The information in this article is intended to be a guideline. Each state will vary somewhat, so be prepared to familiarize with the nuances of the state in which you plan to hunt.
Hunter Education Certificate
Before a state will issue you a license, they will require you to furnish proof of having completed an approved hunter education course. The hunter education course is a federal requirement, but its duration, its content and the mechanics of delivering it are largely left to the state issuing the certificate. The cost is nominal (I think mine was under $20 in 2006) and the information is truly invaluable. Many states are now offering online courses for this, but while I am a huge fan of online services in general, I would encourage you to take an in-classroom course instead. In my course, the instructor brought in at least a dozen firearms for us to examine and handle, and many of the people in the class were not beginners to hunting, and their information was useful. Plus, you might make contacts that will serve you well in the future.
The NRA maintains a list of the agencies for each state that administer the course. I encourage you to bookmark this page. An examination is usually conducted at the end of the course, and once you pass the exam, your certificate (often a wallet-sized card) is issued immediately. Once you have this certificate, you may acquire a license.
A hunting license is required by every state in the union (and most foreign countries as well). You must have a license for the state in which you wish to hunt, not your state of residence. Most licenses are valid for a year, though lifetime hunting licenses are often available.
In every state I know of, the hunter is required to physically possess his license during the hunt. You may not leave it at home, nor in your hotel, nor even in the vehicle you use to get to your hunting location. Please do not underestimate the importance of this; it’s not like a driver’s license, for which failure to possess is a relatively minor offense. If you’re found hunting without your license, you are subject to some laws that are quite strict and punishing. In addition to a heavy fine, your gun(s) and possibly your vehicle are subject to confiscation, and jail time is not out of the question. Find a way to ensure that it’s with you at all times.
Tags and stamps
In addition to your hunting license, in most cases, you will be required to purchase a tag or stamp for the specific game animal you intend to hunt. You will find that without these tags and stamps, the license itself doesn’t let you do much. Think of the license as a car, and the tags and stamps as gas in the tank.
Tags are the vehicle by which the state manages its game population. Every year or so, the state estimates its game population and compares the estimate to their desired numbers. When and where excess population is found, the state will issue enough tags to effectively reduce excess population through the hunters. In some states (like California), the state is divided into zones. You may only hunt in the zone(s) for which you possess tags.
You will find that many species are in high demand compared to their numbers in the state. In these instances, you will have to apply for the tag in advance, and the state will conduct a drawing to award a limited number of tags. If you wish to go elk hunting in California, for example, you’re going to have to get lucky, as there are far more hunters wishing to harvest elk than there is available game. Some states will give somewhat preferential treatment to those who have unsuccessfully applied for tags in years past, but this is no guarantee of getting a tag in the future. Some people have waited many years to successfully draw a tag for their coveted game species.
Once you harvest your animal, you must immediately attach the tag to it. Most tags come with a bit of wire to twist around an ear or tooth. Part of the tag will be detached and you’ll fill out information about the hunt (the where and when, mostly) and send it in to the state.
Stamps are a somewhat less rigorous method of controlling population, and are usually used for bird hunting. You’ll attach the stamp to the back of your license. The stamp entitles you to hunt the particular species, but you still must observe seasonal and bag limits for the species. Consult your state agency for the details on this.
Why do I need a license?
In short: it’s the law. There’s a word for hunting illegally: poaching. The penalties are draconian, and if caught poaching, you will find yourself with many people unhappy at you: the state, the landowner, and other hunters. Please don’t even think about letting this happen to you. Licensing exists for many good reasons and hunting without one will easily make you a pariah in the sport.