My family has harvested food from our farmland for generations. I would love to say that since I was a child, I had gone into the fields with my father and grandfather and learned the ways of hunting and ethical harvesting of animals for food and resources, but unfortunately, I made very few decisions which I consider to be wise until I lived to be around 26 years of age. It was around that time that I formally accepted Christ in my heart, and around that time the seeds of becoming a true skeptic were planted. As a young man I spent most of my time outside, in the forest and fields, and I’ve always loved animals. I had never understood why anyone would want to kill one. So, it wasn’t until the last few years, nearing my third decade of life, that I became interested in hunting, or appreciated God’s works enough to understand why such activities are part of God’s plan.
However, while I was then emotionally ready to participate in harvesting game, I had not anticipated one key aspect of hunting – it was difficult, I was terrible at it! In addition to adding several long bouts of sitting in cold weather and not seeing any viable game, I spent large amounts of money on out-of-state hunting permits and gear. My attention turned to the patriarchs of my family with new respect – to this day, my 85-year-old grandfather can take rabbits with his .22 LR with incredible efficiency. The amount of knowledge that sits dormant in these men is simply staggering.
I was thoroughly humbled, and the resulting quest for knowledge has left me hopelessly addicted to not just hunting, but all woods lore, survival, and outdoorsmanship – and furthermore, an unquenchable thirst for more knowledge.
Being a beginner at harvesting your own food can be daunting – and so I’ve decided to put together a short primer on several topics which would have been helpful to my preparations when I started. It is my hope that you find this helpful when making your own plan and starting your own journey.
Know Your Objective
The first thing that I must stress before preparing to harvest game is to know what it is your objective is. Many of my good friends stock up on hunting rifles and ammunition with the mindset that in a crisis situation, they will be able to go out and shoot deer to feed their families. Others keep loaded handguns in their vehicles or on their person with the reasoning that if they are caught in the woods unexpectedly they will have a food source. I have actually done just that – kept a .45 caliber handgun in my Tier 1 gear just in case. It is now apparent to me that while using this gear is feasible, it is by no means optimal, and this error is mostly because I was not correctly identifying my objective.
Note: Tier 1 gear is gear that I always have on my person. Tier 2 gear is that which I always keep available in my car, and lower Tiers refer to gear that I may have handy in my house or elsewhere. Different people have different systems for tracking their gear; but I find that in general thinking of your gear in this fashion makes it easier to not only locate gear when it is needed, but decide where and how to store gear during preparation.
Consider this – hunting deer with a rifle, when successful, does provide large amounts of nourishing food to you and your family – but only when you find deer that you can shoot. Do you see deer every day? If you do, do you have an opportunity to shoot one every day? How good of a shot are you? The risk associated with relying on hunting deer with a rifle for food is that hunting deer can be difficult. Not only are deer very crafty, being prey by nature, but you may also have to spend large amounts of your own time hunting them. You may also put yourself in a disadvantaged position by doing so, especially if your need for food is great and the conditions under which you must do so are dangerous. So, if your objective is survival or reliable food source, first consider learning and preparing for harvesting techniques that are much more effective and much less time consuming – for example, learning to snare animals will provide a much more efficient food source. Further, not having to spend lots of time hunting will provide a higher return on your investment, not to mention that keeping a few snares in your “go bag” takes up very little space and almost ensures that you can find food in a pinch. In a survival situation, trapping will also not instantly give away your position to anyone within a few mile radius, as using a firearm most certainly will.
This is certainly not to say that rifles are not useful for harvesting food; but if you know your objective, it may not be the most effective method of meeting it. If you live in an area where game is incredibly plentiful (or incredibly easy to harvest) then large caliber rifles may be the most efficient. Consider your objectives very carefully before beginning your preparations.
Know Your Target
Once you know your objective, you likely have an idea of what your target will be. When making preparations and before you begin harvesting, take the time to learn about your intended prey. In general, there are a few things you should definitely make yourself aware of before attempting to harvest an animal.
- Where is such an animal most likely to be found at the time you are out, if you are hunting?
- More importantly, why are they there?
- If an animal is moving, what is the purpose of the movement?
- What parts of the day, month, or year are the animal most active?
- What kinds of tracks or signs will the animal leave?
- How will all of this change during the year? For example, anyone who has seen the habits of deer during the “rut”, or mating season, knows that during this time period, all bets are off as to what behavior male deer exhibits – they only have one thing in mind, and it isn’t food.
These questions may seem simple, but if you don’t at least have an idea of why an animal “does what it does”, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage when it becomes time to intercept them. Additionally, having an understanding of the basics of an animal’s routine will lead you to discover many more things about them. More complex things to consider:
- What levels of awareness does the animal have? What actions or signs will it pick up on fastest?
- Every animal that is naturally prey has some defensive mechanism, and most of them are movement-based. What tactics does this animal use to survive?
- When “spooked”, or faced with the need to act defensively, what will the animal do? If it travels, which most targets will, what patterns will the animal take? Will it leave the area, or circle back? Will it flee in a straight line, a curved or snaking path, or will it double back?
In truth, all of this knowledge takes a long time to accumulate, and it won’t happen overnight. But having an idea of what to note when you observe the target animal, even when you aren’t in the act of harvesting, will provide you with more insight into the animal, and may provide you with an advantage down the road.
A great example of several of these characteristics is the way male deer use the females as scouts. Males will often trail behind the females during movement, often from a higher or lower vantage point, and will maintain a level of awareness of what the females are doing in addition to their own senses. They will also frequently allow the females to enter open areas (like fields) before they do, and observe what predators may appear before entering the area. When I first began hunting, I would often move to “put my scope on” and target female deer, which almost always alerted them to my presence – and which beyond any doubt alerted any trailing bucks to my presence as well. I can only imagine how many deer I never saw because of that beginner’s mistake.
Know the Land
Understanding the habitat of your target is just as crucial as understanding the animal itself. You may know that rabbits inhabit this section of forest, but do you know where they move? Do you know where the warrens are? Having done your research on your target animal, and the last key piece to beginning to successfully harvest is then applying that knowledge to the actual environment. As anyone who’s ever walked outside of their front door knows, everything changes when you put the simulation in the real world.
The first step in knowing the land is to spend some time out there. Look for tracks, burrows, nests, bedding, or whatever sign is crucial to your target. Make notes of the kind of terrain and topology in which you’ve found the sign. Once you begin to get an idea for the landscape, you may want to compare your notes at different times of the year. If your objective is to be able to harvest for reliable food source, you are at a serious disadvantage if you only know behavior patterns during the government-enforced hunting season.
One of the best ways for the beginner to scout terrain is to use snow as a tracking aid. Wait until a light coating of snow falls during the night, and spend the next morning moving and watching – the snow reveals almost all movement of animals, and with experience you can even get an indication of what time the animal was moving. In a survival situation, using this information combined with the snares that you keep in your Tier 2 gear can provide enough food to keep you alive.
Finally, always consider the type of vegetative growth where the animal is likely to move. The deep forest will have large trees with nice open areas, and the fields will have large open areas as well. I remember my first watches, waiting for a deer to step into an open field or walk down through the open woods to get a drink. I didn’t see much. If you were an animal that had to stay alive by your evasion skills, would you walk through the areas that provided you the most exposure? Certainly not – wild game prefer to be hidden whenever possible. Deer love to walk through the nastiest, prickliest cover they can find, and most other wild animals do as well. Keeping this in mind when you survey the land can save you large amounts of time.
In conclusion, get out there and start learning. The absolute best way to gain experience and skill is to find someone who’s good at what you’ve decided your objective should be, and do whatever it takes to obtain their knowledge. Show them you’re serious, and willing to work, and you can grow by leaps and bounds. If you don’t have that opportunity, and can’t find any classes, just get out there as much as you can, and read about it when you can’t. Survival (and sport) is all about being prepared before the time for application has arrived.