“The Five Stages of a Hunter” was a concept born in the mid-1980s by a couple of professors doing research at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. More than 1,000 Wisconsin hunters were contacted and interviewed by Robert Jackson and Robert Norton about their hunting expectations, habits, and overall experiences in the field.
This information was compiled and put out as a report listing what they believed to be the “Five Stages” that hunters go through, during the course of their hunting lives, why the transitions happen, and what the general feeling is of each stage.
There is no evidence to show that the 1,000 hunters interviewed were solely male, or solely lifelong hunters, but I am going to speak as a woman, who started hunting later in life: 36 years of age, to be exact. It certainly may look different for everyone, and I’m sure everyone spends a different amount of time, if any, in each of these stages. This is just how things have played out for me.
This first stage represents the time that hunter is just getting started, and the more they can fire their firearm, the happier they are. It appears hitting the intended target isn’t always the most exciting part of this stage, but more like the number of shot opportunities, or the numbers of shells on the ground at the end of the day, is what spells success for the hunter.
For me, I didn’t start shooting a gun at all, until about three weeks before I went into the woods to hunt. Some lifelong hunters might have spent their childhood anxiously awaiting the legal age to hunt, by toting their BB guns, then maybe a .22 as they got a little older, shooting targets and all kinds of things their parents probably wouldn’t approve of, and going through BBs and .22 ammo like crazy.
I wasn’t that kid. The first time I shot at a target – or anything actually – with a long gun, I was an adult and I was holding it in the wrong hand. My significant other, Chance, questioned why I was shooting right handed with my right eye closed. After switching to my left hand, things started to work out a little better for me.
I wasn’t one who was anxious to get out there and blow through a ton of ammo. I liked to shoot, but once my gun was sighted in and I was pretty comfortable with how to load it, hold it, aim it and finally fire it, I felt I didn’t want to shoot it again until I had a “sure thing” shot at an animal, directly in front of me. I never fired at anything in the woods unless I felt I would have a good, quick, clean kill on the animal.
It seems from the report that was circulated back in the mid-80s and still today, that differs from the majority of people who are shooting up the woods to get that first animal in the bag. While hunting with someone who is in the Shooter Stage, in the true sense of how it was described by the professors from Wisconsin, heed great caution, as a lot of gun fire in the woods can lead to safety concerns. I am a strong believer that taking a Hunter Education course prior to hunting for the first time would greatly reduce some of those safety concerns, and produce more responsible hunters right out of the gate.
Limiting Out Stage
This stage as described originally, states that while the hunter still likes to shoot a lot, there is a greater interest in filling every tag that they can get their hands on and doing so quickly. This, unfortunately, can lead to taking poor shots, and potentially injuring an animal, which is neither ethical nor responsible.
I think I went through this stage probably during my second and third seasons deer hunting. I had a rough first season, even though I did kill my first deer that year, I still felt like I had to prove to Chance that I could not only be a hunter, but I could be a successful hunter, who could fill all three tags, regardless of the size or age of the deer I was bagging. I knew I could shoot two does and one buck, with my Indiana Deer Bundle License, and that’s what I was going to do. By my third season I had bought my own rifle, a Marlin lever action .44 mag, just like the one I had borrowed from Chance the two previous Novembers. When I got the gun, I didn’t have the money to buy a scope. Chance made a deal with me, in that if I could kill a deer by shooting open sights, he would buy me a scope for Christmas that year.
The opportunity presented itself one evening while we were both out in the woods, sitting on opposite ends of the property. Three deer walked in, straightaway, and I shot one at 15 yards, which fell in its tracks. As soon as one of the other two circled back, I reached around my tree and shot it as well. This happened in a matter of seconds. I had just doubled up, and I was so proud I just about couldn’t stand myself. I had earned my scope, too.
Looking back on that situation now, I feel awful. I would have never taken that shot, on either deer today, with the experience and hunting “maturity” I have gained since then. It was a doe with two of her current year’s fawns. I shot her and her button buck offspring. All I was thinking about was filling my tags, no matter the size of the deer, and earning that scope, to prove I was a capable hunter to my boyfriend.
I am certainly not proud of that, but experiences like those, that we look back on with some amount of embarrassment today, teach us valuable lessons that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Thankfully, this stage didn’t last long for me, and truth be told, after taking the life of an animal, or multiple animals as it pertains to this stage, I think people move on to the next stage fairly quickly. Or at least the people with the best intentions do.
Now people are getting selective, and their success is determined by what kind of trophy their hunting season produces. For deer hunters, this means they live and die by their trail camera pictures, they work tirelessly on food plots and chasing after one particular deer for the life of that animal. They won’t shoot anything small and they manage their hunting property with strict rules for family and friends that might hunt with them. Some hunters will take trips across the country or even abroad seeking out the biggest, most unique game animal they can get their hands on. That, and only that, is what makes them feel successful.
I always felt fortunate to fill my tags, but the more I started paying attention to other hunters via social media and other outlets, I felt like I needed to produce some kind of trophy to further prove that I could hunt with the best of them.
Being a woman, there didn’t seem to be very high expectations that I could produce the bigger animals like my male counterparts. Chance never really cared, he is a meat hunter and that’s primarily it, but at the time, he had his very first buck above the fireplace, so I think he, at times, is drawn into the realm of searching for that big buck as well. Nonetheless, I put out trail cameras, I checked them religiously, I put feed out in the spring to see what made it through the winter, I scoffed at the little bucks and drooled over the bigger ones. There was a buck that I literally lusted after in 2013, which my neighbor ended up shooting, but ever since I got that deer on camera, I started thinking about trophy bucks.
Opening weekend of 2015, I was sitting on a field edge, in a double ladder stand on Chance’s dad’s property, hunting alone. Chance and his buddy were about six miles away hunting another farm. I was hearing shots coming from all over the countryside, which is pretty typical for Hendricks County on opening weekend. It’s ridiculous, but I was feeling angry that I hadn’t seen anything yet, at the crack of 8 a.m. on opening day. So ridiculous, looking back.
But suddenly, out of nowhere a huge doe came running in, her breath visible in the cold morning air. She was being chased, but I didn’t know where the buck was. I had already sat for almost 40 hours with a bow in my hand, prior to gun season opening, she was the biggest doe I had ever had the opportunity to shoot, and I was impatient. I shot her, she ran and dropped to the ground about 60 yards away in the woods. Shortly after, a buck ran through the woods, right to where that doe fell. I couldn’t see him clearly, I caught glimpses of antler and then brown fur, and not much else. After coaxing him to my stand with multiple snort wheeze calls, he appeared to be a huge bodied, 10-point buck that was bigger than anything I had ever seen through my scope. My trophy buck was standing right in front of me, it was happening and I was over the moon. I took the shot at approximately 15 yards and it was over.
I had a trophy animal that was going to solidify my place as a member of the hunting community. I was going to post all over social media, send a text to every person I knew, call my dad, send photos to my boss, and basically not let anyone get through that day without seeing my big trophy buck. Success was mine! Once again, I have learned so much, and what I value about deer hunting and what I consider a “trophy,” is far different now then just two short years ago. And that leads us to the next stage.
Generally, by now, hunting is no longer something to go out and do for fun from time to time, it has developed into a passion and one of the most important things in the hunter’s life. They have accumulated the newest gear, the best technology, and are trying to educate themselves daily, on how best to outsmart the animal. They care more about how the animal is taken, rather than how many tags they can fill during the season. The challenge is in the hunt. They spend countless hours looking for the best place to put a treestand, or a blind. They watch for, and study the patterns of the animals, and think of how best to connect with the animal they have picked out. Some will even make the hunt harder, intentionally, by switching from a rifle to a muzzleloader, or from a compound bow to a recurve. It’s all about the method in which the animal is taken.
After my first season hunting, I thought maybe I would like to hunt with a bow. Chance encouraged me to buy something cheap, in case I didn’t like it or couldn’t figure it out. He is right handed, while I am a lefty, so he didn’t feel he would be much help to me during the learning process. I wondered how much harder it would make deer hunting for me, or if I could even do it at all. It was hard then and five years later it is still hard. But like I stated above, it gives me more of a challenge and that is intriguing to me.
Another thing that has changed for me while in this stage, is that have added turkey hunting to my repertoire; talk about something difficult to teach yourself (Chance is not a turkey guy). But again, the challenge was the most intriguing part. I was fortunate enough to take my first turkey this year, but that was only after failing miserably for the three years prior.
I think for me, in this stage of being a hunter, it isn’t at all about just filling the tags anymore, it’s about technique and outsmarting the animal, on their playing field, up close and personal. My most recent mule deer hunt in Wyoming is a testament to that. I had the option of shooting a buck at just over 300 yards, but instead decided to stalk the animal by way of belly-crawling, butt-scooting and hiding in the tall grasses of a walk-in property, to close in on the animal for a much closer shot, by almost 100 yards. Notching my tag was the goal, but I felt the success came from the hunt itself, not solely the end result.
The final stage of being a hunter, according to this report, is one of basically just chilling out. It is said to come after many years in the field. The entire experience of hunting is valued over the filling of tags or seeking out trophy animals. There is a feeling of appreciation for the surroundings and watching nature do its thing. Taking new hunters out or hunting with old friends is the highlight of the experience, and there is more joy watching others be successful, than the success of oneself.
I have only been hunting for what is now seven seasons, but I truly feel I have landed in between the last two stages. Maybe that is because I started much later in life, I don’t really know. I have found myself hunting on the ground, without a blind in order to challenge myself further and become closer to the animals I hunt. I have passed on upwards of 12 deer this season due to them being does with fawns, or solely the fawns of the year, on their own, during the rutting season.
I have videoed or captured more pictures of deer this year than I have even thought about shooting. My best days hunting this year in Indiana were days that I never had a shot on an animal.
One example, is the last day of Indiana turkey season while hunting on a friend’s farm. I heard the tom gobbling, off in the woods, just out of sight. He came close a few times, but never came out of the woods. He soon moved deeper into the woods and I got up to see if I could lay eyes on him. I knew this was probably not a good tactic, but I wanted to see him with my eyes instead of just hearing him with my ears. I crept into the wood’s edge and hid behind a log. There he was, across a deep ravine, about 65 yards away, courting a hen. The sunlight was highlighting what seemed like only this one animal, of all the animals in the woods that day, like he was the star on center stage. I watched him strut, I watched him let out gobble after gobble and all I could do was sit there, staring in wonderment. I teared up just admiring the beauty of what was happening in front of me, for those eight or 10 minutes of that one day in May.
The second instance happened just a few weeks ago. I went for an all-day sit at a property I have permission to hunt in Parke County, which is about 40 minutes from my house. I found a brush pile and wedged myself inside of it, on the side of a hill, just 15 yards off of a well-worn trail. Over the course of 10 hours, I watched multiple deer, including does, fawns and bucks interact with each other. I patiently watched a really nice buck sleep for three hours, after he realized the doe he was following had no interest in him. I witnessed a fearless doe approach a mature buck and stand side by side with him, only to have her fawn approach and stand by her side, while she groomed him. I laughed when a small buck came into the picture later in the afternoon like a big stud, not knowing there was a much larger buck bedded near another doe nearby. The game of chase that ensued after the larger buck stood up was comical, but also very educational. I had a doe and fawn walk within seven yards of where I was sitting, just on the other side of my brush pile.
Just as I thought my day was over three turkeys came waddling down the hill, one almost tumbling head over feet down the steep grade. All three jakes walked past me, headed off to roost I assumed, not noticing that I sat just 15 yards from their path, videoing them all the way. I never drew my bow, nor did I have anything come close enough for me to do so, but it was the best day I have ever had in the deer woods. So far.
These stages are different for everyone. The time spent in each one is different as well, as we are all finding our way as hunters, at different paces. There is no right stage to be in and there is nothing wrong with skipping a stage altogether.
But in my heart of hearts, I am thankful that I have found myself settling into the latter stages, as I feel like it makes my love affair with hunting so much more satisfying, and I feel as though I am doing right by the animals whom I spend so much time with in the woods each fall and spring. I am happier for other people’s successes than I am for my own. I want to give more than I take, I want to learn all I can about conservation and what it means to be a steward and advocate for these animals. I have a strong desire to bring new hunters into the fold, and help them have the opportunity to experience all I have in the out of doors, in hopes that they too, will navigate through these stages and all of the learning experiences that come with them.
My wish is that you all find your way along this journey, but I believe you will come to realize, that while all of these stages are important, the final stage is where you find the most joy.