By Makynna Nuttall / Gord Nuttall
Mastering the Skills Necessary for Big-Game Hunting
Editor’s note: Need to clarify the role of the second author mentioned above – such as a note at the start or end re: editorial assistance, contributions of information, or whatever it is. Suggesting this because there are so many “I” and “my” references throughout, this needs to be considered primarily one writer’s work.
In the vast tapestry of outdoor pursuits, few activities capture the spirit of adventure and primal instinct quite like big-game hunting.
Stepping into the realm of majestic creatures such as deer, elk, moose, antelope or even predators like bears requires a unique set of skills and knowledge and unwavering determination. To be a complete big-game hunter, a person must possess more than just a rifle or a bow, and must have and be able to use a variety of skills.
In this article, we delve into the world of big-game hunting and explore the skill sets necessary to embark on this extraordinary pursuit. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran or a curious novice, understanding and honing these essential skills will significantly enhance your chances of success in the wilderness and deepen your connection with nature. Hunting is merely not using a weapon to kill; there is so much more that goes into it. Here, we explain through personal experiences an understanding of nature and species; being in physical shape; the skills of scouting, tracking, marksmanship and fieldcraft; needed gear; and responsibility and safety.
The journey for a big-game hunter begins long before the first glimpse of the creature. It starts with an understanding of the environment, the target species, and the intricate balance of the animal’s habitat. Armed with the knowledge of animal behavior, migration patterns and habitats, a hunter is a student of nature, carefully observing signs and clues left by their quarry.
First, you need to know what the land is like in the area where you plan to hunt. This will help make sure you are properly equipped with the clothing and tools to make your hunt as efficient and enjoyable as possible.
The most important part is understanding your animal. Where do they like to sleep? Where do they eat? Where do they drink water? Do they prefer shade or sun? Where do they bed in the daytime? Asking and answering these questions will allow you to locate your animal.
Next, you want to figure out how to blend in. Once your animal knows you are nearby, the surprise element of the hunt is up. It’s a big challenge to not be seen. The final step is using your knowledge of the landscape and where you think the animals are located to get as close to the animal as possible without being detected, then being comfortable to take your shot.
I learned the importance of all of this on my very first big-game animal antelope hunt. We were two days into the trip and had been watching a large herd of antelopes for a while. Using our knowledge of what we observed from a distance that morning, we guessed they would be in a low point between some hilltops for their afternoon nap. This allowed them to stay hidden but also spot danger on the horizon.
On this hunt, my father and I got our grandpa to drop us off as close as possible to them, then began to crawl our way up the side of a hill. We were downwind and kept low enough to be out of sight. Eventually, just before cresting the hill, we found that our guess proved correct. Without the knowledge of the land and species, we would not have been able to creep up on the herd and have the chance for me to be able to take my first big-game animal.
Physical fitness and mental fortitude are integral components of the complete hunter’s arsenal. Big-game hunting demands perseverance, endurance and the ability to adapt to challenging terrains and harsh weather conditions. Hunters must possess the physical stamina to trek through rugged landscapes, traverse steep mountainsides and endure long hours of patient waiting. Mental toughness, too, plays a pivotal role, enabling the hunter to stay focused, alert and calm in high-pressure situations.
Big-game hunting will take you to places all over the world. It is important to make sure you are physically prepared for your hunt by getting to know the land well and by training, if needed, beforehand.
I live in Alberta and deer season is the beginning of winter. This means that some days can be light and sunny. On other days, it can look like a snow globe. This past winter I was out with my dad, walking around to locate some deer. I was wearing multiple layers, including heavy pants, and was carrying my high-caliber rifle. We were trudging through knee-deep snow. Since the ground was snow-covered, it was unpredictable what we would be stepping into next.
Although I am an athlete, I was unprepared for this trip, and that resulted in me having to take multiple breaks. While this isn’t the end of the world or a bad thing to do while hunting, we would have been able to cover more land had I had better stamina. I did not end up bringing a deer home on that trip, but I know that the next time, I will be more prepared. A good hunter knows his or her limits. If I had kept pushing myself on that hunt, it could have ended in worse ways. Never take your physical shape for granted. Always remember that you know yourself best. Even if your hunting partner is walking faster than you are, stop to take a breather as needed. Your partner will wait.
Scouting is the art of gathering intelligence and intimately familiarizing yourself with the hunting grounds. It is an indispensable skill for the complete hunter seeking to pursue big game.
Thorough scouting allows a hunter to become intimately acquainted with the landscape, its features and the intricate patterns of animal activity. Scouting involves meticulously exploring potential hunting areas, studying topographical maps and identifying key natural features such as bedding areas, food sources and watering holes. By carefully observing animal signs such as rubs, scrapes and droppings, the complete hunter can decipher the movement patterns and preferences of their intended quarry. Scouting also allows the hunter to identify potential ambush locations, strategic vantage points and escape routes, enabling them to plan the hunt and increase the chances of success.
When people think of hunting they think of shooting, killing and eating the animal. However, a lot of hunting time is spent learning by scouting. It is actually one of my favorite parts of hunting. It allows me to explore new landscapes and learn more about the animals, which leads to my desire to find that species.
My favorite animal to scout is a black bear. Although we are baiting them, scouting for a good spot and building the bait is tricky. I also love being able to drive around on quads and pick up trail cameras that are used for scouting. Scouting also helps a hunter pick up the lay of the land. I have gotten to know the area where we bear hunt quite well now based on my observations and driving quads to check trail cameras. One day, after we were about three hours into what my younger self used to call “walking around aimlessly,” I remember asking my dad how he knew where to go. He told me he was following the tracks and scrapes of the deer. I wondered back then what that could possibly do to help. Then later that winter, my dad brought home a deer from that very spot. I never questioned his ways again. That is what started my appreciation for scouting.
Being outfitted with the right equipment and mastering its use is another crucial aspect of becoming a complete hunter. From selecting the appropriate firearms or archery equipment to understanding optics, ammunition and ethical shot placement, attention to detail can make all the difference in having a successful and ethical hunt.
The gear I am most familiar with is my rifle. I think it is important to make a clean kill so the animal suffers as little as possible. Before all my hunts, I go to the shooting range to get comfortable again with my gun. I know how smooth the bullet is supposed to go into the chamber, what noise it’s supposed to make and what it feels like to hold it up against my cheek. I know which power I am comfortable using on my scope and in which position I prefer to shoot.
When I go shooting, I take four things. Number one is a cushion, because I know I won’t be able to focus 100% unless I am comfortable. Number two is some sort of stand or bog pod to rest my rifle on because it is heavy to hold up. Numbers three and four are my gun and ammo. These four things have allowed me to have to make only one killing shot on all of the big-game animals I have shot. Gear can assist you in so many ways. However, remember that it’s not always about having the best or most expensive gear, but rather that it’s the right gear for the situation. You want your gear to be an extension of your body, so be sure to have what you are comfortable using and what works well for you.
Tracking skills are often regarded as the cornerstone of successful big-game hunting. These skills elevate the complete hunter to a heightened level of connection with the natural world. The art of tracking is a delicate dance between observation, interpretation and intuition. It involves deciphering the story etched on the earth’s surface and written in the form of tracks, trails, blood drops, and other subtle signs left by the animals themselves. By studying the size, depth and spacing of tracks, as well as analyzing disturbed vegetation and other indicators, the complete hunter can unveil a narrative of the animal’s recent movements, feeding patterns and even its emotional state.
The importance of tracking was, again, taught to me by my father. I had just shot my third big-game animal, a Whitetail deer. It was a broadside shot, and although I was confident with my aim, the deer didn’t directly fall over. This was new for me since with my two other kills, the animals had dropped down within sight.
Before going anywhere, I made sure my gun was unloaded and the safety was on. After waiting the appropriate amount of time to give the deer a chance to fully expire, my dad and I walked closer. Fresh light snow covered the ground, making it easy to track. We saw blood splatter at the place of impact and followed it into the tree line. We probably had to walk only 10 meters before we found the deer lying down. Once we found her, my dad and I let out a laugh because he had told me to be prepared for a long walk.
Although this track lasted a short time, I gained the knowledge as to what to do when I needed to track again. I also know that my dad has had situations before where he is unable to track his animal. One time when I saw that he was upset, I asked him what was wrong. He explained that he had spent several days tracking a large moose. He had found the blood trail, but it was weak and without snow, he couldn’t follow it clearly. The trail he did end up leading him to a river, so he concluded that the moose must have fallen or gone into the river. Though it is sad to lose an animal, my dad was more concerned for the moose’s well-being. He also values an ethical and clean kill and I know he still remembers that hunt. This situation taught me the importance of tracking and putting in the effort.
Once the exhilaration of a successful big-game hunt subsides, the complete hunter’s responsibilities shift to the critical task of properly cleaning and processing the harvested animal. This step is not only essential for preserving the quality and flavor of the meat, but it also demonstrates respect for the animal’s life and ensures minimal waste.
A meticulous approach is required to remove the hide, field dress the animal and remove the internal organs promptly. The hunter must know proper cuts and techniques and have the tools to efficiently separate the meat into manageable portions. Attention to hygiene and maintaining a clean work area are paramount to avoiding contamination and spoilage. Afterward, the harvested meat must be appropriately stored, whether through chilling, freezing or aging, to maintain its freshness and tenderness. The complete hunter recognizes that this post-harvest process is a critical part of the hunting journey, where the full circle of taking a life transforms into nourishment and sustenance.
The way my brain works, biology and the way animals’ bodies come together has been a peak of interest for me. Whenever I kill an animal, one of my favorite parts is cleaning and processing the game. Some people may view it as gross, but I think the opposite. I feel that it is mutual respect between the hunter and the animal to try and make the process as effective and precise as possible. Most important to ensure a smooth process is organization. When I clean an animal, I make sure to have the meat separated in different game bags so that I know what type it is. I also find it works best to skin as a team as it makes things easier and safer. Taking your time and making cuts you are confident in will result in the best-tasting steaks. A final thing I like to do after the collection process is over is check where my shot went in. This allows me to determine if my aim was off and will better prepare me for my next hunt. I take this as a learning opportunity to grow and become the best complete hunter I can be.
It is important to note that the complete hunter’s journey goes beyond the mere act of harvesting an animal. Conservation, ethics and a deep respect for the natural world form the bedrock of this pursuit. Responsible hunters embrace sustainable practices, support wildlife management efforts and contribute to the preservation of habitats and ecosystems. The complete hunter recognizes their role as stewards of nature, ensuring the longevity and vitality of the game species they pursue.
When hunting, makes sure you are properly licensed and are carrying the correct identification. Make sure your game is tagged properly and that you leave the land you hunted on as you found it. Another important responsibility is between the landowner and the hunter, to assure you have permission before hunting. My dad has driven around calling or dropping off contact information to make sure that landowners feel respected. People cannot control where the animals go, but hunters can control how they approach them. If you are hunting on private land, after you have acquired the proper permission, the responsibility of cleaning up after yourself is even more important. Just remember that if you wouldn’t do something in your own backyard, don’t do it in nature.
A hunter is not complete without their family and friends. My dad has been my hunting mentor and continues to teach me about nature, new skills, and support my growth into a complete hunter. His inspiration as well as the help from other hunting mentors is what allows me to be confident with my skills and enjoy hunting.
The largest responsibility hunters have is understanding that they have a weapon in their hands and that safety is the largest priority in any hunt. Never take a shot that you do not feel comfortable taking. Never go somewhere that is unfamiliar to you. Never jeopardize your life or others’ lives for a big-game animal. The accomplishment I feel after successfully hunting a big-game animal is strong, but not as strong when I am able to get home and share the story with my mom, grandpa and friends. Even when I don’t come home with an animal, I make sure to greet my loved ones with a big hug and remember the importance of family. I like to remember that a hunt’s success isn’t determined by what goes into the freezer. As my dad always says, the most important thing is that you, as a complete hunter, get home safely.