David, Travis, and I must have invited Mason to come duck hunting with us a dozen times in high school. Sure, he didn’t have the background or equipment, (though we would’ve gladly shared) but I always got the feeling he just didn’t want to muck around in the swamp.
More than a decade later, I got a message from Mason saying that he’d come across a hunting article written by his former video store colleague—me. He had bought a bow, a Cam Hanes “Keep Hammering” hat, and was practicing every day, learning everything he could. But there was one major problem: He didn’t have anyone to take him hunting.
My response: “Just go hunting.”
He was taken aback: “No one has suggested that at all.”
My high school buddy, a tough mofo who spent years working oil rigs on Alaska’s North Slope, had never thought to venture into the woods alone and just go for it.
Now, there’s no arguing that the best intro to hunting comes from a parent, relative, friend, coworker, significant other, or any other experienced hunter who is willing to show you the ropes. I am blessed with a father who named me Samuel Hunter, frequently took me afield as a child, and offered endless support and instruction in our shared hobbies as I grew up. But he certainly didn’t teach me everything. Books, magazines, television, and later the Internet contributed far more technical information. In fact, that flow of knowledge eventually reversed. But it was personal dedication and regular hunting trips by myself that made me into whatever quality of hunter I am today.
The best example of my own self-mentorship stems from moving to Montana a decade ago. I’d decided to become an elk hunter, and I went frequently, though without any idea what I was doing. In my first five seasons, I didn’t kill an elk. I could have succumbed to frustration, but I became so engrossed in the process and infatuated with the mountains that I kept trying. I read books and articles, watched elk calling tutorials online, and picked the brain of every experienced elk hunter who was willing to talk. I hunted by myself about 75% of the time, not wanting anyone else’s schedule to dictate my days in the woods. After years of failures—and learning from those failures—finally I started to get it. I started finding elk regularly, then I started killing them. In my second five seasons in Montana, I’ve killed five bull elk on public land—four with a bow.
Listen to Your Heart
Hunting is primal. Homo sapiens have been hunting for the entirety of our existence, as did earlier hominid species before us. We each carry hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated instinct and evolution. Some research and theory suggests humans’ bipedal run, cooling perspiration, forward-facing eyes, use of tools, and other essential features evolved specifically to allow us to chase down and kill ungulates. Our large brains arose in response to complex problems related to food acquisition. The rush of adrenaline and dopamine generated by a wildlife interaction or kill signals, clearly, the adaptive significance of the moment. Nearly everything about our bodies and minds was designed for—and by—hunting.
We still have those instincts.
I observe in myself a predatory urge when an animal is getting away that feels akin to the bloodlust my Lab holds for rabbits. He’s about as related to wolves as I am to the people who first tamed them. All of us humans still subconsciously crouch slightly when we see an undisturbed deer. Young children have to be taught not to kill frogs and insects. And don’t act like good red meat doesn’t trigger a slightly drug-like response in your brain.
You can learn to listen to those instincts. Your feet know how to move slowly and stealthily. Your eyes can notice faint flickers of motion. Your skin can detect the slightest breath of wind; keep it in your face, not on your neck. In the quiet solitude of the November woods, these whispers of instinct become amplified. By yourself, you can hear their call more clearly.
The Mentorship Conundrum
Yes, having a great mentor is by far the best way to start learning to hunt. But the familiar refrain that everyone needs a mentor might be the single biggest bottleneck preventing the recruitment of new hunters. Countless thousands of would-be hunters every year languish in the purgatory of lacking a companion to go with. Much ink has been spilled on how to find a hunting mentor, but it’s rarely discussed how to skip the line.
We live in the information age, and I roundly reject the notion that hunting is somehow the one thing you can’t learn on the Internet. I’ll shamelessly plug the best resource for information and instruction on hunting and butchering, but there are others. Take the required hunter safety course first. You might be surprised at the solid foundation it provides for you to build upon. Then, read everything you can to understand the rules, both legal and unwritten, to prevent conflict with other hunters. Watch videos to learn tactics and techniques. Download onXmaps on your smartphone to find public lands near you. Sporting goods stores and archery pro shops are in business to sell you what you need and show you how to use it. If the salespeople are condescending, go elsewhere.
Conversely, I believe that hunting too long with a mentor can hinder growth. I know several exceedingly mediocre hunters who have enjoyed undue success because they’ve solely hunted with a talented parent or friend, never having to go it alone or learn the skills for themselves. The best hunters learn the basics, then forge their own path.
As with many new pursuits, it’s best to start small. Rabbits, grouse, and squirrels are plentiful across much of the country, with long seasons and liberal bag limits. You don’t need camouflage or fancy gear; in fact, you probably already have the required old clothes and hiking boots in the closet. A cool $100 can get you into an orange vest and a used .22 or 20-gauge, and you’re on your way. If shooting, cleaning, and eating a smaller animal provides a positive emotional response, you’re only a small time and monetary investment away from hunting deer.
A lot of the danger and difficulty of hunting stems from moving through an unfamiliar, wild environment. That can feel intimidating, and getting lost sucks, but, good news, there are resources for developing woodsmanship, too. “The MeatEater Guide to Wilderness Skills and Survival,” available for pre-order now, includes damn near everything you need to know about being outside and enjoying your time there. The truth is, though, you need to get out there to start learning. As a bonus, a seasoned hunter is more likely to bring you along if you aren’t a rote beginner who will require handholding and slow them down. It’s almost a rule of human nature that we are more willing to help those who are trying to help themselves.
For some people, it isn’t the woods themselves that are intimidating, but rather the other people who may be sharing the woods. To those folks I’d say that good hunters always avoid other hunters. Find sneaky access points, go further back than others will, or seek private ground to hunt. Or, bring along a friend who is also learning or just wants to go for a hike. The buddy system is never a bad idea, but it is not mandatory.
I told my high school buddy Mason that it takes a healthy degree of courage and dedication to start hunting. Hunting is not a passive hobby. To do it—with or without a mentor—you can’t half-ass it. You have to whole-ass it. So, if you have the desire to get out this fall and provide yourself and your loved ones with the best food there is, just go. Every day in the field will provide valuable lessons to the mind that is listening for them.