I began learning how to hunt in the spring of 2016 at 23 years old. Hunting was not a common activity for anyone in my family or that of anyone in the community I grew up in. Over the years I have learned a lot from others and through my own experiences. From those experiences, I have tried to boil down the lessons I’ve learned and knowledge in this series of posts as an introduction to new hunters and a way to further my own understanding. It is something that I wish I found when I was first learning how to hunt and my hope is that it can serve as useful to others.
Hunting successfully locally can result in a large quantity of food at a cost that amounts to less than the equivalent daily consumption of rice and beans. This post will be North America centric as that is what I am familiar with. It will also focus on large mammals as that is the more intimidating aspect. If anyone finds any of my information wrong, or that I am lacking something, do not hesitate to correct me. I am still early on in my own learning of hunting as a practice.
The first thing any prospective hunter should do prior to anything else is take a Hunter’s Education course. In most states, it is required if you wish to hunt. The classroom portion can often be taken online at your own pace with one field class in person at the end of the course. The class isn’t expensive and you will learn about safety, a little about the anatomy of a firearm and tracking, among other things. It is more or less Hunter 101.
There is really only one thing that the prospective hunter needs to be concerned about throughout the hunt. That is finding the animal. All the other stuff, clothing, weapon, dressing out the animal and processing the meat among other things are of secondary importance. It doesn’t matter how fancy of gear you have if you can’t find your target.
East of the Mississipi River, hunting for large game (deer) will be best achieved by using a tree stand. Most of the region consists of dense forest that prohibits a high rate of success through stalking by the average person. Using a tree stand involves constructing a platform off the forest floor and waiting for deer to pass by your area. The tree stand is ideally placed in an area that sees high animal traffic, ideally along a game trail or a bedding spot. I’ll discuss how to identify such a spot further below.
West of the Mississipi, hunting large game is achieved through the spot and stalk method. Most of the area is open and the animals cover greater distances, requiring you to move towards them and/or anticipate their movements.
Where can you hunt?
Most hunting takes place on public land, both state and federal. There are private land holdings that permit hunting as well, but typically you have to pay $$$ for access making it not economically viable. A look at your state’s Department of Natural Resources website will detail areas that you can hunt. Providing maps, seasons, and data on results from hunts in each unit during the previous year.
Hunting is permitted on federal lands including National Forests, Fish and Wildlife Refuges and in Alaska, National Parks and Preserves*. Like with the state, each area details information pertaining to hunting on its website. What areas are permitted or restricted are shown. From there it is a matter of looking at a USGS topographical map and planning where you want to hunt.
Learning how to read a topographical map and finding your way is a necessary skill for the hunter and hiker. This video provides a good introduction. This is a great book on using map and compass.
Maps can be found and downloaded online at the USGS site: https://nationalmap.gov/ustopo/ There are other sites out there such as Caltopo(what I use) and Hilltopo. Caltopo allows you to customize the map, offering a number of variables such as slope shading, property lines and style of map among other things. Hilltopo offers side by side maps allowing you to look at topo and satellite images of a particular area. Satellite imagery can be seen through Google Earth/Maps. More current imagery can be found through the Sentinel Playground . Luc Mehl has excellent instructional write ups on using both Google Earth and Sentinel for outdoor applications. Satellite imagery can help to identify current conditions (i.e. snow, ice, vegetation etc) as well as another means of analyzing general vegetation cover, terrain and the landscape of a specific area.There are apps for your phone such as Gaia, which integrate GPS and mapping software. I have started using these recently and find them very high quality. You still need to learn how to use map and compass
If possible, information from locals such as other hunters, hikers or outdoor users should be sought out and obtained in order to find out animal habitat and population size within the area. Forums also can work, but aren’t really the best option as it’ll funnel the most people towards one area. For example, Northern Alaska is a popular destination for urban hunters in search of Dall sheep. Each year one particular drainage ends up as the hot spot of activity due to people reading online reports or posts of others finding success in the previous year or the past. Yet, there are plenty of other areas within the region where sheep reside and would offer the hunter a greater chance of success. This may not be true of all areas, such as those with lower population numbers. But instead of following online advice, find the area on a map, note and study the terrain. Then see if you can find a similar spot elsewhere in the unit that may hold other animals not mentioned online. Why are the animals located in that area? What areas offering similar terrain/features/food sources that are elsewhere?
Once you decide on which area you will hunt, you need to figure out a section within that unit in which you think you will find your target. To figure out where an animal will be, you have to understand its feeding habits, behavior and general movements. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds and can be learned quickly. Animals typically move around only when they are feeding, bedding down otherwise. Some animals feed all throughout the day, like caribou. Most other species the deer family feed at first and last light, bedding down during the day. Meaning the best chance of you finding such animal is during that period. The more difficult aspect is taking what you learned and using it when consulting a map in order to find an area that will yield the greatest chance of success.
While the above is helpful, it is no substitute for boots on the ground. The more time you spend in the field, the better you will become at indentifying and locating animals and their habitats. Scat, tracks, trails, bedding and feed spots are all valuable signs worth looking for.
Much of the time spent hunting is actually spent sitting and glassing (using binoculars or spotting scope). After arriving at an area, the first course of action is usually finding a elevated position in which you can glass a section of probable habitat. Where do the animals travel in that area? Are there specific funnels created by the landscape that create travel corridors? Are there historical or seasonal patterns? Being able to answer these questions will increase your likelihood of seeing animals, therefore increasing your odds of having a successful hunt. You have a greater chance of spotting an animal and seeing more than when you are moving. Using some sort of optics only amplifies that chance. I will go into more detail on glassing later on.
In the next post, I will go into the practice of shooting and selecting the proper weapon.
*Hunting in National Parks is restricted to subsistence users. However, the general public can hunt in a National Preserve. Rural residents within an area are allowed to hunt in a National Park (if one is present locally) based on legislation allowing for historical and traditional use.