The Best Hunters Go on Instinct. Here’s How to Sharpen Yours


Among the many highly successful hunters I know, one thing they all have in common is great hunting instincts. Yes, they also have sharp skills and deep knowledge, but more importantly, they can recognize an opportunity and seize it without hesitation.

They have an ability to anticipate what’s going to happen, and they’re able to react without over-analyzation. Often, this results in meat in their freezer when others would go home empty-handed.

The good news here is that we can all sharpen our hunting instincts, however, this is no easy task.

Watching Instincts Develop

Hunting instincts play a role in a variety of different ways, but shooting scenarios are the most obvious. Watching the development of my oldest son, who I’ve taken grouse hunting since he was three years old, has taught me a lot about a hunter’s instinct. I started him on a Savage Rascal .22, and he first learned to shoot with a red dot scope.

He’s progressed to become proficient with iron sights and magnified optics, but his grouse gun is still that little .22. He often acccompanies me to the shooting range and will constantly pepper my 100-yard targets with .22 holes. He thinks it’s a gas. As staple of boyhood, he got his first Red Ryder this past spring, and we set up a backyard range for him, where he tears through bottles of BB’s ventilating aluminum cans suspended by strings. But this is more than just fun and games, he’s learning every time we shoot.

My son has always been a quick learner, and now he’s becoming a crack shot before my eyes. He’s been shooting red squirrels with his small hand-me-down compound bow since he was five. A few days ago, we followed a pair of grouse into a black spruce thicket, and when I could see a bird ducking and bobbing his way toward a tiny window through the tangled mess of dry, gray limbs and alder branches, I set the tripod we use and pointed his rifle toward the opening.

He quickly got behind the rifle and had only a couple seconds before the bird walked into the opening. Bang! The grouse dropped. We continued, and he got another one in the same manner. It was our first grouse hunt in a while, and the first time I’ve seen him shoot with such determiningness. These weren’t lucky shots made in haste; they were intentional and accurate. He prepared quickly and took his opportunities as soon as they appeared.

We Aren’t Born with Hunter’s Instincts

I’d love to believe that the secret to being a great shot on wild game is simply flowing within the Freel family bloodline. And it’s nice to think that we all have hunting instincts and skills hardcoded into our DNA from ancient ancestors who chased down wooly mammoths with bows and spears.

But, unfortunately, that’s not how it works in the real world. Of course, some people have natural abilities (like keen vision or good hand-eye-coordination) that help them become better hunters, but a true hunter’s instinct isn’t something you’re born with. Hunting instinct is cultured and learned.

I’ve been crazy about hunting for as long as I can remember, but that didn’t mean I was always good at it. When I was 12 years old, my dad and I started calling coyotes together. I loved it, but I don’t remember killing a single coyote that first winter. Over several years, we got better, learning from each coyote we called in. We learned to predict what they were likely to do, we learned when to shoot and when to wait. As our experience and skills grew, so did our instinct for it.

We had to see a lot of hunts play out and we also mess up on a lot of coyotes before we really had the right instincts. All those experiences informed future hunts.

You Can’t Buy Instinct

The author’s son practices with open sights. Tyler Freel

Shooting animals ethically, effectively, and decisively, is a learned skill. That skill can’t be bought, and neither can good shooting instincts.

In the materialistic and hyper-marketed world, we live in, it’s easy to fall for the notion that you can buy yourself better results with better gear. While accurate rifles, quality ammunition, and precise optics do provide tangible benefits, they don’t mean shit if you don’t know how to use them. Competency takes lots of practice, and yes, some failure, too.

Based on the nature of many posts and conversations I’ve seen, I’d say it’s easy for many new hunters to be paralyzed by indecisiveness—afraid to just go, try, and even fail on their own. Many want to be told everything from where to go to which type of bootlaces they need to be using. The best advice is to simply get out there and learn as you go.

Likewise, even many experienced hunters put too much emphasis on gear and not enough emphasis on time in the field.

How to Develop a Hunter’s Instinct

The best route for developing a deadly and efficient hunting instinct is, quite simply, to spend a lot of time hunting. To get good at recognizing shot opportunities and to capitalize on them, you need to get many of animals in front of you. And to do that, you’ve got to spend serious time in the woods.

But range time matters too. I started my son out with a red dot scope because it made for one less complication to the shooting process, and he could see success and improvement. It made shooting fun. With thousands of repetitions, he’s become comfortable, quick, and determining in his shooting. When starting with iron sights this summer on his BB gun, he was frustrated and shaky, shooting off a bench. Now he can make those tin cans dance shooting offhand better than Chuck Connors. That snappy decisiveness translates to hunting.

Experienced hunters can sharpen their instinct by practicing with a shot process. This means executing the exact same steps in the same order before every shot (this gets written about a lot in archery, but it’s important for any type of shooting). Drilling a shot process might seem counter intuitive at first, because the whole point of going on instinct is to not think about it, right? That’s true, but first you’ve got to build solid fundamentals. By practicing with a shot process, you drill those fundamentals into your subconscious. Soon, you won’t be thinking about the steps in the process, you’ll do them automatically. When a shot opportunity presents itself on a hunt, you’ll shoot the exact same way you do in practice.

It’s amazing to watch son develop his skills and hunter’s instinct. But it’s important to remember that the focus of any hunt should never be only on killing something. After all, you’ll learn more from missed opportunities than successful ones. I know I must be patient and have him only take good opportunities and ethical shots, but more and more he’s recognizing those opportunities on his own.





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