A beginner’s guide to hunting

by Jeff Helsdon | August 10, 2013

beginner's guide - man showing a teenage girls how to hold a gun

If you’re considering joining the ranks of the province’s hunters, you’re in good, and growing, company.

There are more new and relatively new hunters in Ontario now than at any time in recent history. The number of students graduating from hunter education courses has been increasing steadily every year for the past 11 years. In 2012 alone, 21,300 people, from youth to seniors, completed the Ontario Hunter Education Program (OHEP) course.

Becoming a licensed hunter means successfully completing courses involving theoretical knowledge and practical skill. It’s a commitment of time, energy, and a few dollars, but ask any one of the province’s approximately 440,000 hunters and 4,900 young apprentices, and they’ll tell you it’s well worth it. Here are 12 things to consider.

1. Get on course
Getting educated is the first step. With few exceptions, you’ll need to take both the Canadian Firearms Safety Course and the OHEP course. Students often choose to take both courses at the same time in what is known as a one-stop course, but they can also be completed individually. The easiest way to find an instructor or course near you is to visit the OHEP website or call the OHEP office during business hours.

Archery hunters don’t need to take the firearms safety course, but if you think you might hunt with a gun in the future, it’s easier to do it all at once.

Although the course content is consistent province-wide, the instructor can make a difference in your experience. If you aren’t sure about an instructor, ask them for references. Local gun stores or fish and game clubs are a good place to gather information. There are almost 300 certified hunter education instructors and even more who are certified to teach the firearms safety course.

Expect to pay somewhere in the $300 range for a one stop-course, which includes both course manuals. If you are over 18, challenging the firearms exam is also an option, but you must still take the test in the presence of a certified instructor and pay the $40 associated fee. There’s no challenge opportunity for the hunter education course.

Once you’ve successfully completed the exams, there’s some filing to do. With Hunter Education exam in hand, you can purchase an H1 Outdoors Card right away, but before you head out to hunt, you’ll need your firearms Possession and Acquisition Licence (PAL) to handle a firearm. Note, processing takes several weeks.

2. Learn from mentors and guides
When I first completed hunter safety training 30 years ago, I was pretty much on my own. I came from a family with a hunting heritage, but no active hunters living nearby. A friend of the family helped me some, but for the most part, I had to teach myself.

Today, there are mentored hunts held across the province, designed to welcome new hunters into the fold. New hunts are starting up all the time, thanks to initiatives such as a planning toolkit by MNR Stewardship coordinators. Other organizations supportive of new hunters include the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), Ducks Unlimited (DU), Delta Waterfowl (DW), and Long Point Waterfowl. Check their websites for information about what they have to offer.

A guided hunt is another good way to get some pointers. Before booking your guide, make them aware that you are a beginner, and ask if they are willing to share their expertise with you. You don’t want to hire a guide who treats their knowledge as a secret.

3. Choosing a gun
Chances are you’ll get conflicting advice about what firearm is best. Consider visiting at least one gun store to discuss what you want and need with their knowledgeable staff. Here are some things to keep in mind.

Identify your primary quarry. If big game is your target, a rifle is the obvious choice. It’s hard to go wrong with the most popular calibres, such as .308, .270 or .30-06.
For hunting birds, it’s hard to beat a 12-gauge shotgun as a starter, but if you have a smaller body frame, look at a 20 gauge .

Another option to consider is a shotgun that comes with both a smooth and rifled barrel, which makes one gun ideal for just about every scenario. I purchased one of these for my children; it’s hard to beat for the price.

There are restrictions on the type of firearm that may be used for different game, so make sure you become familiar with these before you make your purchase. Take your time choosing your first firearm. A gun is an integral part of your hunting experience and something you will likely own for many years.

beginner's guide - description of rifle and shotgun

4. Go to a pro for your bow
Those who choose to bowhunt also have important questions to answer when purchasing their first bow.

Assistant Editor Steve Galea and Archery Editor Nigel Reid agree that dealing with a reputable bow shop is key when selecting your first bow, arrows, and broadheads. Whether you decide to go with a compound, traditional (recurve), or crossbow, make sure you get a proper fit. Galea advises sticking with your first bow for awhile so that you can become familiar with its characteristics and build your skill.Bowhunters also need to be aware of restrictions on minimum draw weight when hunting big game, so keep that in mind when choosing a bow.

5. Finding a place to hunt
One of the largest challenges facing hunters in southern Ontario is land access. A lot of prime hunting land is private, which means you need to secure permission from the landowner to access the property.

When scouting out locations, start well before the season. Friends and relatives who are landowners are your first and most likely sources of permission. If that isn’t an option, consider using Google Maps. You can see the size of a woodlot on a property and its connectivity to other forest cover. You’re better off knocking at the door of a landowner with a good-sized woodlot than one who has a five-acre island of bush.

Once you get the okay from a landowner, treat them like a rich relative. Be respectful of how they want their property left, and consider offering to help with chores, or giving a small token of appreciation at the end of the season or at Christmas. Check back before each season to ensure it’s still okay to hunt the property.

6. Laws are complex
To say that provincial fish and game regulations are complicated is an understatement. For example, during the controlled deer hunt in my area, hunting with shotguns and muzzleloaders is allowed one side of the road, but it’s muzzleloaders only on the other side. Every hunter needs to be aware of the Ontario Hunting Regulations Summary and refer to it when in doubt. A limited number of printed copies of the summary are available, and it can be accessed online at www.ontario.ca/hunting.

Sunday gun hunting is allowed in some townships in southern Ontario, but not in others. To find out if it’s permitted in your area, consult the MNR website or contact your district MNR office.

Migratory bird hunting falls under the jurisdiction of Environment Canada’s Canadian Wildlife Service, and is subject to its own set of regulations. Learn more about hunting migratory birds and download the hunting regulations.

New or experienced, it’s every hunter’s responsibility to know the regulations for the game they seek in the area they hunt. Don’t depend on your buddies to tell you the rules.

7. Safety first
Safety should be priority one, as you will learn in the first hour of your hunter safety course. If you aren’t sure of the laws in your region, of the game you seek, or of the target in front of you, don’t take the shot. You can’t put a bullet or shell back in a gun.

8. Dress for success
Anyone hunting during an open firearms big game season must wear a minimum of 400 square inches of hunter orange, as well as a hunter orange hat. Although it isn’t mandatory, I wear a hunter orange vest when upland game hunting. I also ensure that my turkey vest has a hunter orange flag of some sort for travelling to my hunting spot or for carrying out a bird I’ve harvested.

Waterproof clothing is always a good investment and there are many options with today’s high-tech garments. When it comes to your feet, go for comfort and dryness. You’ll be walking a lot, so don’t skimp on footwear.

9. Gear up
You’ll need to acquire some gear to start hunting. This includes things like a compass or GPS, calls, decoys, hunting seats, blinds, treestands, and more. A few stores cater specifically to hunters, but If you’re on a tight budget, check out garage sales, gun shows, and classified ads for some great deals. Some types of hunting seem to require an overwhelming amount of equipment, but there are ways to ease yourself into the hunt without breaking the bank. I started waterfowl hunting by canoe from shore and in marshes that I could reach, then gradually acquired the calls, decoys, retriever dog, boat, and boat blind.

10. A hunter’s best friend
A well-trained, disciplined hunting dog will always enhance the hunting experience. Before rushing into a dog purchase though, be aware that a hunting dog needs training and regular exercise, and is a big commitment.

11.Be a joiner
Hunting can be a singular pursuit, but you don’t have to feel that you’re in it alone. Scattered across the province are hundreds of gun clubs and fish and game associations, and most welcome new members. These clubs often run shotgun or rifle ranges where you can practice with trap, skeet or sporting clays, and connect with people who have similar interests. I have made some great friends and hunting buddies this way.

Regardless of whether you join a club, be sure to find a range or other suitable location to practice shooting before you head afield. Proficiency with your gun is crucial to not wounding game.

There are also several provincial and national conservation groups that every hunter should consider joining. The OFAH is a good place to start. It’s the country’s largest conservation organization, and a strong advocate for changes to government policies that impact anglers and hunters. National Wild Turkey Federation, Ruffed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, and Delta Waterfowl are also long standing hunting-based organizations with conservation mandates. The National Firearms Association, and Canadian Shooting Sports Association are two groups that advocate for gun owners.

12. More than hunting
Hunters have a responsibility to give back to the resources that provide such abundance. Perhaps one of the most important things a new hunter learns is that they’re more than just a person with a gun or bow. Hunters are the original conservationists and have initiated countless successful fish and wildlife projects across North America. It’s a good thing so many men and women are joining our ranks.

Originally published in the July issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS. Subscribe now! 

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  1. erin wrote: are you sure you don't have to wear hunter orange while upland hunting?
    • oodmag wrote: If you are ever in doubt, refer to the general regulations section of the Hunting Regulations Summary (http://bit.ly/19nDXut).
  2. Angels wrote: This helped SO much, I have just realised tha I would lik to be a hunter! OOD has helped me so much, Thank you!
  3. Brill Pappin wrote: I was in the same boat at about the same time as you. The key was to join a club as the first part of becoming proficient with your firearm and meeting people. You can also look up your country forests, you can usually hunt in them and they are likely all over t he place around you. You have to be careful of other people using the forests though. Most counties have maps that show everything online. Middelsex seems to allow hunting in all county forests (although some are bows only): http://www.middlesex.ca/living-here/environment/forestry-woodlots Once again, be darn careful of yourself and others because there will be other hunters in the forests and other people who have no idea there are hunters around. Wear the orange if you can :)
  4. Steven Wolf wrote: Besides finding a place to hunt, I found one of the most difficult part was knowing how to temporarily store, then clean and prepare your harvest. I always thought it would be great to offer classes on this for waterfowl, upland birds and other small game.
  5. Harsimran Gill wrote: Hi, I have hunting license but i dont know where to start i dont have any friend who go for hunting. if u can help me on this i can go with somebody..i am ready to pay like if someone take me along with them .....thx
    • Meghan Sutherland wrote: Harsimran, have you checked out OOD's community Forum? It's a great way to connect to the community and find like-minded hunters and anglers in your area. You'll have to register but after that you'll be able to post and hopefully find someone in your area: https://oodmag.com/community/