In the last 125 years, we’ve shared countless outdoor skills that’ve helped readers hunt smarter, catch more fish, and simply have a ball in the wild. To keep that tradition alive, we’ve put together this new batch of killer tips from today’s leading experts.
1. Use Trail Cameras to Track a Snow Buck
Using trail cameras doesn’t make it any easier to close the distance on a gnarly big-woods buck in the snow, but they can help you figure out where to start. In the Adirondacks, Adam Arquette of Whitehall, New York, uses a systematic, years-long dragnet of trail cameras to dial in on which woods hold big bucks and which ones don’t. By keeping a half dozen cameras in the same place year after year—he has two he hasn’t moved since 2013—he’s built a database that helps him figure out which locations are most likely to hold deer at specific times during the season.
“I’m patterning specific locations instead of patterning specific deer,” Arquette explains. “I want to know where big whitetail bucks typically go, so I can hunt an area that attracts multiple mature deer instead of just one big buck.”
He starts by scouting along cedar swamps, spruce bogs, and wet drainages for signpost rubs, typically black ash trees that can hold rubs as old as 20 years. He’ll hang a camera there or at a primary scrape location, one that tends to be used year after year. Then he lets the data build. Arquette might not pull the camera cards till the spring. But over the seasons, very specific patterns emerge.
“There might be one spot with a single picture of a monster deer, but another spot with half a dozen good bucks. Tracking deer in the snow is an odds game, so I go to where I think there’s a better chance of finding a good track.”
Given the low deer densities in these big northern woods, being able to see bucks is a huge mental boost. “Having a big buck on camera year after year gives me the confidence and motivation to keep going when you might not even see a deer track for a mile.”
The approach has helped Arquette score consistently on big North Woods bucks, but he’s convinced it will help hunters in other areas as well. It’s uncanny, he says, how consistently large bucks show up in a specific area on the same days season after season. “Year after year, big bucks show up at exactly the same place within a two- to three-day period. Moon phase doesn’t seem to matter. Weather doesn’t affect it. I think you could pattern locations like this in a lot of areas.”
2. Tame Recoil and Stay on Target
I’ll take an itsy-bitsy piece of the blame for my boy’s whiffing on his only-chance deer last year. I should have seen it coming. I figured he knew better. But a lot of hunters don’t know better, and a lot of hunters whiff just like Jack did: He placed the rifle fore-end directly on the shooting rail, and the gun jumped off the hard surface with the recoil, spoiling the shot. No venison soup for Jack.
Bracing a rifle is Shooting 101, but you need to cushion the gun’s fore-end. F&S shooting editor John B. Snow says a better way of bracing a rifle has emerged: It tames recoil, gives you a clearer view of what happens with your shot, and keeps you on target if you need to fire a second round. “This method gives you a much better sense of where the shot went,” Snow says. “And the reticle falls right back to its original position, so you can reacquire the target so much faster.”
Snow uses a portable sandbag as a rifle rest, but you can get by with a folded vest or jacket. With the fore-end on the rest, place the gun’s butt closer to your body’s centerline instead of in the cup of the shoulder. You want to be as square to the gun as possible. In this position it’s critical not to put excessive cheek pressure on the side of the gun, so be aware of that.
Next, place your off hand on top of the scope, with the fatty heel of the thumb on the top turret, or the side parallax-adjustment turret if the scope has one. Press down very slightly. Now, when you pull the trigger, the gun’s recoil is absorbed by both your hand and your shoulder, each of which guides the gun backward in a straight line.
3. Rig a Decoy Spreader
We’d all like to think that what comes out of the working end of our duck call is irresistible. But much of the time, alas, our best duck call is a jerk cord. Add a decoy spreader to the cord, and you’ve got a tempting display of quacker action that can turn greenheads a half mile away. Decoy spreaders separate the decoys using a hub-and-spoke system, but the wimpy line winders and cheap jerk cord that come with them are a mess. Rig this DIY system with a supercharged anchor and jerk cord, and you can quickly create a scene of splashing, diving, and ripple-producing dekes. Deadly.
- Camouflage spray paint
- 3-pound collapsible canoe anchor
- Mason’s line winder
- 6 feet of ½-inch black bungee cord
- 4 feet of lashing cord
- 3 small carabiners or S-clips
- A decoy spreader (Motion Ducks and Mojo Outdoors make them)
- 200 feet of braided nylon decoy cord
- Spray-paint the anchor and the line winder.
- Create loops in each end of the bungee cord: Bend a few inches of the end of the bungee over and use the lashing cord to secure it tightly to the running cord. Attach a carabiner or S-clip to each end. Clip one end to the anchor, the other to the decoy spreader.
- Attach the decoy cord to the line winder, spool the winder, and tie a carabiner or S-clip to the end of the line.
- To deploy, attach decoys to spreader, toss the anchor, connect the decoy line to the spreader, and run the line to your blind.
4. Cook Wild Game Cajun Yakamein
Ramen noodles aren’t just a dorm-room staple. A 25-cent brick of wheat flour, sodium, and MSG has fueled many a backcountry elk hunt—but there’s an easier, healthier, and tastier way to put on a quick, hearty feed in the woods. Yakamein is a New Orleans mashup noodle soup staple devised by Chinese immigrants in the Big Easy. This version keeps the Cajun seasoning and the street-food vibe, but adds whatever wild game you have on hand, plus a few easy-to-pack ingredients.
At home: Pack a handful of spaghetti, about the width of a golf ball, a few green onions, a hard-boiled egg, one beef-bouillon cube, and 6 ounces of slow-cooked and shredded game meat into Ziploc bags. Add a couple packets each of ketchup, hot sauce, and soy sauce, and pack your favorite shaker of Cajun spices.
In the field: Cook and drain the spaghetti, reserving 1 cup of water. Bring water back to a boil, then add beef bouillon cube, meat, and a few hearty shakes of Cajun seasoning. Stir in one packet each of ketchup and soy sauce; save the others for additional seasoning if desired. To serve, pour meat-and-broth mixture over noodles and top with a halved boiled egg and chopped green onion. Season with hot sauce to taste.
5. Spincast for Tuna
Trolling for tuna has long been a saltwater staple, but stand-up spincasting for these bluewater beasts is piscatorial warfare. “Drop a big popper 20 feet from a whale and the tuna just smash it,” says John McMurray of One More Cast Light Tackle Charters in New York City, who helped pioneer the two-footed tactics and gear for whipping 200-pound tuna with a spinning rod. “It’s like somebody dropped a piano in the water. Everybody screams as the fish takes 200 yards of line out before you can get the motor started. It’s a complete adrenaline dump.”
McMurray gears up for battle with heavy popping rods that have soft tips for throwing 4-ounce plugs but are strong enough “to put the screws on a 200-pound fish you’ve been beating on for two hours,” McMurray says. He fishes high-quality reels with smooth, 30-pound drags. “These tuna will expose every flaw in your tackle,” he says. “A nick in your line, a drag that sticks—the fish is gone.” He uses large poppers such as Nomad’s Chug Norris, with oversize cupped faces that push a lot of water.
“And it’s almost counterintuitive how you fish,” he explains. “You make these long casts, and work the lure super slow. Do a long sweep with the rod tip—the bait goes underwater and moves back and forth. Then reel in the slack as the bait bobs to the surface and just sits there for a 2- to 4-second pause. Ninety percent of the time, the tuna smash on the pause,” McMurray says. “And you are in for some beautiful chaos.”
6. Hunt Giant Brown Trout
Forget chunking Woolly Buggers into deep pools. Brian Wise of Fly Fishing the Ozarks hunts down the biggest fish in the stream with articulated flies the size of a squirrel and burly gear that can handle the blows. “We’re looking for the schoolyard bully,” he says. “He doesn’t want you in his area, and if you show up, something’s going to happen. And when it’s an eat, the whole world just blows up in front of you.”
The tackle: These articulated flies can reach 10 inches or bigger, with swimming actions like hard baits. Look for patterns like Wise’s Knucklehead, Blane Chocklett’s Game Changer, or the (UN) Holy Diver from Andreas Andersson. In big rivers, Wise wields an 8-weight rod with one of three lines: an intermediate, a T-3, or a T-6. Integrated streamer heads, Wise says, have made this game possible.
The approach: The point is no longer simply to get a fly to the bottom, or strip the streamer blindly back to the boat. You want to actually swim the fly, and let it stop, start, dart, and turn. Look for rocks, ledges, or other structure you can work the fly around or under, or even stall it in a strategic place. “I typically strip 15 to 18 inches of line with a very crisp stop at the end,” Wise explains. “That doesn’t change much. What changes is the cadence. Pay attention to what’s in front of the fly, so you can stop, start, pause, and otherwise swim it exactly where you want it. Then the crazy action of these big flies will do the rest.”
7. Rent a Llama for a Backcountry Trek
You can feed, love, and nurture a pack mule for years on end, and it might still just as soon drop a load down your leg than haul your pots and pans. Not so with a backcountry llama, with its ancestral history of happily toting the loads of Incas despite being occasionally sacrificed to the gods. It takes years of experience and know-how to safely handle a mule or packhorse in the backcountry. It only takes about four hours of in-person training to get up to speed with a llama. Renting llamas for backcountry travel is niche, but it’s growing, says Beau Baty of Idaho’s Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas. And for good reason. “You don’t have to babysit llamas,” Baty says. “They won’t buck you off. One guy with two llamas is a common setup. You can put 10 gallons of water on one and all your gear on the other, and for 10 days you won’t have to look for a drop of water. They can carry fishing rods and elk quarters. You can go farther and deeper and stay out longer. That all translates into more success.”
Baty’s Ccara llamas are bred from a strain of Inca-bred llamas that are bigger, taller, and tougher than most llama breeds—but just as docile. In a half day, he can teach a person who’s never laid an eye on a camelid to halter, saddle, pack panniers, and feed, water, and care for trail llamas.
And there’s another benefit: companionship. If you’re an animal person, you’re gonna love a little trail time with a llama. They’re right there at your shoulder. They like to be talked to and encouraged. “You don’t have to cuddle them like a cat,” says Baty. “But once they feel like they’re your buddy, they want to work with you, not for you. There’s a really symbiotic relationship.”
8. Swim a Spybait in Crystal Clear Lakes
Catching suspended fish in clear water is the angling equivalent of bowhunting pronghorns on a pancake-flat prairie. They know you’re coming. You can’t close the distance. They have every advantage. Which is why the super-techie technique called spybaiting, which was developed by Japanese anglers, is so gratifying. Using light lines, anglers cast specialized small swimbaits outfitted with tiny propellers, small, sharp treble hooks, and a ballast that allows them to sink quickly in a horizontal position. Tournament angler and Jenko Lures owner Coleton Jennings developed a spybait downsized so it’s just as attractive to big crappies as it is to largemouth and smallmouth bass, and he’ll tell anyone who asks: This will change your fishing game. Here’s how it’s done.
The cast: Spybaiting works best with long casts. Set up at your maximum casting distance, and fire away. Most spybaits sink about 1 foot per second, so count down till the lure reaches the depth where you’ve marked fish or where you think the fish are holding.
The retrieve: Work the lure slow and steady. That makes the swimbait shimmy in the water with a side-to-side wiggle and roll that drives fish crazy. “Ninety percent of spybaiting is that slow, steady retrieve,” Jennings says. “Don’t pause. Don’t speed up.”
The hookset: When a fish strikes, things can get a little crazy. “You have to be careful about those small hooks so they don’t pull out or bend,” Jennings says. “Keep your drag loose with that light line and play them out. But honestly, that’s why it’s so much fun.”
9. Make a Micro Swedish Candle
There’s no end to the parade of gimmicky fire-starting aids out there, but this one costs nothing, plus it’s easy to make and a cinch to pack. And it works. It’s a miniature riff on the traditional Swedish candle—a log split into four quarters, stood up on end, stuffed with newspaper and rags, and lit to provide a tall, long-burning fire. This model isn’t built for the long haul, but it produces tall fire-starting flames while keeping the critical early blaze raised above the wet ground.
Cut it: Use a chainsaw to cut a 1-inch-deep cross channel into the end of a 5-inch-diameter log. Widen the channel slightly with the saw, making it about twice the width of the saw blade. Then slice a 2-inch-thick disk from the end of the log. Repeat this process for additional candles.
Light it: In the field, fill the channels with fire-starting materials such as Tinder-Quik or dry natural materials and light. Feed with dry, split, finger-thick sticks.
10. Teach a Dog to Hunt Sheds
A growing number of owners are training their hunting partners to find sheds. Amy Kuchenbecker, a trainer and owner of Blue Clay Kennels in Kimbolton, Ohio, and her husband, Scott, started shed hunting with dogs in 2012. Within three years she’d quit her day job and turned full-time shed-dog trainer, and Scott was instrumental in writing the guidelines for the UKC Elite Shed Dog Series. Here’s their basic program.
The initial phases are little different from standard retriever training: Use a check cord to prevent breaking, place an antler 10 yards away in an area with little to no cover, and send the dog with a verbal cue. Most shed hunters say, “Find it!” or “Find the bone!” Use lots of praise and positive encouragement to reward the behavior.
The trick is to get the dog to hunt on her own, away from your side. Once the retrieve is ingrained, go on shed hunting hikes through open fields, food plots, and wooded areas. Stash a couple of sheds in a daypack and place them so the dog always has something to find. “Success builds success,” says Kuchenbecker.
To teach a dog to quarter, Kuchenbecker has the dog sit while she walks away at an angle, then commands the dog to come. “I’ll give a double whistle blast as I change directions suddenly,” she explains, “which conditions them to change directions when they hear the double whistle.”