by Tom Dickson and Greg Breining
Hunting is a blast! You spend all day outside, sometimes tramping through the woods, sometimes hiding in a duck blind, sometimes walking through grassy fields.
It's a challenge. You have to figure out what wild animals eat, where they hide, when they move around. You learn to recognize different habitats - the places where animals live. And you get to see firsthand that the meat we eat comes from animals, not from a grocery store.
Although hunting can be fun, it's no game. This is a serious sport where you must always be very careful. Goofing around is never allowed. Guns can and do kill people. Look at the two hunters in this picture. Notice that they point their shotgun barrels away from each other. Notice that the guns are open so that they cannot accidentally fire.
Like most hunters, these hunters know that the lasting fun of hunting comes only when it is conducted safely and ethically.
It's a Saturday morning in early December, and a light dusting of snow covers the ground. With a shotgun tucked under your arm, you and your friend walk slowly across a pasture.
You'd asked the woman who owns this land if you could hunt for rabbits. You were a bit nervous asking. But she was nice. "Check out the Old Place,"she said. "I always see rabbits there."
As you reach the abandoned farmhouse, you can see why rabbits live there. Grass and vines have grown up over the collapsed porch. Out back sits an old, rusted car with weeds sticking up through the hood and broken windshield. A big pile of brush stands by an old barn.
You've learned from other hunts that rabbits hide in the thickest, most tangled brush they can find. They must like this place. Fresh rabbit tracks in the snow show they have been moving about earlier.
You walk up to the brush pile and give it a kick. Nothing. Your friend tries. Nothing. As you turn away, you catch a movement out of the corner of your eye. You spin around to see a rabbit dashing from the brush. Checking to see that your friend is safely behind you, you click off the safety. The rabbit runs 20 yards and stops near the old car. You raise your shotgun but then lower it. The pellets might ricochet off the metal.
The rabbit hops a few feet past the car. Your friend whispers, "Shoot." You raise the gun, steady the bead on the rabbit, and fire. The rabbit somersaults then lies still. You pick it up and put it in the back pocket of your hunting vest.
Later that morning your friend shoots a rabbit, and you shoot another. You stop by to thank the woman for letting you hunt there, then head home to ask Mom or Dad to help you clean and fry the rabbits for dinner.
What does fried rabbit taste like? Like fried chicken but much better because you got it yourself.
You're cold. Colder than you have ever been in your life. Almost two hours ago you walked through the dark woods and climbed up into this tree stand. You imagine your friends back home, just now waking up in their warm beds.
But you have to stick it out if you want to shoot a deer this year. Besides, you still have some hot chocolate in your thermos. Maybe its time for another cup.
What was that? Something walking slowly, crunching crisp leaves. Carefully, you look over your left shoulder. Your eyes search the trees and bushes for movement. But everything is still.
Then you see it. The flick of an ear. Its a whitetail buck! Your heart starts beating so hard and fast you're afraid the deer can hear it. He continues on the trail, stopping every few yards to look around. Slowly you raise the rifle your uncle lent you. The crosshairs in the scope shake as you try to settle them on the spot he told you to aim for. You aim a few inches back from where the deer's front leg meets its body.
As you take a deep breath and slowly let it out, the shaking slows down. After double-checking through the scope to make sure no house or person is behind your target, you click off the safety and slowly squeeze the trigger.
The deer leaps once, runs a few yards, and then collapses, dead. Then you hear a yell. Your uncle Bill and aunt Judy heard the shot from their deer stand. Now they are coming to help you field dress the deer and take it back to the cabin. Your legs are still shaking as you empty your gun and carefully climb down from the stand. Judy gives you a hug, and Bill shakes your hand. "Nice shooting," he says with a big grin. They know just how you feel.
Your dog is excited. With her tail up and nose to the ground, she weaves through the tall grass next to a cornfield. You take a few quick steps to keep up. You hold your shotgun ready, but the safety is on, and you take quick note of your friends. You must know where they are - where you can shoot safely and where you must not shoot no matter what.
Suddenly a ring-necked pheasant bursts into the air, just a few feet ahead of your dog. Its wingbeats sound like explosions and your heart races. Is it a rooster or a hen? Yes, there's the red face, rich brown chest and long tail. Its a rooster - legal game. And its flying in a direction where you can safely shoot. You raise your gun, slide off the safety, swing the sights ahead of the bird, and squeeze the trigger. The recoil from the shot rocks your shoulder, and the pheasant folds, in the way a creature does when life leaves quickly. It sails into the deep grass.
You follow your dog to where you last saw the bird. She disappears into the tall grass. Seconds later, she reappears with the pheasant in her mouth and brings it over. You hold the soft, warm bird several minutes, turn it over, and admire the splash of sunlight in every feather. You drop the pheasant into the pouch of your vest. Then you and your dog begin searching the field once again.
A rifle is named for twisted grooves, called rifling, inside the barrel. Unlike a shotgun, which has a smooth barrel, the rifle spins the bullet like a football in flight. The spinning helps the bullet to fly accurately for several hundred yards. Hunters use rifles of different calibers for small game such as rabbits, and squirrels, as well as for big game such as deer, moose, and bears.
A shotgun fires a swarm of small pellets to kill hard-to-hit game, such as birds in flight or bounding rabbits. A shotgun can also shoot a single large bullet, called a slug, for deer. It is a short-range weapon, effective up to about 50 yards with birdshot, a bit farther with slugs for deer.
Rifle cartridges are made up of a bullet and a brass casing. The casing contains explosive powder. When the powder burns, it pushes the bullet out the rifle barrel at a very high speed.
Many hunters enjoy the challenge of using a bow. Because the killing range of a bow is less than 40 yards, a bowhunter must get close to the animal - much closer than a hunter with a rifle or shotgun needs to get. That's why bowhunters wear camouflage clothing and even face paint. They try to look just like a tree so the deer won't see them.
This modern bow design uses a system of pulleys to make it easier to hold the bowstring at full draw.
Hunters use bows and arrows for a variety of game, especially white-tailed deer. They must take shots at close range, usually less than 40 yards.
If you're under 14, you must have your parent with you when you hunt. No one under 12 may hunt big game. In early spring and fall, the DNR Firearms Safety Training Program teaches young hunters safety, ethics, first aid, wildlife management basics, and wildlife identification. Young hunters who complete the 12-hour course earn a Firearms Safety Certificate.
Several conservation groups offer youth hunting programs, including camps and daylong classes: Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Forkhorn program, Ducks Unlimited Greenwing program, Minnesota Waterfowl Association Woodie Camp, and Pheasants Forever Ringnecks program.
Hunting book, magazines, and videos can tell you how and where to hunt. Look for them in libraries or sporting goods stores. One of the best books for beginners is The Art of Hunting, published by the Hunting and Fishing Library.
The DNR offers two special hunts to promote youth hunting. On Take a Kid Hunting Weekend, resident adults may hunt small game without a license if accompanied by a youth under age 16. On Youth Waterfowl Hunting Day, youth under age 16 may hunt ducks when accompanied by a nonhunting adult. For more information call the DNR Information Center at 651-296-6157 or 1-888-646-6367 (1-888-MINNDNR).
Always handle a gun as if it were loaded, controlling the direction of the muzzle at all times. The hunters in the photo at left are handing off their guns as they cross a fence to avoid tripping with a gun. The actions are open so the guns cannot fire.
Never point a weapon at a person, or anything you do not wish to shoot. Keep your safety on until the moment you intend to shoot. Be absolutely certain of the identity of your target. Never shoot at silhouettes or other indistinct forms or movement. Refuse to hunt with anyone who does not follow these basic rules.
To hide from geese, ducks, and wild turkeys, hunters often wear camouflage clothing. But during firearms deer season and in situations when other hunters might mistake them for animals in the brush, hunters must wear blaze orange to be seen.
In case you get lost or hurt in the woods, make sure you carry a survival pack at all times. The pack should have a compass, matches or lighter, knife, rain jacket, and whistle to signal your companions.
Every hunter needs to think about hunting ethics - what's the right or wrong thing to do. Hunting laws tell you what is legal or illegal, but they can't always help you decide what behavior is fair or good. For example, it is not against the law to shoot at a goose flying high in the sky. But if its out of range, you?ll more likely cripple it than kill it. Is it ethical to shoot, or should you wait for a lower-flying goose?
How do you know what is right and wrong? Ask adult hunters what they would do in certain situations. Read hunting books and magazines, which have many stories about hunters who struggle to choose between right and wrong actions. Finally, pay attention to your conscience. If you think something might be wrong, it usually is.
In general, ethical hunting means you should:
What would YOU do? Consider the three situations presented below and decide how you would act. In some cases, you might choose your actions for legal or safety reasons as well as ethical reasons.
Aldo Leopold, a famous hunter and environmentalist, said, "A peculiar virtue in wildlife ethics is that the hunter ordinarily has no gallery to applaud or disapprove of his conduct. Whatever his acts, they are dictated by his own conscience, rather than by a mob of onlookers."
Tom Dickson is staff writer for the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. Greg Breining is managing editor of the Volunteer.
A complete copy of the article can be found in the September-October 1998 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.