Over the past several years I’ve taught hundreds of people basic archery. Of all these students, only a handful are what you might call “naturals.” They follow instructions carefully, excel immediately, and break through to the next level at an astonishing pace.
But even these “naturals” eventually hit a wall: their accuracy plateaus, they fatigue out and eventually falter. At this point they often turn to me and ask, “What now? I’ve mastered the basics, but how can I hit closer to the bullseye?”
As their intrepid instructor, it’s my duty to guide these students to the next level. The problem I had early on–and what my students didn’t know–was that I too was wondering the same thing! When you’ve mastered the basics–that is, when you’re executing the shot sequence flawlessly and still coming up short–how do you increase accuracy?
Eventually I passed this question along to a famous national archer. When he didn’t respond I had no choice but to break down my own shot sequence to see where potential weaknesses could set in. Here’s what I discovered.
The thing that gets between the bow and the target isn’t the arrow, it’s you! Every archer, no matter how advanced, goes through slumps. A few missed shots can quickly erode confidence by allowing negative factors such as fatigue, discouragement, and desperation into the shot sequence. It’s a vicious cycle: the harder you try, the worse you do.
The Fatigue Factor
Physical fatigue is the greatest negative factor, especially for the beginner who hasn’t yet developed his back muscles. Just as he begins hitting close to the bullseye, he fatigues out. But there’s also mental fatigue, caused by trying to over-aim the arrow into the bullseye over and over again. Finally there’s spiritual fatigue, the byproduct of chronic misses. In the end, all this fatigue erodes confidence and creates a downward spiral.
Zen in Archery
From the Zen perspective, all suffering comes from desire. Desire, of course, is healthy and even necessary for any activity. But when desire turns into obsession, that’s when we suffer.
In archery you suffer from your very first shot. You strain physically under the weight of bow while your mind strains to aim the arrow. And when your arrow falls short of the bullseye, your spirit strains from the pangs of failure, resulting in desperation. In short order, your whole being–mind, body, and spirit–is strained!
I see this all the time. The student grasps another arrow, and another, faster and faster while simultaneously grasping for the bullseye which is rapidly becoming an impossible target. Very quickly he creates the bad habit of high-stress archery, and this can take a long time to fix.
So, what’s the fix? It’s simple.
Instead of drawing the bow to a state of high tension, we need to learn how to draw to a relaxed state. Drawing to a relaxed state removes your self from the shot by eliminating negative influences over the arrow. Hence, your bow shoots itself. In Zen archery, eliminating your “self” removes desire, which in turn removes stress and suffering.
The Relaxed State Exercise
Bring only one arrow with you on this exercise.
Set up five paces from a large, blank target.
Load the arrow.
Stand up straight and spread your weight evenly between your feet.
Grasp the string firmly and draw to your face while taking a deep, deep breath.
At full draw, look up and away from the bow. Look at the sky and the clouds and the trees. Breathe out, and back in again. Feel the strength of your body as it overpowers the scrawny bow. Forget the bullseye; no one cares if you hit it anyway! Say to yourself, “I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Now let down the draw smoothly; don’t shoot the arrow.
Catch your breath.
Repeat the process, only this time, when you’ve reached your highest state of relaxation, release the arrow. Don’t aim at the target. Just relax your shooting hand until the shot goes off. This is what a relaxed arrow feels like.
Maintain this relaxed state as you walk to the target and pull your arrow. Repeat these relaxed shots over and over until it becomes habit.
That’s all there is to it. You are now drawing the bow to a state of high relaxation rather than a state of high stress. You’ve turned a bad habit into a good habit.
Real Life Example
One day I approached a talented young student who was literally drawing a circle around the bullseye with errant arrows. Wide-eyed and desperate, he turned to me and pleaded, “What am I doing wrong?!” I watched him fling yet another arrow just outside of the bullseye. I told him, “You’re trying to hard.” I went on to explain that missing the target wasn’t the end of the world; that his passion for archery–the whole meditative process–was far more important than a single bullseye. I had him breathe deeply and look around at the beautiful mountains. A moment later he calmly drew his bow and sank the next arrow into the bullseye. His face lit up and he hugged me. Years later he still talks about his enlightening experience.
Your bow is designed to shoot a perfect arrow every time. The arrow only misses when you let yourself get in the way.
For every student that asks, How can I shoot more accurately?, there are a few others who comment on how meditative archery is; how it relaxes and focuses the mind. These students typically aren’t the best archers at first, because to them the process outweighs the result. I view these students as the real naturals, and they even prove it when, eventually, their arrow finds the bullseye with seemingly little effort.
Shooting in a relaxed state is the secret to Zen archery. On a grander scale, you might say that living in a relaxed state is the secret to a Zen life!
A long time ago I read a quote that always stuck with me:
Never make a liar out of a man by asking him where he hunts. (author unknown)
Do you have a hunting honey hole? Hopefully you do, but if you flap your gums about it, I guarantee you’ll lose it.
For twenty-five years I hunted Utah from top to bottom. I started at the top, and now I hunt the bottom. Meanwhile I’ve lost some amazing areas. Some areas were affected by drought and poaching, but most were lost to kindness. How does this happen???
How We Lose our Honey Holes
Humans–by nature–are kind and sharing creatures. When someone asks us where we hunt, we get excited and start spewing information beginning with, “Promise you won’t tell anyone…” Worse yet, we take a “trusted” friend or family member out to our secret area. In either case, that person inevitably extends the same privilege to someone else, and so on, and in a few short years your “secret” area is swarming with hunters and lost forever.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not advocating total selfishness here. As veteran hunters it’s our moral responsibility to help other hunters, especially youths and beginners. I take great pride in steering my fellow hunters towards success. But there’s no harm in keeping a little piece of the woods to yourself once in a while.
How We Keep Secrets
A few years ago I missed a shot on a real monster-buck who was living a secret life on a steep mountainside in a nearby unit. When the season ended, dozens of family and friends asked me, a) how my hunt went, b) what I saw, and c) where I planned to hunt next season. My reply was: No, I didn’t see anything worth shooting, there’s no way I’m going back to that unit again, and no, I haven’t decided where to hunt next year.
I knew that the greatest threat to my future success at that buck wasn’t cougars, winter kill, or poachers. It was me and my big mouth! So I kept it shut.
What are best ways to keep your area a secret? Here are the three most effective strategies when dealing with prying questions:
Lie: I hate liars, honestly. But if you lie to me about your secret honey hole, believe me, I’ll understand. Tactless as it may be, people are going to ask you where you hunt. It’s sad, but sometimes lying is your only option. On the topic of lying, when you finally shoot a real trophy and enter it into the record books (Pope & Young or Boone & Crockett) they’re going to record what county you took the animal in. This is yet another area to consider changing the truth. But what if you’re just too honest to lie? The next best option is to be a politician, and deflect…
Deflect: If a friend asks me where I hunt, I’ll say Southern Utah (rather than the actual unit). If someone asks whether I saw anything decent, I’ll say No, not really. They might not realize that, to me, decent means 200+ inches. Now, if the questions just keep-a-coming, I’ll revert back to step 1. But what if lying AND deflection aren’t your thing? Consider being honest…at your own peril…
Be Honest: By honest, I mean just say NO. “No, I won’t tell you where I hunt because it’s a secret and I’m keeping it all to myself.” Yeah, that’ll go over well with your best friend, or your mom. Honestly, honesty isn’t always the best solution. All kidding aside, a close friend shouldn’t be asking you where you hunt in the first place. Instead, they should understand why you’re keeping it a secret. If not, you might ask yourself whether you’d rather lose your honey hole, or lose your friend. Tough, I know, but just remember, you can always find more friends, but there’s only one honey hole!
Before we wrap it up, there are two other ways you can still jeopardize your honey hole without saying a word:
Photos/Video: As photography, videography, and Facebook become more popular, it’s imperative that you leave recognizable landmarks out of your photos. One example is the Beaver Unit (in Utah) with it’s distinct mountain peaks. It looks awesome to have those peaks in the background of your trophy photo, but it’ll also give away your location. The best way to avoid background elements in your shot is to zoom in on your subject. By shooting tighter, you can greatly reduce the background size.
GPS Metadata: As an added feature, many cell phone cameras record your GPS location, and then attach it to the metadata of your image. TURN THIS FEATURE OFF! I stumbled upon this years ago while reading an online story from a local hunter. I was real curious about where the dude was finding such huge deer, so I clicked on a pic and brought it into my photo editing software which displays metadata information. Sure enough, the precise GPS location of his “secret honey hole” was pinpointed ONLINE for the world to see. Note: I believe honey holes are sacred, so I left his area alone. But what about thousands of other desperate hunters?
Here in the far-flung future, where an exponentially exploding population of all-consuming humans are decimating our finite and already-dwindling natural resources (aka game animals), secrecy in hunting can make all the difference between having grass-fed-organic, sacred venison on our tables, or resorting to caustic, mass-produced, over-priced store meat.
Sadly, when it comes to hunting we’re living in cutthroat times. I don’t know about you, but that’s enough reason to keep my trap shut. It’s high time we hunters band together to save the endangered honey hole!
This is one little–but all-too-important–hunting skill that bow hunters should be practicing. It might seem intuitive that, immediately after your first shot, you should be pulling and loading another arrow. But it’s not.
The wait-and-see approach can make all the difference between success and failure. This is why you hear guides on hunting shows always pleading, “Shoot again, shoot again!”
Bow hunting is different than gun hunting insomuch that the animal often doesn’t realize you’ve shot, especially at longer distance where he doesn’t hear the shot. Sometimes the animal doesn’t even know he’s been hit, which can afford you a follow up shot!
Hit or miss, your non-bow hand should be immediately grasping and loading another arrow. It’s one of those skills that’s acquired over time through real-life hunting experiences, but rarely practiced.
Now, I don’t want to pick on my wonderful bowhunting wife, but here’s a classic example:
On our first archery turkey hunt, we called up a group of mature toms. Forever they gobbled while cautiously circling us, so we moved in on them. When the biggest tom broke the treeline, I whispered the yardage and Esther let an arrow fly…and missed. The tom jumped, then meandered off. Desperately I whispered, “Shoot, SHOOT!”, but when I turned around, I saw that Esther hadn’t loaded another arrow. What seemed intuitive to me was not intuitive to a newbie-hunter.
Practice Makes Perfect
To avoid this mistake I recommend incorporating a simple shoot-and-pull technique into your regular practice routine. Note: It’s best to use a real-life 3D animal target to help train your brain for real-life scenarios. Here’s how it’s done:
Shoot your first arrow. Hit or miss, you have five seconds to…
Pull, load, and shoot a second arrow.
Pretty simple, huh? Given enough time afield, I guarantee that practicing this technique will one day save your hunt. Hit or miss, having a second arrow ready can make all the difference between success and failure.
When it comes to modern bow accessories, your options are unlimited. Some parts move–like slider sights and drop-away rests–and some are fixed–like stabilizers and quivers. Today we’re going look at the potential drawbacks of having moving parts on your bow setup.
I’ve tried a myriad of accessories in my time, but last season really forced me to reconsider some of my choices. Here’s what happened:
In 2017 I got a brand new, high-performance speed bow to replace my old single cam bow. This new “speed” bow shot field points wonderfully. Then, about a week before the hunt, I screwed on my time-proven broadheads and they flew all over the place! After many fruitless hours of trying to re-tune the bow, I gave up and switched to mechanicals. And all was well…until…
Half-way through my deer hunt–and 300 miles from home–I was taking some practice shots at camp when my slider sight stripped out and no longer functioned. Try as I might, I couldn’t fix it. Fortunately I had an old multi-pin sight on my backup bow. I bolted it on and all was fine.
But this got me thinking…
Since its invention in 1966, the compound bow–and every accessory that can be attached to it–has been reinvented or re-engineered over and over again. The old “stick-and-string” has become an extremely complicated, finely tuned instrument of death…which is good…but maybe too good. Why? Because the more complicated something is, the more that can go wrong.
Bow Accessories to Consider
In this article I’m going concentrate on the four major moving parts of your bow setup that you may want to reconsider before heading into the backcountry:
The Arrow Rest: There was a time when the arrow rest was just a shelf cut into the bow. Before that, it was your knuckle. Now it’s up-and-down-swinging tuning fork contraption tied to a buss cable. Almost every bowhunter I know uses one. But not me; I use a Whisker Biscuit. The Whisker Biscuit is a shoot-through containment rest (aka capture rest). It bolts into position and holds your arrow securely in place. Unlike the popular drop-away rest, the Biscuit has no moving parts. The arrow just shoots right through it. The only drawback is an infinitesimal reduction of arrow speed. I use the Whisker Biscuit because it’s reliable and simple. It’s also inexpensive; about half the cost of a decent drop-away rest.
The Bow Sight: You have two options: Fixed pins or movable pins (aka slider sights). I used a fixed pins for twenty years, and then one day I fell in love with the slider sight. The slider sight was simple: one movable pin that doesn’t block your target. You just dial up the yardage and shoot. Then one day my slider broke right in the middle of my hunt! Now I’m back to fixed pins. Sure, I like the idea of a slider sight–and may go back to it someday–but for now I’m sticking with the multi-pin.
Bow Cams: Almost every modern bow is powered by either single cams or dual cams. Cams are the power engine of your bow, so this is a major consideration when choosing a bow. Basically, single cam bows are more simple and easier to tune than dual cams. The major drawback to single cams is that they produce a slower arrow speed than dual cams. Dual cam bows (aka speed bows) are faster, but harder to tune because, a) both cams must roll over in perfect synchronization, and b) the extreme velocity of the arrow accentuates slight imperfections in bow tuning, broadhead design, arrow design, and shooting form. These days bow manufacturers claim to have conquered tuning issues by tethering the dual cams, but in my experience dual cam bows are still more difficult to tunethan single cams. I’m sure it has a lot more to with blistering arrow speed than tuning, but just remember, accuracy suffers by adding extra speed. This leads us to broadhead selection.
Broadheads: Almost all broadheads fall into two categories: Fixed blade or mechanical (aka expandable). Simply put, mechanical blades fold into the tip during flight, and then expand on impact. Because the blades are hidden, they are less affected by wind resistance and planing. Thus, mechanicals are more accurate than fixed broadheads, especially on speed bows. The major drawback of mechanicals are twofold: a) more moving parts make it susceptible to breakage or blade loss on impact, and b) less penetrating power due to energy loss during blade deployment.
Fixed blades are inherently stronger and have better penetration than mechanicals. However, they can be nearly impossible to tune with modern speed bows. The most important factor in choosing a broadhead is how well it shoots through your bow. Personally, I prefer fixed blades with my single cam bow and mechanicals with my dual cam bow. FYI, the most accurate fixed-blade broadhead I’ve ever used is the Trophy Taker Shuttle T, and my favorite mechanical is the Rocky Mountain Warhead. Note: the Warhead is extremely reliable and very inexpensive (only $10.79 per 3 on Amazon).
Compound bows are much more complicated than they used to be, which is good and bad. Bow manufacturers tout speed as their primary selling point, but faster bows aren’t necessarily more accurate. The same concept applies to arrow rests, bow sights, and other accessories. Newer isn’t always better.
When it comes to equipment selection, I recommend keeping it simple. And when it comes to moving parts, less is more.
Consistent success afield comes from skill and woodscraft, not gear. As always, I recommend focusing more time and energy on the process and less on equipment.
Have you set your New Year’s goals yet? It’s not too late. Maybe I can help.
Everyone has different priorities in life: health, career, education, family, etc. For me, bowhunting big bucks is priority one. Nothing in this ridiculous life brings me more satisfaction (and venison) than bagging a big buck with a bow. Therefore, everything must either support that goal, or be discarded. Simple.
My New Year’s goals:
Harvest a 200″+ buck with my bow.
Be healthy enough to hunt giant bucks in giant places. This includes eating healthy, avoiding sugar and processed foods, regular exercise, reducing exposure to environmental toxins, and reducing daily stress.
Earn enough money to take the entire bow season off work.
Avoid distractions as much as possible (TV, Facebook, unsupportive people, loser jobs, unnecessary projects, etc.).
Help others accomplish their New Deer’s goals through education, study, writing, etc.
That’s it folks. Nothing more; nothing less.
The best way to accomplish your greatest goal is to keep it present in your mind at all times, keep it simple, and make sure all other people and activities in your life also supports that goal.
Stop-Rot is an anti-bacterial liquid preservative that “extends the work time of a fresh hide by slowing down or stopping decomposition,” thus saving your trophy hide from decay and hair loss.
Stop-Rot was developed by taxidermist/chemist, Glen Conley, specifically for saving hides from hair slippage ahead of the tanning process. It has been used widely in the taxidermy industry for many years, and now hunters are starting to use it too.
After killing your trophy animal, bacteria begins to multiply all over the animal, especially around wet and bloody areas. In a relatively short period of time, bacteria starts attacking the skin and hair follicles, thus leading to hair slippage and a ruined hide. A good taxidermist can fix almost anything, but very little can be done to save a hide with hair falling out.
Because bacteria thrives in warm temperatures, Stop-Rot is especially useful during early-season hunts that occur in August and September. Traditionally salt was used to preserve hides afield. However, salt dries out the hide and makes it virtually impossible to flesh properly before going into the tanning process.
How to Use Stop-Rot
Stop-Rot can be used on both the flesh side of the hide and the hair side. The instructions say to “apply Stop-Rot as soon as possible after the animal has been skinned.” For this reason I always keep a bottle of Stop-Rot back at camp. I’ll spray it on any bloody spots or short-haired areas like the face and ears. I just spray it on and massage it in. Be sure to spray a light coating over the entire flesh side of the hide.
Where Can I Buy Stop-Rot?
Stop-Rot costs about $22 a quart and is only available through taxidermy supply companies like Van Dykes or Trufitt. To avoid paying shipping, request a bottle from your taxidermist. Note: If you live it Utah, you can buy Stop-Rot at Trufitt’s physical store at 1744 South Redwood in Salt Lake City.
Stop-Rot should be used when hunting in warm conditions or any time you can’t get your hide to a freezer or taxidermist in a timely manner. Although I’m constantly touting the benefits of Stop-Rot, I don’t receive any sort of commission. My taxidermy business, however, relies on working with usable hides. More importantly is the preservation of your hard-won trophy.
2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.
In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.
The Wall Buck
A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the wall buck into the trees. That was the last I saw of him.
Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience and the challenge. Above all, it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.
After seven days afield I drove home, dropped off the wife, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.
A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.
Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places in hopes of finding another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring within. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.
A Different Approach
Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.
Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”
The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.
I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.
Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.
Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.
Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.
A New Hope
I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.
Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.
I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.
Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.
As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.
An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.
It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.
The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.
Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.
This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.
Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres and the wall crumbles.
With the Utah archery deer hunt only a week away, I’ve been thinking a lot about mule deer, particularly their behavior and ecology. In reflecting on past hunts, I’ve come to realize that the biggest factor contributing to hunting success is having an intimate knowledge of your prey, whatever animal it happens to be. By learning your prey, you can more accurately dissect the mountain and predict their locations and movements.
I really love mule deer. Not only are they exciting to hunt, but these brilliant survivors are endlessly fascinating to observe in the wild. I’ve read just about every book and article written on mule deer and have kept careful notes along the way. Today I’d like to share some of the most surprising facts I’ve learned about mule deer:
1. In 1900 there were only 10,000 deer living in Utah; today there are more than 350,000! The main factors contributing to herd growth is better resource management, relatively mild weather in recent times, and an increase in predator control efforts. Considering that only 30% of today’s hunters are successful in bagging a buck each year, it’s surprising how many deer there really are out there.
2. Before 1950 half the bucks harvested in Utah were mature (3.5 years and older). Today only 10% of bucks harvested are mature. This is obviously the result of “quantity over quality” management, coupled with high demand for tags and the resource manager’s desire to maximize permit sales. For the trophy hunter you’ll have to sift through lots of deer to find a true trophy. In Utah only about 1 in 56,000 bucks harvested will make Boone & Crockett.
3. Using their sensitive snouts, deer can detect water up to two feet below ground and then use their hooves to dig it up. During hunting season water isn’t a concern unless it’s really hot and dry, in which case the deer must drink once a day. Because it’s so dangerous to travel to water, the deer will often sniff it out. The deer’s nose is estimated to be 1000 times more sensitive than humans. They also use their incredible sense of smell to find best food sources, find mates, and of course to sniff out predators like ourselves.
4. Deer have a 310-degree field of view, as compared to humans who see less than a 180 degrees. Not only can the deer see 86% of it’s surroundings, but he has amazing night vision and motion detection. For all of these strengths, however, it sacrifices the ability to see colors in the red spectrum and fine details.
5. Most big bucks are “hiders,” as opposed to “runners,” when encountered in high-pressured areas. If you typically hunt in dense cover, chances are you’ve been seen by far more deer than you think. The bucks that run are either small or know they’ve been spotted.
6. Mule deer antler growth exceeds two inches per week during spring and summer, and then greatly declines the first week of August. Final antler size is largely determined by three factors: age, genetics, and available forage. A wet spring and/or early monsoon season is your best chance to harvest a trophy buck.
7. The unusual form of bounding (called stotting) where all four legs leave the ground simultaneously, is unique to mule deer and was adapted to escape cougars in mountainous terrain. No other big game species in North America uses this unusual mode of locomotion. Not only is stotting useful for navigating heavy cover, but is done quickly, covering 22 to 29 feet with each bound on level ground.
8. The average home range for a deer is only .6 square miles. Since deer don’t like to wander outside their home range, it might seem easy for us hunters to locate a buck. The problem is that deer are highly adaptable to human pressure and will quickly evacuate the mountain to predetermined safe zone, sometimes miles away from it’s home range.
9. Elk compete directly with mule deer, especially on winter ranges. Although elk are 3.5 times bigger than a deer, biologists estimate that one elk is the equivalent of 5-8 deer in terms of winter range degradation. In areas where both elk and deer populations are high, elk will gradually replace the mule deer. The greatest long-term threat to mule deer, however, is the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which will likely force the mule deer into extinction! Enjoy the great muley while you can.
Fascinating creatures, aren’t they?! I hope you enjoyed these facts.
It was the fifth morning into my 2015 archery deer hunt, and I was walking the same dusty trail back to camp. I left the cruel woods early that morning, chased out by the looming heat and impending failure. My head hung low as I mindlessly kicked up dirt, and was suddenly awoken by a fresh set of bobcat tracks crossing the path.
I remembered last night when I was startled awake by a high speed chase around my tent and the screeching of a squirrel. Probably a bobcat, I thought.
Now, intrigued by these delicate tracks, I pulled out my camera and knelt down to take a picture. In this moment I was suddenly gripped with clarity and crushing emotion. It was the first time in a long while that I wasn’t thinking about deer, and was just enjoying nature. In this moment I was filled with love for every aspect of the woods. Just like the bobcat, I had a place there and knew I was accepted by a greater whole. Success or failure meant nothing.
Until now I was desperately pushing a dangerous energy ahead of me, filling the tranquil forest with thoughts of killing. This, I believe, is why we often fail in our hunting pursuits. There is a connection to life that only we humans don’t understand. Our gift of consciousness gets in the way. We must conquer ourselves before we can conquer others. This is the natural order of things, and a lesson I’ve been blessed to learn over and over.
These little surprises–like bobcat tracks–add up to a much larger experience, and that experience is what I’m really hunting for. This is really why I’m there.
Like any old marriage, the woods and I have our moments, both good and bad. Sometimes we ignore each other. But once in a while I remember why we’re still together, and why I love her so deeply. In the end, I’m to blame. It’s me that fights, not her.
In September of 2012, I hunted the Wasatch Extended Range with a friend. The bucks in this area are just as wily as anywhere in Northern Utah, if not more. We eventually split up to more thoroughly cover one particular steep and wooded slope; I took the upper section and he took the lower.
Not far into the route, a big, mature 4×4 buck came flying up the mountain, probably spooked by my hunting partner. The buck didn’t notice me as he blew by and then paused briefly on the hillside just out of bow range while scanning for danger below. I was instantly enraptured by the buck’s majesty. He held his neck high, donning a beautiful, square rack with heavy tines standing like swords above his noble face. His muscular body pulsed with deep breaths. His head jerked left, then right, simultaneously assessing the danger and planning his best escape route. I just stood there, mouth agape, bow a-dangle. What a creature! Seconds later he picked a line of trees and bounded away, his hooves barely poking the earth between great strides, seemingly floating over the treacherous terrain with awesome speed and agility.
Nothing to do now; no point following after. The buck would be valleys away by the time I caught up with him. I was gripped with a sense of helplessness. The sheer magnitude of this creature made me feel inept in my abilities. How could I ever outwit such a powerful and wary animal? It was humbling, and exactly what I needed.