Hunting may seem like a simple sport. In truth, it’s a multifaceted activity that, while not difficult to get into, can seem daunting if you’ve never experienced it before.
It’s important to remember every hunter out there once started with zero knowledge of the subject. Some people began learning young, but you don’t have to grow up around the sport to enjoy it. If you’ve never hunted before and you want to, here are the topics, skills, and steps you need to take to get started.
Becoming a hunter is all about learning. Most states require you to take a hunter education or hunter safety course before you can get a get a license.
Even if your state doesn’t require a certification course, you should take one. Check out the International Hunter Education Association’s list of requirements across the country. The website also has contact information so you can reach out to the right people to learn how to take the nearest course. If you can’t find the information you need there, visit your state’s fish and game department website.
Your education doesn’t end with certification. As a hunter, you should always try to learn new ways to hunt safely, ethically, and successfully.
You can hunt for decades and still learn new skills and tactics. Once you start, make sure to continue learning. Take courses, learn from others who have more experience than you, and read relevant magazines, blogs, and books. A hunter’s education is never over.
Hunting Licenses, Tags, and Bag Limits
With your certification, you can get a hunting license. Each state will have its own. The license usually pertains to the type of hunting you want to do. In general, a license is affordable and easy to obtain, especially if you have your hunter education certification card.
Many states divide licenses up into two categories: big game and small game. A license usually lasts one year. Some states offer ones that last longer for a higher fee. Fees and requirements vary by state.
You may also need tags depending on the type of animal you want to hunt. The requirements and procedures of issuing of tags vary depending on where you live. Most states issue tags for big game, like deer and elk. Some states require tags for small game and birds, too.
A tag is a physical permit that allows you to hunt specific game. You fill it out when you get your kill. Tags allow your state’s fish and game department to keep track of how many hunters go after a certain type of game. It also helps the department determine how many hunters take animals each year.
The fish and game department in your area usually limits the number of tags issued. In some areas, demand may exceed supply, resulting in a lottery system.
There may still be a limit to the number of animals you can kill even if they don’t require tags. Usually, this limit is per day you hunt, sometimes it’s per hunting season. For example, in Indiana, you can kill five rabbits per day during the season. This is often referred to as a bag limit. You need to know the limit for the type of game you’re hunting before you head out for the day.
Most game has its own season. Usually, that season is late summer through late winter. However, certain states allow hunting of specific game in the spring and early summer months.
The length of a specific season can vary. Some last only a couple of weeks and others a few months. Fish and game departments limit seasons this way to help properly manage wildlife populations. Fall and winter hunting seasons also help to ensure you won’t hunt animals during the mating season or a time that would be too disruptive to their ecosystem.
Seasons are not only divided up by the type of game, but also by the type of weapon used. Usually, archery season hits first, followed by muzzleloaders, and then other legal firearms. This gives the hunters who face a more difficult challenge the first chance to fill their tags.
As a new hunter, it’s important to take note of the seasons and adhere to them. If you shoot and kill an animal out of season, it’s a major violation with serious ramifications. You can be arrested, charged with a crime, and pay legal fees and fines. You may even have to serve jail time, depending on the situation.
Even if the season opener (the first day of the season) is tomorrow, don’t jump the gun and shoot something ahead of time. It’s not worth it.
Hunting seasons have been designed to provide you plenty of time to stock your freezer for the rest of the year. If you’re really itching to get started a few days before the hunt legally begins, go out and scout locations, practice shooting at a range, or prep your gear.
In addition to hunting licenses, tags, and seasons, there are many other laws you need to pay attention to. These laws will vary depending on where you live, so it’s important to take a close look at the laws in your area. Contact your local fish and game department to find out the specifics.
The types of hunting laws you encounter can vary. They can include special hunting zones, specifics on the time of day you can hunt, unlawful hunting tactics and practices, firearm and gear regulations, and more.
Taking a hunter education course will teach you the basics. Most of the time, you will be fine if you stick to what you’ve learned. If something comes up that you’re not sure of, ask. Don’t ask your friend down the street, ask someone at your local fish and game department.
Your hunter education course will touch on hunting game in an ethical manner. That discussion shouldn’t end there. It needs to be a topic constantly on your mind.
You should always strive to hunt ethically. What’s considered ethical hunting can vary, but most hunters subscribe to a few basic tenets—understanding and respecting the game, practicing “fair chase,” obeying the laws, hunting safely, and respecting others and the grounds you hunt on.
The principle of fair chase is simple. You pursue an animal in a way that doesn’t give you an unfair advantage. A serious advantage removes the challenge of the hunt from the equation, and it isn’t sporting.
The lines on ethical hunting can become blurred when you get down to the nitty-gritty. Many people disagree on what qualifies as fair chase and is ethical. A good rule of thumb: if it feels wrong, don’t do it. If you’re uncomfortable with a hunting tactic, or you feel you have an unfair advantage over your game, adjust to make your hunt more sporting.
If you have questions about hunting ethically, consult your local fish and game department or hunting club. You can also read books on the subject. One that does a good job is Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethic and Tradition of Hunting by Jim Posewitz.
Types of Game and Hunting
The types of game that you can hunt can vary from place to place, depending on what wildlife lives there. Game animals fall into a few different categories. There are small game, big game, birds, nuisance animals, and furbearers. Furbearers are typically hunted for their pelts (foxes, bobcat, raccoon, etc.). The animals you’re allowed to hunt in each category can vary by state.
There’s further delineation among these established groups. The groupings and species in those groupings usually correspond to specific hunting licenses and regulations.
The type of hunting you’ll do depends on the game you want to hunt. There are also different tactics for hunting that game, depending on a variety of factors. The landscape, personal preference, and if you’re hunting alone or with a party can all impact your tactics.
Deciding what kind of animal to hunt should be as much about the type of activity you want to do as it is about the type of meat you want to eat. Hunting is meant to be enjoyable. Take some time to hunt different types of game to find what you like best.
Gear and Clothing
Hunting gear and clothing are an important part of the sport. Wearing the right articles can enhance your experience. You want to be comfortable and safe while out in the wilderness. The right gear and clothing will go a long way towards that end.
With that said, don’t think you need to buy every piece of gear imaginable. You can get by with some good, warm clothing, and a few hunting-specific pieces of gear. You don’t have to spend a fortune.
Here’s a quick rundown of the basics that every hunter should have, excluding your weapon of choice and ammo:
- Sturdy hunting boots and warm socks
- Hunting jacket and pants
- Warm hunting gloves and hat
- Blaze orange clothing (depending on laws and season)
- Warm inner layer clothing
- Hunting backpack
- Game bag (for small game, if applicable)
- Communication device (cell phone or radio)
- Maps or GPS
- Extra batteries
- Fixed-blade knife
- Pocketknife or multi-tool
- Knife sharpener
- Small first aid kit
- Emergency whistle
- High-energy food (protein bar or trail mix)
- Poncho or rain gear
- Toilet paper
- Nylon rope or cord
- Wet wipes
This is a short, basic list. There’s plenty of other gear out there that can make hunting easier, safer, and more enjoyable.
The type of gear you need will also depend on the type of hunting you do. You may need game calls, hunting stands, blinds, or other types of equipment, too.
Companies develop new gear and clothing every year, and it’s smart to try to stay up to date on what’s offered. One of the best ways to do that is to read magazines and blogs on the subject Another way is to become involved in a local hunting club.
Types of Hunting Weapons
Weapons used for hunting fall under either archery or firearms. There are plenty of variations within those two categories, and the laws governing the use of each will vary by state.
Most hunters use a compound bow, rifle, or shotgun to kill game, though there are other types of weapons available that you can legally use.
The type of weapon you use will depend on the type of hunting you want to do. If you want to kill rabbits, you don’t want to buy a muzzle-loader. Read up on the type of weapon that’s right for what you want to do. If there are no specific laws in your state, some fish and game departments have recommendations for weapons and ammo on their website.
A shotgun is most people’s first choice. Quality shotguns go for around $300 to $400 on the low end. You can use that one gun for hunting multiple types of game, including birds, small game, and large game.
If you’re unsure of what to buy, talk to a gun salesman or someone from your local fish and game department. When you go through your hunter education course, discuss your aspirations with the instructor. They can point you in the right direction.
Firearm Safety and Maintenance
The most important part of handling guns is safety.
Your instructor will talk basic gun safety in your hunter education course. That training is just the beginning. While you can get by with the basics, it’s highly recommended that you go to a gun training facility to learn more.
An integral part to firearm safety is maintenance. You need to spend time before each hunt making sure your gun is operational and safe to use.
It’s smart to clean your gun and inspect before or after each hunting or shooting session. From there, you should store it in a dry, safe place out of harm’s way. A gun safe or gun lock is highly recommended—in some states, it’s required by law.
Learning to Shoot
If you’ve never shot a gun before, it can be intimidating. The instructor of your hunter education course will discuss the basics of gun safety and operation. However, you should always take time to practice with the firearm you plan to use.
Your local gun range is the place to go. Most gun ranges offer training sessions—take advantage of this service.
If you’re unsure of where to go to learn how to shoot, go to a gun shop. Many gun shops have a range and training sessions on-site. If there’s no training on site, the folks behind the counter will be happy to direct you in the right direction.
For hunting, the target range is a great place to start. If you want to get some practice on targets that don’t stand still, try to find a place where you can shoot clays.
There are three options for hunting ground: private property, state land, and federal land. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. No matter where you decide to hunt, make sure to follow the rules of the land. Otherwise, you could lose the right to hunt there or be fined by the authorities.
Private land is excellent for hunting. If you don’t own a large enough area of land, you’ll need to find somewhere suitable and get permission from the landowner. Many farmers allow hunters on their land each year. Most aren’t going to let a stranger come on to their land, so try to think of someone you know.
You can also hunt state and federally owned areas. Before hunting these grounds, it’s important to check the local regulations. Some only allow hunting in specific areas of wildlife reserves. Contact your local fish and game department for that information.
If you don’t have a clue what to do once you get out into the wilderness, don’t worry. Your hunter education course will touch on basic hunting tactics.
That said, you will always need to hone your skills, whether you’re still hunting, stalking, game calling or sitting in a tree stand. This comes with practice. You’ll have to spend a fair amount of time out hunting to get good. A smart way to elevate your skills quickly is to learn from others.
Find someone more experienced than you to hunt with. This could be a friend or family member, or you can pay a hunting guide to help you. Another great option is to join a local club near you. There you’ll meet people with years of experience. Many will be thrilled to share their knowledge.
Field Dressing and Cleaning Your Kill
You’re hunting game to have meat to eat or a pelt to sell or showcase. That means you’ll have to deal with preparing the animal for consumption once you kill it.
The most important thing to know about this process is that you shouldn’t let the game sit too long before you begin. Getting to an animal soon after the kill makes the job easier and reduces the risk of contamination by bacteria or other pathogens.
The actual process of dressing and cleaning your kill can vary based on the animal. That’s especially true if you’re hunting animals for their pelts or want to keep a game trophy. With that said, there are three basic steps: field dressing, skinning, and butchering.
Field dressing is what hunters call removing the internal organs of the animal they killed. You should do this as soon as possible, usually in the field, hence the name. From there, you can take your kill home to finish the process. You can also take it to a facility that will complete the process for you and deliver your meat prepackaged.
Continue to Learn and Grow
You should always strive to become a better hunter over time. A big part of that will be going out often to hunt game, but there are plenty of other things you can do.
Reading and watching videos is a great way to learn of new tactics and techniques. Consider subscribing to hunting magazines, blogs, and YouTube channels to get excellent advice and information. Buy and read a book on hunting. There are great books published every year on the subject, and you can learn a lot by taking the time to sit down and read.
You can take courses and training sessions to improve your skills, too. Hunting clubs and your state’s fish and game department offer opportunities to improve your skills. If you have the time and money for it, booking a hunting trip with a guide is a great way to learn even more.
Lastly, spend time at the shooting range and consider taking a firearms course or two. Making a clean kill is an important part of hunting. The more you shoot and familiarize yourself with your weapon, the more likely you’ll be able to make the shot when it counts.
Any questions about how to get started? Leave a comment below.