Smokey Merkley

Smokey Merkley

There are a lot of shooting aids, including monopods, bipods, spotting scopes, sandbags, gun cradles, rangefinders, GPS, etc.

With the number of aids and gadgets available, many old-time hunters believe we are raising a new generation who have lost many of the essential skills that sportsmen need because they can’t function effectively in the field without their aids and gadgets. Some products are not necessary while others are a boon to the modern hunter, but none of them can really replace the woodscraft that our ancestors tried to hand down to us.

First of all, the basic shooting positions of standing, off-hand, kneeling, sitting and prone should still be mastered by anyone who wants to be successful at hunting. I have used all the positions in the field at one time or another as I tried to get into the most stable position circumstances would allow.

Scouting for game and determining how the game is moving through the area is essential if we want to have a good chance of finding game when we hunt.

The ability to navigate using a map of the area and a compass, or orienteering skills, are essential to keeping track of where we are in relation to where we determined during scouting trips where we could find game. Orienteering skills then let us determine the best way to get back to our vehicles with our game.

Many people each year get lost because everything looks the same after several hours in the backcountry, and they don’t have orienteering skills or didn’t bring a map and compass with them. Some compensate by having a GPS. However, a GPS costs quite a bit, and batteries can fail. It would be better to take both on your hunting trip and know how to use both methods.

Reading signs is another essential skill needed for hunting or just recognizing what is walking around the backcountry in the same area you are visiting. You can start by getting a book on animal and bird tracks, which will also probably show you how to recognize various wildlife by their scat. However, nothing can take the place of going into the backcountry with an experienced outdoorsman and have him point out what he looks for when reading signs. There is just so much trail cameras don’t tell you. They do take pictures though, if that is all you really wanted.

If you are planning to stay overnight in the wilderness, in addition to warm clothes, food and shelter, you should know at least three different ways to start a fire. You don’t need to leave the lighter at home, but you should know how to gather tinder, start a fire with one or two matches, know how to use common flashlight batteries to start a fire, use flint and steel and possibly learn to use a metal match. When you start to feel cold or if you become wet, knowing several ways to start a fire can keep you comfortable.

Why spend $270 to $700 on a rangefinder when you can be a rangefinder and fairly accurately determine the distance to a distant object or game if you are hunting? One of the first skills my father and uncles tried to teach me was estimating the range to my target. It takes some practice, but it is really fairly simple in theory. Besides, as a hunter you may not have time to use a rangefinder before game is gone. Carry a rangefinder if you want, but learn to quickly estimate range to take advantage of the small window you may have to get the shot off. Remember, batteries in rangefinders can become depleted, too.

I admit it, I love the telescopic sights on my .30-06 and .300 Weatherby rifles. But just in case, I take a rifle with iron sights with me on most hunting trips. Some telescopic sights have range-finding capability but are not as rugged as iron sights.

After a season of hunting, telescopic sights usually need to be re-sighted in due to being bounced around over jeep trails, hung on pack horses or simply losing one’s footing and falling as one hikes around the woods carrying a rifle.

Because sighting in again in the field will probably send game out of the area, I can at least go back to camp and retrieve my rifle with iron sights and meet up with the group and have a rifle I can use effectively out to 200 or 300 yards. However, it is essential to have the iron sights sighted in and know the ballistic characteristics of its cartridge. My .30-06 still retains it’s original iron sights, so if something happens to the telescopic sight, I can remove it and use the iron sights.

A knowledge of the essential old skills needed in the backcountry will make you more self-sufficient and will boost your confidence when you realize that no matter what obstacles you encounter, you will feel right at home.

Smokey Merkley was raised in Idaho and has been hunting since he was 10 years old. He was a member of the faculty of Texas A&M University for 25 years. There he taught orienteering, marksmanship, self-defense, fencing, scuba diving and boxing. He was among the first DPS-certified Texas Concealed Handgun Instructors. He can be contacted at