I was inspired this week by a post on Powderhook from a person who wanted to go hunting in my home state of Pennsylvania but didn’t know where to start. Well, this post is for you!
For many new hunters the task can be daunting to get into the sport. There is the cost of equipment, the method of take, and all of the hows, whats, whens, and wheres of things. There’s a lot of information to take in. If you’re looking to start your journey in the summer, there is plenty of time to get you geared up before opening day. Below I dive into some questions to help scope your new hobby for someone just getting into it.
What Are Your Motivations for Hunting?
Your motivations for hunting may color the way that you’re looking to learn about the sport. If you’re looking for clean free-ranging animal protein you might want to check out your local community center or farm market — some farms have courses on how to break down animals as part of a whole animal butchery program. They’re often relatively cheap and packed with information. This doesn’t help you hunt but does help with the business of breaking your kill into pieces if you choose to do it yourself.
What about family or friends? Are you hunting with someone for the first time, or are you going solo? I grew up in a hunting family, but with the increasing urbanization of the United States many people won’t have that opportunity as time goes on. If you have hunting relatives, even those that have aged out of the sport you will have a treasure trove of data and a potential windfall of equipment you might be able to use, if you ask nicely.
But what if you’re going Solo? Well, for one, Powderhook has the option to seek out digital mentors by geographic region. If you’re in the Denver, CO area and would like a mentor, digital or in person, feel free to hit me up! Maybe you want to be solo. After all, this is an intimate adventure of self-growth. For first time hunters, you’ve likely never done anything like this before, and for people who’ve at least been around fishing or butchery you probably haven’t done anything on this scale before.
In order to hunt for your first time you need to pass a Hunter’s Safety exam and become certified. This course will go over the types of weapons used to hunt, the different methods of take, how to field dress an animal, and conservation behind the hunting culture. Pennyslvania has in recent years embraced the Online Hunters Safety Course offering both sessions in person or online. The test online through Hunter-Ed is $19.50, and certifications from other states are generally accepted everywhere minus a very few exceptions. The online course has live action videos, figures, and interactive exercises.
When you pass you are able to print out a temporary card and will be later mailed a hard plastic card to show proof of hunter’s safety education. You’ll need this any time you purchase a license out of state, or the first time you purchase one in state.
The minimum age for the online version of hunter’s education is 16 years old, whereas the in person class was taught for much younger folks. I took mine in person at age 11 before I turned 12, at the time that was the first year you could legally hold a hunting license for deer. Times have changed though and PA now allows a mentored youth or adult program with licenses available for mentored hunts. For adults the price is not much discounted, but for youth the license fee is $2.90.
Rules of the Road
Take the time to read the Hunting Regulations for Pennsylvania. Seriously. Do it. Cover to cover. The Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest covers every rule and regulation you need to get started hunting after you’ve obtained your hunters safety certification. It contains critical information such as:
- The outlines of Wildlife Management Units (WMUs)
- Seasons for which each wild game animal may be taken.
- Legal method of take (rifle, bow, crossbow, falconry)
- Orange requirements, the amount of cubic inches of orange required, and generalizations such as ‘Is a hat enough?’
- Locations of check stations for CWD Deer or Black Bear.
I’m a member of several large hunting related Facebook groups and there is a fine line between asking an honest question “When are the draw results for Colorado open?” and using your resources to be able to do a lot of it for yourself. Come to a group with informed questions showing you’ve done your research and you’re more likely to get a good answer. Bear in mind, everyone has an opinion, and they’re not always right.
As a new hunter, focus on what animal you’re looking to hunt for your first crack. Turkey hunting in the spring is way different than other types of bird hunting. Hunting whitetail with a rifle is different than with a bow, and Pennsylvania bear can be challenging in a dense forest in a state where you can’t bait.
Deciding the animal will help color the rest of your experience in terms of what weapon you might carry, what tactics you might use, or even how you might dress yourself in camo or blaze.
Weapon of Choice
Once you’ve selected what you’re going to hunt, you really need to consider your method of take, or what weapon you’re going to use to harvest an animal. You’ve got a couple options available to you:
- Archery Equipment (Compound, Traditional, or Crossbow)
- In-Line Muzzleloader
- Flintlock Muzzleloader
I break out the muzzleloaders above because in Pennsylvania there’s a special provision for flintlock, they get an extra season after the normal whitetail season closes. For big game a shotgun with slugs is entirely acceptable if you keep your range fairly close. A rifle is common, easy to use, but it can be intimidating to someone who’s never used a firearm before. Pistol hunting is extremely limited, so check the Hunting and Trapping digest for the latest rules and regulations.
Regardless of your choice, make sure that you practice during the summer, getting as much range time in as you can. Shooting accurately is the best thing you can do to ensure that when an opportunity presents itself that you are able to seal the deal and not wound an animal. Looking for a range? The magic of the Internet has you covered with multiple mapping sites like wheretoshoot.
Will you be using your own weapon or someone else’s? If you’re purchasing your first weapon there is another rabbit hole of decisions to make, but plenty of options available. Don’t fret, you can still take a deer with Uncle Jimmy’s old 30.06, you don’t need whatever the new hotness is — however cool it may be. Remember, hunters used to kill big bucks in red flannel suits in the great Keystone State, I’m just trying to ensure you have the most pleasurable time in the woods possible.
Minimalist but Comfy
I may have written before about how I love being miserable. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that I like it all the time. When you’re learning to hunt there are few things that can make an experience worse than being wet, cold, or coated in blisters. As you’re considering doing some hunting and buying camoflauge, orange, or other accessories think of these things:
- What’s the weather going to be like on the day you plan on hunting?
- What is the orange requirement for the season I want to hunt?
- Do I have a pair of good broken in boots to use for the season?
- What’s my plan if it rains?
A good option for you is to have a backpack with an extra layer available. If you’re not yet convinced you need to buy all the top of the line gear you can get away with an orange ballcap and a Safety Orange vest to meet most if not all orange requirements (small game only requires a solid orange cap).
If you’re not comfortable while walking up Pheasants, brush busting for grouse, or waiting on whitetail it’ll color your experience. When I was first hunting my grandfather bought me my first blaze orange jacket for deer season. It was an XL men’s that he insisted I’d grow into (I still haven’t). At the time it did the job, but when the weather was cold I knew nothing of layering up or down, and we only used orange fanny packs to carry our lunches.
As I grew up and traded in my polyester lining for some new base layers then ultimately some FirstLite gear I was better able to regulate my body temperature while packing into a location. I also traded in my fanny pack for a day pack, perfect for putting on the miles and carrying some lunch and all your necessities. Your gear closet, like the experiences you learn from hunting builds upon itself. There’s very little you really need to get started. For whitetail I’d recommend:
- Your license. Don’t forget it and a pen. I also use a couple zip ties to adhere the filled tag to a deer’s ear.
- Good, warm baselayers. Polypropylene or merino wool. Avoid cotton content where possible as it has the tendency to keep the moisture as opposed to wicking it.
- Seasonally appropriate camouflage or outerwear. I’m not suggesting you go out and buy a bunch of snow camo. A solid blaze orange jacket is just fine, but a vest will do if you want more utility out of a $200 (or more) jacket. Wearing the vest over top ensures you meet minimum square inch requirements.
- Boots that lace well and fit a well padded sock. During the summer get some hiking in and you’ll know if your boots need more time. Too many hunts have been ruined by folks trying to break their boots in at the office the week before their vacation.
- A method of wayfinding. Be it a compass and map, smart phone with an offline map such as Google, OnX, Garmin, Gaia or others, or a GPS device. Please bring something with you if you’re going out into the wilderness.
- A sharp knife and rubber gloves. For larger animals such as deer and black bear you’re going to gut an animal in the woods, known as field dressing. I like insulated dish washing gloves, they don’t get so cold in the winter as the adrenaline rush subsides while gutting an animal.
- Plastic freezer bags (optional). I carry these in order to save things like the heart, liver, and tongue from an animal. There’s really not much better of a post-hunt meal than fresh deer heart pan fried in a little butter and kosher salt.
Public or Private?
In Pennsylvania hunting public ground versus private is a decision you need to make. Does old uncle Jimmy have a thousand acre farm you might be able to hunt turkeys on? What is the radius you’re willing to travel from your house in order to hunt?
The Pennsylvania Game Commission launched an ArcGIS Web Map some years ago that breaks down not only each Wildlife Management Unit but also the public lands in them. The map itself is fantastic, calling out the various flavors of Public lands available from National Forest to State Game Lands.
The State Game Lands system in Pennsylvania has about 1.5 million acres of public land for you to hunt on. This doesn’t include the 513,175 acres of the Allegheny National Forest or the other State Forests that are open to hunting in some zones. Using the web map above allows you to find a parcel nearby to begin scouting, which is a topic for another article.
Perhaps the Most Important Advice
This is a hobby, a passion, a past time. Please enjoy yourself. This isn’t grocery shopping and it won’t be easy. This is a learning experience, and in 20 plus years of hunting I’ve come to realize I’ll never know it all. I’m not successful more than I’m successful but above all I have fun. Even in the times that are miserable during the now, you’ll look back on them as an adventure.
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