Successful hunters have several habits in common

Notes from the field

Posted: Friday, August 12, 2005

Every year as I start to take aim at stories for the Peninsula Clarion’s annual hunting section, I talk to a wide variety of hunters, many of whom are — year after year — very successful at getting meat for the freezer or another trophy for the wall, regardless of the game being sought.

The more of these folks I talked to, the more I began to see a pattern emerge, and it seems that the hunters who almost always bag game share many habits.

As such, I’ve compiled a list of 10 tips for better hunting success based on information I’ve gleaned from the scores of hunters I’ve talked to annually, and a bit of my own personal experience.

1. First, and foremost is to practice with your weapon. Every year it seems that a few hunters wait until days before hunting season to shoot their guns or bows, or worse yet, don’t even bother until they are in the field hunting. This is a huge mistake.

Practice makes perfect, and successful hunters are out at the shooting range weeks to months in advance of opening day in an effort to refine their skills with their weapon.

Also, here in Alaska, the weather can change rapidly and is surely going to change between the beginning of hunting season and the end. Hunters that practice in short-sleeve shirts and “warm weather” attire in summer often find out that once the weather cools and more layers are worn, they can’t make the same shots.

It’s amazing how drastically just a few layers — longjohns, a sweatshirt and a coat — can affect a hunter’s aim, particularly in regard to draw lengths and anchor points for bow hunters.

Practice with the gear — rifle, ammo, bow, hunting points, etc. — that you’ll be using in the field and in the gear — clothing — you’ll be using.

2. Know your limits with your weapon. Practice isn’t just about getting comfortable with your rifle or bow. It’s also a time to refine shots and learn your effective kill range, or EKR.

This EKR is the maximum distance that you can still make a successful — clean and accurate — heart-lung shot. The key word here is “successful,” not to be confused with the maximum distance at which you can make “a” shot.

An EKR will vary from person to person. For some hunters it might be 300 yards with a rifle, for other it might be 100 yards or even 50. The point is to learn this distance.

This isn’t done by hitting a bull’s-eye at the practice range one or twice, but eight or nine times out of 10 from a specific distance. Then limit yourself to this distance while hunting.

The objective of every conscientious hunter should be to kill an animal as quickly as possible to avoid its suffering and to ensure the highest quality meat.

3. Know your quarry. You may see moose every day, but how much do you really know about them?

What do they like to eat? When do they like to eat — both throughout the day and throughout the year? Know the daily, seasonal and life-cycle behaviors and movement patterns for the species you intend to hunt.

Learn as much as you can by reading hunting and outdoor magazines, books and Web sites.

4. Ask questions. Not everything can be gleaned from reading. Don’t be scared to talked to other hunters, guides or hunting equipment sales folks about everything from why a bow is suddenly shooting erratically to where the best places are to bag big game.

This can be hard for some macho types who think rugged individualism is the most important aspect of the shooting sports. As such, they feel asking questions could expose a weakness in their manhood.

In reality, not everyone had a grandparent, parent, friend or neighbor who taught them the basics, or, maybe they did, but they forgot a few things.

Also, for some it’s the reality that everything really is bigger in Alaska, and hunting a 2,000-pound bull moose is not like hunting a 200-pound whitetail buck or mule deer.

5. Have a valid hunting license and know the regulations for where you intend to hunt. What constitutes a legal bull moose is not the same in every Alaska game management unit.

In some areas, like Units 7 and 15 here on the peninsula, a moose must have spike-fork antlers or antlers with a spread of more than 50 inches. But, in other areas, it must have a specified number of brow tines.

Restrictions abound, so make sure you know the rules where you’ll be hunting and how to tell the difference between a legal and protected bull.

Also, all hunters should remember that the law in Alaska states that all meat — including rib cage, neck meat, four quarters and back straps — must be packed out of the field before the antlers and-or cape and hide.

In some GMU’s you are required to leave the bone in the meat, too, until you reach your destination. Check the most current regulation booklet for specifics.

6. Know your gear. This means knowing what you’ll be using besides your rifle or bow. Make a list of everything you need in terms of gear, food and accessories like toilet paper and toothbrushes.

Make sure you can find everything you need before opening weekend, especially if it’s spread out through your house, garage or basement.

If you don’t have something or can’t find it, borrow or buy it. If it’s something new, make sure it works and that you know how to use it properly. A GPS is of little use if your reading it wrong because you don’t understand all the buttons, bells and whistles.

Also, make sure the gear you do have still works. Out in the field, miles from the car, is the last place you want to find out your tent leaks, your air mattress has a hole, and the stove won’t light.

7. Get in shape prior to opening day. Showing up flabby and unfit can make for a masochistic weekend of self-torture and limit hunting success if the hunter is unwilling or unable to cover sufficient space in pursuit of game.

Being physically fit can greatly enhance a hunting trip, and training should begin up to three months before opening day, or earlier.

When training, stick with exercises — aerobic and anaerobic — that reflect hunting activities, such as hiking through the woods, hiking up hills, and dragging, hanging or packing heavy quarters of game.

8. Scout early and in a diversity of areas. Don’t make the common mistake of doing all your scouting just days before the opener. Many successful hunters begin scouting the day after the last season ends. This gives them a picture of where game is and what it’s doing for next year.

Then, do more scouting weeks to months before the upcoming season opens. Avoid areas heavily congested with hunters, particularly those last minute hunters — scouting days before the season opens — that may make game in the area wary, or spook game away all together.

Get off the beaten path, particularly those heavily utilized by four-wheelers. Walk around to cover ground. It’s a great way to get into shape and scout locations in a way that allows subtle signs of game not to be overlooked.

9. Hunt hard and hunt often. You’ve got to be in the woods, if you’re going to bag a bull, and the more time you’re there, the better your chances of success.

Don’t just hunt a day here or a day there. Go for several days at a time. Use vacation time from work if you have it. Do whatever it takes to get to where you know game should be and then wait there for it to show up in your cross hairs.

If you can only get away for a day or a weekend, make the most of it. Everyone knows to hit the woods early, but many hunters give up if they haven’t taken a shot by 9 or 10 a.m.

Yet, there are times during hunting season — either from being pursued by hunters or involved in cow courting efforts — when bulls are always on the move. You would be surprised how many moose you may see moving during midday, so stay until 11 a.m., noon, or all day if you can — it may pay off in tenderloins.

It is almost impossible to hunt too much, but that being said, it is possible to hunt one site too much, so diversify your hunting locations. This is especially true when hunting from a tree stand, where you can leave a lot of scent going to and from it day after day.

Set up more than one stand, and rotate through them so that you’re not at the same one more than every three or four days.

10. Have fun. It’s hunting, not killing. The thrill is in the experience itself, not just the end result. Relish in preparing for, being on and coming back from a hunt — even if you’re not successful.

It’s all part of the process. Respect the game being sought and understand that sometimes — no matter how much you prepared, planned or wanted it to happen — game may still elude you.

Don’t take it personally. It’s not a reflection of your hunting prowess. It’s just the way it is since, after all, game lives in the woods year-round, not just a few weeks in fall like most hunters.

Also, think about going with a hunting buddy whose company you enjoy and that you know can work well with you. However, make sure this person is competent, enjoys the outdoors and wants to be there as much as you do.

It’s not a fun getaway for your wife, or a good bonding experience with your son, if you’ve dragged them there against their will.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Clarion.

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