Among the many successful hunters I know, one thing they all have in common is a great hunting instinct. Yes, they also have sharp skills and deep knowledge, but more importantly, they can recognize an opportunity and seize it without hesitation.
They have the ability to anticipate what is going to happen and can react without overanalyzing. This often results in meat in your freezer when others would go home empty handed.
The good news here is that we can all sharpen our hunting instincts, however, this is not an easy task.
Observe the development of instincts
Hunting instincts play a role in a variety of different ways, but shooting scenarios are the most obvious. Watching the development of my oldest son, whom I have taken grouse hunting since he was three years old, has taught me a lot about a hunter’s instinct. I started him with a .22 Savage Rascal, and he first learned how to shoot with a red dot sight.
He’s progressed to proficiency with the iron sights and magnified optics, but his grouse pistol is still that little .22. He often accompanies me to the range and constantly peppers my 100-yard targets with .22 holes. He thinks it is a gas. A childhood staple, he got his first Red Ryder last spring, and we set him up a shooting range in the backyard, where he breaks bottles from vented aluminum BB cans suspended by ropes. But this is more than fun and games, he is learning every time we shoot.
My son has always been a fast learner and is now becoming a great shooter right before my eyes. He has been shooting red squirrels with the little compound bow he inherited from him since he was five years old. A few days ago, we followed a pair of grouse into a thicket of black spruce, and when I could see a bird crouching and swaying toward a small window through the tangle of dry, gray twigs and alder branches, I set up the tripod. we used and he aimed his rifle at the opening.
He quickly got behind the rifle and only had a couple of seconds before the bird came through the opening. Pop! The grouse fell. We continued, and got another one the same way. It was our first grouse hunt in a long time, and the first time I had seen him shoot so decisively. These weren’t lucky shots done in a hurry; They were intentional and precise. He prepared quickly and took advantage of his opportunities as soon as they appeared.
We are not born with hunter instincts
I would love to believe that the secret to being a great shot in the wild hunt is simply flowing within the Freel family bloodline. And it’s nice to think that we all have hunting instincts and skills encoded in our DNA from ancient ancestors who hunted down woolly mammoths with bows and spears.
But unfortunately, that’s not how it works in the real world. Sure, some people have natural abilities (such as keen eyesight or good hand-eye coordination) that help them become better hunters, but a true hunter’s instinct isn’t something you’re born with. The hunting instinct is cultured and learned.
I’ve been crazy about hunting for as long as I can remember, but that didn’t mean I was always good at it. When I was 12 years old, my dad and I started calling coyotes together. I loved it, but I don’t remember killing a single coyote that first winter. For several years, we got better, learning from every coyote we called. We learned to predict what they were likely to do, we learned when to shoot and when to wait. As our experience and skills grew, so did our instincts.
We had to watch a lot of hunts and also messed up a lot of coyotes before we really got our instincts right. All of those experiences informed future hunts.
You can’t buy instinct
Shooting animals ethically, effectively and decisively is a learned skill. That ability can’t be bought, and neither can good shooting instincts.
In the materialistic, hyper-commercial world we live in, it’s easy to fall for the idea that you can achieve better results with better equipment. While accurate rifles, quality ammo, and accurate optics provide tangible benefits, they don’t mean shit if you don’t know how to use them. Competition requires a lot of practice and, yes, some failures too.
Based on the nature of many posts and conversations I’ve seen, I’d say it’s easy for many new hunters to become paralyzed with indecision, afraid to go, try and even fail on their own. Many want to be told everything from where to go to what kind of laces they need to use. The best advice is to just get out there and learn as you go.
Likewise, even many experienced hunters put too much emphasis on equipment and not enough on time in the field.
How to develop a hunter’s instinct
The best route to developing a deadly and efficient hunting instinct is simply to spend a lot of time hunting. To get good at recognizing shooting opportunities and capitalizing on them, you need to have a lot of animals in front of you. And to do that, you have to spend a lot of time in the woods.
But the reach time also matters. I started my son with a red dot sight because it made one less complication in the shooting process, and I could see success and improvement. He made shooting fun. With thousands of repetitions, he has become comfortable, quick and decisive in his shots. When he started with iron sights this summer on his BB gun, he was frustrated and shaky, shooting from a bench. He now he can make those cans dance by shooting offhand better than Chuck Connors. That agile decision translates into the hunt.
Experienced hunters can sharpen their instincts by practicing with a shooting process. This means executing the exact same steps in the same order before each shot (this is written a lot about archery, but it’s important for any type of shooting). Drilling a shot process may seem counter-intuitive at first, because the point of following instinct is No think about it, right? That’s true, but first you have to build solid foundations. By practicing with a shooting process, you drill those fundamentals into your subconscious. Soon, you won’t be thinking about the steps in the process, you’ll be doing them automatically. When a shooting opportunity presents itself on a hunt, you will shoot exactly the same way you do in practice.
It is amazing to see the son develop his skills and his hunting instinct. But it’s important to remember that the focus of any hunt should never be just to kill something. After all, he will learn more from missed opportunities than successful ones. I know I have to be patient and make him take only good opportunities and ethical shots, but he’s increasingly recognizing those opportunities on his own.