: it depends. Camouflage clothing can definitely be advantageous in certain situations, as it helps hunters to blend in with their natural surroundings. Duck hunters, for example, who often have to “hide in plain sight” near bodies of water, would be well served to dress a bit like their natural surroundings. However, people who are hunting in virtually tree and brush-less savannas and in deserts, can generally go without the bulky green clothing and simply dress comfortably for their surroundings.
Scope and Binoculars
Scopes and Binoculars, which help hunters aim and get a closer look at the animals they are pursuing, are strongly recommended pieces of equipment, especially for beginners just starting out. Tools such as these make aligning a shot much more easy. There are many types of scopes and binoculars on the market today, with prices that vary wildly depending on strength and quality. Our advice is to start small with a reasonably inexpensive scope or pair of binoculars, and work your way up to pricier equipment as you develop your skills.
Can I Benefit from Scent Control?
As you probably know, most animals in the wild have a tremendous sense of smell, and are able to pick up a scent for miles and miles in some cases. Their sense of smell tends to be their most heightened sense, so if you want to avoid being, well, avoided when in the wild due to your “human” smell, you could probably benefit from a scent control product. Hunting stores sell clothing and sprays that help to mask the smell of the human body. However, if you want to control your scent the old fashioned way, simply remember to walk facing the wind, so your scent will blow behind you; or be careful not to wear any fancy scented products, such as deodorant, cologne or even pungent shampoos.
Carrying Your Gear
You will definitely want to buy a carrying solution for all your hunting gear. In doing so, try to select something reasonably small and less cumbersome, like a lightweight backpack. This will help you travel long distances without becoming too weighted down, and will also keep your hands free if you need to shoot.
Walking Stick or Sticks
If mobility or balance is an issue, a good walking stick or cane can be very beneficial. There are currently many specialized walking sticks designed for traversing through the wilderness—lightweight sticks made of strong carbon fiber that resist breakage.
Basic Hunting Tips
There are a few basic hunting tips that every potential hunter should know and memorize—tips that deal with safety and etiquette when it comes to hunting in the wild, as well as the hunt itself. Some of these tips include:
- Do not take dead animals. Should you come across an animal that is already dead, do not attempt to harvest that animal. Not only is that illegal and definitely runs counter to all hunting etiquette in most states, deceased animals can also carry diseases picked up since they died.
- No alcohol. Alcohol has no place during a hunt. Drinking, while simultaneously handling a weapon of any kind, can be a recipe for disaster.
- Know the weather. Before you set out on your hunting adventure, check the weather forecast and dress accordingly (gloves, headwear, etc.).
- Avoid “odd acting” animals. Avoid killing or approaching animals that are exhibiting odd behavior counter to that of their species. This could mean the animal has contracted a disease of some kind or is wounded and not apt to act rationally.
- Think safety. Always bring a safety kit that, at minimum, contains extra water and a first aid kit, among other items.
- Cook meat thoroughly. Regardless of where you plan to eat your newly killed animal, make sure the meat is cooked thoroughly to specifications.
- Avoid the bite. Always remember to bring mosquito repellant and even mosquito netting when hunting or camping outdoors.
- Don’t get lost. A compass or, even better, a cell phone with a GPS device, is a must for modern-day camping.
When you carefully consider all the dos and donts of hunting before setting out on your big excursion you increase the odds of having an enjoyable, worry and hassle-free experience.
What Gun Should I Start Out With?
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the basic tips to follow when hunting—and become versed in the general rules of gun safety—it’s time to select and buy a gun with which to ply your new trade.
As a beginner just starting out, our recommendation is that you start out with a small caliber rimfire rifle. There are many advantages to using a rimfire rifle. Among these are:
- Cheap Ammunition. The ammunition for a smaller rimfire rifle is relatively inexpensive as compared to that for larger and more powerful weapons.
- Manageable Kick. The kick or recoil on a rimfire rifle is fairly easy to handle and absorb.
- Great for Practice. For those trying to practice and master their marksmanship skills, a rimfire rifle is a great option.
- Perfect for Small Game. For hunters just getting their feet wet, we suggest they start out pursuing small game, for which the rimfire rifle is ideal.
What Type of Ammunition Should I Start Out With?
Obviously, the caliber of ammunition you start out with will depend on the type and size of rifle you ultimately buy. Besides that, you have the choice between lead ammunition or non-lead bullets. Lead bullets have been used for centuries in rifles and other firearms, but because of the toxicity of lead bullets—toxins that can affect the game you shoot and the environment—many states are now moving to completely ban the use of lead ammo of any kind. For that reason, we suggest you start out with—and grow accustomed to using—non-lead alternatives. You may have to pay a little bit more for this kind of ammo, but the benefits to the environment are many and substantial.
Working on Your Marksmanship
Once you’ve selected your gun and ammunition, and memorized the safety rules that go hand in hand with hunting, it’s time to practice handling your weapon and becoming more accurate with it. The best way to accomplish this is to hire an instructor and head to the shooting range.
Your first trip to the shooting range may seem a bit intimidating. This is totally natural. Just remember that this is the same place where most beginner hunters learned how to shoot, aim and handle their new gun. The shooting range is also perhaps the best place at which to learn the four basic gun safety rules, as the staff there will make certain you never forget them. They include:
- Always assume that your gun is loaded—always.
- Never point your gun at anything or anybody you do not wish to destroy or kill.
- Never put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to fire it.
- Be constantly aware of your target and what is beyond (and around) it.
Understanding these four basic rules of gun safety will make you a safer and more confident hunter—someone who will always be conscientious of his/her weapon and surroundings.
Once you have made a few trips to the shooting range, the intimidation you initially feel will invariably fade away. This is because you will undoubtedly become more familiar with your weapon. However, just because the rifle is becoming more comfortable in your hand, don’t allow that comfort level to become too heightened. Guns, by their very nature, are dangerous, and should always be handled with care.
The key to good marksmanship involves a three-pronged approach: the proper grip, the proper stance, and the trigger pull.
The grip of your gun will actually be determined by your “eye”—your dominant eye. This is the eye that will remain open when spotting and lining up your target—in this case, the game you are pursuing. With most people, the dominant eye is the same as their dominant hand—the right eye for right-handed people, the left eye for left-handed people. However, this is not always the case. To determine your dominant eye, simply spot an object some 10-20 yards away, and take turns closing one eye at a time. Whichever eye is clearer—and more comfortable with the other eye closed, this is your dominant eye.
If you have determined that the dominant eye is your right eye (and the reverse for the left eye), you will want to hold the rifle on the right side of your body. Now you are ready to practice your grip.
Gripping and correctly placing the rifle will involve four points of contact with the gun, the left hand, the right hand, the shoulder, and the cheek.
- Contact Point #1—the Left (or Non-Dominant) Hand. The left hand can best be described as your support hand—the non-dominant hand that will support the barrel of the gun. This hand should be placed directly under the stock of the gun—usually a wooden piece designed for this purpose—just short of the barrel.
- Contact Point #2—the Right (or Dominant) Hand. For people who are right-hand-dominant, the right hand is the trigger hand. When gripping the gun, this hand should be supporting the gun just under the trigger guard, with the forefinger—or trigger finger—just over the trigger guard—a circular or oblong metal guard that completely surrounds the trigger mechanism. Remember; never put your trigger finger directly on the trigger until you are ready to shoot—as per Rule #3 of the Basic Gun Safety Rules.
- Contact Point #3—the Shoulder. The shoulder represents the third contact point you will make with the rifle. For this contact point, you will want to rest the butt—or back end—of the rifle in the “shoulder pocket.” This is the part of your body that will absorb the kick or recoil of the gun. You do not want to place the gun directly on the shoulder bone or collar bone, as the recoil will hurt much more on the bone and can potentially cause injury. Instead, you will want to locate the shoulder pocket, which is just below the collar bone, close to where it meets the bottom of the shoulder bone. This “pocket” is mostly flesh and muscle and can absorb the kick much easier.
- Contact Point #4—the Cheek. The fourth and final contact point of the gun is the cheek. After placing both hands on the gun, and resting the butt of the gun in the shoulder pocket, you will want to place the right side of your cheek (for right hand-dominant shooters) on the left side of the gun. This will add an extra level of support and assist greatly when lining up your target/game.
The grip you utilize when shooting your rifle should be exactly the same—every time. This will help you to become more comfortable with your rifle, improving your feel and therefore your aim.
The grip you have mastered in Step One of “Good Marksmanship” will be the same regardless of your body position—standing up, sitting down, kneeling or lying prone.
Therefore, the stance you utilize will come quite naturally once you have mastered the grip. Regardless of the stance you elect to use, just try to get as comfortable as possible and regulate your breathing. This will help considerably with your aim, whether you are spotting your target through the gun sights or through some type of optic scope.
Many shooters who are lying in wait for game will elect to use a sitting or prone position, while others prefer to stand. Some even use specialized products such as an easel-style tripod, which can help steady the gun. Either way, the key to a good stance is comfort.
The Trigger Pull
Once you have spotted and lined up your target or game, the only thing left to do is to pull the trigger. However, “pulling” the trigger is the last thing you want to do. Pulling implies a motion that is sudden and jerky, which can greatly and detrimentally affect your aim. Instead, you should gently squeeze the trigger slowly—so slow that you might seem surprised when it actually fires. In squeezing the trigger in this manner, your chance for hitting your intended target increases tenfold.
By mastering the proper grip, a comfortable stance and the correct trigger pull—and through much practice and instruction at your local shooting range—your first hunting trip is sure to be a success.
Where to Hunt
The question of “where to hunt” is not a simple question to answer. If you live, or are planning to hunt in the Western United States, there is more than enough public land to accommodate everyone who desires to hunt. However, if you live more towards the Eastern part of the U.S., public hunting lands can be very limited, so many of the hunters in these areas work out deals to hunt on private lands, usually for a small fee.
Your best bet for determining where to hunt is to:
- Ask your local wildlife agency about the places to hunt for the type of game you plan to pursue.
- Seek out the advice of veteran hunters until you become well-versed with regard to some of the hunting hot spots—places on which it is legal to hunt and where hunters tend to regularly spot and take their desired game.
How Do I Process What I Kill?
There is perhaps no greater thrill can “bagging” (killing) your first game. Whether you are hunting for waterfowl, small mammals or big game, the feeling of success that comes with your first kill, along with the idea of now being at least somewhat self-sufficient in terms of finding and killing something you will ultimately eat, can be quite exhilarating indeed. But what do you do now? What is the process for bringing this game from the field to the dinner table? Actually, this is where the real work involved in hunting actually begins—a necessary, albeit somewhat arduous process.
Once you have killed your target, you must now find it and approach it. This is fairly easy with big game, but can be a challenge when hunting for ducks or other waterfowl you shoot from the sky. Many experienced hunters use dogs to seek out what was killed—retrievers who will bring the kill to the hunter.
Once upon your target, and after you have ensured the animal is dead, remember to fill out all the proper tags and paperwork. DO NOT wait to do this, as you never know when a game warden may be lurking. Besides, this is a proud moment, and you should take pride in doing everything by the book. After completing your tags, the next step is to field dress the animal in preparation for packing it out.
Field dressing is essentially the process of removing the blood and innards from the downed animal. For big game, this is absolutely necessary to do in the field. Otherwise, trying to pack the entire animal out would be near impossible due to the extra weight. There are different ways to field dress different animals, so it’s important that you study up on the process of field dressing before you even head out. Better yet, if you are a novice hunter, you should always go hunting with a much more experienced hunter the first few times out—someone who can demonstrate the process of field dressing for you.
After the animal is field dressed, you can now pack it out for the ride home, where it can be skinned, butchered and prepared for consumption.
If you have never tasted wild game, it may take you a while to acquire a taste for it. However, one thing is sure: Animals ALWAYS seem to taste better when you are the one who harvests them.
Good Luck on Your First Hunt!
image by mak_nt/Deposit Photos