A novice hunter explores overcoming the challenges and trials of becoming a bird hunter
Being a novice is tough. Barriers exist for any new hobby, but the barriers to hunting can be extensive for someone looking to try it out for the first time. These hurdles range from access to finances to psychological and philosophical changes. As a newbie myself, I can speak to these challenges very personally. I have narrowed it down to three main obstacles that determine the success of the neophyte hunter: finding a mentor to start out on the right track, understanding hunting regulations and accessing public or private land, and learning to take a life.
Obstacle 1: Finding a mentor
Like any new hobby, getting started is often the hardest part. Personally speaking, I am quite certain I never would have carried a shotgun into the field if it wasn’t for having a mentor encourage me to give it a try. When you are unfamiliar with guns, necessary gear, the huntable upland species, places to go, the new language, leaving the trail, and all the rest, it can all be very overwhelming. This is why it is invaluable to find a mentor. But finding one, and knowing what to look for, is not always easy.
Foremost, a mentor needs to have the knowledge a new hunter is seeking and be willing to teach it. They should understand the hunting laws and regulations implicitly, be confident when identifying species, recommend appropriate starter upland gear and know where to go in the field, to name a few. The last thing anyone wants is to be led astray and potentially lose their hunting rights because of it. We will go into this in more detail in the next section.
Mentors need to be knowledgeable but mentors also have to be willing and able to give of themselves. This means more than just sharing their thoughts and best hunting locations. It means giving up their own time to help get the newbie up to speed. Nothing creates a better learning experience than walking the field with someone who is instructing every step of the way. It not only improves safety and awareness, but it also helps the new hunter learn the game–both the act and the prey–much faster. When my mentor’s pointing dog went on point, he would walk me through holding my shotgun at the ready, from which angle to approach the dog and how quickly I should be moving. When the bird flushed, he would scream “rooster” and wait an extra second to allow me the time to shoot the bird, if I was able. If I wasn’t, he was ready to take the shot. As a mentor, he nailed it. As a new hunter, I shot my first wild bird over one of those points.
The mentor-mentee relationship is not all about what the mentor has to offer, however. I would caution mentees to do their very best to contribute what they can, when they can. It is crucial to recognize what mentors give up to help a newcomer. Contributing can be anything from purchasing ammunition, fuel and food to spending time poring over maps and articles to learn something new. For me, it meant going to places my mentors hadn’t been, once I had hunted a handful of times with them and was comfortable enough to go out solo. When I was able to suggest a new place where I had seen roosters, I finally felt like I was a member of the team. My mentors also appreciated the initiative and enthusiasm; they felt as successful as I did. The ultimate goal is to cultivate an independent new hunter, not a leech.
Obstacle 2: Regulations and access
Hunting regulations, season dates, license information are first and foremost the law. They are in place to protect populations and to ensure proper management of all wildlife. Although sometimes it may seem like it, these regulations are not arbitrary, nor are they set in stone (still the law though). Changes to the regulations directly correlate to population numbers, reproductive success and conservation strategies each year. With all this in mind, let’s look at a few examples from my home state.
In Oregon, we are required to purchase an annual hunting license valid for one calendar year. Come January 1, even if a license was purchased the day before, a new license must be in hand to legally hunt. However, a hunting license is not synonymous with an upland bird endorsement, which is valid from July 1 to June 30 of the following year and must be purchased separately. In total, I spend roughly $45 a year to legally upland bird hunt.
Once a person is legally licensed, it is time to research when a species of interest is open to hunt, where exactly it is legal to hunt them and how many are allowed to be taken each day. Another example from my state, Oregon has nine huntable species of upland bird, not including turkey. Many open and close at different times, and a few species have differing open seasons depending on what side of the state you are hunting.
On top of all this, there are also regulations for shooting hours, gauge and shot size, shot composition, shotgun chokes, the use of decoys and calls, and how much orange a person is required to be wearing. These regulations vary quite a bit by state.
I know that is a lot to take in, and that is precisely the point I am looking to emphasize. It is vitally important to do your research and have a firm grasp of the regulations in your state and specific county. A mentor can help, but ultimately it is the individual hunter’s responsibility. The repercussions of mixing it up could cost you your hunting privileges.
Alright, now on to where to legally hunt. We are blessed in Oregon to have 53 percent of our land be public, but that is not the case in most states. Many resources exist that show property lines and open access areas, with OnX arguably being the best one available. Hunting private land is fine as long as you have permission from the landowner. If you do not have permission, stay out. Entering the property is trespassing and is illegal. In Oregon, crossing onto private property to retrieve a wounded or dead animal is also illegal. Again, this is why it is so important to know the rules and regulations for the specific area you are hunting.
Please don’t let this deter new hunters! Regulations are readily available and designed to be as clear and concise as possible. With just a bit of time and exposure, they become much easier to follow and understand. I have only been at it for a year and feel confident enough to write on the topic.
Obstacle 3: Taking a life
Taking a life, even respectfully, is not easy. At least for me. And after a year, it still isn’t. In the moment, there are so many feelings of accomplishment, joy and not a little guilt. When I held my first pheasant, admiring its beauty, I couldn’t separate the fact that I had just ended its life. I did my best to rationalize the average lifespan of a wild bird and knowing the meat it provided was far superior to cage raised critters. Ultimately, three things have helped me to rationalize taking a life: limiting the pain and suffering of the bird, thanking it for its life, and using as much of it as possible.
Limiting pain and suffering is the best way to go about taking a life. Being a good shot and quickly dispatching a bird if it is still alive are the practical ways of doing that. When a bird hits the ground dead, it means an easier retrieve for you or your dog. Chasing a crippled bird is not fun, and unfortunately, a number of them are never found. This is why it is so important to take the time off the field to be the best shot on the field you can be. Solidly connecting with a bird can mean the difference between dinner and heading home empty handed. Even the best shots can drop a bird like a stone, but not completely kill it. And that leads us to the very hardest part of bird hunting–having to finish the job with your hands. It is gruesome, no way around it, but it doesn’t have to take long. Using a technique that severs the spinal column at the base of the neck is the fastest and most foolproof method. Having a mentor to teach how to do it properly is invaluable.
Next on the list is thanking the bird for its life. Not everyone will resonate with this, and that is A-okay. Personally, it helps me keep the whole picture in focus. The circle of life and all that. I think it also builds respect and gratitude for the life you have taken. Feel free to take this one or leave it.
Lastly, and I would argue most importantly, is to use as much of the bird as possible. There is so much more to them than just breasts and thighs. If you aren’t making broth or stock out of your upland birds, I cannot stress enough how much you are missing out on. If coming up with ideas is a challenge, check out Hank Shaw. He has dozens of wild game recipes, with thorough instructions on preparation from plucking to eating. Highly, highly recommended.
For the new hunter, particularly a first generation hunter, I would advise not dwelling on “the kill” too much before you experience it for yourself. I would also encourage being open to the emotions that come when it does happen. They just might surprise you. And may just change your life forever.
From one newbie to another
Although getting started upland bird hunting takes some effort, it is more than worth the investment. The joy of harvesting your first bird, finding the perfect recipe to prepare it and savoring the delicious meat of your labor is satisfying beyond words. At least for me, all it took was one and I have been captivated ever since and before you know it you are preparing for your next bird season. Please don’t let the obstacles of starting keep you from giving it a go, or taking someone new out with you.
I am a very new, first generation, adult-onset, female uplander from Eastern Oregon, where I live with my husband, Tanner, and our two dogs, Lenny and Hayward. The untainted meat and exercise is what got me into it, but the love of bird dogs gets me out most weekdays and nearly every weekend during the season. I am passionate about sharing my experience as a novice bird hunter in order to encourage others, from all walks of life, to try it out.