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Woodsmanship is the Most Important Skill in Hunting
Gaining actual experience in the woods and becoming a better hunter takes true dedication of time.
The coming of turkey hunting season often reminds me of the hunting’s unknowns. This idea that the best gear, best call, and best decoy are the catalysts to be successful is merely materialism permeating the hunting space. It is as if we are one purchase away from consistently filling tags, bagging limits, and being a social media god. I could write a novel on how those things are factually and ethically wrong. However, there is one thing above purchasing gear, reading online articles (even this one), and following some account that can make someone successful in hunting: woodsmanship.
Woodsmanship is a collection of firsthand experiences and a familiarity with biology, animal behavior, weather, and the very land you hunt, among other things. Combining this knowledge helps you to subconsciously make decisions and take actions that put you in an informed situation, increasing your potential for success. Woodsmanship comes with time, and there will be lots of failures. Anyone telling you anything to the contrary is probably trying to sell you something.
The best shotgun will not make you a better shot. That comes with actual range time and developed skills. The best gun dog will not make you a better hunter. That comes with knowing how to handle a dog and where to find birds. Being the best turkey caller does not mean you kill turkeys. And the next article you read online cannot teach you this collective knowledge. While some of these things can give you advantages, they must be combined with real-life experience.
There is no golden ticket to filling a tag or bagging limits. People need to dedicate themselves to being better woodsmen and women. If someone gravitates towards the easy button, hunting may not be for them. That’s ok. Real hunting skills come with intimate knowledge that one can only gain with time and experience.
Lesson One: Learn to Fail, Not Fail to Learn
We don’t know what we don’t know. Until that statement smacks us in the face, it’s tough to internalize it truly. Knowing, more often than not, comes from firsthand failures. For people like me, this may take many failures until that lightbulb goes off.
After many failures, one can expect to gain some spider senses that inform decisions during a hunt, resulting in occasional success. A curated social media feed is not a good measure of what truly happens in the woods. For every wild animal killed, there were undoubtedly countless encounters that humbled the hunter. Sure, there’s dumb luck and first-time successes, but long-term consistency is always, literally always, littered with animals that beat that hunter. Can that frequency go up and down as skills are gained? Absolutely. But failure is always present. People who do not enjoy failure should not choose hunting as their outlet.
Lesson Two: Know the Land
Knowing the land is understanding how game animals react to geography and habitats. That means trails, edges, contours, and even soil types can change an animal’s course or behavior. It matters both in their habitual use of the land and theories of threat response behavior. There is no article out there for where every one of us hunts that will teach you these things. It is nearly impossible to pass on land-based knowledge in writing, but if someone were to do it successfully, that would be next-level hot-spotting.
I have hunted the same woods for most of my life. With high confidence, I can tell you how a deer, turkey, or grouse would evade a situation on those properties. I did not read an article on “public land success” or any general commentary to gain that knowledge; recall lesson one on failure. I’ve run up and down those forests and fields until I was blue in the face. I saw how those animals reacted over the decades to land changes and logged that information subconsciously. This knowledge informs me when I hunt new land, but new turf still requires me to burn endless amounts of boot leather and experience failure to make progress.
When I moved to my current home, I did not have a single grouse cover to hunt. No one dropped me a pin and said, “Here you go.” I spent months and months covering the land in person, and each year, I added more covers. Most importantly, I experienced game in those locations as I found those spots. Each time a grouse put the slip on me, I learned something new.
We should all intimately learn the places we hunt. Each small parcel is part of a larger ecosystem, and seeing the complete picture is nearly impossible. Sure, maps help, but the most helpful thing is to grid the land with boot leather. E-scouting cannot replace in-person scouting.
Lesson Three: Know the Habitat Where You Hunt
Habitat means so many things. It changes based on what you are hunting. Habitat includes complex forest structures, the height of prairie grasses, food sources, shelter, travel routes, and many other things we can never fully grasp. You cannot cut and paste that information from one place to another. Despite the same species occurring across many states, the habitat and the species’ adaptive behaviors will always differ.
Consider ruffed grouse. The primary food sources for grouse in southern New England differ from those in northern New England. Northern grouse crops during hunting season are primarily full of leaves and buds. Southern crops tend to be more fruit-based. I learned that from checking more grouse crops than I can remember. I was giddy when I read that very same conclusion in New England Grouse Shooting. I was giddy because I earned that knowledge with the experience of time.
I am not saying, “Do not read about what some species like to eat or where they live”; quite the opposite. Read every biology and research paper you can, especially those based on the places you are from. While certain theories or tactics have foundations everywhere, the sausage gets made at the microscopic level.
Lesson Four: Know the Animal
Wild game lives outside 365 days a year. Their behavior changes wildly with the seasons. Brood grouse in late summer are different from dispersed grouse during hunting season. A bachelor group of deer is different than a rutting buck. Animals are also independent beings that make individual choices despite being influenced by innate and learned behaviors. Good woodsmanship usually comes with the knowledge of understanding an animal year-round.
Genuinely understanding an animal combines learning its life history and seasonal behaviors. While you can learn some of this in books, it takes years of experience to truly grasp how your local animals behave. The very same species can behave very differently in different areas. Now, add how weather changes things, yearly conditions, and many other variables that impact how the animal behaves.
Lesson Five: Live Where You Want to Hunt
Do-it-yourself hunting on road trips are fantastic experiences. I love getting humbled by a new challenge. But if someone truly wants to specialize in one particular game animal and gain vast knowledge, they need a lot of time. Be wary of the generalist (insert versatile dog jokes here). Some of us may be privileged with more time and resources to be vagabond hunters, but in reality, if someone wants to truly specialize, they must live in that place.
If someone wants to be a grouse hunter, they should live in grouse country. To be an elk hunter, they should live in elk country. And while some may experience some success as they cross borders and learn new habitats, specialist skills only come with extreme amounts of time in that location. That’s why I moved to grouse county. The grouse I grew up on are now long gone.
I can walk out my doorstep and run my dog on wild birds. That lower bar of entry means more ability to manage my time and get in the woods. Job restraints have a similar factor. When I was younger and worked for the sheriff’s department, I saved all my comp time and credit time, volunteered for details for said time, and built it up to take 45-plus consecutive days off to deer hunt in the fall. More time spent hunting leads to developing better woodsmanship skills.
A Hard Lesson: Coming to Reality
Killing an animal with a guide is just that: killing an animal. To be clear, I have nothing against guiding. What I take issue with is when someone thinks they succeeded as a hunter under these conditions. Maybe, we could say they are at least a good shot? But the guide hunted the animal through years of experience, which resulted in good woodsmanship; more power to the guides for having to navigate those skills alongside someone who does not have these skills. Some good hunters may use guides to experience new places with limited time, and they know that success comes with years of experience. We should all learn to separate those things.
The second reality check is that chasing stocked birds and stalking behind high fences is not hunting. Captive animals are for farming, and wild animals are for hunting. Hunting is the use of personal skills in the pursuit of wild game in a free-range capacity—hard stop. Only dog training and breeding standards are gained with captive animals, and even those have their limitations. Taking people hunting over pen-raised pheasants is not hunter recruitment. It’s setting false expectations. Quality over quantity should be every hunting mentor’s goal.
A Moral Lesson: Good Woodsmanship Comes with Ethics
Success in woodsmanship comes with good ethics. Fanning a turkey may fill a tag, but it will not make someone smarter. Shooting a bird in the road may get you that limit, but that person did not learn anything. I know some may have a very meat-oriented approach; after all, that’s how our species began hunting in the first place. But for the resource to be sustainably managed, we must have a strong conservation ethic to maintain populations.
If someone finds themselves aggressively motivated to put food on the table, as in “Do anything to put food on the table,” I humbly request that person tries homesteading. Not to downplay my love for wild game meat, but the wildlife of this country and our advancement in society certainly require rules, regulations, and ethics to maintain them. To be a conservationist, one must take hunting further and practice a robust personal code of ethics.
The irony of becoming a better hunter is we find ourselves less motivated to always fill that tag or bag that limit. The act of killing must always be present, but the moral responsibility of understanding that an animal is giving its life is imperative.
Final Lesson: Time and Experience is the Only Way to Gain Woodsmanship Skills
Some articles, books, and YouTube videos may help us learn some things. However, no lesson is complete without practical, real-life experiences. Hunting is hard. That is the reason someone should want to do it. It’s a mess of variables that, no matter how experienced we may think we are, we will always be humbled by wildlife.
Experience comes with time. Gaining real-life experience outdoors is how you become a better hunter. That single lesson will never be replaced with a device, app, or online article. Taking the time to learn about animals in real life is truly a wonderful experience.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.
Great article AJ. I appreciate your comment on failure. Failure is the only way we learn anything I other aspects of life, and yet I’ve hunted with some groups that have a zero tolerance for failure. These are the hunt camps for whom the two weeks of November are a mission to fill all the tags, not enjoy an experience. Wow betide the person in the group who misses a shot or does not put in a dawn to dusk shift in the tree stand. I believe such people miss the point entirely.
Secondly I would add that hiring a guide does not make someone less of a hunter. Great woodsmanship takes years to build and that’s time that many of us do not have in the busyness of life, work and family. I have not only enjoyed great experiences with guides but have learned a tremendous amount from their knowledge.
I really loved this article. I’m more of a big game archer than a bird hunter, but everything you said resonated with me as the same cord that binds me as an archer to my pursuit of high country mule deer is the same cord that binds an upland hunter to his pursuit of a chosen species. I particularly appreciated this conclusion…
“The irony of becoming a better hunter is we find ourselves less motivated to always fill that tag or bag that limit. The act of killing must always be present, but the moral responsibility of understanding that an animal is giving its life is imperative.”
Plenty of things one could take issue with in this article, but that’s what I most appreciated…you took a stand (or three) and made a worthwhile topic all the more meaningful by doing so. Kudos.