Hunting is one of the most ancient of human activities, and it remains for many people the principal way—and the deepest way—they connect with the great outdoors and the ecological framework that links us to every other living thing.
Obviously hunting is not without controversy, and some people are stridently opposed to it. This isn’t the venue for a discussion about the debate over hunting in the modern age, but it is important to say that: (1) there’s a world of difference between a responsible, ethical hunter and an irresponsible, sloppy, and trigger-happy one; (2) that many hunters still regard their pursuit as a means of putting food on the table; and (3) that in the United States hunting has played a pivotal role in conserving species and habitat as well as protecting access to public lands.
Hunting’s a big topic, of course, and the activity can take many forms and styles. Here we’re going to just sketch out the basics of how to start hunting: Think of it as the first day of Hunting 101, an overview of the subject and a lesson plan for advancing your education.
We know we have many, many hunters among our Mountain House customer base, and we’d love for any of you to add your own hunting tips for beginners in the comments section!
In the United States, a wide range of animals are legal quarry—not just birds and mammals, either, but also reptiles, too: from bullfrogs to alligators.
Big game species in the U.S. include deer (whitetails, blacktails, mule deer), elk (wapiti), moose, caribou, pronghorn (“antelope”), bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, mountain goats, muskox, and bears (brown/grizzly and black). You can even hunt bison—North America’s biggest land animal, and a magnificent beast nearly lost to extinction because of overhunting—in select places, including the Henry Mountains of Utah as well as certain private game ranches.
Feral hogs, an exotic invasive species in the Lower 48 States, are hunted across their expanding range—an example of hunters assisting land managers and conservationists in at least somewhatquelling the enormous ecological destruction free-ranging swine wreak. Hawaii offers hunting licenses for its diverse assortment of exotic ungulates, from pigs to mouflon sheep, while hunters on game ranches in Texas stalk Old World species such as addax, oryx, zebra, axis deer, and other non-native hoofed mammals specifically introduced and managed for hunting.
Native (non-bear) carnivores from pumas and gray wolves to foxes and bobcats are huntable depending on the state and the area. And then there’s the host of small-game species: squirrels and rabbits and the like.
Bird-hunting, meanwhile, covers a similarly diverse spread: from pursuing ducks and geese in flyway marshes to flushing upland fowl such as grouse, woodcock, and pheasant with the help of a dog or two.
In short, hunting in the U.S. targets a remarkable array of animals and takes place in all sorts of different settings: from the subtropical swamps of Louisiana to the high tundra of Arctic Alaska.
You may choose to hunt with one of a number of different firearms: rifles, shotguns, and muzzleloaders. Bowhunters may use traditional (recurve bows, longbows) or compound bows; hunting with crossbows (which to some extent is more akin to hunting with firearms) is also allowed in many states for certain species.
The kind of hunting weapon you select depends on the game you’re pursuing, your abilities and personal preferences, and rules and regulations. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and what’s important is selecting an appropriate tool for the animal you’re hunting and balancing your enjoyment of using a particular weapon with your skill level. Bowhunting requires finely honed ambushing and stalking abilities, as you must draw closer to your target than a gun hunter usually needs to.
And hey, don’t forget about the ancient art of falconry: its own mighty specialized branch of hunting. (Nothing like taking advantage of the lethal efficiency of a raptor such as a falcon or goshawk.)
Learning how to hunt can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before; you may well have never fired a gun before, let alone hoofed it through woods and meadows after a wild animal. Fortunately, there are many resources available to learn the ropes and ease into the activity.
To get a hunting license, you usually need to complete a certified hunter safety course of some kind or another, which typically involves both coursework and field instruction. From state agencies to outdoor retailers, many organizations offer introductory hunting instruction, so ask around.
Another way to sample the experience of hunting if you’re not sure it’s for you is to enroll in an apprentice hunter program. This lets newbies without standard hunting licenses try out the activity under the supervision of a licensed hunter.
Obviously a lot of the gruntwork a beginner hunter must put in doesn’t take place out in the backcountry during hunting season but over at the shooting range (or archery range, if you’re ambitiously starting out with the bowhunting route). You’ll truly become a hunter with many hours and many seasons out in the field, but before you go after any animal you should already be a proficient marksperson and know proper firearm operation and safety inside and out. That’s for your well-being, the well-being of your fellow hunters, and the well-being of the animal, as there’s nothing worse than wounding (mortally or not) a deer or elk through inept marksmanship and submitting it to undue suffering and perhaps an agonizing death.
Rather than beginning your hunting career on the trail of big hoofed mammals, you might consider starting off with bird- or small-game hunting. For one thing, you typically only need a hunting license for such quarry, whereas big-game hunters require separate permits/tags.
It goes without saying that you must abide by any and all hunting regulations established by state and/or federal agencies. These rules are designed to ensure given wildlife populations can withstand hunting pressure and to accomplish specific management goals for the good of the species in question and its habitat.
Breaking the rules—using unapproved methods (such as spotlighting), hunting out of season, killing more than you’re allowed, etc.—isn’t just illegal: It also gives all hunters a bad name and threatens both the local wildlife under assault and ongoing hunting opportunities in the area. The vehemence with which a responsible hunter decries poaching easily matches that of any other conservationist.
Hunting takes place in many different contexts. Hunting of kind or another is allowed on most public lands in the U.S., national parks and certain other particular parcels excluded. Whether it’s a game ranch, a hunting club, or a neighbor’s property you’ve gotten permission to hunt on, private acreage offers many opportunities as well.
Perhaps you'll give hunting a try and discover you're not really digging it, and that's perfectly fine of course. For anyone interested in the outdoors and natural resources, even just sampling the experience firsthand can give you greater insight into how hunters and hunting fit into modern-day wildlife and land management. And there's a good chance you'll be struck by the primal thrill of the pursuit, which—as many a hunter will tell you—matters much, much more than whether or not you end up actually killing an animal on a given outing. It's that primal thrill—the adventure of it and the honest-to-goodness sense of communion with an animal and the wild world—that many continue to seek out for the rest of their lives.