The surprising truths about what you DON’T learn in a gun safety course.
So you finally decided it was time and you passed your gun safety course, right?
That’s a huge milestone to check off the list in your pursuit of learning to hunt. If you read Part 1 of this series, you saw how the general process of becoming a hunter works. You also learned about what to expect in taking your gun safety course.
But now what? Now that you’ve taken it, how do you feel? Do you think you’ve got all the necessary hunting skills because of that single class?
The answer for most people is a resounding, “Nope.”
I think a lot of new hunters look at a hunter education course or gun safety courses as the fount of knowledge for hunting. Don’t get me wrong – it teaches you extremely important concepts that are essential building blocks for hunting skills. How to safely operate a firearm, bow, or other hunting weapon is absolutely step 1 for a reason.
But you’ll also realize there are a whole lot of other hunting skills you need when learning to hunt. For example:
- “Is there a special way I’m supposed to walk in the woods?”
- “What if I get lost?”
- “How can I tell if animals are using an area or what animals are even there?”
- “What is the best way to hunt [INSERT ANIMAL HERE]?”
- “What do I do if I actually kill an animal?!”
I don’t say all these things to discourage you. In fact, it’s the opposite. I want to tell you about these things now to encourage you later!
If you learn about all the hunting skills you should know now, there shouldn’t be as many unpleasant surprises later. This second installment will focus on the questions above and some specific ways you can learn these skills for hunting.
A Walk in the Woods
No, that’s not just an entertaining book by Bill Bryson (seriously, you should read it if you haven’t). You also need to learn how to read and interpret the outdoors. Not to mention figuring out how to actually move in it.
Scouting for Animal Sign
The first hunting skill (scouting or “reading” the woods) will take some practice, but it’s really simple to do. It’s also one of the most important hunting skills to learn. I recently spoke at a hunting retreat seminar called the Modern Carnivore Experience, where I discussed this exact topic. It basically just boils down to using your eyes in a different capacity than you’re maybe used to. At a quick glance, you might look at the forest and simply see trees. But when you look closer, you start to notice all kinds of different wildlife signs (e.g., trails, tracks, deer rubs and scrapes, etc.).
Animals leave little breadcrumbs and clues behind that we can interpret to find out more about their habits. As you walk through the woods, take your time and scan the ground all the way up to the tree trunks. Look for things that stand out from the surrounding area. You can practice this hunting skill by following animal trails when you find them. They will leave droppings, hair, scratch marks, rubs, and beds along their path. That’s the perfect challenge for you to follow. I think many people look at “scouting” as an intimidating word, but really it’s just learning about these signs, opening your eyes in the woods, and being mindful of them as you walk along.
Put simply, scouting is simply the act of observing and using what’s around you.
Whoa, mind blown!
Alright, maybe not quite. But many people have told me it’s a confusing concept for them.
The slower you move, the more you will often notice. The last step of learning to scout is using that information to decide where to hunt. I’ll cover those details later. Get outdoors now (make plans this weekend) and practice this hunting skill. By next fall, you’ll have had lots of practice. When you first start to notice these things, it will really open your eyes. There’s a whole active world out there you might not have noticed before. This is why it’s one of the most important hunting skills you can learn.
Don’t Lose Your Way in the Woods
Exploring the forest like this will also challenge you to develop your navigational hunting skills. If you don’t do much hiking in remote places, venturing off the trail might be a little scary at first. In fact, it’s one of the biggest hunting safety concerns out there. But it shouldn’t be as long as you follow some simple rules. First, you should always bring a map of the area and a compass in your hunting bag. Don’t just rely on your phone to provide both, because you never know when it will die on you (speaking from experience) or where you won’t have service.
Many hunting areas aren’t truly huge enough to get lost. It might take you a while to get back out, but you should eventually hit a road if you go straight. These are ideal safe places to practice your orienteering skills before venturing out into the largest wilderness areas you can find.
Practice picking out a point on the map and navigating to it using your compass. You can do that by simply deciding on which direction you need to go and then using your compass to get you there. Pick out a single tree in the distance that falls along your compass direction and walk right to it. Repeat this sequence until you get to your destination.
The tendency when walking in the woods (if you’re not careful) is to wander around obstacles. Eventually you’ve walked in a circle. Sticking to objects in the distance to navigate to and frequently checking your compass help you to walk straight(er). Like I said, most places won’t really require you to know this. But it’s one of the most important hunting skills you can have when you explore large public lands.
How to Walk in the Woods
I’m naturally a very fast walker. Friends and coworkers have complained to me before when shuffling down the street ahead of them. But my normal city shuffle of fast-paced heel to toe doesn’t work well for stalking animals quietly. When it comes to walking in the woods, the goal is to simply try to be as quiet as possible while balancing the need to actually cover some distance too. You need to really slow down and rely on a different cadence. Being stealthy in the woods is one of my favorite hunting skills to practice because it has such a primal connection with the outdoors.
Here’s a tip: place the ball of your foot down first and gently feel for branches underfoot. You’ll want to find a bare spot (no crunchy leaves or twigs) if possible to make the least noise. Slowly lower your heel and shift your weight onto it. Practice looking a few steps ahead to plot out your course. That way, you can look up and focus on the woods around you as you walk. If you’re doing this right, it should take you an uncomfortably long time to move a short distance.
Don’t worry though – you don’t always have to walk like this.
It’s unnecessary unless you’re actually stalking something or sneaking into a tree stand on a quiet day. When you’re only out small game hunting (e.g., grouse, pheasant, rabbit, etc.) or scouting, you don’t need to spend your time walking this slowly. Instead, focus on just moving slower than normal and avoid making too much noise. It’s as simple as that.
Hunting Techniques: Small Game vs. Big Game
When it comes to specific hunting techniques, there’s a lot to be said; far too much for one post. That’s mostly because each game animal has several different techniques you can use. I’ll cover the basic hunting skills for both small and big game species below, but I plan to cover techniques in much more detail down the road.
Small Game Hunting Skills
We’ll define small game animals as rabbits, squirrels, and upland birds (grouse, woodcock, pheasant, etc.) here. There are lots of sub-species in each category, so we’ll keep it simple. You’ll also probably be using a shotgun for this scenario.
Solo Hunting Techniques
I really enjoy solo hunting for one primary reason: you dictate the schedule and location without any arguments. The downside is that it can be harder to force small game animals to flush from cover when you’re alone. But you can get pretty good at it by using these simple techniques.
It doesn’t matter if you’re looking for pheasants in a thick grassy slough or snowshoe hares in a spruce forest. All small game animals will seek cover (e.g., trees, brush, grass, etc.) to hide them. If you find some thick cover, especially on heavily hunted public lands, you can be reasonably sure you’ll find animals. Part of this technique is having the courage and hunting equipment to venture into it. The other is having a few tricks up your sleeve.
Walk slowly to really scan the vegetation around you for the telltale shape or sounds of your intended game animal. Often this is enough to find at least a few animals. But after entering one of these thick areas, find a spot you could shoot from (without having to battle your shotgun through a dense tangle of brush), and then pause suddenly. This sudden stop unnerves animals and will often cause them to think they have been spotted. With this sense of impending danger, they will take off running or flying, allowing you the chance to take a shot.
Hunting: Party of 2+
Whether you choose to hunt with a friend, multiple friends, or a hunting dog, you have a few more options to chase animals from hiding. You can stand still at one of the good-looking cover spots discussed above, while your hunting partner ventures into the cover from the opposite side. Animals will usually flee out the sides or towards you, and you’ll be waiting for them. Keep safety at the front of your mind for this type of hunting, however. Always keep your eyes on your partner and don’t shoot in their direction. If you lose sight of them, don’t assume; just pass any shots until you make contact with them again.
Another good tactic for small game animals is to have one person walk an established trail, while the other walks a parallel path through the brush or woods about 30 yards away from the trail. Animals will often use these same trails and hide only 10 yards away from them, leaving most hunters to simply walk past. But when someone walks within the woods to flank them, they will usually panic and flush for a shot. The best part is you can take turns so you have equal chances to walk the easy trail or bushwhack through the woods.
Big Game Hunting Skills
For the purposes of this article, we’ll identify big game animals as any of the deer species (e.g., white-tailed, mule, caribou, elk, etc.), pronghorn antelope, feral hogs, or black bear.
Tree Stand: Concealment from Above
One of the most popular deer hunting techniques for the Midwest and northeastern U.S. is to use a tree stand. Basically, the idea is to sneak into a tree stand before sunrise and rely on your camouflage clothing and minimal movement to hide from your prey’s keen eyes. The same concept can be applied on the ground using a concealed ground blind. You should be as stealthy as possible while traveling to/from your tree stand and while sitting in it.
To be effective, these hunting stands need to be set up in good ambush locations where animals don’t expect you to be. When you can set up along trails between bedding and feeding areas, you have a really good chance of encountering a deer during the day. The tree stand approach is also used for black bear and hogs across their range.
When you have a group of people available (and where legal), you can use these same tree stands to do “drives” (no moving vehicles are involved). A few people get into these tree stands and wait, while two or more people walk through the woods to flush animals (typically deer) from hiding towards the people in the stands. This is particularly useful in areas where you can really pinpoint a deer’s likely direction of travel (e.g., narrow strips of trees through otherwise open fields).
Stalking or Still-Hunting
This approach is used for a lot of western hunts on elk, mule deer, or antelope. Instead of staying in one location, a hunter using this technique has to rely on their hunting skills to creep within range of one of their intended game animals. There are two similar approaches under this category with some notable differences.
A “spot and stalk” hunt requires a hunter to find a high point with good visibility so they can observe with binoculars or a spotting scope. When they see an animal they want to hunt, they will quickly cover as much ground as possible to get within shooting range. At first, they can move quickly and not worry about being quiet. But as they get closer, they need to pay attention to being stealthy and using obstructions (e.g., tree cover, hills, etc.) to hide their visual approach.
Still-hunting, on the other hand, requires you to be fairly quiet most of the time. You should move very slowly and silently, especially as you enter areas where you expect to see animals. Basically, still-hunting is the end of the process you would use in a spot and stalk hunt. Deer hunters sometimes use this technique on windy or rainy days when they don’t want to sit in a tree stand and the environmental conditions make it easier for them to sneak through the woods.
Field Dressing: Critical Hunting Skills
Let’s say you are fortunate enough to actually kill an animal. First, take a break to reflect on the moment – on everything that went into it, the conditions around you, the way the animal looks up-close, and the emotions you’re feeling. It’s always a powerful time for me, and I’ve never regretted sitting there and processing it for a while, giving thanks.
But now you’re standing over the animal with a knife in hand, wondering what the heck you got yourself into. How do you even begin the field dressing process?
Small Game Field Dressing Process
First, let’s clear up a few things. For most small game animals (birds, rabbits, squirrels, etc.), you can just pick them up and put them in your hunting vest back pocket to carry around until you’re done hunting that day. As long as it’s not too hot and you’re not waiting all day, the meat won’t spoil. At the end of your hunt, you can field dress them all at once. Be aware of your local hunting regulations though. In many states, you have to transport some of these animals with some identifying marks on them (e.g., a head, leg, tail, and/or wing attached), in case a conservation officer/game warden stops you and needs to check your legal bag limit.
Assuming you follow that advice, there are obviously different field dressing methods for different species you hunt. But there are also similarities. Doing a quick web search for “how to clean” or “how to field dress” whatever animal you want will produce many videos. Here is a great field dressing procedure for rabbits, as an example, by MCQBushcraft.
GRAPHIC: The procedure below may seem pretty graphic, and it is. But it’s one of the simplest ways to skin and field dress a rabbit quickly. It’s interesting to me how quickly an animal transitions to being just meat in our minds.
Big Game Field Dressing Process
For big game animals (e.g., deer, hogs, antelope), however, the process and the emotions are a little more complicated. You’ll usually have to “tag them” with your hunting license before you even move them. Again, check your local hunting regulations for more details. That means you will fill out your possession tag (the paper slip) with the harvest information (date and time of kill, sex of animal, etc.), and then attach this tag to your animal. At that point, it is a legal animal to move because you have proven you have a valid license to hunt them.
You’ll usually then start the field dressing process. It’s especially important to do this as soon as possible in warm weather so the carcass can start to cool down. The internal organs (particularly for animals shot in the gut region; “gut-shot”) can indeed spoil a big game animal’s meat if left inside too long.
But when you’re standing there with a knife, second guessing the first cut you’ll need to make, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling. You’ll likely find some instructions in the hunter education course you took earlier. But here’s a great video from Steven Rinella explaining the process. You’re no doubt familiar with the MeatEater show and website; if not, you should check it out. I really appreciate how he says, “Learn these rules, and then break them all you want.” Because really, once you learn the basic process, you can adapt your own style over time.
I’ll be honest with you – the only way to make field dressing any easier is practice and repetition. It took me many times to feel comfortable doing it, and sometimes I still slip up on some part of the process. The best way is sometimes to bumble through it and learn lessons that way. As long as you’re keeping the stomach/intestinal tract contents off the meat you’re going to eat, you’re doing fine. Make sure you use some kind of protective gloves. I used to never use them. But I noticed even small nicks or cuts on my finger could get infected after field dressing a deer, and eventually reason overcame my pride.
Now is the Time for Hunting Skills
As you can see, there’s a lot more to learning how to be a hunter than what can be covered in your hunter safety course. In fact, this is only a snapshot of the major hunting skills you’ll need. Luckily, 100% of them can be easily learned with the right guidance and some practice. Keep it up!