Hunting 101: What do I need to start?

Hunter at sunset

You will hear a lot about how hunting numbers are decreasing, but there are still many people out there who would like to take up hunting, they’re just not sure how. To get healthier and more ethically-sourced protein, to become more independent from the food supply chain, to maintain an old family tradition, or simply because you feel the ancient instinct awaken inside of you, whatever is your personal reason to become a hunter, this post has a few tips on what to begin with.

1. Find the right attitude 

Let’s make a couple of assumptions here. Statistically, you’re probably a middle-class professional from an urbanized place, such as New York, just bordering in age from “young” to “new young”. This is the group of people that usually struggle when they want to take up hunting, regardless of whether you’ve gone hunting as a kid but then sort of dropped out, or have zero hunting experience whatsoever.

You’re a successful professional, who’s spent the last ten to twenty years developing a career, and building a strong, healthy family. You’ve got an impressive resume, you’re used to knowing how everything’s done, you’re not used to feeling helpless and incompetent. But there you are: all alone, and fully aware of your lack of knowledge and skills. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know what to hunt. You don’t know how to set up a blind or tree stand, how to shoot, whether you need this or that kind of weapon. It’s like being a newborn, and in fact it’s this feeling of helplessness and insecurity that stops more people from taking up hunting in the middle age than anything else. 

The good news is that it is normal. Let’s just slightly change the accents – let’s call it humility. If you don’t know already why humbleness is a virtue and pride is a sin, you’ll quickly understand it as you hunt. No matter how many miles you’ve covered, how many continents you’ve been to, and how many animals you’ve harvested, Nature will find a way to show you that you’re not God-by-Proxy. You’re only a tiny part of the general circle of life; you will have to lay down your pride and play by the rules. And the rules are you can’t always win. In fact, most of the time, you’ve got to lose. Hunting is about learning, all the time, and every moment of it. And those who believe they know it all will never learn. 

So, it’s all right to know nothing. Go into the wild and wide world of hunting humbly, recognizing your limits, and don’t be ashamed to admit it, to yourself and to others. You will find an understanding audience in any true hunter. 

a trophy of a red deer

2. Get the knowledge

You can’t just go hunting at any time and place you want. Which is a good thing really. There are so many people in the world that if anyone could just grab a weapon and go kill an animal at any time, there would soon be no animals left. As human populations began to explode in the late XIX century, hunters were the first to realize this problem, and passed laws limiting access to hunting. These laws differ from country to country and even from region to region, especially in essentially federalist countries such as the USA or Germany. Even within most states and provinces the area will be broken down to smaller regions, the laws being different in each part.

In many European countries hunting rights are tied to membership in a club or association. Becoming a member may take a few years and require passing an examination, which in Germany, for instance, requires almost as much knowledge as a college degree in wildlife management and forestry. In other countries, such as the UK, you don’t need any special license to hunt, and the problem is getting your firearms certificate. The Americans are, perhaps, the luckiest of all: as long as you can pass the background test, you can just go ahead and buy your hunting rifle or shotgun, and getting a hunting license requires only proof of taking the hunter’s safety course.

Then again, human harvest is limited by a number of constraints. First, only animals of certain species, age and sex are legal to take, while others may be not. Then, hunting is limited to certain times, or seasons, and places. To harvest game, you will typically have to obtain permits, licenses, and tags. For some animals, like small game, the permits may be readily available and enable you to take a number of them a day, up to a certain limit. For others, like most species of big game, you’ll need a specific permit for a single animal; such permits may be hard to obtain, and available only by limited draw. Furthermore, not every weapon or hunting method may be allowed: for instance, it is often forbidden to stalk wild turkeys during the spring season. 

Another obstacle that you will have to overcome is access to hunting grounds. This may not be easy, especially in areas where most land is privately owned. In the UK, which provides a very good example, you don’t need any license to hunt anything, from partridge to red stag, although hunting is limited to certain established seasons. The problem lies in finding a landowner who’ll let you hunt (the Brits say “shoot”) on their land. Most landowners either aren’t interested in hunting at all, or hunt their land themselves, or leased the hunting rights to someone else. 

So, start with getting the knowledge of what, where, and when you can hunt in your locality. You will find this information readily available at the Fish and Game Department, or whatever public service, association or club is responsible for hunting in your country, province or state. Once you’ve found out what is available (hint: just a few hours of driving can take you to a whole new, more game-rich, and more open-access area), begin to read, watch videos, and listen to podcasts about hunting methods and tips for this particular species and environment. 

canoe and a couple

3. Sort it out with your family

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to. However, anti-hunting stereotypes are so predominant and all-penetrating in modern society, that you may meet misunderstanding even among the people most close to you. 

Our first tip here is, don’t just say “I want to go hunting, and here’s why”, but rather “Why don’t we try hunting?” If you want to have your family support you, you’ll need to at least offer to do it together. Hunting is a very emotional thing, and even the best spouses may find themselves feeling something not unlike jealousy. If your family is interested, you will always have the best company there is. If not – it would be a good starting point to overcome the anti-hunting stereotypes. 

If you meet resistance – don’t escalate it to an open conflict, but don’t give up either. Listen to the objections, do your homework, and come back with counterarguments. The Internet is full of information about how well-regulated hunting actually benefits nature, how hunting does not contradict most religious beliefs, how much our instinctive behavior is still that of a hunter-gatherer, and how positive is the impact of the outdoors on your future. If your family cares about you, they will eventually understand. 

4. Learn to shoot 

Guns and ammunition, bows and arrows, are our teeth and claws. Hunting is far from ‘a slaughter of defenseless animals’, and you owe it to your prey to be able to take its life instantly and painlessly with a well-placed shot. The earlier you start to practice, the better. In most countries of the world you don’t even have to own a firearm: there are shooting ranges and clubs where anyone can go, loan a weapon, and practice.

What’s better, in most of these places you will find a shooting coach, who will train you in the basics. If you ever took up a sport or played a musical instrument, you know how important it is to grasp the correct technique from the start. This is true about shooting, too. Even air rifles can help perfect your form and accuracy when a regular firearm is unavailable, and they are quiet and inexpensive to own and shoot.

Archery requires even more and more constant practice than firearms. Remember the story about how English yeomen invented darts as a way to train eye-to-hand coordination indoors, all so that they can practice every day even when it rained? Well, the story may be just a myth, but the need to practice every day is not. If you don’t practice a few times per week, you may be wasting your time. 

You may not be able to get afield until the next season, but the earlier you start, the more ready you will be. In fact, we’ve seen novices who did their homework at the range ‘wipe the nose’ of experienced hunters who failed to get enough practice mid-season. 

two hunters

5. Find a mentor

The best way to learn anything is to just go ahead and do it. You can get the knowledge from books, videos, podcasts and talking with experts, but skills are only learned through doing, and hunting is all about skills. Yet, trial and error are very slow teachers. You may waste even more time if you practice the wrong skills that will have to be unlearned later. It’s always best if you have someone to learn from. But how to find them? 

Ironically, the fact that hunting recruitment has been slowing down lately is good news for you. Hunters can no longer adopt an elitist, look-down-on-newcomers approach, and most hunters understand it. There are a few taboos, like taking a new guy or gal to one’s sweet spot, or letting an unproven partner shoot over one’s dogs, but aside from that, most hunters are only happy to help a beginning hunter in the field.

Some US states have dedicated hunting mentorship programs to help beginners get started under the supervision of experienced hunters. These programs don’t always work, because hunting mentorship requires a sort of a personal congruence between the parties (one tip here – never talk politics and religion), but often produce amazing results. Another place to find a potential mentor is a shooting range, and of course the Internet, including hunting forums and Facebook groups. 

6. Consider booking a hunt 

If that sounds complicated, there are opportunities that may allow you to harvest your first animal within a few weeks or months – perhaps even the next weekend! This is to book an outfitted hunt. Booking from an outfitter will solve many of the issues outlined above, most importantly access to the hunting grounds and many of the bureaucratic formalities. It can also work as a family holiday, with some outfitters providing both accommodation and entertainment to accompanying non-hunters, a.k.a. ‘observers’ (hint: tick the “family friendly” box on the search page)

In many instances the outfitter will be able to lend or rent you a rifle or shotgun, and whatever other specific equipment you may need. Often, you don’t even have to have a hunting license, or a gun of your own, to take advantage of these hunts. Some countries require proof that the visiting hunter has hunting and firearms rights, before they can book an outfitted hunt and rent a weapon. But others simply lay full responsibility on the outfitter or preserve manager. This relates to, for instance, such an otherwise control-freakish state as Great Britain

Last but not the least, a hunting guide will act as a mentor, from whom you can learn the basics of hunting and a thousand small things that you probably aren’t even aware of at this stage. Do you know, for example, how to butcher a big-game animal? Most outfitters will do that for you, and will not be against your witnessing the process, or even taking part in it. This skill will come in very handy later, when you’ll be hunting on your own.

axis deer stag and cow

Some outfitters go as far as to offer special first-timers hunts. If those are not available, our tip is to start with ‘management’, ‘cull’, or ‘meat’ packages that are usually focused on females and “non-trophy” males. These hunts are more affordable than “trophy hunts”. For your first hunts, don’t look down on exotic, introduced, or invasive animals such as the Axis deer, or hog. These hunts often also come at a lower price than hunts for native, high-demand animals. They typically present just the right level of difficulty for the beginning hunter and are often outside the scope of regular game laws, meaning that you may be able to hunt them at any time of the year and/or without special licenses and tags. And many of these provide excellent table fare.

7. Just do it! 

We can’t repeat it often enough: you can’t learn something if you don’t go out and do it! Remember that old saying “the worst day afield still beats the best day at the office?” And here, again, humbleness comes into play. It’s all right to dream about Cape buffalo and Alaskan moose, but until and before you do that, use every opportunity of going out and hunting. 

Don’t be shy of starting small. Most hunters today begin with deer and other big game, and some even start in South Africa and Namibia, but the natural sequence of events has always been to cut your teeth on rabbits and other small game, and then to progress to things that have hooves and antlers or claws and fangs. Even the simplest dove or squirrel hunt near home will teach you more things than all hunting videos on YouTube. 

Closed season is not reason enough to stay home, either. If you have the opportunity to visit the area you plan to hunt, do it as often as you can. Walk it, learn the lay of the land, try to foresee where the animals may find food, shelter, and what routes they may take to travel. As you find yourself more familiar with the outdoors, you will feel more confident. And it can double as a great field day with the family, in the fresh air, away from PlayStations and far from the madding social media crowd. Days afield in nature with family or loved ones are some of the most special and intimate experiences. As renowned hunter and archer Fred Bear used to say, “It will cleanse the soul!” Those times are, like that old ad says, things that money can’t buy! 

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