During hunting season, I don’t go a week without a reader emailing me asking some variant of this question: “I want to learn to hunt, or at least see if I want to, but I haven’t the faintest idea how even to start. Can you help?”
But hunting season, which in America is, for the most part, late summer through late winter, is precisely the wrong time to get started. If you want to hunt in 2010, you need to get started now.
I am sorry if you are reading this outside the United States, because I have no idea how to get started hunting in other countries. But if you live in America, let me try to walk you through the process.
Keep in mind this is a primer, and I will undoubtedly forget some key points — feel free to ask any and all questions I have not addressed, and you hunters out there, chime in with stuff I am forgetting.
This is the primary reason I am writing this now. In most states, before you can legally hunt, you must earn a Hunter Education (also called Hunter Safety) certificate. This is what allows you to buy a hunting license in your state — and your hunter ed certification should be valid in all 50 states. A hunter ed certificate (usually just a sticker) is the gateway to the hunting world. Once you are certified, you can go anywhere, buy a local license, and start hunting.
Different states have different rules. The International Hunter Education Association keeps state-by-state lists of requirements.
Now not all states require the certificate. I did not have to take a course when I first started hunting in Minnesota. But, when I wanted to hunt in Wyoming, I did need the certificate — even though I was a licensed hunter in California. Bottom line: Better to get certified.
An even better reason to take the course is because if you have never hunted before, did not grow up around guns, and don’t know basic woodsmanship, this course should fill in a lot of blanks. I learned a ton just by taking the IHEA’s online course, which will get you most of the way toward being certified. It takes about an hour to complete.
Keep in mind you will also need to attend an in-person course as well in California, as well as in many other coastal states — the middle of the country, with the notable exception of Illinois, is much more hunter- and gun-friendly .
Here is the overview of California’s courses from the state Dept. of Fish & Game. If you live in New York, go to this site. Here are some other states’ hunter education sites: Texas, Washington state, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida, and Virginia.
You will notice that the images for all of these sites feature children. That’s because most people take this class only once, and typically before they hit high school. So be prepared to be among kids and immigrants. It’s actually kinda cool, in an anthropological sense. But you will very likely meet a few other adults who want to take up hunting, too — they might become new friends.
Bottom line is that if you even think you might want to hunt, this is a low-cost way to get started. For one, it’s required in most states. But the courses also run through all the basics you need to know to a) be safe out there, and b) be successful. California’s course goes through everything from gun safety to private property rights to shot placement on a deer that’s quartering away.
Take the course, and take it soon! Classes fill up early, and you will want to get certified before fall.
One thing you can do before you even get certified is to get some practice shooting. Obviously you need a gun. Unless you are pretty damn sure you want to hunt, however, I would not recommend going out and buying a gun right away. They’re expensive.
Ideally, you know someone with guns who can show you the ropes. That’s how I learned. I shot other people’s rifles and shotguns until I knew I was going to hunt. If you don’t know someone with a rifle or shotgun, call up your local shooting range — there’s at least one in nearly every city, even Manhattan — and tell them you want to learn to shoot but don’t yet own a gun. They will often help, and many places offer courses.
Once you get access to guns, learn about them. Learn how they work — a gun is just a tool, after all. My shotgun doesn’t even have that many moving parts. Learn gun safety, like to always assume every gun is loaded, which helps you remember to always, always, always point it in a safe direction.
Practice shooting with someone who knows how to shoot, whether it is a friend or instructor, or just the guy next to you at the range. If you are nice, they will most likely also be nice — shooters want to see more people shoot.
You will get better with each practice session. Get to the range as often as you can — weekly is ideal. But even going out just a few times will do you some good. See why I am urging you to start now?
GETTING STARTED HUNTING
All the while you will probably be thinking about what you most want to hunt — for most of you reading this space, it’s a question of what we most want to eat. Of course your terrain has a lot to do with it, too. For example, if you live in Arizona, the duck hunting ain’t great, but the deer and quail are excellent. Not a lot of elk hunting in New England, but you have some of the best grouse and moose hunting in America.
A good way to start is to contact the organization dedicated preserving habitat and expanding hunting opportunities for the critter they represent.
Say you really want to hunt deer. If you live in the West, contact the Mule Deer Foundation and ask for help. In California, we have the California Deer Association, and other states have their groups, too. Google it and see. If you are into turkeys, there is the National Wild Turkey Federation. Quail has Quail Forever, Pheasants have Pheasants Forever, there is also the Ruffed Grouse Society, as well as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. There are probably others I am missing.
Most of these organizations have local chapters. Talk to them, and tell them you are a newbie who wants to get into the pursuit. I am betting they will be overjoyed, and will bend over backward to help you.
Why? Hunting is slowly declining in the US, and these groups want as many new hunters as they can — and what’s more, most of the organizations understand that you are the single most exciting thing to happen to hunting in a generation. That’s right. YOU are the most exciting thing to happen to hunting in memory — food-oriented new hunters, which includes Holly and I, are the first flush of newcomers to hunting in a long, long time.
Most hunters always have hunted primarily for meat — it’s a lie to think we’re mainly out for the antlers. But tapping into America’s food renaissance is a top priority for many hunting groups. So let them know who you are, and take advantage of all the help these experienced hunters can offer.
FOR WOMEN ONLY
If you are a woman reading this, there are even more opportunities. There’s a program called Becoming an Outdoors Woman, and if you Google that plus your state you are likely to find the site you need — it’s a decentralized thing, loosely associated with your state’s department of fish and game. Here is the California group’s website.
There is also an excellent annual novice women’s duck hunt here in California each year.
AN OPEN LINE
Finally, I would like to extend an open invitation to you — if you run into roadblocks, have questions, or need advice, drop me a line at scrbblr AT hotmail DOT com, and I will try to help. I may not know the answer, but I bet I can find someone who does.
I hope this helps spark into action all of you who have been mulling the idea of hunting but haven’t yet done anything about it. Get started now, and you will be ready to begin the real journey when the leaves begin to fall. It’s just a few short months away.