Helping expand our ranks should be most every hunter’s goal; use these proven tips to help ensure a positive first experience.

Do you recall your first forays into the magical world of hunting? As a society we’ve come a long way from hunting being a simple necessity of life for many; today our ranks run the gamut from those who consider it a hobby, to a good chunk of the population believing it is a critical component of existence. And it’s no wonder. Indeed, the pull of nature, unique challenges, solitude, self-sourced meat and camp camaraderie are an intoxicating mix for many of us.

When you’re standing on a mountain listening to elk bugles during the September rut, or maybe still-hunting through the woods during deer season, does the thought cross your mind that you wish “your person” was there beside you? Maybe that person is your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend—apply as desired, but there’s no wrong answer to the question, and here’s why.Recruit2 900
Hi, I’m Andrea. I’m a recovering vegan/non-hunter turned hunter. The Reader’s Digest version is this: I didn’t grow up hunting. I thought it was unnecessary. I started dating a guy who hunted. I went out deer hunting with him a couple of times but wasn’t totally wowed by the experience. I later married him. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I found the passion for pursuit.

Let’s go back to the “no wrong answer” concept. It’s 100-percent okay if the “soul food” hunting gives you is best cherished alone—or without your person. I’m a firm believer that we can’t be what we need to be for others, if we don’t take care of ourselves first. Recruit1 900
Take a look from another perspective. Let’s assume you introduce your person to hunting. Here are a few possible outcomes based on how this introduction is handled:

Outcome No. 1: They could HATE it.  This could mean they never want to try again, and/or will put up lots of obstacles for your future recruitment efforts, based on how awful their experience was.

Outcome No. 2: They could absolutely LOVE it! This could mean the end of your solitude in the woods—unless a solid conversation on boundaries is had. It could also mean the household hunting budget doubles, and you have to share space in the gun safe (or buy another safe).

Outcome No. 3: Your person is indifferent to the experience, and has no desire to try again—or alter the status quo at this time.

These are three outcomes that can drastically alter your hunting experience if handled poorly. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume you want to introduce your person to hunting and are willing to take the risk of buying another gun safe (and more guns/bows/ammo, yay!). Keep in mind, if your person falls into Outcome No. 2, there’s a good chance they will want to hunt by themselves eventually, so stick with me here.Recruit6 900
The Gear Factor. I’m a huge proponent of making sure I have the right gear for an adventure. Introducing your person to hunting is no different, and perhaps even more critical. The three F’s for apparel hold true here: Fit, Fabric, and Function. 

It’s got to fit.  I can’t stress this enough. Just because it’s trimmed in pink or blue, doesn’t mean it will fit (this is not like shopping for a gender-reveal party, or baby shower gift for your cousin).

The right fabric. Is it going to be hot? Go breathable. Is it going to be wet? Get something waterproof, and make sure rain gear is always on hand (or at least quickly accessible), no matter what the forecast says. Comfort is key, regardless of what you’re hunting for.

Proper function. Is it functionally designed for whatever debut adventure you’re planning? A Midwest late-spring turkey stalk calls for different features than a horseback elk excursion, or stand-based whitetail rut hunt.Recruit5 900 Hunting Style Matters. Is your person the poster child for ADHD? Then don’t expect a 16-hour saddle hunt dangling from a tree. This isn’t a hunting version of Mission Impossible. It’s supposed to be fun. Try something more active or flexible. Maybe a walk-up bird hunt, or a pop-up blind turkey/deer hunt that will allow you to share the experience and give you a chance to explain the game behavior you’re both seeing.

Attention issues aside, did you enjoy a 16-hour dangle when you first started hunting?  Just food for thought…Recruit3 900
A Winning Hunting Method. This is one of my personal favorites. Find something your person is comfortable with. Are they sensitive to loud noises? Ditch the rifle for a crossbow! Are they experienced with firearms? If so, your options open up a bit.  Selecting a gun that fits (and mitigates recoil effectively) is imperative to the enjoyment of the process. Hunting shouldn’t hurt.

Proper fit is a very complex, but critical topic. The simplified version is this: find something that can ethically and legally achieve what you want—within the physical, mental and emotional capacities of your person. This may be a squirrel hunt with a light-kicking .410 shotgun, or a deer hunt with a light-recoiling caliber and platform.  Please do not hand a brand-new shooter a “lightweight” .30-06, or your spare, magnum-loaded 12 gauge and expect a positive outcome. Just don’t. Recruit9 900
The Right Instruction. I’m a firm believer there are a few things in life that you should NOT teach your person:

  1. How to back up a trailer.
  2. How to golf.
  3. How to shoot.

I’ve been a National Sporting Clays Association (NSCA) Instructor for 20 years. I have clients (both male and female) who have attempted to learn to shoot from their significant other, and it has caused significant issues. Do some achieve success? Absolutely. Most, however, do not. Honestly analyze your communication habits and decide what would work best for your dynamic, and mutual objectives. You can always find someone who can walk your person through the fundamentals, then you can do the fine-tuning to your specific applications.Recruit4 900Talk About Expectations. A friend once told me, “Uncommunicated expectations are just premeditated resentments.” Wow. Read that again.

Communicate your expectations, but first, listen to theirs. If they’ve never hunted, they may think the first deer that comes out is a “shooter,” and a totally unexpected scenario could unfold. Listen to their perceptions, and answer their questions. Explain the why behind the what—for whatever game you’re chasing.

We’re still on listening here, by the way. Before you communicate your expectations, remember your first time out. Maybe you were five; maybe you were 35. What were you thinking? Feeling?

  • Were you hungry? Be sure to pack some snacks.
  • Were you cold? Make sure you lined out the right gear, with an extra layer or two handy.
  • Were you knocked over by an ill-fitting 12-gauge with 3½-inch shells? Don’t be that person. Make sure whatever you put in their hands fits—and makes them feel comfortable and confident.
  • Were you sad when you saw the animal go down? Remember that, and recognize your person might feel the same.

Back to expectations. Tailor them. Your person might be “all-in” for a four-hour sit, but plan on half that (or less). Your person might be totally physically capable of a 10-mile mountain excursion—but only have interest in tackling five.

At the end of the day, the long-term outcome depends on your person, but the intro is up to you. The result of my own intro was somewhere around Door Number Three.  I wasn’t in love with hunting after those early experiences, but they made me want to learn more.

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These days I hunt with my husband and sons, but also alone. The joy and magnificence of the hunt is something I pursue both in solitude and community. For me, both are imperative—and each is soul-nourishing.

Before you take off on that next hunt, think about the journey ahead—and what you want that to look like. Whether pursued alone, together or parallel, the adventure is truly amazing! Happy hunting!

When a spring turkey hunt in Florida ends a bit early, the stage is set for a unique swampland adventure.

You’ve chased hair and fur through forests and mountains, feathers across the wide prairies and deep covers, and scales within pristine trout streams and salty oceans. What’s left to round out this tour of natural textures? How about the bony plates and exotic hide of an alligator?

I had an opportunity to chase an alligator this spring in South Central Florida. I was down in Florida on a few hunt-focused adventures, and if at all possible, another goal was to squeeze in an exciting gator hunt along the way.Gator6 900The morning of the hunt, I travelled from my recent successful Osceola turkey hunt in Lake Okeechobee to Lightsey’s Family Ranch, a hunting outfitter in Venus, Florida. I had a relatively small window to devote to my gator quest, but Lightsey’s team was as up for the challenge as I was. Game on! Gator1 900Due to my rather flawed sense of direction, I must confess I rely quite extensively on maps. While Google maps got me to the ranch, HuntStand gave me a much-appreciated sneak peek into the areas I would be hunting. I was able to view the landscape and bodies of water in great detail the day before, thanks to the many-featured app. Thanks to HuntStand, I also knew the local weather was trending nicely for good hunt.

I had discovered the outfitter and location on a direct referral from a good friend who had successfully bagged a fine gator there a few months earlier.  After a couple of phone conversations with both my friend and the outfitter, I knew this was the best fit for the goals I was looking to reach. I have found word of mouth to be the most-powerful tool when it comes to locating a solid hunting experience. Gator4 900Here a few of the gator-hunt criterion I was looking for:

I knew I wanted spot and stalk my gator, with an open water or shore-based shot opportunity. Also, I wanted to have control over which animal filled my tag. With a baited-and-dispatched scenario, that isn’t always possible.

I knew I wanted to use a rifle, and had selected my Griffin & Howe Highlander in 6.5 Creedmoor. I was shooting a Hornady 143-grain ELDX at approximately 2,650 feet per second. It was outfitted with a Swarovski 3.5-18×50 scope. While I absolutely love the scope, it was almost too much optic for sub-50-yard shots. The parallax adjustment got a good workout over the course of practice and execution.Gator13 900I wanted a place I could stay overnight, eat and relax. I came prepared in my typical deep south hunting attire: snake boots, lightweight merino wool top and Athleta pants.

I had never hunted alligators before and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I knew a few things:

I elected to use my rifle, but I knew you can also hunt gators with a bow. My rifle was compact, lightweight, resistant to conditions and very accurate, and I was incredibly comfortable with it.

I had to be able to hit a quarter-sized kill zone at 50 yards.Gator11 900Aside from that, I didn’t have a ton to go on. I had been practicing for several weeks with my Highlander on quarters, pennies and dimes out to 100 yards. I figured if 50 yards was the distance perimeter, then feeling solid at 100 yards on the same-sized targets would be a bonus.

Once in the field, I realized managing scent is critical to getting close to big gators. If they smell you, they go under. Once under water, they can remain submerged for up to an hour before resurfacing. Additionally, they’re rarely where you saw them last when they do eventually come up for air. Based on this, it’s easier to manage scent if the wind is minimal. Another condition to monitor is ambient temperature. Too hot or too cold, and activity patterns shift. An 80- to 90-degree day with minimal wind is ideal weather to snipe a gator!Gator3 900Once you spot a gator you want to get a closer look at, there are a few things to remember. How do you tell how big a critter is that is nearly completely submerged? The nose. A general rule of thumb with gators is to visually assess the distance between the eye sockets and the nostrils. That measurement, in inches, is generally a good indicator of the gator’s overall length in feet. Think of spurs on a turkey, an ear-to-antler assessment in whitetails, or an ear-to-head proportion in bears.

Some environments are more target rich than others. There are contained or unfenced options for hunting alligators, just like with many other big game animals. Gators are unique in that they require water sources in which they can submerge, in contrast to cervids and other types of game. In order to have a huntable population, there must be ready access to larger bodies of water.Gator12 900Another unique thing about gators is shot placement. Instead of seeking a “vitals” shot of heart or lungs, a gator is harvested with a head shot. I had practiced primarily one shot opportunity—the gator facing away from me, with the point of aim centered at the base of the skull, where the plates/brain are most vulnerable.

The shot presentation I ended up with was actually a moving (swimming) profile. There are two vulnerable points on an alligator, and this was the other. I held at the back, top corner of the oval behind the eye, and he expired instantly. This was a good lesson in practicing all shot opportunities equally, instead of focusing solely on one.Gator5 900My guide told me that if the shot created an injury instead of a fatality, the gator would go under and we would see bubbles. If the shot was fatal, we would see a white belly and a back foot.

Now, the next question was, if you shoot a gator in open water and you’re on shore with no boat, how do you get him back to shore? The answer is a stout fishing pole rigged with a treble hook. Immediately after my shot, a white belly appeared, a foot waved and my guide took off running toward shore. A moment later, he had hooked my beautiful 9-foot 6-inch alligator and was dragging him toward shore. Sweet success!Gator9 900After tagging him and taking photos, we loaded the outsized reptile into the back of Blake’s truck. A slippery, 350-pound, 9 ½-foot gator was a handful for two people, but we got him loaded and on his way to the skinner/processor.Gator7 900When I booked my gator hunt, I had a few end products in mind, which I communicated to both the processor and taxidermist. First, I wanted all the meat I could get, because it is absolutely delicious! Imagine a cross between chicken and scallops…

Second, I wanted the hide tanned so I could make a pair of boots, a jacket and belt. I also wanted to extract all the teeth to make a necklace and hat band. Visualize Crocodile Dundee…Gator8 900For now, my freezer is full, my hide is getting tanned, and the teeth are getting cleaned before meeting their final artistic destination. The coolest part? I now have a Gator Harvest icon to add to my HuntStand hunt area map in Venus, Florida, at Lightsey’s Family Ranch. By the way, if you haven’t already guessed, this off-season, bucket-list hunting adventure comes highly recommended.