I have been fortunate to sit with lots of new deer hunters who have taken their first deer, and I have overseen even more organized programs hosting new hunters on their first hunts. I’ve noticed some mentors bring in more deer with their new hunters, and I believe that being a good mentor is a skill they have acquired. You may think, “They’re just a good deer hunter.” But things are different when you’re riding shotgun beside a new hunter.
It’s important for all of us to help others become deer hunters, and it’s amazingly rewarding. If you’re already a skilled deer hunter, I want to help you acquire the skills of a good mentor. Here’s a list of the most important actions I believe you can take to become a skilled hunting mentor.
Pick the Right Mentee
Research suggests there are roughly 25 million Americans who are interested in learning to hunt. Many of these aspiring hunters did not grow up in and around hunting, and they are the ones we really need to mentor to diversify and expand hunting participation. Of course, I want you to recruit your family and friends, but making a concerted effort to reach beyond your social group is important. People who are least likely to know any deer hunters are those who most need your help.
I also recommend you mentor another adult. It’s fine to take kids hunting too, but adults are more efficient recruitment targets. They can manage their own calendars, they probably own cars, and they have their own income and spending money. They can become independent hunters quickly, possibly in the same hunting season after you serve as their mentor. They can mentor their kids and other adults almost immediately. Honestly, you can better relate to and share the experience of a deer hunt with another adult. You can even crack a beer together at the end of a trip afield.
Accept Their Motivations
Hunters go afield for many different reasons, and it’s important to understand and accept the motivations of your new hunter; Don’t assume they share your motivations. Some new hunters may be fascinated by antlers, others may be more motivated by venison, and some may be interested in reconnecting with nature. You shouldn’t project your motivations onto a new hunter, and that includes your harvest objectives. If a deer is legal, offers an ethical shot opportunity, and meets the desires of the new hunter, by all means give them the green light if you can.
Build the Foundation
Our intention is to create a hunter, and it’s important to do the prep work. A new hunter needs a basic education as a prerequisite to taking the stand. Fortunately, if you’re a seasoned hunter, you possess all this knowledge and more. You’ll need to share that knowledge, especially while afield. But even before the hunt you should talk to the new hunter about hunter education and license requirements. (Be sure not to overlook apprentice licenses and seasons.)
We also offer a lot of educational resources you can share with your new hunter, including our Deer Hunting 101 YouTube series and Deer Hunting 101 online course which we use for prerequisite at-home education for our Field to Fork programs. You also need to make sure the new hunter is safe, comfortable and proficient with the gun or bow they’ll be hunting with, so at least one trip to the range is necessary. It’s important as a mentor to know the capabilities of your new hunter.
Don’t Overdo It
Hunting is fun. Be sure to keep it that way. We all like to share war stories of tough hunts, long drags and rough weather, but don’t start a new hunter that way. In our Field to Fork program, we try to plan early season hunts and prefer to start with an afternoon hunt when taking new hunters afield for the first time. Increase the difficulty of the hunting as your hunter is ready and willing to take on bigger challenges.
Each new hunter is different. Some assume we’re just going to walk out and get a deer while others are most surprised when they actually see a deer. Often the most overlooked information is the knowledge that experienced hunters take for granted, like what to expect after a shot. Go over with your new hunter what to expect afield, but also set expectations for each other. This adds to safety and also better prepares each party for a successful experience.
I believe communication is what truly separates the best mentors from the rest. Both the hunter and the mentor need to learn how to effectively communicate in the blind or in the woods to accomplish the mission and not spook game. Chit-chatting in the blind is a good way to educate and relax. When a deer comes into sight communication’s importance becomes heightened.
Hopefully you’ve already discussed what you’re going to do when a deer arrives, but how a mentor communicates is critical at this point. You need to be calm, confident and reassuring in your communication. This is where you coach the new hunter up. You need to remain aware of their actions and emotions. Are they shaking too much? Are they breathing too hard? Do they look uncomfortable? If any of this is true, you might need to pause and just watch the deer for a few minutes or wait for the next one. If the new hunter looks comfortable and confident, then be reassuring and calm in your tone. Range the deer, determine when a good shot opportunity has arrived, and remind your hunter where to aim.
Armani Coppedge harvested his first two deer at Pennsylvania’s John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in October 2022, and I was lucky to be his mentor. Armani was cool, calm and collected, and I let him take a little longer shot than I would have with some new hunters.
“I think the big thing was your chill personality,” Armani told me later. “Maybe you’re like that in general, but I feel like it really helps in a hunt, especially for a first timer.”
Make it Comfortable
Comfort can be enhanced through wearing appropriate clothing, packing snacks, and taking time to talk through expectations for the hunt. Making sure a new hunter has appropriate clothing and gear is important. If you can help provide some gear for first hunts, that goes a long way.
It’s also important to make a new hunter comfortable in the stand. When you get to a stand, try to get as comfortable as you can. Talk through scenarios of how the hunt may unfold. Talk about and practice where deer may approach and how to get ready for a shot. Make sure your new hunter can do this efficiently; this preparation can make or break a hunt.
Make sure they have a solid rest for their crossbow or gun. Discuss your roles in the hunt and how as a mentor you will range and identify deer and call the shots. Reinforce shot placement and any other important information to know in your specific situation.
While sitting with Emily Barrett on the Back40 property in Michigan, I encouraged her to sit on the floor of the elevated soft-sided blind to take advantage of the window bar as a rifle rest. This solid rest helped her make a great shot on a nice doe.
Emily had missed a deer in the past, but she was uplifted by our group of mentors. “Hearing how everyone goes through these trials at one point or another inspired me to try again,” she said. “I learned I need a solid rest to make a good shot. Thinking outside the box like that comes from more experience.”
Creating a hunter comes down to building confidence to the point where a new hunter believes “This is something I can do and I am going to do it.” A good mentor gives a new hunter the knowledge and support they need to continue on their own.
Take the time to offer your knowledge throughout the entire experience. Explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, and take the time to involve the new hunter. If they harvest a deer, let them do as much of the dressing and processing as they can while you guide them; Don’t do it for them just to be done faster. Without these levels of confidence, new hunters don’t return.
Celebrate the Hunt
If you’ve shared a deer camp, you know that actual hunting can take a backseat to community and camaraderie. This is just as important for new hunters. Build these social connections if you can by sharing stories and venison meals before and after your trips afield. Our Field to Fork programs have affirmed that making mentoring a group effort makes it more fun.
If your new hunter is lucky enough to harvest a deer, celebrate the success in a way that is appropriate for each new hunter. Read your mentee on how they’re reacting to the situation, and follow their lead. Give them time to take in the full experience. If the new hunter is okay with it, take lots of pictures.
Of course, don’t celebrate too early! To ensure the best chance of recovery, teach your hunter to remain focused on the shot, study the deer’s reaction, and listen.
Offer Continued Support
Social support is really what helps an aspiring hunter complete their journey to becoming an independent hunter. Continuing to encourage and empower your mentee to keep trying is important. If you can allow it, consider offering access or opportunity to hunt through a first season. Lending material support for this trial phase will help a new hunter acquire the necessary items over time and help them avoid a large initial financial outlay. As the seasons progress, consider including additional species to your list of pursuits.
Many former mentees have told me how important social support was during times of disappointment like misses. We’ve all missed, and many of us will miss a shot in the future. It’s important to keep expectations reasonable and make sure we are supportive in success and disappointment.
Bonus: Remember Your First Time
You remember who took you hunting the first time. I bet you remember a lot about that day. They will, too. Take the time to introduce someone afield properly. These aspiring hunters appreciate your service, and we do, too!