Updated: Jul 20
If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great. ~Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks)
Even though hunting is my family legacy and my earliest memories are of the outdoors, I still recall the eagerness and anticipation for my first hunts. I wanted to take my new skills to the mountains to test myself and hopefully find success. There was a jarring reality that quickly showed up when my first, second, fifth, and tenth hunts yielded nothing. The rides home hung heavy with disillusionment; either I was a bad hunter or all the deer were gone. Either way, I was empty handed.
What I would realize decades later was that experience was built on each successive hunt and ultimately culminated in drawing blood. Many arrows missed their mark and all my stalks resulted in nothing, until it all finally came together on my first archery bull elk. I distinctly remember wondering what could go wrong to make this elk vanish as I drew my bow and released an arrow slightly further behind his shoulder than I had aimed. While everything came together on that hunt, there was a significant history of errors, failures, and fumbles I had overcome.
It is with all of this in mind that I offer this advice to new hunters. Regardless of records and accolades, status or trophies, every hunter began with a trigger pull, arrow nocked, spear hurled, or rock thrown. It seems there are more guides and instructions for finding and killing your quarry than man has time to consume. My advice is just a bit different; it is more about intangibles that secure the way to your goal.
Establish your ethics and limits before your first hunt.
Do not wait for the temptation to show itself before you have a moment of decision. Those let the moment arrive thoughtlessly find a troublesome struggle often ending in a justification of their actions. You can’t know every situation that will ever befall you in the field, but you can determine the principles that will guide your thoughts. Holding firmly to them proves your character with the reward of a sound conscience. When teaching hunter education I encourage students to think about what they can do to elevate their actions, not just what is minimal or legal.
Likewise, knowing that your skills and endurance is finite will literally save you from lethal situations. Overestimating one’s skills (pride) is a leading cause of stories with unhappy endings. This applies to virtually every area of hunting. Shots beyond competency wound animals. Kills too far from camp result in spoiled meat. Disregard for conditions and weather lead to survival situations. Careful consideration of just where the line is for you needs to happen far in advance of the first step of your trip.
Become a lifelong student of the game.
By game I mean the animals hunters pursue, not a competition that relegates them to mere objects. The species we hunt have been studied with great detail and the results published can be astonishing, and helpful, to hunters. Researchers focusing on elk droppings can now tell you what their preferred food is based on the season and locality of the herd. The direct benefit for those looking to find elk is a clue to their feeding habits and likely haunts. The search for the snow goose nesting grounds is a remarkable story on its own, but it also helps the waterfowler to know when to expect a good hatch and therefore more birds in the fall.
There are nuggets of wisdom in the work that biologists devote their time to understanding. Hunters can be partners in this conservation work with reports on their observations. For over 100 years ducks (and other waterfowl) have been banded, their capture data recorded, and hunters reporting where and when it was harvested. This has directly led to the designation of flyways in North America and an extremely helpful tool for estimating populations. All of this knowledge can be helpful either in harvesting or conserving our game species. The effort to learn it will make a more versatile hunter.
Learn from others.
A study based on Fortune 500 companies found that employees who had a mentor were five times more likely to be successful than those without. Interestingly, mentors who had a mentee were six times more likely to be successful. It is easy to understand why nearly 75% of those companies implemented a mentorship program. There is a clear benefit in learning directly from someone who has found their own success through their failures.
A mentor can be found through local rod and gun clubs or the First Hunt Foundation. By taking the first step, it shows a willingness to learn, essential in being a good mentee. Being a mentor requires a significant investment of time and energy, so be prepared and eager to accept advice and suggestions. Like all relationships, time allows growth of trust, so wait a good while before you ask to be taken to the honey hole. A respect of their time and knowledge coupled with genuine appreciation is really the only currency needed for the education you will receive.
Choose experiences over equipment.
In my younger days I would watch fishing shows and wonder how they caught so many bass. I didn’t know about editing, only that they kept talking about the special lure they used. It was the “Flying Lure” and I needed it. Thirty years later, I still have it virtually unused because it didn’t load the boat up with fish. What I have learned is that more time in the woods or on the water is the prime ingredient to success. Good gear allows you to increase the length and quality of that time. There are minimal staples needed to be safe hunting, but a kit can be built over several seasons or even a lifetime. Instead, spend your resources to maximize your days afield. It will be one of your only regret-free decisions in life.