The Beginner’s Guide to Hunting

A perfectly seared steak glistened on the plate in front of me. It didn’t yet hold the connections it would later represent in my mind, but it was the start. In the dancing candlelight of a dim Argentinian restaurant, at the age of 31, I made one of the best decisions of my life. If I was going to continue eating meat after this meal, financially supporting the killing of animals for food, I was going to be involved in the process. I would become a hunter.  

In reality, the decision was made over time, a culmination of concern for animal rights and environmentalism, coupled with what felt like a primal draw toward an ancient tradition and a new adventure. I wanted to feel a deeper connection to what I was eating. I didn’t support factory farming (which provides most of the meat America consumes), and I loved the idea of having a reason to spend more time outdoors. I saw my diet choices as the most effective way to make a positive individual impact in the world—an opportunity to vote with my dollars three times a day. I didn’t want to cast my votes for an industry that made an outsized contribution to climate change and environmental degradation, and was directly responsible for an immense amount of human and animal suffering. 

The following eight years were a joyful journey. I’ve never been more ravenous for information than while learning about hunting. I killed a cow elk with a rifle on the last morning of my first season in 2012. With a freezer full of elk meat, I made a personal resolution not to eat beef for the rest of that year. The following year, I stopped consuming any meat (besides fish) that I didn’t kill. The next season I began bow hunting, and while I harvested elk and deer with a rifle in the meantime, it took seven more years of hard work before I killed my first bull elk with a traditional longbow. Now hunting is an integral part of my identity.

Becoming a hunter as an adult, or as I’ve come to refer to it, “adult-onset hunting,” isn’t the conventional path. Hunting rhetoric is filled with talk about the familial passing of age-old traditions. But thankfully for wildlife conservation efforts—which are mostly funded by the purchase of hunting licenses—a new generation of adults are discovering hunting on their own. 

Hunting can be an intimidating world to navigate as a beginner. If you’re curious, here’s what to expect and how to get started. 

Carve Out Time—a Lot of It  

Chasing elk with Tim Montana in Routt National Forest in September.
Chasing elk with Tim Montana in Routt National Forest in September. (Photo: Ian Fohrman)

Time is the biggest consideration when deciding if you have the desire and ability to embark on this journey. The dates you can legally hunt are dependent on location and species, but for most big-game animals in the West, the archery season is the month of September (it’s usually October or November in the Midwest and East). Rifle seasons are typically even shorter, often about eight days. Can you imagine if your biking, skiing, climbing, or running season was only eight days to a month long? Those days will become a precious resource, and you’ll come to think of your hunting season the way you approach a powder day: friends, spouses, work, and other life commitments come second. 

A hunt, especially a big game bow hunt on public land, takes a lot of time. (If your bank account needs to shed some weight, private ranches offer guided experiences that will require less work to find game with a higher chance of harvest, since guides generally know the land and the herd’s patterns—information you’d otherwise need to ascertain yourself via miles on your boots and hours with your binoculars). But the preparation is the true time suck. Plan to put down your bike, climbing rack, fishing rod, or running shoes for a good portion of the summer while you hone your skills with your weapon, get your gear ready, and familiarize yourself with your hunting area before the season begins. I try to shoot my bow every day for two months prior to opening day—this usually means an hour at the archery range or at least a half-hour in front of the backyard target. Sighting in your rifle—making sure the scope is adjusted to accurately place a shot at the desired distance—is the bare minimum for preparing for a rifle hunt. To be confident in your ability to take an effective and ethical shot in the field, you’ll need to practice at the range at least a handful of days, but I recommend that you train as much as time allows. 

You’ll also stare at your computer for hours on end as you shop for a license (deciding which tags to apply for is a complicated and exhaustive process) and new gear (you’ll probably want more new toys than you need or can afford), and as you generally obsess over learning everything about a complex new endeavour with life and death implications. Pre-season scouting is a mix of e-scouting (I recommend OnX Hunt as a navigation app) and boots on the ground. After you find an area online that looks promising, you’ll have to get out there and see the terrain firsthand: Can you really see that ridge with your binoculars from the hill you picked out online? Does that stream on the map actually hold running water? 

It’s important that your significant other or family is supportive, since your new obsession will likely become all-consuming, and most of your outdoor excursions will now revolve around searching for animal poop in the woods.  

Ask Yourself (Honestly) If You’re Ready to Suffer

Hunting is hard, and you will suffer. The good news is, you can choose what kind of suffering best fits your lifestyle and desires. If you want to bake nearly to death in a tiny convection oven called a “ground blind” (essentially a cramped camouflage tent), you can bowhunt antelope in Wyoming under the August sun. If painful frozen digits are more your speed, you can get a fourth season rifle tag for elk in Colorado. (Fourth season is one of the last blocks of big game hunting dates for the year, typically late November.) If you want to archery hunt for elk in the Rockies—the season that my life now revolves around—you can hike/bushwhack/climb/crawl through mountainous terrain until your legs and lungs don’t work and then spend lonely nights in a bivy sack while mountain winds whip tent fabric into your face. Or you can luxuriate in a palatial wall tent for a week while smelling your friend’s half-digested chili and stale cheap beer. I’ve done both. But typically I spend most of my elk archery season alone in the mountains, hiking between 10,000 to 30,000 vertical feet and dozens of miles over the course of the month. 

If you manage to find a big game animal, get yourself within effective range, and place an ethical shot, your work has just begun. You’ll need to quickly get the meat safe from scavengers (birds, bears, coyotes, and cougars), and eventually back to your vehicle. If you don’t have enough human power to carry the meat out in one trip (at least four people for an elk), you’ll need to put it in game bags and hang them from a tree. Chances are, you’ll need to pack the animal out in quarters, which means spending at least a couple hours with bloody hands while you wrestle a giant carcass that likely fell in the most inopportune spot possible. It also means up to five trips (four quarters plus the head and meat trimmings) from wherever the animal hit the ground to your mode of transportation, with a heavy pack (an elk’s hind quarter with bone-in and hide-on can be 70 pounds). If you killed an animal two miles from your truck and you’re hauling it out solo, you’ll be walking 18 miles, 10 of which will include a backbreaking pack full of meat. 

Pick an Animal 

Harvest rates vary widely by species and state, but in many states the percentage ratio of harvested animals to total hunters are in the teens. You’re going to spend the vast majority of your time doing everything other than harvesting meat (mostly you’ll be wondering why the animals aren’t doing what you expected them to do when you were looking at maps in your living room, reformulating your plans, and then second-guessing your new plans). 

With that in mind, choose your game by choosing an environment that speaks to you. Where will you be happy to spend time even if you never see a single critter? If the undulating prairie grasses speak to you, consider pheasants or other upland birds. If your soul burns for quiet shimmering sunrises in the marshlands, learn the patterns of migrating waterfowl. I’m a mountain person who, for some reason, enjoys climbing thousands of vertical feet by myself in the dark, so elk and mule deer were the choice for me. 

Choose Your Method of Take (AKA Your Weapon)

The author during his 2018 archery hunt.
The author during his 2018 archery hunt. (Photo: Tiffany Cook)

For big game in the West (elk, antelope, deer, and bear), you have three basic options: rifle, muzzleloader, or hand-held bow. (A muzzleloader is a specific class of single-shot rifle that is loaded from the open end of the barrel as opposed to through the breach, such as with a bolt action or semi-automatic rifle. It’s typically less accurate at distance than a modern-style rifle.) Shotguns are the most common method of take for most bird hunting and some deer hunting in the Midwest and East. A handheld bow could be a traditional bow, which is basically a simple stick and a string; or a compound bow, which uses cams and pulleys to create a mechanical advantage resulting in an easier draw, more power, a faster arrow, and a much longer effective range. Effective range is the distance at which you can reliably place a shot within a circle that matches the size of the vital organs of an animal—about the circumference of a paper plate for a deer or an elk.

Your weapon will determine what kind of hunting experience you’ll have for two main reasons. First, each weapon has a different effective range—you’ll need to get much closer to the animal with a bow and arrow than you would with a rifle. Reliably placing yourself within 50 yards of an unsuspecting animal is a skill that takes years to develop and requires a different approach than shooting an animal at 100 yards or more. With a bow, for example, you might find yourself more frequently stalking quietly through dense timber, while with a rifle you might wait near an open meadow or across a draw (a terrain feature formed by two parallel ridges with low ground in between them) with a clean shot line. 

Can you imagine if your biking, skiing, climbing, or running season was only eight days to a month long?

Second, your weapon will determine your season, which also determines your experience. It is nearly universal, for example, that archery season for big game happens in September because it coincides with the elk rut (mating season). Hunting during the elk rut is a uniquely powerful experience. During this time, bull elk vie for the attention of cows, piercing the mountain air with their signature bugles, grunts, chuckles, and screams. The ability to hear the animals and understand their intent, and engage in vocal communication with a 600-pound king of the forest, is one of the most intense, thrilling, and addictive elements of archery hunting. Elk language is nuanced and laden with information. As a bowhunter your goal is to paint a picture in the animal’s mind with the timing, location, tone, and intensity of your vocalization. In one situation you might imitate a cow elk looking for love, while in another you might communicate to a bull that you’re a bigger bull ready to rumble. (If learning animal vocalizations intrigues you as much as it does me, check out Roe Hunting Resources, a treasure trove created by field biologist Chris Roe, who has spent thousands of hours observing animals in their natural habitat.)

Rifle hunting seasons are shorter by comparison: four to eight days rather than an entire month, and generally take place after the rut has finished. Your tactics will be different, since you likely won’t be able to locate the animals audibly. You’ll spend more time looking at distant ridgelines and bowls through binoculars and searching for signs (tracks, scat, beds) on the ground.

I started my first year of hunting with a rifle, and I’m glad I did: I believe that my early success harvesting an animal helped fuel my persistence during the challenges of learning to hunt with a traditional bow. Now I usually purchase both archery and rifle tags every season to increase my chances of filling the freezer, but archery is my passion. I’ve become addicted to communicating with animals and getting close. 

Start Learning

The regulations around hunting seasons are exceedingly complex, change yearly, and vary by state. Research the licensing process for the state where you want to hunt through your local fish and game department. State lotteries for tags can start as early as six months prior to the season, and fees can vary from $30 in-state to thousands of dollars for highly prized out-of-state tags. Many states also implement preference point systems where applicants accrue points each year they apply—it may take years of applications to obtain a particularly coveted license.  

In order to purchase any hunting tag, you’ll need to complete your hunter safety certification first. This covers basic gun safety, hunting regulations, rudimentary outdoor skills, and general hunting etiquette. It takes a full day, sometimes two. You’ll likely be the only person over 12 years old taking the class. (You’ll still feel unreasonably proud when you ace a test created for children.) 

From there, additional information and guidance is more abundant than ever, thanks to the Internet. I learned to field dress my first animal by watching YouTube videos in Denver coffee shops. (In retrospect, I hope I never traumatized any other shop patrons when they glimpsed a large bearded man covered in blood, pulling the intestines out of a 1,000-pound animal on my screen.) If you’re interested in hunting elk, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has compiled some fantastic resources on its Elk University page. Tom Clum, a renowned archery coach and the owner of Rocky Mountain Specialty Gear in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, has also created an online learning series that I highly recommend.

Hunting is hard, and you will suffer. The good news is, you can choose what kind of suffering best fits your lifestyle and desires.

Finally, consume all the hunting-related media you can find. Modern Huntsman is a beautiful periodical filled with quality writing and photography. Lily Raff McCaulou wrote Call of the Mild, an intimate memoir about her journey into hunting as an adult. Likewise, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, is a classic for anyone approaching hunting later in life for food-based reasons.

Follow people on social media, too. To start with, I recommend @aron_snyder: the president of Kifaru, a high-quality hunting gear maker known for its backpacks, and a traditional bow hunter. Snyder fills his feed with advice about building your own arrows, shooting, hunting strategies, and more. @officialbryantland is an account that showcases Black and brown hunters (you can also check out the hashtag #blackhuntersofamerica). @miaanstine and @huntfiber are great follows for women’s perspectives. And podcasts like Kifarucast, Meat Eater, and Elk Talk are more excellent windows into this world. 

Find a Mentor 

This is good advice for any outdoor pursuit, but especially so with such a complex and multifaceted pursuit like hunting. Be aware that hunting knowledge is often hard-won and kept close to the chest. Always ask questions, but be humble and grateful when you’re given keys to the kingdom or even little breadcrumbs of knowledge. 

There is no one piece of universal advice for finding a mentor. Try to put yourself in places with people who know more than you, and then be friendly, open, and engaged. A good place to start is your local shop—look for small retailers with passionate and friendly employees. You might also send an Instagram message to a friend of a friend who you heard was a hunter, or set up a coffee date with that uncle you haven’t talked to since he got too drunk at the Christmas party. (One of the many gifts hunting has bestowed on my life is finding a common passion with people very different from me.)

Unfortunately, many spaces in hunting are still dominated by men. But organizations like DIVA WOW and Shoot Like a Girl aim to empower women to hunt and shoot. 

Get Out There

Eventually you’re just going to have to go do it. Everyone will have their own experience, but I haven’t once regretted the decision I made in that restaurant nearly a decade ago. Some of my most vivid and spectacular memories are of time spent quietly observing the world under inky night skies, on high-alpine ridgelines, and in damp forests, chasing animals. I wouldn’t hesitate to characterize these experiences as profoundly spiritual. I’m proud that by filling my freezer with ethically harvested meat, I’m less dependent on a broken food system that’s destroying our planet. As a hunter, I feel more intimately involved with the universal and delicate dance of life and death of which we’re all a part. That visceral understanding makes me feel more grateful and connected to the food on my plate, to the planet we inhabit, and to my place within it all.

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