How to Start Hunting: Beginner Guide and Starter Gear Kit
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Every new hunter comes to the vital tradition of hunting for different reasons, but how do you start hunting as an adult? The first thing you need to complete if you want to hunt is a hunter safety course. Depending on your state, this can be done in person, online, or a combination of both. Hunter safety needs to be completed only once and is usually recognized nationally regardless of what state you completed your course. The age at which someone could hunt big-game alone varies by state ranging from 12 years to 16 years old. Hunter safety encompasses not only game species and regulations, but also firearm safety and knowledge. You can get started by searching for your state’s hunter safety program online.
Checklist Steps for How to Start Hunting as an Adult:
Purchase hunting license and desired tags
Research target species (deer, turkey, waterfowl, etc.)
Know the regulations of the land and target game species
Acquire and practice with harvest weapon (gun or bow)
Acquire basic gear specific to your hunt
Look for "learn to hunt" programs near you
Use software to electronically scout (E-scout) access and know land boundaries
Go to hunting land and find signs of your target game species
Combine knowledge from researching and scouting and apply it during an open hunting season.
Where to Start Hunting:
Figuring out where to hunt is an important part of hunting. With the use of computers or mobile devices, looking over maps or satellite imagery is commonly referred to as E-scouting. Finding areas on a map that exhibit features you find valuable for the species you are hunting can give you a starting point before you even see the land. It can also eliminate a lot of areas and save you precious time for hunting. You can use google maps or equivalent software, but the best option for E-scouting is OnX. OnX is software that can be used on either your computer or mobile device and in addition to showing you the terrain features of an area, it also shows you property boundaries and layers of beneficial information that satellite imagery alone can not provide.
Depending on your target species, you will want to find public or private land and mark it with possible areas for hunting prior to going out to check the property for sign or to hunt. Intersections of food, water, and shelter are great areas to start for almost any game species. For example, whitetail deer at almost any time of the year can be found using field edges between woods and crops. Wild Turkeys need tall trees to roost, so finding elevated wooded areas near crops is a good starting point. After you find areas on a map that may be good areas to hunt, you should go out to that area and physically scout the land to confirm the presence of whatever game you are pursuing.
Common Game Species New Hunters Pursue When Starting to Hunt:
Small Game (Rabbit and Squirrel)
Upland Birds (Pheasants, Quail, Grouse, Woodcock)
Waterfowl (Ducks and Geese)
How to Start Hunting Small Game
Chasing small game affords hunters some of the longest seasons of any species. Over the decades small game hunting has waned in popularity. Traditionally hunting small game was how a new hunter was introduced to the sport of hunting. I've chosen to keep this tradition alive by taking my daughter out squirrel hunting with me this year. Another reason to start your hunting adventures chasing small game is that it is hands down the smallest financial investment of all game. It also provides some of the best tasting critters.
Common Types of Squirrels
Squirrel Hunting List (see the chart for links to products)
Camo/Jeans and a Flannel
How to Start Hunting Squirrels
Let me start by dispelling a myth; hunting squirrels is not easy unless you are deer hunting. Forest squirrels are not the squirrels you see running around your neighborhood. Forest squirrels have not been desensitized to movement or danger. Squirrel hunting can be difficult and teaches you lessons that carry on to other forms of hunting.
There are three general methods used to hunt squirrels:
This method is as simple as it sounds. You quietly enter the woods and slowly make your way to a tree overlooking an area with multiple squirrel nests or a nut-producing tree. You're going to take a seat and listen more than look, especially if the leaves have fallen. You'll wait for 30 minutes to an hour which should be enough time for squirrels to feel safe to come out of hiding and resume their daily activities.
This method is much like spot stalking for deer. You'll move as slowly and quietly in the woods taking breaks every 5 steps or so to look and listen for distant squirrel activity. When you do see or hear a squirrel you will continue your slow and methodical movements until you are in a position to get a shot on that squirrel.
This is the easiest and most action-packed way to hunt squirrels. However, this is the most expensive and time-consuming way to pursue squirrels since you have to buy/train/feed a dog before you see any of the results. The good news is that once your dog is trained you will always have a hunting buddy who wants to hit the squirrel woods with you. This method works by letting your dog loose in the woods and waiting for him/her to start barking when they have treed a squirrel. You walk over to your dog's location and start to play the game of finding the hidden squirrel in the tree.
Squirrel Hunting Tips
Squirrel hunting is a great activity for kids. You can find action during all hours of the day and the hunts don't have to be all-day affairs.
Squirrels are as sensitive to colors and movement as other game species such as turkeys. Slow movement is harder to see in their peripheral vision than fast fast movement.
Using your ears while squirrel hunting is just as important as using your eyes.
How to Start Hunting Rabbits
Rabbit hunting is not a solo adventure. You are either going to need dogs or friends who really like you and have always wanted to be dogs. Rabbits don't like to be eaten and because of this fact, they will be hiding in the thickest, nastiest, thorn-riddled patch of the woods or fields. It can be exciting hunting rabbits if you know where to look for them. Rabbits are generally found on the edge of cover connected to fields full of the things they like to eat.
Rabbit Hunting List (see the chart for links to products)
Shells #6 or #7
Orange Hat and Vest
There are generally two ways to hunt rabbits:
Walking with Friends who think their dogs
The most common rabbit dog is the beagle. Generally, this is how hunting rabbits with a pack of beagles works. The dogs flush the rabbit which outruns the dogs easily. The beagles will stay on its scent baying and making a ruckus making the rabbit run off again. The hunters will be following the dogs a couple of hundred yards back. When the hunters hear the dogs coming back to them they will stop and start looking for the rabbit. Rabbits have home ranges and when they are chased they will generally circle back to where the chase started.
Walking with Flushing Friends
When hunting with other people you'll generally stay in a parallel line with your shooters in the field and your flushers inside the edge of the wood line. Generally, it's a good idea that whoever is flushing should not be carrying a firearm. The thick vegetation they will be fighting through will not allow them to safely handle a firearm. This also means that at some point if you want people to hunt with you you'll have to leave your shotgun at home and play the role of the flusher. You will work the edge of the field and cover at the flusher's pace making sure to stay sharp for that bolting rabbit. It's also a good idea to occasionally stop and stand still since rabbits will freeze if they think they haven't been spotted. When you stop and freeze this will sometimes make a rabbit think they have been spotted and the rabbit will bolt.
Rabbit Hunting Tips
Find a skeet range near you that has a ground or rabbit station so you can practice shooting fast-moving and bouncing objects on the ground.
Rabbits have a tendency to circle when constantly pursued
Thickets and large woodpiles are great habitats for rabbits. Make sure if you are flushing to go through them or on top of the woodpile and make plenty of noise.
How to Start Hunting Pheasants
Pheasant hunting can be some of the most fun you will spend out pursuing wild game. Typically pheasant hunting only requires the proper amount of orange-colored clothing and a weapon, but having a trained dog and public land with state bird releases will make your odds of finding pheasants, quail, grouse, or gamecocks much higher. If you are lucky enough to have friends with dogs and a weapon you can borrow, you can go pheasant hunting for a very low cost, and you only need to be able to walk and shoot to have the ability to harvest a bird.
Pheasants can be found in upland type terrain which is why “upland” bird hunting is typically the term used to refer to pheasants, grouse, and woodcocks. Upland is a combination of open prairie or CRP type grasses and shrubs with mixes of flat land or rolling hills. Hunters will walk through these fields methodically in rows covering an area where birds may be hiding. The goal is to flush the bird (flies up off the ground) into the air to get a shot opportunity that presents a clear target and reduces the chance of accidentally shooting a dog or other hunter.
Because you are actively trying to flush pheasants, you can talk and walk normally which is one of the attractive aspects of pheasant hunting. The comradery is infectious, and the birds are tasty. The apparel usually features denim or hide type pants or chaps and a vest. The material of the pants, chaps, or vest protects you from thorns or briers and they also should prevent clingy vegetation like burs from sticking to your clothes. The land you hunt may have mud or marshy areas and your footwear should be appropriate for both your physical needs and the terrain.
Where to Start Hunting Pheasants:
Prairie and CRP
How to Start Hunting Waterfowl
Duck hunting can be some of the most action-packed hunting a person can experience. Duck hunting can also be the most expensive game you pursue if you travel too far down the gear rabbit hole. I grew up primarily waterfowling which didn't cost me much since I only had to cover the cost of my license fees and ammo. The rest of the gear we needed was owned by family members I hunted with. Once I was hooked on duck hunting and wanted to be on the water more than my family members did I had to figure out how to duck hunt on a teenager's budget.
What I'm Not Going to Cover
When my brother and I started to hunt on our own we had to figure out how to do so on a part-time minimum wage budget. We didn't have the boat or the dog or the 4 dozen decoys. I'm going to go over what you need to start hunting ducks and where and how to hunt them. Before explaining what you need to start hunting ducks, here is a list of things that open up more options but will hurt the pocketbook when you realize you want to chase birds for the rest of your days.
Boats ( with and without motors)
Large decoy spreads and full-body decoys for fields
Expensive duck calls
Mojo Ducks (spinning decoys)
Where to Start Hunting Ducks and Geese
Without a boat, dog, or private land you will be looking at your nearest public land. You're looking for water that's deep enough to hold ducks but shallow enough for you to be able to navigate it with a pair of waders. You will be your own retriever so you need to be able to get to any ducks you down. You'll be looking for small shallow rivers, potholes, swamps, bogs, flooded fields, creeks, and marshlands. Some public lands have a DNR station on them. The fine folks working for your DNR will be able to give you all kinds of good information regarding where, when, and how you can hunt on those public lands.
How to Start Hunting Ducks
You need to find enough water for ducks to land. You'll also need mother nature to provide you with a blind near the water. Ducks have amazing eyesight and after they start getting shot at they tend to do a couple of passes and look for things that look out of place. To help keep yourself hidden you want to place the sun at your back to blind the ducks. You also want to keep the sun at your back because you'd be surprised how bright your face is when the sun is shining on it. The ducks will pick up on it immediately. Duck hunting is much like other outdoor activities in that you will have your best chances at sunrise and sunset. When ducks come in you want to remain as still as possible until you are going to shoot. Extra movement will blow your spread and send the ducks flying away.
How to Set Up a Duck Decoy Spread
You won't have enough decoys to make the traditional J spread so I'll give you some basic rules to follow that will help lead to a successful hunt.
Don't bunch up your decoys, clustered ducks show that they are not calm and happy. Unless you are on big water and it's very windy creating rough water then ducks will huddle together.
Create a pocket for ducks to land in. Puddle ducks generally will not fly low over ducks on the water. They have built-in air traffic controllers and follow certain rules to avoid collisions. Ever seen ducks run into each other midair? Neither have I.
Ducks land into the wind so make sure your pocket is set up into the wind. Ducks also will turn and burn with the wind once they realize they are getting shot at or that something isn't right.
Making a rough U shape with the decoys will work fine. The inside of the U is the pocket. Ideally, you would want the wind blowing from the bottom of the U to the top.
How to Start Calling Ducks While Hunting
Calling ducks consists of 4 basic calls. You have a Hail, Comeback, Quack, and Feed call.
The nice thing about using the mallard language is many of the other duck species will respond to them as well. When you see ducks you hit them with a hail call. You watch what they do. You're trying to play the ducks just like that duck call. If they swing towards you you can hit them with a quack or a feed call. Sometimes you don't have to call at all and ducks will just bomb into your decoys. When ducks swing away you hit them with the comeback call to try and bring them back. If they look at your decoys and do a flyby but flare off you would hit them the comeback call. Don't try calling ducks for the first time when you're hunting. There is no season on calling ducks so go buy a call and find anywhere ducks hang out and practice talking to them during the offseason. You might look like a crazy person but I wasn't one to really care what strangers thought of me.
Duck Hunting Notes
You need a Federal duck stamp on top of a small game license and a waterfowl license to hunt ducks and geese.
You need to consult your local laws and know what your bag limits are on each species
You need to understand and be able to identify each duck species while they are flying since some ducks are protected or you might have your limit of a certain species for that day
Don't shoot at a duck if you don't know what species it is
Hunting in and around water is always safer with a friend. Getting stuck in mud or stepping into a deep hole will make you realize real quick that without proper precautions you could get yourself into a very bad situation.
Pick up your used shell casings
Below is a very budget-friendly waterfowl gear guide. However, if all you can afford is the very basics, then you'll want to get the following from the list below.
If you get those items you may not be the most comfortable and hunting may not be as convenient but you will be able to get out there and get after some ducks.
How to Start Hunting Wild Turkey
Wild turkey hunting is a seasonal harvest that historically took place in the fall but has in recent years been synonymous with springtime. Some states such as Wisconsin, boast large enough populations that can sustain both fall and spring seasons. Depending on your state, you can harvest one or more birds and the gender or bird characteristics may determine which bird(s) you can legally shoot. During the spring season, it is common to call turkeys trying to get male birds or Toms to come to your location thinking you are a hen. In the fall you can typically call Toms or Hens. Turkey hunting is full of the same types of comradery and strategic fair chase as many other hunts.
Turkeys can see very well, including some level of color vision. They are very perceptive and wary of movement. You must be meticulous about your set up and really focus on reducing your visual presence and motion. However, a nice break from other types of hunting is that you do not need to use scent control while turkey hunting nor do you need to play the wind when planning out a hunting spot. Typically, turkey hunting is done on the ground while either leaning against a tree or using a blind (natural or artificial).
Turkeys roost (sleep) in trees at night and they spend their day feeding, breeding (only certain time of the year), or resting. Generally, turkey hunting involves finding their roosting trees, food, and travel routes. These three potential hunting areas will vary in effectiveness based on several variables such as time of day, season, and weather. When scouting for areas to hunt turkeys, you want to look for signs that a turkey has used an area. When communicating in the hunting community, signs of an animal’s presence in a spot or area is commonly referred to as “sign”.
Turkey hunting is typically done with a shotgun, but in some states, it is legal to harvest them with bows and crossbows as well. There may also be regulation on the size and type of shotgun ammo (shot) that may be legally used to hunt turkeys. You will want to check your local DNR information for the current regulations.
Types of Wild Turkey Sign:
Types of Wild Turkey Calls:
Friction (glass, slate, etc)
Basic Wild Turkey Sounds:
Where to Start Hunting Wild Turkeys:
Field (Corn, Soybean, etc.)
How to Deal with Bugs While Hunting:
No matter what time of the year you hunt, you most likely must deal with some level of insect control. Spring and early fall seasons are usually the highest chances of dealing with mosquitoes, ticks, or chiggers. Spring turkey hunters are especially at risk because they often sit on the ground at the base of a tree which is a hot spot for ticks that time of year. Ticks and mosquitoes can carry multiple diseases that can transmit to humans. The biggest issue in the woods is typically Lyme’s disease. Lyme disease is caused by the bite of a black-legged tick and the bite usually presents as a bullseye red pattern. Symptoms of the disease include fever, fatigue, joint point, muscle weakness, and other flu-like symptoms. The disease can be hard to diagnose because its symptoms so closely resemble many other common afflictions, but if correctly identified, it can be treated with antibiotics which will be enough for recovery for most people. However, in some cases, people may deal with symptoms after antibiotic treatment for the rest of their life requiring pain or other medication.
The best way to prevent bugs from ruining a hunt is to treat your clothing and skin with repellent. If you spend a lot of time in the woods, you will want to consider using permethrin on your gear and clothing. Other wipes or sprays for your skin can be used and will have a scent. The scent or odor may only be a factor while deer hunting, but that should not deter you from protecting yourself while hunting.
How to Start Hunting Whitetail Deer
Hunting deer is one of the most popular subcategories of hunting. Almost every state in the country has access to whitetail deer and they provide a challenging chase and bountiful harvest of delicious red meat. There are two popular methods of hunting whitetail deer: with a bow (archery) or gun (firearm). Most states have two separate seasons for each weapon and some states even subdivide the categories further by type of bow or firearm. The longest season is archery and typically starts around September and ends around January in most states. The gun seasons (if divided by types of firearm, like rifle or muzzleloader) are typically nine days long and are usually somewhere between November and December.
Whitetail deer are generally active at night and in the last couple of hours before sunset and after sunrise. They may still be active during the day for certain parts of the year, but generally hunting deer is associated with early morning or evening. Whitetail deer have an incredibly famous breeding period which is commonly referred to as “The Rut”. There are different phases of the rut, but it generally implies female deer (does) are coming into estrous (heat) and are ready for breeding by the male (buck) deer. Hunters typically revere the rut because it can be some of the best hunting and chance at a mature buck all year due to their fixation on breeding and potential to disregard otherwise deterring environmental variables such as your scent or visual presence.
For whitetail hunting, "sign" is a term applied to rubs, scrapes, scat, and licking branches. These indicate the presence of deer and can be used strategically while hunting. The more concentrated the deer are or the more they are using an area that will usually produce an equally greater number of one or more of these signs. For beginner hunters, your first goal should be to find signs and keep track of where it is in relation to food, water, or thick cover (bedding). Bedding refers to any area that deer may use to rest.
When hunting for whitetail deer, there are three major methods. First, there is the spot and stalk method which implies a hunter slowly walks through an area looking for deer. Once they spot the deer, they will stalk it until they are in shooting range. The second method is hunting from the ground which implies sitting on the ground waiting to ambush a deer. Usually, hunters will conceal themselves by using natural cover or a purchased ground blind. The third method is ambush hunting from an elevated position which commonly refers to hunting from a tower (free-standing elevated blind) or a tree stand. Tree stands can be mobile or stationary and many different models and brands are available for purchase.
Common Whitetail Deer Sign:
Common Whitetail Deer Sounds:
Common Whitetail Deer Calls:
Where to Start Hunting Whitetail Deer:
Field (Corn, Soy, Alfalfa, etc.)
Hunting is a vital tradition that continues to put smiles on faces and meat on the tables. Locally sourced and ethically harvested meat is very popular and a big benefit of hunting for your own food. You are never too old to appreciate a good hunt and it has never been easier to learn how to hunt. A growing number of people do not have mentors or family members to teach them how to hunt, but with the right attitude and some internet research, you can embark on your self-taught journey to unlocking fresh air and meat for the rest of your life.