Intergenerational knowledge transfer in hunting

by Feast of Assumption

One of the primary themes I write about is the intergenerational transfer of knowledge. Hunting is an interesting case: in the modern era, it’s practiced only 9 days per year. In this short season, enough information must be transmitted to enough people that the tradition will be preserved even if the patriarch doesn’t survive the next year. And nearly every hunting camp that you pass in the orange-dotted woods has executed this transfer successfully—I see many more successfully propagated hunting traditions than I see family businesses.


Knowledge Transfer Mechanisms:


Plenty of information (affectionately termed knowledge’) is easy to pass via book-learning. (What caliber of ammunition will be able to deliver enough force to take a particular quarry at a particular distance, and thus what rifles are suitable for hunting which quarry.)


What Samo Burja describes as tacit knowledge1 used to be hard to pass down, but has become easy with the Youtube Revolution.

And video transmission of some forms of tacit knowledge is splendidly effective. Letting novices watch a few videos of the field-dressing process before offering them a knife for the first time greatly reduces the instances of unpleasant smells produced by an unsure hand in an unfamiliar gut.

and Trad Again

But what makes a hunting party successful isn’t field dressing technique—it’s hunting technique2You can have the right rifle all day long, and you can be the slickest dresser in the county—but these do you no good if no deer passes in front of you and presents a clear shot.

And while a non-hunter might think deer appearance is stochastic, it isn’t. Deer behave in ways that are predictable when fully zoomed out. Deer are active at dawn and dusk, still during day and night”; this is simple enough to write down, convey across time and space. But where they’re traveling from and to, their preferred routes to take, are pattern-ful—but not in a way that can be shared outside of a specific ~200 acre ecosystem. When you know the land and the patterns, though, you can place yourself and your party members in the right spots. To a well-placed hunter, shots will present themselves.

The knowledge of how local deer move and live can only be transmitted by your hunting party interacting with those specific local deer, on that specific land, over decades.

A Description of the Knowledge

It may be intellectual dark matter,’ but I’m at least going to gesture at the shape of it.

In my state, there are three main forms of hunting discussed. The first is no longer practiced, but it still comes up regularly as a contrast object. The three happen to chunk neatly into our knowledge, tacit knowledge, hypercontextual knowledge’ categories.

  • still hunting: a nearly extinct technique because it requires a critical mass of unrelated people, usually on public land, walking and pausing, walking and pausing, waiting for deer. Occasionally you’ll flush a deer for another unknown hunter, occasionally another unknown hunter will flush a deer to you. This was a popular technique in my grandfather’s day, but since it’s not practiced anymore, if you were to try it, nobody would flush a deer to you, and any deer you flushed would go unnoticed. (Or, be noticed by someone in a tree stand who will never return the favor.) If still hunting were still practiced today, you wouldn’t need anything except a rifle, marksmanship, and patience to succeed.
  • stand hunting: popular because it can be practiced alone. Deer tend to travel at dawn and dusk, and remain bedded down or grazing during the day and night. Stand hunters will install stands in trees before hunting season, along known deer paths. Climbing the stand an hour before dawn to patiently wait for a deer to pass along the path, coming home for lunch, and returning to the stand an hour before dusk—this comprises hunting for the solo hunter. It can be learned from books and youtube, especially if you integrate local information from trailcams.
  • drive hunting: Posters” wait, alert, at geographic funnel points. Drivers” enter a stretch of woods and walk in formation, noisily, to startle bedded deer and send them into the waiting sights of the posters. 3

The benefits of drive hunting are plenty. You can hunt all day instead of being confined only to the natural movement hours of dawn and dusk. You enjoy more scenery, and while driving you keep warm from exertion. You harvest many more deer per hunter per year than even a well placed stand. Effectively, improving the design and execution of your drives allows the technique’ part of the equation to overwhelm the luck’ part. Since the goal of hunting is to put meat in the freezer, drive hunting is the clear winner for anyone who can execute it.

But you can’t execute a drive well unless you know your land’s geographic funnel points. Where can deer be funneled? Which hillsides do they like, which hillsides do they avoid? Where are their natural paths? These answers can be earned by walks in the woods in the springtime before leaves have crowded the view, if they weren’t handed down from your hunting party who were on the land before you. But you can’t learn everything in one year. A mast year4 for oaks drives different deer behavior than a no-acorns year will. Corn vs oats vs alfalfa on nearby farm fields will change your local herd’s browsing patterns. Even funnel points can change year to year—we have a drive where a poster stands on a ridge over a hill if ice hasn’t formed yet. But if ice has formed, the deer will charge across the lake. So in an early-ice November, our poster will stand at the edge of the bay.5

Coordinating A Hunting Party

This is a lot of knowledge. The mechanism for conveying it (the hunting party) has to be robust. The successful way I’ve seen this achieved is with a lot of built-in redundancy.

Cousins are invited. A mix of age ranges is a necessity. To succeed in the long term in the modern era, a hunting party has to be robust to members leaving and coming back. Oh no he started dating a vegetarian” is a real hurdle, as is they moved across country for a job.”

A successful hunting party will have invited people for an occasional day of hunting, to assess if they’d be a good long term fit. Success breeds more success, as everyone wants to be a member of a cheerful party with meat in its freezers. But hunting parties cannot turn into big tents.’ There is a correct size for a hunting party that varies with the land, but rarely exceeds 8. A hunting party wants its members to be safe, patient, cheerful, willing to do their share of gruntwork, and good shots.

A successful hunting party must also invite youth. A good patriarch will go out of his way to give the newest party members the most advantageous positions, so the kid can taste success early, whetting his or her appetite for future years. I’m not a patriarch so I’m only speculating, but I’d ascribe the definition of success shifting from how big is this trophy” to did my newest hunter get a shot at a deer?” being based largely in Honor and Pride at passing on enthusiasm for the traditions.

While bending over backward to show 12-year-olds the joys of the hunt, a hunting party (and family) must also be robust to slow starts. My dad is an avid hunter—but if he had forced me to hunt before I was interested, I would have hated it and never returned. Happily, I was allowed to loaf around and bake pies while the rest of the family hunted. When I eventually did develop an interest, I was able to start with a blank slate. I was able to celebrate the milestones of my first deer” and my first buck” when I earned them—I got no fewer congratulations at 31 than I would have gotten if I’d started at 12.

A Testament to Humanity

Considering all the folk arts which didn’t make it from 1400 to 2000, I’m in awe that hunting has survived and flourished. Against the odds—practiced 9 days a year instead of 365 (or even 52)—the fact that hunting parties assemble and keep the forest population balanced by harvesting wild meat fills me with pride in humanity. I feel honored to be receiving and carrying forth knowledge as a member of a successful hunting tradition.


  1. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that can’t properly be transmitted via verbal or written instruction, like the ability to create great art or assess a startup. This tacit knowledge is a form of intellectual dark matter. Examples include woodworking, metalworking, housekeeping, cooking, dancing, amateur public speaking, assembly line oversight, rapid problem-solving, and heart surgery. Before video became available at scale, tacit knowledge had to be transmitted in person, so that the learner could closely observe the knowledge in action and learn in real time — skilled metalworking, for example, is impossible to teach from a textbook. Because of this intensely local nature, it presents a uniquely strong succession problem: if a master woodworker fails to transmit his tacit knowledge to the few apprentices in his shop, the knowledge is lost forever, even if he’s written books about it.↩︎

  2. Not to short-change the role of luck and the role of determination! but assuming determination as a prerequisite, and luck as sometimes she’s with you, sometimes she’s not, but you’ve got to be in the woods to find out’.↩︎

  3. deer getting woken up in the middle of the day and driven into a waiting firing squad like, who the f*ck is this / flushing me at 10:46 — lambdaphagy↩︎

  4. a friend: what’s a mast year for oaks?”

    me: a year with huge acorn production”

    friend: why do trees have annual variable production of fruit/nuts?”

    me: to stymie the squirrels: if you have the same number of acorns every year you get a stable squirrel population that eats all the acorns. If you have very few one year, a bunch of squirrels starve. Then you produce extra the next year, there aren’t enough squirrels to eat them all, so some acorns last all winter and germinate.↩︎

  5. cue Prokofiev’s Battle on the Ice,” or even the whole of Alexander Nevsky (1938)↩︎