by T. Edward Nickens
A little bit here and a little bit there. You keep your eyes open. That’s how you learn. You pick up a new knot from a new fishing buddy, or try a decoy trick you saw in a magazine. You make mistakes. And if you’re lucky, like I was, there will be a mentor along the way. An unselfish someone who cares enough about you that he wants you to know everything he’s ever learned.
That’s the good thing about hunting and fishing and camping: You can never know it all, and you’re never as good as you could be.
Over the years, I’ve learned from the best—mentors, buddies, guides, story subjects, and some of the most dedicated outdoor-skills competitors this world has ever seen. Put them together, and they’ve got a half dozen different ways to shoot a double or cast a fly rod. Here’s the best of what I’ve learned from them, and on my own, in 35 years of hunting and fishing. And this is what all sportsmen should do with such knowledge: Pass it on.
The best trick I ever taught my dog was to sit and stay for practically forever. A quiet, rock-solid sitter will be quickly forgiven for other minor trespasses.
A Predator’s Pace
My earliest hunting memory was of a squirrel hunt in the snow. We found where a fox was trailing a rabbit, and I saw how the fox placed its hind foot almost on top of the front track to make a single line of tracks and preserve energy. That’s called perfect stepping, and I’ll never forget how the trail ended perfectly in a scuffle of dirt and leaves and blood-speckled snow.
My Do-It-All Winch
A come-along can haul your ATV up a steep hill, free a stuck truck, winch a boat to a trailer when the trailer winch fails, help straighten a smashed gunwale, and get a deer out of the creek gully. Mine is stashed behind the truck seats, so I always have it.
Fear the Chigger
Translate a Quack
When I asked a world-champion duck caller what he said into his call, he simply turned the call around and blew a routine with the call backward. I could hear every grunt and tone change. Beautiful.
Know Your Guns
It’s important to know guns, period. You never know when a buddy is going to hand you his shotgun while he tightens his bootlaces. Know how to check the safety and chamber on every conceivable action—bolt, semiauto, pump, double gun, double-action handgun, six-shooter, whatever.
Practice the Long Shot
On an archery antelope hunt, I missed twice at long range. I finally took a nice goat at 37 yards, but I’ve learned to practice shooting my bow at long ranges. At 50 yards and better, little technique snafus show up. Fixing them tightens groups even at shorter ranges.
The Elk of Your Dreams
Elk antlers in velvet can grow an inch a day, which makes sleep impossible throughout the summer if you have drawn a Montana elk tag.
When jump-shooting ducks, how many times have you closed the last 20 yards at a glacial pace only to find that the ducks were swimming just out of range? That’s because they heard you when you were 40 yards from the pond edge. When you’re sneaking on ducks—or squirrels or turkeys—stalk them from the truck. Start getting quiet and sneaky long before you think you need to.
Eat it Now
Don’t save wild game for later, for someone else, or for something special. Grill a chunk of tenderloin or fry a slice of deer heart right now, while everything is still earthy and your face still smarts from the briers and the sound of the gun is ringing in your ears.
Be Your Own Rangefinder
Know the length of your normal stride. It’s fun to test your range-estimation skills, and my stride comes out to 39 inches, from heel to tip of toe. I know that every 10 strides equals approximately 32.5 feet, so I call that 11 yards.
Don’t Fart in Your Waders
That gas is lighter than air—and it can only go up.
Share your Bounty
Share your kill. I take a wild-game appetizer to every party and label it proudly. (O.K., the big bowl of “Rudolph chili” at a church Christmas dinner might have been over the top.) But I give game away to anyone curious about the taste of a duck. I’m a one-man public relations team for eating wild meat.
The Semiauto Sin
Boy, did I screw this one up. I turned my son loose on a semiautomatic .22 rifle way too early. Nearly ruined him for a single-shot bolt action, which is the best tool for learning rifle-shooting mechanics.
The Forgivable Sin
No, I can’t move the gun slowly when the deer is kinda sorta looking my way.
Whistle While You Hunt
It worked for me once, so I know that running whitetail bucks will stop at a loud whistle often enough to make it worth whistling every time.
It’s the Little Things
Once I spread a bunch of bird-feeder thistle seed in front of a two-man deer stand. My young daughter couldn’t believe all the birds she saw a couple of mornings later. And she couldn’t wait to go hunting with me again.
Make the First Shot Count
Keith Gleason taught me how to hunt. He was a Marine sharpshooter just back from Vietnam. I was 13 years old and knew next to nothing, but when we hunted groundhogs with his heavy-barreled .22/250, we traded shots, one for one. I sometimes whined—to myself—that it wasn’t fair to be held to the same standards as a sniper. But I learned early to make every shot count. I have a feeling that was Keith’s plan all along.
Let Kids Have Their Fun
Other parents might disagree with me, but I’ve learned to let my young son blow the duck call whenever he wants, stretch whenever he feels like it, and play Angry Birds in the deer stand whenever he’s bored. I want him to think that hunting with his dad is the best thing ever. The other stuff can come later.
Listen to This
I buy a bunch of cheap foam earplugs the first day of the season, every year, and stash a pair in every place imaginable—shell bags, daypacks, coat pockets, wader pockets, my binoculars case. I once hunted ducks with a guy who held a foam earplug in his mouth like a cigar stub, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. The older I get, the smarter that seems.
Wake Up Earlier
Much as I love to hunt, I hate getting up. But I’ve learned to get up 15 minutes earlier, and stay in the woods 15 minutes longer. The missed winks are more than made up for by not having to rush to get settled in before shooting light. And that last quarter hour is equal to 900 seconds—900 extra chances for something amazing to happen.
Just Fold Already
Don’t bluff a Cajun in camp poker. Even if he’s only 8 years old.
Take No Hunt for Granted
My most memorable hunting partner was George Bolender, a quadriplegic bowhunter who hunted from a wheelchair outfitted with a bow holder his buddies jury-rigged from an electric screwdriver. He released arrows by puffing into a tube. He got no more than one shot a day. “Don’t ever forget that it’s a privilege,” he told me.