Old Yeller was my favorite childhood movie. To say I watched it constantly would be an understatement. There’s a scene in the movie that finds the older brother riding his mule into the woods with his father’s musket. He ties the mule to a tree and walks a few steps to sit on fallen log. Not long into his hunt, he begins watching animals romping around, but then his attention shifts to a thicket. He becomes excited when he catches a glimpse of a deer coming into the open. Raising his gun to shooting position, he immediately puts it back down when a doe and fawn emerge. But the doe and fawn are soon followed a sizable buck. The butt of the musket finds its place on his shoulder, the bullet finds its place in the buck’s vitals, and the boy proudly packs out his trophy on his mule’s back.
If only every hunt was that easy. As our experienced readers know, a scenario like that is almost pure fantasy—at least in the 21st century. Inaugural research into bowhunting, general information, gear, and legalities can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are many states that offer mentorship programs. This type of program matches new hunters with experienced hunters who can teach the newbies a thing or two about hunting. Programs like this do well creating hunters that keep coming back for more year after year. Check for programs like this in your area to get on the fast track. (Click HERE for mentor opportunities in PA ). All that to say, becoming a proficient hunter isn’t an impossible self-taught undertaking. If DIY projects are something you excel at, hunting research shouldn’t cause much intimidation. Bowhunting is more involved than a stick and string, but it’s about the most fun that can be found in the woods.
Let’s outline a few things that you’ll need to get started. None of these elements need to be completed in any particular order. However, it goes without saying that the legal requirements that I mention are absolute necessities.
Legalities and Such
A hunter’s safety course
I’ve haven’t researched hunting laws for every state, but I’ve never heard of a state that doesn’t require a hunter education and safety course. Honestly, legality aside, with no experience under your belt, this is a good course to take. Not only will it keep yourself and other people around you safe, there’s actually a few basic skills that can be learned during a hunter’s ed class. Topics such as learning what kind of sign to look for, or what kind of shots are ethical or not, don’t seem like a big deal. But they will most definitely make all the difference when it comes to putting your quarry in the back of your truck or not.
Hunting licenses are an annual requirement in every state. The structure of hunting license requirements will vary from state to state. Here, I highlight Pennsylvania’s licensing system, since that’s the one I know the best.
When buying a hunting license, whether online or in-person, keep in mind that a general license won’t cover all types of hunting.
PA’s system goes like this:
- General hunting license = valid antlered (buck) deer tag for the General Firearms Season (any weapon may be used during this season). A regular license also comes with a valid spring and fall turkey tag with attached small game privileges (minus pheasants).
- Antlerless deer license = lottery system for antlerless deer tags.
- Archery license = privileges to hunt deer with archery equipment during Pennsylvania’s archery seasons.
- Muzzleloader license = privileges to hunt during muzzleloader seasons.
- Bear license = privileges to hunt bear during any open bear seasons with the appropriate weapon.
- Furbearer license = privileges to trap or hunt fur bearing species (bobcats, fishers, fox, raccoon, etc.)
- Pheasant stamp = privileges to hunt pheasants.
- Migratory bird license = needed for all migratory birds. For waterfowl, a duck stamp is also required.
I’ve covered most bases here, but this list is to get your wheels turning on ensuring proper licensure. There are plenty of other ad-ons to consider, but Pennsylvania’s system is fairly easy to understand. Other states can be a bit more complicated and might require more digging.
Across the board, regulations can be difficult to interpret. Some are straight forward but there are many that leave room for the imagination. I recall getting a live-from-the-field text from a friend of mine. He was bowhunting in light rain, on public land, when a studly black bear had made its way to 15 yards below his perch. Excited, my buddy told me he was watching the bear for the last 20 minutes and it had just moved out of range. I asked him if he had a bear tag, and since his answer was “yes of course,” I asked why he hadn’t shot the bear. The area he was hunting had an earlier bear season than the rest of the state, a fact he had not been aware of. Knowing his oversight made watching the bear disappear into the timber, unscathed, all the more painful.
An easy remedy to avoid missing hunting regulations is to read your book. Doing this in sections is easier than trying to memorize the entire book. Start by reading the general hunting regulations, then move on to animal-specific regulations. After that, break your study down by season dates and shooting times. This will do well in ensuring you’re staying legal while afield. A well-rounded knowledge of regs is really what you’ll need. For example, some states may allow tree stands to be hung in advance of a hunt; others do not. Most states do not allow any “harming” of vegetation, so trimming shooting lanes is illegal. Weapons always need to meet specific criteria; in Pennsylvania, vertical bows must have a draw weight of 35 lbs or higher and broadheads must meet a specific measurement range of 7/8 inch to no larger than 3 ¼ inches. That’s pretty much a no-brainer as far as broadheads are concerned, but if you didn’t know it, it could mean trouble.
Basic and Necessary Gear
A weapon of choice
This article focuses on bowhunting, but firearms are a valid option for many people as well. Some would argue that firearms are more ethical than archery tackle and that the average Joe can achieve accuracy at a higher level. I’m not sure the ethical dilemma is true or false. Bowhunters are like fly fisherman— there tend to be more purists that have a different set of ethical standards. Sorry gun fanatics! For the record, I own one, I shoot one, I hunt with one, and I enjoy firearms seasons. Despite that, I’d much rather be in the woods with a bow in my hand.
For those who are looking into the bowhunting experience, check out Clint’s latest video on YouTube! Best Bow Reviews
This is by far the best way to choose a bow. Get to an archery pro shop, give them your budget, and shoot a few arrows with the bows that catch your eye. Good pro shops will help you with understanding things like draw length and will usually give you a few shooting tips.
Honestly, day packs aren’t always a 100% necessity. If hunting close to home, a weapon, ammo or arrows, license, appropriate attire, and a knife are really all you would need. However, day packs can build a more enjoyable hunt. Make a minimal list for your pack, including items that will always be stocked. That makes it easier to grab and go rather than trying to collect things in a rush or early in the morning before your first cup of coffee. Here are a few things you should bring: a small pair of binos, field dressing knife (changeable blade knives rule here), licenses, extra ammo if you’re gun hunting, snacks, water, rangefinder, dry socks, release for bowhunters, gear hoist rope, bow hanger (non-screw in for public land hunters), gloves, and latex gloves for field dressing. If you’re planning to pack an animal out of the woods you’ll want a heavy-duty pack, plus game bags to hold meat. The further the hike, the more you’ll want to tailor your pack to the challenge.
If you’re concerned about scent at this stage of your hunting career, I would advise keeping all your clothes in a scent tote. Do a quick check of that tote before leaving the house. I’ve been hunting for 20 years and I still forget things. Once, I wore boat shoes to drive to my destination. When I got there, I realized I never packed my hunting boots. I’m fortunate to have some good hunting buddies that I can call on when needed. This particular buddy didn’t even have a reason to be up that early in the morning. But he lived close by and willingly brought me a pair of boots. Good thing too, because I likely wouldn’t have sat long enough to kill the 11-pt buck I killed that morning.
Elevated Hunting Options
For new hunters that aren’t stoked about climbing a tree, you should feel free to ground hunt without judgement. It can be more challenging when compared to hunting in an elevated position, but it’s doable. Try it out until you become more comfortable in the woods. For those that are ready to get straight into a tree, there are tons of options to consider:
- Ladder stand. Best for private land, as this is a lock-into-place-and-leave-it-there type of stand.
- Climbing stand. This isn’t a bad option for mobile hunters. It’s a pack-it-in-pack-it-out style of tree stand. If someone is going to give you one, go for it. But they have a good number of disadvantages, such as noise and limiting tree choice to straight, branchless trees.
- Hang on tree stand and sticks. This stand swept the mobile market for quite some time thanks to fellas like Dan Infalt. For good reason, too. They are much quieter than climbing stands. Also, they provide more options for tree choices compared to climbing stands. Their downfall is that they are a little cumbersome compared to the more recent competition.
- Saddles. Saddles are currently sweeping the deck. They’ve been around for quite some time but have recently picked up steam in the DIY, mobile hunter world. They bring a new meaning to “light weight” and create more shot options. I’m new to the saddle hunting crew, but Clint can attest that Tethrd saddles lead the way in mobile hunting innovation.
The newest camouflage clothing on the market isn’t 100% necessary if it’s beyond your budget. While specialized clothing may be tailored for specific times in the field, and may help you sit longer, army surplus clothing will work well in a pinch. Olive colors, tans, browns, greys, and most military camo patterns will do just fine to start. Layering works best to stay cool or warm when it matters most.
Next up, we will focus on choosing an area to hunt. We will touch on types of public land, what to look for during boots-on-the-ground missions, e-scouting, and reading deer sign.