Getting started hunting, a beginner’s guide

Never hunted? Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it may appear at first glance. Hunting rules can be intimidating to a novice because they’re so comprehensive. Idaho has more than 500 species of wildlife, and many are pursued by hunters during separate seasons, in different places and by different hunting methods (rifle, bow, shotgun, etc.).

That means a lot of hunting rules, but don’t be overwhelmed.

Basics to Hunting

What you need

A hunting license. They are available at Idaho Fish and Game offices, license vendors (sporting goods stores, tackle shops, department stores, etc.), online, or by calling (800) 554-8685.

A license alone allows you to hunt many species, particularly small game and many upland game birds. For example, a hunting license is all you need for cottontail rabbits, forest grouse, California and bobwhite quail, chukar and gray partridge, pheasant and more. Hunting turkeys, which is popular for beginners, requires a separate tag that can be purchased at the same places you buy licenses.

If you’ve never bought a hunting license in Idaho, or any other state, and you’re 8 years of age or older, you can participate in Idaho’s “Hunting Passport” program. It allows you to a buy a hunting license for the discounted price of $1.75, and it is good for one calendar year. You must hunt with a mentor, who must be age 18 or older and possess a valid Idaho hunting license.

Buy a License Hunting Passport

What about hunter education?

If you were born on or after Jan. 1, 1975, you are required to pass a hunter-education course, except for one-time participation in the Hunting Passport program. Hunter-education courses are available through classroom instruction and online courses.

Hunter Education

Requirements beyond a hunting license

If you’re interested in more bird hunting, you can add opportunity by buying a federal migratory game bird validation, which allows you to hunt mourning doves and other migratory bird species. You can also buy a federal waterfowl stamp (required for ages 16 and older), which allows you to hunt ducks, geese and other waterfowl.

Hunting Quarry

Hunting big game

In addition to a hunting license, you need a separate permit, commonly known as a tag, for each big game species, such deer, elk, bear, pronghorn, etc. If you plan to hunt big game with archery equipment or a muzzleloader, you will need permits for those weapons, and you may also need a bowhunter-education course.

Hunter Education

Where to hunt?

Nearly two-thirds of Idaho is public land, nearly all of which is open to hunting. Fish and Game owns and/or manages 32 Wildlife Management Areas in Idaho that range from 275 acres to 85,000 acres. WMAs are often good places to start hunting. It is free to hunt there, except where pheasants are stocked, which requires a WMA permit.

Fish and Game also leases about 375,000 acres of private land through its Access Yes! Program, which pays private landowners to allow public access for hunting and fishing. For details on WMAs and Access Yes!, follow these links.

Access Yes! Wildlife Management Areas

There are vast amounts of Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other public lands throughout the state that are home to many species of game. Many private landowners will allow you to hunt their lands, but always ask permission before you hunt there.  

How should I start?

Upland game birds are a good first quarry. They are well distributed throughout the state, and in most cases, all you need is a hunting license and a shotgun. To learn more about them and where they live, see page 8 of the 2014-15 upland rules booklet.

Upland Bird Regulations [PDF download]

Hunting big game

Hunting deer, elk and other large animals tends to be more challenging, but it’s still within reach of novice hunters. Most big game hunting takes place during fall general seasons, which are open to anyone with a license and general season tag for that animal. Controlled hunts are restricted to those who drew a special tag during a controlled hunt drawing, and most drawings take place in the spring.


Deer are Idaho’s most popular big game for hunters. Mule deer and/or white-tailed deer are found in every part state, and there are general hunting seasons in most areas.

Hunters who pursue antlerless deer (does) typically have a higher success rate than those who hunt antlered deer (bucks) for the simple reason does vastly outnumber bucks. However, antlerless hunting is not allowed in all hunting units. For an interactive map of hunting units, use the Idaho Hunt Planner Map Center.

Idaho Hunt Planner Map Center

As a rule of thumb, the farther north you go, the higher ratio of whitetails to mule deer you find. Whitetails are most abundant in hunting units 1 through 21 in Northern and Northern/Central Idaho (north of the Salmon River). Those units typically offer the most generous either-sex deer hunting.

Southern Idaho is predominately mule deer country, and there are fewer antlerless hunting opportunities, except for youth hunters (ages 17 and under). However, there are many controlled hunt opportunities for antlerless mule deer, which you apply for in the spring.

Controlled Hunt Information

Deer hunters have the option of a “Regular” season tag, which allows them to hunt both mule deer and white-tailed deer, but typically only during October (dates vary in different hunting units). A “White-tailed deer” tag limits hunters to harvest whitetails only, but in many hunting units, offers a longer and later hunt during prime November hunting season.


These are among Idaho’s most prized game animals, and they are challenging to hunt. Statewide success rates for elk hunting is typically between 20 and 25 percent. Part of the reason for that is elk populations are smaller than deer populations, and for the most part, elk eschew populated areas and where there are lots of roads, traffic and easy access. Elk are also big animals, which means getting one out of the woods is a chore.

But elk hunting is among the most exciting of all hunts, and the antlers of a mature bull elk are an impressive trophy. A single elk also provides hundreds of pounds of lean, organic, tasty meat.

Like deer, hunting for antlerless elk (cows), typically has a higher success rate than for antlered elk (bulls). Idaho Fish and Game offers general and controlled elk hunts during fall. You apply for controlled hunts in the spring.

General season elk hunting is more restrictive than deer hunting. Elk hunters must select which “elk zone” they want to hunt. The state is divided into 28 elk zones that consist of one to nine hunting units.

Elk hunters typically must also choose between an “A” or “B” tag for each elk zone. The “A” tag typically offers more opportunity for archery and/or muzzleloader hunting, as well as the opportunity to take a cow elk during early and late seasons. The “A” tag provides less opportunity during the October “any weapon” season, usually hunters can take spike bulls only.

The “B” tag is typically geared toward October “any weapon” season for bull elk, but has less opportunity for early/late season hunts with archery or muzzleloaders and fewer opportunities for cow elk.

After the Hunt

Processing game

An integral part of hunting is harvesting and properly processing meat. Whether a bird or big game, most game animals are excellent to eat, including some you might not expect, such as bears and mountain lions.

Processing game takes a little practice, but it’s easy to learn. Processing is different between birds and big game because you don’t pluck an elk, but processing all game includes three common steps: eviscerate (gut) the animal as quickly as possible, keep it clean and keep it cool.

Because birds are smaller and cool more quickly than larger animals (depending on the weather), you might leave them whole until you get home. You also have the option of plucking or skinning before gutting them, or gutting while in the field, which cools them more quickly.

Big game animals must be gutted and skinned as quickly as possible and hung to cool. Medium-sized animals, such as deer or pronghorn can left whole when hung and skinned to cool. Larger animals, such as elk and moose, are typically skinned and quartered in the field before hanging and cooling.

Hunters should always go to the field with what they need to process animals, such as knives, game bags, coolers, extra water, etc. There are many books, videos and websites devoted to processing wild game, and cooking it as well.  Do some homework before you go hunting so you understand the process.


Why should I try hunting?

Hunting is about much more than killing animals. It’s spending time in their environment and intensively learning about wildlife through observation. You will experience nature on a deeper level when hunting, and probably come away with a greater appreciation for the animals you’re hunting.

Hunting is often a team effort, which makes it a very social activity in which all members of the family can participate. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to get outdoors during beautiful times of year and get into places you might otherwise not go unless you were hunting.

What if I decide I don’t want to shoot an animal? There’s no shame in it. When you get close enough to an animal to make that decision, it will be a very exhilarating and rewarding experience regardless of whether you pull a trigger or release an arrow. That experience is what attracts people to hunting and keeps many of them pursuing it for a lifetime.

Chukar and shotgun, cc-by Roger Phillips
All rights reserved.
Chukar and shotgun, Courtesy Roger Phillips
Chukar with shotgun. Photo credit: © Roger Phillips. Used by permission.

CJ Strike WMA Sign, cc-by Roger Phillips
All rights reserved.
CJ Strike WMA Sign, CC-BY Roger Phillips
CJ Strike WMA sign. Photo credit: © Roger Phillips. Used by permission.

Hunter in Sunset, cc-by Roger Phillips
All rights reserved.
Hunter in Sunset, cc-by Roger Phillips
Hunter in sunset. Photo credit: © Roger Phillips. Used by permission.