Your hunting story resonates with me, but how exactly did you do it? What was your process for learning on your own without a mentor? Over the past few months, I’ve received these questions from a number of readers. So, here it is. The story of how we taught ourselves to hunt from scratch.
Self taught hunting is a lifelong process. This article focuses on our first 5 years of learning, spanning from initial contemplation to a successful mule deer hunt.
Stage 1: Hunting-Curious
Our evolution toward hunting was a very gradual process. It started with a desire to take responsibility for the meat we were eating. By combining our food ethics and love for the outdoors, hunting seemed like a viable solution. But, with no prior exposure to hunting, we had a lot of questions.
To mentally and emotionally prepare for learning to hunt, we sought out hunting-related media. I wanted to see what hunting looked like. I wanted to hear others’ perspectives of what hunting felt like. As we exposed ourselves to others’ stories, we tried to imagine ourselves in their shoes.
For a discussion of food ethics, we read The Mindful Carnivore by Tovar Cerulli. Cerulli learned to hunt as an adult – which was refreshing to encounter – and shares the story of his transition from vegetarian/veganism to deer hunting.
Hank Shaw also learned to hunt as an adult and is an accomplished forager and wild game chef. His book, Hunt, Gather, Cook, was an early inspiration. His website is full of recipes and occasional essays on the emotional/experiential side of hunting for food. (These essays, “On Killing” and “The Hunter’s Paradox”, were particularly impactful).
Ted Kerasote’s Bloodties was also enormously influential. Kerasote weaves a beautiful and philosophical picture of complex human-environmental relationships. What drives us to hunt? What is it like to participate in the life and death of a wild animal? From subsistence hunting, to trophy hunting, to his own hunt for elk in Wyoming, Bloodties is captivating and thought provoking.
If you’re in the mood for a mix of adventure and humor from someone that began hunting in childhood, Steven Rinella’s Meateater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter was an excellently entertaining read. Rinella’s television show, MeatEater, showed a reverence for wild animals that resonated with us.
Finally, we learned a lot from watching Randy Newberg. His shows, On Your Own Adventures and Fresh Tracks, are free to stream. They give a pretty honest picture of public land hunting, thanks to Randy’s willingness to admit his struggles and mistakes to his audience.
Stage 2: Hunter Education
The conclusion of our hunting-curious phase was clear: we wanted to try hunting for food. A Hunter Education course was our next priority. This course provided a basic introduction to firearms, hunting ethics and safety, and local regulations. Nick and I took the course about 2 years before we went on our first hunt (again, it was a gradual process…). It was a good launching pad for further research and helped me feel more prepared to handle firearms. I suggest taking Hunter Education as soon as you can.
Stage 3: Learning a Hunting Weapon
At the time I started hunting, I knew almost nothing about firearms or archery. To be honest, buying and handling a hunting weapon felt a little scary. I knew I would want plenty of time to practice and become more comfortable before planning an actual hunt.
In a previous post, I discussed whether guns (rifle, shotgun) or bows were better-suited to new hunters. Nick I both learned to shoot using small caliber rimfire rifles. We chose Ruger 10/22s because they were affordable (in terms of the firearm itself and the ammunition) and very comfortable to shoot (due to having very little recoil or “kick” when fired). Building skills with a rifle suited for small game directly prepared me to eventually transitioning to higher caliber rifles that we could use for deer hunting.
We successfully learned to shoot without formal instruction or mentorship by relying on the wonders of the Internet. YouTube proved to be a fantastic resource. When we tried to put what we learned into practice, having a hunting buddy/partner was quite helpful. Nick and I could watch each other shoot and offer feedback on each other’s form. He could notice my nervous movements that I wasn’t even aware of. See here for my advice on rifle marksmanship and my favorite instructional videos.
Learning to shoot, while intimidating at first, quickly became an enjoyable challenge. We found a nearby outdoor shooting range that was convenient to visit. Google or Yelp can help you find a range, but you should also ask your Hunter Education instructor for recommendations. Some shooting ranges also offer classes and lessons for beginners. This wasn’t something we pursued at the time, but could provide a helpful jumpstart for newbies.
Stage 4: Small Game Skill-Building
Once we could reliably shoot tight groups (i.e., groups of bullets clustered together around the center of a target, which is a sign of both accuracy and consistency) at 100 yards, we started to think about pursuing real animals. We decided to start with jackrabbits.
For self taught hunters, jackrabbits (also known as hares) were an ideal quarry. One, there was no “jackrabbit season” – they could be pursued year round, allowing us maximal time in the field. Two, we only needed a general hunting license – no extra hunting tags or permits. When an animal has so few restrictions placed on it, it usually means that the animal is plentiful and/or the animal is not popular to hunt. As neophytes, both of those would work to our benefit.
But were jackrabbits good to eat? According to Hank Shaw, our unofficial wild game guru, the answer was “yes”. Typically underappreciated, hares get a bad rap as having tough meat. But Hank said they were tasty when prepared correctly and in Hank we trusted.
We read a bit online about where jackrabbits liked to live and what time of day they are most active. We studied where to aim our shots and how to skin and field dress. Then, using some very basic digital scouting on Google Maps, Nick found some National Forest land that looked like quality hare habitat. It was only an hour away from home and made for an easy day trip. Having our hunting grounds easily accessible made it much more likely that we would go out into the field semi-regularly. We would drive out, walk to a good vantage point, and sit quietly with our rifles as the sun set. Relatively little equipment was required, by hunting standards. We brought a rifle, mediocre binoculars, a small sharp knife, a bag for meat, and a bit of rope to help with skinning. We wore basic camouflage, but we probably didn’t have to.
When Nick shot the first jackrabbit with his rifle, it was almost surreal. Every step felt a little awkward and nerve-wracking. We took our time, consulted our notes, and figured things out. For example, instead of having a mentor walk us through our first skinning and field dressing, we followed a step-by-step video that we had pre-downloaded to Nick’s smartphone from YouTube. Press play and watch. Pause. Make a small cut. Rewind and replay. Slide the knife a little further. Pause. We were learning in the moment and, incredibly, it was working.
Ultimately, jackrabbits required many of the same skills that our eventual deer hunting would require: how to find huntable land where animals lived, how to remain unseen/unheard/un-smelled by our quarry, how to shoot under pressure, and how to break down an animal into edible parts. Every single trip to the wilderness added to our education.
Step 5: Big Game Hunting
As described above, part of the appeal of starting with jackrabbits was that we could hunt them all year, allowing us to spend a lot of time in the field. We took that logic and applied it to deer. Given that mule deer have restricted seasons, what could we do to increase our practice opportunities and maximize chances of success? We needed as much time as possible for our self taught hunting strategy to work.
As we would almost always hunt together, Nick and I took on more specialized roles. I bought and learned to shoot a higher caliber rifle while Nick started practicing archery. Doing so allowed us to hunt for nearly 3 months straight (early archery season, regular rifle season, and late archery season). This was much more feasible than both of us trying to learn everything all at once.
Along with our new weapons, mule deer hunting brought additional gear requirements. Desert muleys happen to be difficult animals to pursue. They live in rugged open country and are hard to see and get close to. If we were to kill one, we would have to be quite stealthy. The hunt would likely occur miles from any road.
So, we bought backpacks capable of hauling heavy loads. We got “quieter” hunting clothes (with such giant ears, mule deer can pick up the swish-swish of pant legs from quite a distance). We invested in higher quality binoculars and spotting scopes to spot animals from afar. We needed to know our distance from any potential target to calibrate shot placement, so we bought a range finder.
Once we got into the finer details of gear choices and big game hunting tactics, seemingly arcane threads on hunting forums became enormously valuable to us. With a modicum of experience under our belt, these hunting-specific websites felt less intimidating and more accessible. Through forums, we were able to glean a type of virtual mentorship from the stories and advice of expert hunters. For our style of hunting, Rokslide was a key resource. Hunt Talk is another great site to check out. We read as much as we could during the week and tested those tactics on the weekends.
Even with all of our studying and preparation, mule deer presented us with a steep learning curve. We spent months looking for deer before we were able to spot one with our eyes. We quickly came to terms with “failing”. We persisted and tried to learn from our mistakes. Eventually, we figured out how to find the right environment and not screw up. With a heavy dose of luck, I successfully harvested a young buck on the last day of our second year of deer hunting.
When teaching ourselves to hunt, trial and error was our best instructor. Pulling ourselves out of books and into the field helped us make connections and build our confidence. Would this have been easier with an experienced hunting mentor? Absolutely. But was the struggle of teaching ourselves worth it? I think so.
Self taught hunting is feasible. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, slow down. There’s no rush. Remember that there’s no official right way to approach this journey. Read and watch videos, but don’t let yourself get stuck there. Don’t be shy about spending time in the field. Go out into the wilderness and start exploring – this is learning! Try to walk around quietly and see if you can deduce the preferences and patterns of the animals you are looking for. Pursue what excites you the most to maintain your motivation.
Persistence, humility, and flexibility will form the foundation of your achievements. Don’t forget: even the very best hunters often come home empty-handed. The wilderness is beautifully unpredictable.