This past weekend Tyler Kee invited me down to his family’s ranch in the Texas hill country to go hunting for the first time. As you can see from the picture, things went pretty darn well. As someone who has recently made the jump from “Gun Culture 2.0” to things usually reserved for “Gun Culture 1.0” I think I’m uniquely qualified to bring you hunter wannabes up to speed. So let’s get rolling, shall we?
A quick note about the “1.0” and “2.0” stuff. There’s a rift in the gun culture of this country, and depending on whether your parents or friends introduced you to hunting in America at an early age is generally the defining feature. Gun Culture 1.0 is the traditional hunting, plinking and benchrest shooting crowd whose traditions are passed down from generation to generation. Gun Culture 2.0 is generally the more “tactical” crowd, who started shooting in their college days (18+) or after and are interested in 3-gun and self defense more than anything else. The progression from 1.0 to 2.0 is easy and there are converts every day, but going the other way tends to be much more difficult.
That’s where this guide comes in. I was firmly in the “Gun Culture 2.0” crowd until Tyler took me out and showed me the wonders of hunting. And here’s what I learned, presented in “Frequently Asked Questions” format for easy reading and reference.
Keep in mind that many of these definitions are based on Texas and Virginia laws, and you should always consult your local laws before hunting.
What kind of animals can I hunt?
As Tyler explained it to me there are a number of different “types” of animals. “Game Animals” is the overarching term for things that are typically hunted for sport or food. All of the below categories (with one obvious exception) are game animals.
- Pests, Nuisance or Varmints are classified by the state as a nuisance and always OK to shoot. There are too many for their own good and the state needs their numbers to dwindle. Examples include feral hogs, mice, coyotes, sika deer and woodchucks.
- Furbearers are animals that are hunted primarily for their pelts. These include foxes and bobcat.
- Waterfowl include things that fly and live on the water, such as ducks and geese.
- Upland Game Birds include things that fly but don’t typically live on the water, such as doves and snipe.
- Small Game includes small animals such as grouse, crows, rabbits and squirrels.
- Big Game are the animals most typically associated with hunting, such as deer, turkey and bear.
- Domesticated Animals are those which are raised by farmers as livestock or pets. These include horses, sheep and dogs. Domesticated animals are NOT on the approved list of targets, and shooting one can land you with a visit from the boys in blue.
The rules for each state differ in terms of who is allowed to hunt certain animals, what kinds of weapons are allowed, and when you’re allowed to hunt them.
Do I need a license?
Depending on your state the ability to hunt certain kinds of animals may require a hunting license. Animals are a natural resource, and as such the state government has the ability to regulate and license our ability to harvest them for our own benefit.
Licenses vary by state, but in Virginia a “standard” resident hunting license ($23) grants the bearer the ability to hunt nuisance animals and nothing else. If you want to hunt something else you need to buy an additional license, which costs more money and specifies the animal and the method permitted to be used (muzzleloader, deer, crossbow, etc). They do offer a “complete” license that covers everything for about $133. Check your local laws for which specific license you should use, and remember that the state wildlife management agency will be happy to discuss any questions you have over the phone or in person as they’re the ones that get your dollars.
States often offer a “resident” and “non-resident” hunting license, which requires those who live outside the state to pay substantially more for the privilege of hunting within their borders. For states where hunting is a major tourist attraction these more expensive out of state licenses represent a substantial revenue stream for the state.
The penalty for harvesting an animal without a license is typically extremely steep in order to provide a deterrent against the activity. Those caught can also sometimes be required to forfeit their hunting gear and anything used during the execution of the crime, including cell phones and vehicles. Game wardens don’t mess around.
How do I obtain a license?
Hunting licenses can be purchased at a number of locations, typically including local Walmart stores, gun shops and fishing stores as well as directly from the local wildlife management department online. However even though obtaining the license is quick and easy states often require hunters to take a “hunter education course” before they are allowed into the woods. Exceptions are often available if the hunter will be accompanied by a fully licensed and experienced hunter, but in Texas such an exception can be made only once per lifetime.
Hunter education courses are offered in the summer and early fall and usually consist of a classroom education portion and live fire exercise in which the hunter must prove proficiency with their firearm. States often provide “full faith and credit” to the hunter education courses offered in any other state, which means a completed hunter education certificate from any state would be valid and not require the hunter to be supervised. West Virginia offers a great online hunter safety course with interactive material, I highly recommend checking it out even if you’re going to take the class in another state.
What is a “Bag Limit”? Can I shoot as many animals as I want?
Hunting is an effective form of population control, and there are a number of species of animal that would be hunted to extinction (like the buffalo almost were) if certain controls were not put into place in order to keep the hunters from killing them all. A “bag limit” places an upper limit on the number of animals a specific hunter can harvest in a given period. Limits may be placed on entire species (squirrels) or specific sexes of a species (whitetail bucks), and can be for any time period (daily or by season).
Other species of animals (specifically pests) do not have bag limits and are encouraged to be hunted year round to control the population.
Bag limits on the more popular Big Game animals are often enforced using tags.
How do tags work?
In order to limit the number of animals taken by a single hunter states often issue “tags.” These are relatively small documents that identify the hunter, the year and the type of animal permitted to be harvested in that area.
Tags are often required to be immediately affixed to the animal once it has been killed and stay with the animal until it has been processed into food or other items. In this case the tag typically needs to remain with the “proof of sex” of the animal, which is the head (the sexual organs are often removed as part of the field dressing process). Some states (such as Virginia) do not follow this practice, and only require the tag to be “validated” (have the date and other information cut out or filled out in ink).
Tags cannot be reused, and often are required to be cut in some manner to ensure they are used only once.
Some states issue tags as part of the hunting license, as my Texas hunting license above shows. Other states sell tags separately and allow hunters to purchase them one at a time. Tags typically do not extend a hunter’s legal bag limit, so even though I have three tags for buck whitetail deer I was only legally allowed to use two (one two) in the county in which I was hunting in Texas.
When can I hunt?
Hunting typically takes place during the fall, and the colder months are divided into different “seasons” of hunting. What you want to hunt and what equipment you want to use will determine when you can head into the woods.
Hunting seasons are implemented in order to give the wildlife enough time during the year to reproduce and grow before the hunters begin harvesting them. Some animals (like pests) can be hunted all year, but the larger mammals don’t reproduce in such a prodigious manner that year-round hunting is possible. Hunting season often purposefully coincides with the mating season for a species.
In general, the “harder” weapons are given first crack at the local animal population. This means deer can be hunted using bows first, then muzzleloaders and finally modern rifles. For example, archery season for white tail deer in Texas starts October 1, but firearms for adults can only start after November 5.
For an example of how hunting seasons work check the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife animal seasons page.
Where can I hunt?
There are a couple different types of locations where you can hunt animals.
- Private Property is perfect for hunting, provided local ordinances allow the practice, there is enough space, a proper backstop exists where you intend to hunt, and you own the land or have permission from the owner to hunt on their land. This is probably the best way to hunt even if it takes a couple extra dollars to secure the ability.
- State Land – States often reserve large swaths of land and preserve them in their natural state for hunting and recreation. Some restrictions may apply when hunting on state land.
- Federal Land is also often open to hunting, but not always.
When using private property you normally don’t have to worry about other hunters being nearby, stealing your shots and possibly mistaking you for a deer. Large private reserves often implement systems for ensuring no hunters are too close to each other or schedule them in such a way that they won’t interfere with each other.
Public land (state and federal), however, can quickly become crowded without proper management. To combat this issue public lands are often segmented into different plots and a system put in place where hunters can reserve the plots for a given time period. Reservations are either handled on a “first come first serve” basis or via lottery in the more crowded areas. In Virginia, for example, I couldn’t find a single piece of public land that didn’t have a reservation system of some sort.
The NRA has compiled a nice resource for people to find hunting land available at this here website.
What equipment do I need?
Hunting has been a staple of human existence since long before we started wearing pants, and so you don’t really NEED anything to go hunting. If you really wanted to you could probably run around the woods naked and use a large club to hunt. But there are some things that make life easier.
- Water bottle and a snack. Something you can munch on and drink quietly, so as not to scare off the furry woodland creatures. Dehydration is no joke, even in the winter.
- Something soft to sit on, either a fluffy towel that has been rolled up or one of those padded stadium seats. Make sure it doesn’t make a ton of noise when you move around. I sat on a cactus for about an hour before the buck in the lead picture showed up and it was not enjoyable.
- A sharp knife and a knife sharpener. Field dressing a deer is not something to be undertaken with a dime store pocketknife. I used an H&K ComboEdge 14320SBK to field dress the deer in the lead photo and it worked like a charm despite the puny $60 price tag.
- Hacksaw. The pubic symphysis of a deer doesn’t look intimidating, but it is. Saws help.
- Sling for your firearm. We’re a firearms blog, so we’re discussing hunting with firearms. A sling is basically required equipment, especially if you’re going to be hauling the animal out yourself.
- Rope. Whether you’re going to tie up the animal to cool down or use to to lash the carcass to a rod to make it easier to maneuver rope is another piece of required equipment.
What should I wear?
Deer and other wild animals are generally quite dumb, but that doesn’t mean they are complete idiots when it comes to spotting hunters and running away.
Whether or not the local animals are used to humans being around will dictate how much you need to hide yourself. On Tyler’s ranch the wildlife are used to humans being present so we could drive right up to a pack of them without a problem, but in more isolated parts of the country the deer may be more aware of a “disturbance in the force” that alerts them to your presence.
Dark, warm clothing should be the basis of your hunting outfit. You’re going to be sitting for quite some time, and dark clothing will help hide you in the inky shadows of whatever you decide to use for concealment. Over that you can use some camouflage pattern clothing, but I seemed to do just fine without it.
Blaze orange should be a HUGE part of your outfit if you’re in the woods. At minimum you should have a blaze orange cap, if not a vest as well. Deer are colorblind so it won’t stick out to them, but it will stick out like a sore thumb to other hunters and keep them from capping your ass.
Sturdy boots completes the ensemble, preferably ones that are somewhat waterproof and you don’t mind getting bloody.
What firearm should I use?
Your state will often dictate the type of firearm that is legal for hunting, or at least its attributes. For example, some states (like Pennsylvania) don’t allow semi-automatic rifles to be used. Other states (like Virginia) mandate that the cartridge be .23 caliber or larger for big game (eliminating 5.56mm NATO). Some regions may also limit the caliber in the other direction (like Fairfax County Virginia) mandating .22 caliber or smaller.
In general, a bolt action rifle in .308 Winchester is perfect for big game and other medium to large sized American mammals. The ammunition is cheap, plentiful and well understood, specially designed hunting ammunition is available, the firearms are accurate and the rifles can be had for a song and a dance.
Some people prefer larger rounds or zippier bullets but .308 works just fine for me — 2 out of 9 hogs agree.
If you already own a rifle in something other than .308 Winchester don’t feel like you need to go out and buy something new. As long as you know your rifle, know its zero and understand the trajectory of your bullet that’s all that matters.
The only caveat I put on that statement is that you shouldn’t use anything with a muzzle energy much under 2,000 foot pounds for medium to large game or else it won’t have enough force to humanely put the animal down. We’re looking for the quickest and most humane kill possible that minimizes any suffering the animal might feel, and shooting a deer with a .22lr rifle definitely won’t do that.
Do I need special hunting ammunition?
At the end of the day, shot placement is king. No matter what kind of fancy bullet you use you’re not going to bring down a bear by hitting it in the paw. However, hunting ammunition does help and is useful to use.
Hunting ammunition uses specially designed bullets which deform upon impact and increase the damage each round does to an animal. The increase in damage leads to quicker blood loss and faster and more humane kills.
As Tyler told me before I came down, it’s more important that I put rounds on target accurately than use some crazy hunting round. During the weekend I proved four times that a well placed HPBT match round that was never intended for hunting will instantly bring down whatever Texas has to throw at me, but if I ever go hunting again I would much rather have some specially designed hunting rounds in my magazine. As they say, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.
How do I set up a hunting position?
The first step is to choose a location for your hunting spot. If you have a feature on your plot of land that you know will attract animals (water, food, etc) then it’s a good chance they will show up there. But if your patch of land is in the middle of nowhere you’re going to need to figure out where the animals like to walk and set up somewhere along one of those paths. Trail cameras help identify these locations if you have enough time before the hunting proper to prepare, but deer poop is also a dead giveaway. No pun intended.
Once you’ve figured out the general area you want to hunt you have to figure out how you’re going to do it without being seen. Deer aren’t rocket scientists but they still know enough to run away from humans, so you’re going to need some sort of way of hiding yourself. A hunting blind is a good way to make you disappear and give you enough room to move around, but it may be hard to set up or illegal to use in your state. Other options include tree stands (which have their own safety issues) or my personal favorite: sitting with your back against a tree behind some low shrubbery.
When picking the spot for the blind or hunting position you want to try to place yourself downwind of wherever the animals are going to be, and ideally with the sun at your back as well. This will keep the animals from smelling you and running away as well as keeping you from being seen.
While being invisible to the wildlife is the goal you also want to remember that there may be other hunters in the area and make yourself as visible to them as possible. Again, blaze orange works really well for this purpose.
After you’ve decided on a good position you want to identify a field of fire where any shot you take would be stopped by a natural backstop of some sort. Rule #4 is as important in hunting as it is in any other environment, and ensuring that the bullet stops after it does its job is essential to safety. Once you have identified this field of fire make a mental note to only fire when the animal is within this zone.
You now have a properly prepared hunting position. If the local laws allow you might want to consider using bait of some kind, such as a pile of corn. If you have a piece of private land you may want to look into setting up a deer feeder during the closed season so that deer become trained to come to that spot for food.
What time of day should I start hunting?
The best times for hunting are very early in the morning (just after sunrise) and just before sunset, especially after a dark night.
Animals move around all day long, but the most movement is early in the morning when they’re finding breakfast and late in the afternoon when they’re heading back to their “home” to sleep.
Where should I aim?
The thoracic cavity of an animal is located immediately inferior to the most superior appendages. Or, in non medical nerd speak, just behind the front legs extending about 1/3 the way down the body. The thoracic cavity contains all of the vital organs we care about — heart, lungs, major blood vessels — and any damage to these structures will result in death. That’s the reason the rib cage has evolved to cover and protect them, something a bullet penetrates quite nicely. A shot in this general area is almost guaranteed to put the animal down, and in most four legged creatures also has the added benefit of inhibiting their ability to run (which will aid in finding and collecting the animal).
The thoracic cavity provides a fine target, but it also has some delicious meat surrounding it that would be ruined if a bullet passed through the area. For that reason the second “best” shot is on the neck of the animal. A shot to this region would sever the great veins feeding the brain of the animal or disabling the animal’s nervous system by severing the connection along the spine. The animal may run for a bit, but it should stop pretty quick.
The third “best” shot is the one I took on the animals I harvested, and I took some flak for it on this blog. A shot to the head, if placed directly on the brain or base of the skull, will instantly kill the animal and (in my opinion) provides the most humane shot of all three. The animal doesn’t suffer at all if done properly. However, the head provides a ridiculously tiny target and one that has a tendency to move rapidly and without warning. There are horror stories of hunters who have tried to make the head shot but instead shot off the animal’s jaw, dooming it to a life of pain and starvation. Definitely not cool. If you know yourself and know your weapon well enough that you’re confident you can make the shot then by all means go for it, but if there’s even a shadow of a doubt then the better option is one of the other locations.
The one place you do not want to shoot an animal is in the stomach. The digestive organs in that area contain some nasty bacteria, and if it is released (by, say, a bullet ripping through) then the meat will be ruined. This includes shooting the animal in the body when it is facing directly towards or away from you as the bullet will eventually penetrate into the stomach area.
Do I have to carry the carcass out and eat it? Can I just leave it there?
If you’re heading into the woods with the intention to kill a living creature and leave it to rot then you need to reexamine your motives for getting into hunting. And possibly see a psychologist. Unless you’re hunting varmints, in which case it’s fine as there isn’t much useful meat to begin with and what the scavengers don’t get will help fertilize the ground.
Deer is delicious and you should make every effort to harvest every scrap of scrumptious meat, but if you really don’t want it then there are programs around the country that will accept deer carcasses and use them to feed the hungry and the homeless. In Virginia the program is called Hunters for the Hungry and they accept whole deer carcasses as donations.
How do I gut / clean / field dress / butcher this animal?
I’ll make a post a little later next week detailing the process for field dressing a deer (or a video about it that I find on YouTube) but all the first time hunter really needs to know is that there are facilities that will gladly do all of the “messy” work for you. If you do some searching you should come across a game animal processing facility that takes in animals hunters have harvested and turns them into little white packages of meat, and those facilities will take the entire carcass off your hands and process it for a fee. You don’t need to do a thing more than pop the animal in the back of your truck and haul it into town, but if you can field dress the animal it will be cheaper for you and keep the meat from spoiling before you get to the facility.
If you see something that is incorrect let me know in the comments below. I’m sure there’s a mistake or two in there and if you find it I’ll be happy to fix it.