Introducing New Hunters to the Sport
Getting my girlfriend her first big game animal over the weekend brought up the need to set everything up properly for a newby’s first successful hunt. While I do not have children, I have been taking a new person or two under my wing about every year for the past four or five years and do have some opinions on how to do it right. I don’t want to focus just on children, as I believe inexperienced adults are even more important to the future of hunting.
For starters, I’m looking to create a pleasant experience for a new person. A pleasant experience doesn’t mean a successful hunt. It should be a low-anxiety, enjoyable day afield. A new hunter will often fixate on an aspect of the hunt that you may not have expected, so the conditions surrounding that experience are important if they are to be able to relax and take in the situation.
For instance, I went hunting with a friend a few years ago in Maine who really hadn’t spent much time outdoors. We gave him a GPS and said meet us at the point it is leading you toward in 3 hours. While we all wanted to know what kind of game he saw, he wanted to know what animals were making what sounds. It was a beautiful fall day and he would just sit down and listen (which is what we told him to do, but he was getting lost in the moment instead of hunting). So my point is, if the weather conditions are going to be miserable, your new hunter will just focus on getting comfortable instead of enjoying the outdoor experience. Try to set up the hunt so that you will be out in nice weather, even if that means seeing less game. September and October hunts are generally going to be much more pleasant than November and December big game hunts. Also, if you are day tripping from home or have the scheduling flexibility, keep an eye on the weather to avoid any major storms.
My buddy's first deer on that Maine hunt:
Another aspect of creating an enjoyable experience is to not make too much of a physical demand on the new hunter. Try to pick terrain or hunting methods that won’t wear them out physically. If you’re hunting big mountains, stick to a relatively confined area. Don’t conduct a death march into some spectacular basin 5 miles in and 3,000 feet higher than the trailhead. The new hunter may not share the same goals as you or understand the feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment yet that helps drive some of us to the furthest reaches. To an untrained eye, you’re passing through huntable country that should be hunted, not hiked.
On the opposite spectrum, all day stand hunts can be incredibly boring and the hunter can get cold very easily. Don’t be afraid to move around on occasion if you think it will help with the newby’s attention span and cold tolerance. Call it quits early if need be. We tend to get very gung-ho about getting that first animal for a new hunter, but don’t be afraid to pack it in if the game or weather aren’t cooperating or your hunter is bored to tears.
Newby hunts should not be filled with hardships. Don’t take them on a backpack hunting trip, and don’t have them deal with horses if those are new to them. Focus on comfortable truck based hunts in reasonably accessible country. Of course you’ll likely see more hunters this way, but don’t complain about them in front of the newby. Public land hunting pressure is a fact of life in many convenient hunting areas and the new hunter won’t know the difference. Use hunting pressure to your advantage by sitting on escape routes.
When trying to create an enjoyable day afield, you need to stay calm and composed. Your new hunter will have lots of questions and be filled with anxiety, don’t add to the stress of the situation by getting overly excited or emotional yourself. Try to stay steady, they’ll take their cues from you. Last weekend, when cruising around, looking for approachable antelope, I made a point of trying to stay even-keeled as I found an ideal herd to hunt. I was focused on making a successful stalk, so I forgot to tell Katie to do some of the basic last minute preparations. She asked if she should chamber a round while we were about to crest the hill, and it never occurred to me that she hadn’t already done so. Likewise, as we were belly crawling to less than 100 yards from the herd, she then asked if she should extend the bipod legs. Those aren’t things that I think about sometimes, but when your new hunter is taking every cue from you, you need to go through all the minute details with them. If you or they forget to take the safety off or turn up or down the scope magnification, just stay steady, say, ”that’s ok," then correct the situation and continue. Don’t get all worked up if something doesn’t go right.
Along these lines, choosing an appropriate big game species helps to create an enjoyable situation. Public land elk hunting is probably not the best way to introduce a new hunter due to the physical and mental stresses, low game density and few and marginal shot opportunities. Instead, stick with antelope, mule deer or whitetails if you are going to big game hunt. Small game hunting isn’t universally a great beginner animal either. Rabbits and squirrels are great, but most bird hunting is not ideal for new hunters in my opinion. The hunter often has to act too quickly for their own good, and much of the time birds hit by shot will require some sort of additional dispatching. If waterfowl is your thing, decoyed geese over dry land can work well, as any potential cripples will be much easier to catch compared to ducks over water or pheasants in tall grass and geese generally take their time coming in giving you the chance to prepare your new hunter. (This is reminding me, I think I probably need to do an “easy hunt” article with a little different twist than the meat hunt article. Look for that next time.)
Talk with your hunter about shot placement and shot selection. Let them know what kind of reactions to expect from different impact locations. You don’t want them thinking they just crippled a perfectly lung or heart shot deer as it runs over the hill. Be prepared to tell them to quickly follow up the shot, but only if truly necessary. Hopefully you’ve seen enough big game shot reactions to be able to call the shots well enough. And don’t let them shoot, or pressure them into a shot if it’s a marginal opportunity. At this point in my life, I’d rather risk spooking the game by stalking closer than risk wounding it. This is a just a maturity thing that comes with experience. If you didn’t think your hunter could make a 300 yard shot before you went out, don’t ask them to do it in the heat of the moment. Even if the target animal is starting to get nervous about to change the shot from “go” to “no go”, don’t rush your hunter. Screaming “Shoot it!, Shoot it! Shoot it!” isn’t going to help the situation. Calmly explain that the deer or antelope is going to move and then tell them they’ll have to shoot soon or hold off. Most western big game animals will offer another shot if only mildly spooked from what they perceive as a safe distance, so tell your hunter to stay with it if possible as their shot opportunity may not be totally blown once the animal is alerted.
Make your hunter do the work too. Show them how to gut or debone, but don’t do it all for them. Carrying their rifle, especially if you don’t have a tag is a big no-no. Bring gloves and peroxide wipes to help with the mess. Your hunter will expect to get dirty during the gutting or quartering efforts, but minimizing the smell or blood on their bare skin will make dinner more pleasant for them later.
Introducing a youngster to hunting should ideally start long before the summer before hunting season. Taking the kid along on hunts to build up the excitement and get them used to the conditions can happen 5 to 10 years before they are legally ready to hunt big game. I’ve known parents on both sides of the spectrum here. Those that have been taking their kids to hunting camps since they were knee high to a grasshopper tend to have more emotionally and physically ready to hunt kids. Those that have waited to bring their kids along until they were of legal hunting age tended to have kids that were far less interested and capable in the outdoors.
Lastly, realize that hunting isn’t for everyone. Football, beer, guns, and other stuff I love doesn’t turn everyone’s crank. Some people would rather just enjoy the camaraderie and environment back at camp, others may not be cut out for the emotional aspects of the hunt. This is ok too. Of course we will be disappointed if our child/spouse/buddy/whatever doesn’t take to hunting the way we were hoping, but if you keep the experience as enjoyable as possible, your hunter may still ask to come back out again. Try to get input from them regarding how to make it more enjoyable next time instead of saying, "it’s always like this," or "this is just the way it is," or "this is how I do it, so take it or leave it."
I’m sure there are lots of other scenarios that haven’t come up yet in my hunting, but keep some of these tips in mind if you’re trying to introduce someone to our sport.