An article about hunting. Really? Yes. However, I am going to try and avoid too much discussion around taking an animal’s life and focus more on things I noticed and learned on my path to picking up this new skill. I understand that some people don’t agree with hunting and I respect that. Please understand that my goal as a hunter is to be as ethical as possible in taking another animal’s life, respect what they have given me and my family, and use as much of the animal as possible. I know I am taking another life but I also think it is good to be as close and as involved in getting food for my family as possible. Besides the wild game, we try to grow our vegetables (to a degree), have a CSA to support local farmers, and buy the rest of our meat directly from a rancher who treats the animals well and focuses on regenerative practices.
Learning to hunt seems simple if you watch hunting shows, or you grew up in it, or if you know a bunch of people who do it. Or at least it would be simpler. Besides watching hunting shows none of the other things apply to my case. To up the challenge we moved to NW Montana earlier this year, an area I had never gone into the wilderness in and decided to hunt four different species (turkey, black bear, deer, and elk). I have alluded to my general philosophy on hunting, however, giving a bit more detail on it might be interesting to some. There are multiple ways to hunt, and for each person, they get to choose to a degree how they wish to do it. For me, I would prefer not to just drive around roads looking out a window hoping to find an animal. I would rather walk a few miles back, understand an area and the animals very well, and find an animal that I can harvest. This requires a bit more endurance, strength, and gear. Why strength? Well if you get an animal a few miles away from a truck something is going to have to get it back to the truck and often that thing is your body. I enjoy this style of hunting because it allows me to bring more skill to it, gives the animals a bigger chance, and allows me to be part of nature more.
All in all this season I was able to harvest two deer and one turkey. I put in hundreds of hours and walked hundreds of miles. I learned a lot of cool areas that I will want to get back to in 2023 and also some areas I will avoid in the future.
With all of that out of the way, how did I figure out where and how to hunt?
Preparing for the hunt
Many things need to happen to prepare for a hunt. They include items like weapon effectiveness, gear selection, physical and mental preparation, communicating with family and preparing them for you to be gone, choosing locations, learning about the animals and their behavior, and selecting tags. I am not going into details about all of this because it would turn into a book and I still have a lot to learn about all of those things.
The hunting region I was focusing on this year in Montana has millions of acres that are open to hunting. So the paradox of choice came into play this year with so many good-looking areas where do I even go? Given the timing and the gear I had I knew it was not going to be possible this year for me to go deep into the backcountry and hunt for multiple days straight. I also did not want to just walk a few hundred yards away from the road and try to find something. This means I had to figure out places I could get to relatively quickly, looked like they had some animals, and it was possible to walk a few miles back from the road. To help me narrow those down I got a few tips from people I met about general areas, and used tools like GoHunt, OnX, and Montana’s FWP harvest reports. E-scouting is still a skill I am learning but I am glad we have these newer mapping tools because if I just had to rely on topographic maps it would have been a ton harder. On top of just using the electronic maps tools like GoHunt allow you to see additional information more easily like slope and aspect which helped me figure out areas that were more likely to have animals. Then using the satellite images helped me identify old logging roads that I could use to help to get to areas more quickly instead of bushwhacking the whole way. One thing I quickly realized about NW Montana forests vs. the western Washington forests I was used to is the amount of deadfall that was in the areas I was walking. This made it so much tougher to walk quietly and semi-quickly. Having to go over and under fallen trees slowed down things. Then using the mapping tools 3d mode helped me see what it might look like when I got there, granted many times when I physically got to the areas things had grown up a lot more making it much tougher to look at things from far away. Still using things like the 3d mode and different maps allowed me to find some places that I would not have if I was just walking around because there is just so much area to cover.
I also got lots of patience and understanding from my wife who was cool with me going out almost every weekend to scout and try and figure out what to do come hunting season. In the end, I concentrated on two main areas with a distant third being the public land behind our property for quick jaunts for deer. Before hunting season I put around 150 miles into walking around and trying to figure out places that might or might not be good to hunt. I understand that where you find the animals during the off-season is not where they will be during the season so I kept that in mind and looked for older rubs and areas that the experts said the animals might like. Once I had gone to an area a few times I started to drag a single kid out with me each time. We woke up semi-early and got out there. Made sure there were lots of snacks, took our time, and tried to make it interesting. I look forward to next year when I can do something similar and start getting them more and more used to being in the woods and what to do (and not do). Although I wish I would have seen more animals with them because I think that would have made it more exciting for them.
Besides animal signs, I also looked for something more important to me. Human sign. I wanted an area with minimal human sign. Despite other hunters grumbling about lots of hunters I ended up finding many areas where very few people went. Did they suck to get into? Yes. Were they super nice glassing vantages? Not all the time. In general, though I now have multiple areas for next season that I know I can go to that most other hunters won’t go to even though it is public land. Granted with all of that I also didn’t see many animals so that might be another reason why there aren’t a ton of hunters back there. I did see a lot of fresh animal sign. So, I chalk a lot of me not seeing animals to my newness at this skill. Once I had figured out a few decent-looking places all that was left was for the hunting seasons to begin.
On The Hunt
This year’s hunting experience can be summed up with one word: walking. Just like during the preparation phase I walked quite a bit during the season. I enjoy doing this and it isn’t a complaint. Some things I figured out as the season progressed are:
- I need to walk slower once I get to a place I want to hunt.
- I need to get out earlier because getting to the place I want to go seems to always take longer than I think it will.
- Most people don’t like to walk very far.
- Glassing is a harder version of the Where’s Waldo books.
A large portion of this can be summed up to common advice to new hunters: be more patient. Overall, I didn’t have a ton of success finding animals this year. Yes, I had a few run-ins but it wasn’t till the very end did I get any success. I am quite sure part of that is because I was always moving and not spending enough time letting things settle down and spending time picking apart mountainsides looking for animals. I tried a few times doing predator calls for bears and once I think I got a bear to come in but I am still not sure if it was just a coincidence or from my calling. However, I was not ready and I had moved on from my calling spot so I was caught off guard when they showed themselves. Usually, I would do a few calls, sit there for thirty minutes at the most, and then head out. From a little research I have done it sounds like people will call for multiple hours and sit in the same area during that whole time. Next season I will try this approach and see how it works.
I finally was able to find animals consistently by going to the same small area and really walking slowly through there and sometimes just sitting in the same spot for an hour or more. I feel like I knew I was walking slowly enough when it almost felt like a type of meditation where I would be totally focused on what was going on around me and how my movement was interacting with the environment. Even then I probably saw and bumped 10+ deer before I was finally successful. I understand the majority of that is just learning but it was very frustrating.
A few times I dragged my kids out with me for hunting. On those times though I changed my expectation that it would be mostly road hunting with maybe one small walk. I was sure to bring lots of snacks and water. If possible I also tried to bring something that they would like to do or try while we were out there. As an example, one of my sons wanted to try shooting the .22 we had so we found a spot for him to try that safely.
When I finally was successful I was lucky that it was by our house. My wife was awesome and helped the two older kids find me as I was field-dressing the deer. This allowed them to see what it looked and smelled like. They also got to say thanks to the animal very close to when it died. Did they get bored? Cold? And start to argue? Yes, yes, and yes. I think overall though it was good for them to see and be part of that process. Once we got the deer home the rest of the kids came out to see the deer. We did not push them to do anything but usually, they were curious and wanted to touch it and see what different parts of the body felt like. I think all of this is very natural and we made sure they treated the animal with respect.
After the Hunt
Once we got our animals home we had to figure out what to do with them. We watched a few videos and read a few articles on processing deer before ever harvesting an animal. The majority of people we told that we got a deer asked if we were going to process it ourselves. The answer was “of course.” Our approach to this was to hang the deer and let them age for a week or so. Once that occurred we processed it. Did it take a while? Yes. Was it cold? You betcha. But it was an awesome feeling to know that we were able to harvest an animal and get it to the stage where we can eat it and store it for us to eat over the winter. Different kids were interested in different parts of the processing portion. Some were very curious about how we were going to get the hide-off. Others wanted to know how to cut the meat off of the carcass. In every case, we tried to include them and have them try if they wanted to. I thought it was pretty awesome that they wanted to join in and I hope over the years they will want to help even more. Our oldest son wants to tan the hide of one of the deers so it is now sitting in our freezer waiting for that project to start. We tried to minimize waste and use as much of each animal as possible. I am sure we didn’t do as good of a job as someone who has been doing this for years but I feel like we did the best we could. Overall, the meat turned out very tender and delicious.
This year was definitely a tough one for me on hunting. Hunting is never certain for almost anyone. But when you are a beginner and in a new area, you aren’t sure if you aren’t seeing animals because of your skills or because there are no animals there. I am starting to lean towards especially for what I did that it was my skills more than anything. I am glad that I am learning this skill but it sure would be nice to have someone to help guide or advise me through the first few years. Next year I plan to go slower and sit longer than I want to. While I know this will be tough for me I think it will yield more encounters than this year even if I don’t have more success. Just seeing more animals will be a success in my mind. In a few months (or earlier) I look forward to going out with my kids and exploring some areas I saw while hunting that just looked cool. Sure, it will kind of be scouting but it really will mostly just be being in the woods with the kids which I look forward to. As I want to have my children to be comfortable in the wild and know the basics so they won’t be as clueless as I was when I reached adulthood. I look forward to writing a similar post in a year to report my progression.