First Steps Afield
My dad sold his gun cabinet years ago, but I can still recall the sound of his key working open the lock, and the groan of brass hinges in the early morning still of our house. There’s no alarm clock like that in the world for a kid who spent the night dreaming of squirrels in oak trees.
I consider myself fortunate that my parents taught me to hunt and appreciate the outdoors. Many friends have told me how they’ve always been interested in hunting, but never had the opportunity growing up. Now, as adults, they’d like to learn but don’t know where to start.
What follows are some helpful strategies to remove both the real and perceived barriers that keep folks from venturing into the sport of hunting.
One of the most common questions I get when I tell someone that I hunt is, “Do you eat the animal?” When I tell them how I process and consume everything I harvest, they seem to breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not unusual for nonhunters to think that hunting is just about shooting. They aren’t aware of the traditions, training, and the outdoor experiences that make hunting so rewarding.
As a person who enjoys our great hunting tradition, recognize that you might have to respectfully dispel some false notions and replace them with realities of how ethical hunters behave. Even if hunting doesn’t end up being a lifelong pursuit for your friend, they may become an important, nonparticipating advocate for the sport.
Assume No Knowledge and Invite Questions
The challenge with bringing new hunters afield is that we want them to have the right information, but we don’t want to patronize them. My suggestion is to begin your conversation about the upcoming hunt by asking, “Tell me what you already know about hunting. That way, I won’t waste your time, and I can make sure you know the important things that can give you an advantage.”
No one wants to ask a dumb question, so you have to encourage your friend to ask away! Tell them you are glad they are interested and asking, and be candid about the things you’ve had to learn. It can be intimidating to start from scratch with little knowledge about what you’re doing, so make it easy for them. It never hurts to poke a little fun at yourself by telling your partner stories about when you didn’t have all the knowledge you needed, too (we all have at least one!). For example, I once got stuck in a deer stand until long after dark on a winter night because a herd of deer had moved into my field to feed. I had never considered a scenario where I would be trapped by deer. I intended to hunt that spot again and didn’t want to spook the deer. I decided to howl like a coyote to disperse the herd. It worked. I’m not positive that would be considered a “best practice,” but it’s a great way to illustrate how learning to hunt is a process that involves trial and error.
Give Positive Feedback and Recognize Intent
We all remember playing Marco Polo in the pool as kids. You would move in the right direction by listening for cues from those around you. The same is true for learning to hunt. Your friend is attempting to translate his or her new knowledge into behavior. Do your best to recognize those first steps, and let them know you can see them gaining skill.
I took a friend hunting one day, and we had to navigate a muddy trail to reach a ground blind. I was picking my steps carefully to avoid making too much noise, but, more importantly, to keep from falling on my backside. I glanced behind me and noticed my buddy silently contorting himself to place his feet in my footsteps. He didn’t know the exact reasons for my movements, but he knew he should do what I did. After the hunt, I thanked him for his stealthy (albeit awkward) entrance into our hunting grounds and explained why I had walked that way.
Everyone likes to know they are on the right track. Explain and encourage as often as possible. Your friend will begin to feel more confident and focus on doing the right things, as opposed to just avoiding mistakes.
Identify Your Hidden Knowledge
You know things that you have probably forgotten you had to learn. It is a dynamic known as unconscious competence and it means that you have learned skills that are now second nature to you. So you may have to remind yourself to explain things to your hunting partner that you think are obvious.
On a trip to our deer stands, my friend was confused about why we were bushwhacking through scrub trees instead of following the trail to his stand. I hadn’t considered that he knew nothing of scent trails and wind directions. In my mind, there was no other option but to go this route to avoid contaminating the area.
As someone who has spent time afield, realize that you’ve developed habits and tactics in response to the natural world that others haven’t. The good news is that you probably know more about nature than you think you do. The bad news is that you have to do your best to convey that information. Dropping barometers, animal routines, even nuances in leaves crunching, all mean something to you, but little to others. Before taking a newcomer afield, think back on your early days and tick through the things you wish you had known. Those will be the critical pieces of information you should pass along. Just remember you don’t want to overwhelm your friend and that some information ought to be shared over time and as his or her skills increase.
Define Success Early On
To someone who has never been hunting, you can be certain that his or her standard of success is going to be harvesting an animal, but that doesn’t sufficiently capture the fullness of the experience. We can all remember trips where we didn’t see anything. That’s the nature of our sport. You must help your friend see the other advantages of spending time afield.
This past deer season, I was hunting with two friends who were new to bowhunting. It was a crisp December evening and we saw a few deer, but nothing within range. Walking back to our vehicles in the dark, the purple sky was draped in brilliant stars. I was admiring a constellation when a meteor blazed through our field of view. One of the guys was especially struck by the spectacle and, despite leaving empty handed, felt privileged to witness it.
What drives us to brave nasty weather for hours on end is being immersed in something greater than ourselves, reconnecting with an ancient dance. Show your friends the true nature of hunting, and they’ll appreciate the wonder of the natural world, with or without a notched tag.
Save Your Equipment
Many of us who have gotten serious about hunting started with entry-level gear. The price point may have been attractive, or it may have been handed down, but at some point, we decided that something better was in order. Consider hanging on to your entry-level gear. Oftentimes, having the requisite equipment is a barrier to getting out into the field. Maybe your first foray into duck hunting resulted in a pair of inexpensive waders. After a season of putting up with them, you decided to upgrade to a nicer set. Hang on to that first pair. They might be what it takes to turn one of your work buddies into one of your waterfowling buddies. If neither of you has the necessary gear, consider shopping for used items.
Take Advantage of the Apprentice Hunter Program
It used to be that, if you wanted to take a friend out hunting, they had to complete a hunter’s safety course before purchasing a hunting license. While I recommend that everyone take the course, the time investment may be just enough of a deterrent to keep someone from getting a license for the first time. To address this issue, the Department of Conservation has created the Apprentice Hunter Program.
The Apprentice Hunter Program is for experienced hunters who want to share the joy of hunting with a friend or relative, and it’s for the curious who want to try hunting before making the commitment to become hunter-education certified. Under this program, people age 16 and older who are not hunter-education certified are allowed to hunt with firearms as long as they satisfy the following requirements: First purchase the Apprentice Hunter Authorization for $10 (good for one year); purchase a firearms hunting permit (a small game permit or spring turkey permit, for example); hunt in the immediate presence of a properly licensed, hunter-education certified hunter who is 18 years old or older, or who was born before Jan. 1, 1967. “Immediate presence” means close enough for normal conversation, without shouting.
The Apprentice Hunter Authorization allows new hunters to purchase firearms permits throughout the permit year, and they can purchase the authorization for two permit years. After the second year, the hunter must become hunter-education certified to continue hunting on a firearms permit.
Missouri is a leader in hunter recruitment, and the Apprentice Hunter Authorization is just one more tool to help experienced and novice hunters continue Missouri’s rich hunting tradition.
Recently, a friend of mine wanted to learn to hunt but was unsure if he could devote part of a weekend for the training. At $10 dollars for the permit, this gave him a low-cost option to figure out if he wanted to pursue hunting enough to take the safety course. It’s paving the way for a brand new turkey hunter.
Share Our Tradition
As hunters, we’re always looking for the next big challenge, a bigger buck, or a limit of birds. It never ends, and that’s just fine. But may I suggest that the best we can aspire to, our biggest thrill, is opening up this incredible world to our friends and family? Introducing people to the hunting lifestyle will deepen your relationship and add to the ranks of those who support stewardship of the species and habitats we cherish.
I don’t know what sensory cue it will be for my friends, the smell of a well-worn gun case or maybe the sight of red-blinking traffic lights (because no one in their right mind should be up at that hour). For me, decades later, the remembered sound of those little brass hinges in the quiet morning brings me back to my father, who instilled in me the love of hunting, and sends me back afield.
Take it to the Next Level
Whether you are a novice or an expert, if you are interested in improving your hunting, shooting, or other outdoor skills, check out our “Events” page at mdc.mo.gov/events. Free and low-cost classes are offered throughout the state for Missouri residents