2020 has been a terrible year for many people, and hunters are no exception! After all the difficulties I personally endured afield, I finally mustered the mental fortitude to write a new post, and just in time for Thanksgiving.
Note: This will be my first hunting-related post since moving to Southern Utah last year. This move was prompted by several factors, primarily getting away from the hordes of the big city, taking control over my time, and being closer to Nature (see my previous post: Panguitch Manifesto).
After settling in to my new home, I looked forward to having more time afield–and thus more success–during the 2020 archery season. This was not the case. Instead, the Covid crowds bombarded the forests with hunters and non-hunters alike, thus driving the deer deeper and further away from my usual haunts. Long story short, I spent a record 42 days afield with nothing to show but a handful of missed opportunities.
For the first time in five years I was left with no story to write. Returning from failed trip after trip took it’s toll on my spirit as I sunk into a hunting funk like never before. Fearing a continual descent into despair, I took heed of one of my life-long mantras: Always turn reaction into action.
I started by reading all the following books:
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
Blood in the Tracks, by Jim Collyer
Creativity, by Osho
These books proved invaluable for creating a new mindset based on hope and positivity. Sure I stunk it up this year, but that doesn’t change who I am, nor does it discredit all the invaluable hunting skills I’ve accumulated over decades of hard hunting. Gradually I began to look forward rather than dwelling on the past.
But was the past really that bad? No way. Despite 2020, I can still walk downstairs and bask in the glow of past success; successes almost unimaginable, and for which I am eternally grateful!
Next, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I sat down and wrote a list of gratitude. This included items such as my health, home, freedom, and my supportive hunting-wife partner; what else does one need? Well, does of course! After all, I did harvest a beautiful Idaho doe to fill the freezer this year.
Success or failure isn’t as important as how we react to it. Simply put, failure forces change.
Already I’ve begun making plans for next year. There are still plenty of great deer in my unit, I just need to change how and where I hunt for them. This includes more effective scouting and strategies to avoid people…which is something I specialize in.
Guy Eastman once wrote that “a failed hunt just makes the successful ones that much more special.” This might be hard to stomach, but it’s true.
Over-achievement can actually inhibit our growth by making us complacent. Inflated egos cultivate an air of entitlement which goes against everything natural. Nature requires us to continually evolve. If we aren’t moving forward, then we’re moving backwards. Challenges are therefore something to embrace because it perpetuates growth.
This year I’m most grateful for continual opportunities to pursue the greatest passion of my life–bowhunting–even in this difficult time. I’m also grateful for my past successes, and even my failures from which I continually learn. I’m especially very grateful for an old doe harvested with my bow.
Walking down the dusty trail in
the dark, I grumbled, “Even if I do write
a story about this hunt, it’ll be a short one: Every day was horrible, and then it ended”.
“Well, it’s not over yet,” Esther
I wished it was.
It was a strange hunt, and a strange
year. Winter arrived late and went long, as did spring and then summer,
throwing the entire year one month late. So August was really July, and therefore
the deer took their time migrating up the mountain, resulting in half the deer.
Add to that an ever-increasing amount of human-hunters—twice as many as past
years—and you have the perfect storm: Twice the dudes; half the deer.
Aside from that, I was about to nuke my entire known life and move to the boonies—300 miles away—in desperate attempt to salvage what good years I have left far away from the stifling mass of humanity. All of springtime I spent finishing my basement in anticipation of selling my Hooper home. The worst case scenario was to sell my home during the hunt, which would force me to abandon the hunt early to move. So of course, that’s what happened.
Since the August opener was
really July, the weather was unseasonably hot and dry, creating a forest substrate
like potato chips everywhere you went. No matter how carefully we moved, the
deer always heard us coming, forcing us to hunt on established hiking and game trails,
a low probability venture indeed.
The opener also coincided with a glaring full moon. This is bad for hunting because it allows deer to feed and move more at night, making them harder find during the day. Add to that a billion yellow-jackets and flies constantly circling your face, and conditions couldn’t be worse.
All that aside, I was deer hunting, so I was hopeful and happy. Amidst constant complaints I held fast to my goal: to shoot a great buck over 200 inches. It’s been way too long since I arrowed a true trophy buck, and I was determined to make this my year. Well, I might have picked the wrong year to reinvent myself…
My goal was to pick up where I left off last year. Last year I didn’t find the “land of giant bucks” until twenty days into the hunt. This year I headed up before light on opening day, climbing a thousand vertical feet through heavy timber, but nobody was home. The next day was the same, and so I began exploring other areas. As soon as I left my area, some clowns (other hunters) moved in, bombarding it morning and night. By the time I determined there were no other good areas, the clowns moved out and I moved back in.
Late one evening, as I sat in
ambush at a historical deer crossing, a true giant with wide-sweeping antlers showed
up. Unfortunately he was out of range, and it was too dark to count points. As
nighttime swallowed him up, I began my 1000-foot timber descent back to the
truck. With newfound hope, I tried a morning ambush. This time the deer sniffed
me out from below and blasted away.
That evening found me in the same spot, but just as the buck’s sentinel materialized, a mysterious nighttime wind shifted upwards and blew the deer out. The following evening I chose a different approach, but the mysterious winds still blew uphill, and the deer never showed. Now, everyone knows that cooling air blows downhill in the evening. It’s simple physics: cold air falls. But not here, not in the “Bermuda Triangle.”
That’s when it hit me: the biggest, baddest, unhuntable stud-bucks used this area because there’s no way to get in front of them without being winded. Mornings are even worse because, as the deer work uphill from feeding, the warming air follows them, negating a stalk from below. An ambush from below also means chasing bucks over crunchy ground, which is impossible. Either way, those bucks winded me for the last time and left the mountain for goods. Back to the drawing board.
Slivers of Timber
In this age of high hunting pressure and long-range weaponry, big bucks adapt quickly or die. The first thing they do is move as far from people and roads as possible, living on extremely steep slopes, the kind of stuff mountain goats like. Next they go nocturnal. Bucks are mostly nocturnal in the first place, but big bucks are completely nocturnal. The only reason we ever catch them on their feet is because they have a hard time differentiating complete blackness from twilight. If you happen to catch a group of elk or deer feeding in the morning, you’ll notice they really don’t get moving until the sun crests the horizon, and then they’re gone. This is probably the most frustrating part the early season: you only get two slivers of daylight each day to catch them moving: 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night.
After that, they’re headed to fragile bedding areas which should be avoided at all costs. If you bust a buck from his “hard bed” (primary daytime bed), he’ll leave the area for the rest of the season. Thus, the best daytime strategy seems to be returning to your boring camp and wasting the entire day sitting around waiting for the next sliver of time to make your move.
The long-range rifle, which has gained popularity over the last decade or so, has had the greatest observable impact on big game animals. My recent extended stints in the woods have shown that deer antlers are narrowing. They still grow the same amount of bone on their heads, but it’s much more vertical than horizontal. Reason being—of course—is that deer are holding tighter to the timber, and a wide rack only slows them down.
Perhaps the animal most affected by long-range rifles is the pronghorn (antelope). Esther drew a limited antelope tag this year, and when I took a day off deer to and help her, it took less than 12 hours to realize I couldn’t. The only way to locate the sparse antelope was to drive the vast dirt roads and glass. But whenever the antelope spied a vehicle, even a mile away, they’d take off at a dead run until they were miles farther. These poor speed goats spend their entire lives in the open sagebrush. Over the years, long-rangers have sniped them from the road at unconscionable distances of half a mile or more! Esther’s only real chance was to pick a random water hole and sit in a ground blind for days at a time. It almost worked too, but that’s another story.
Inevitably, modern big game animals are growing more cautious. If you’re lucky enough to find a mountain with high deer density, you’ll still have a near-impossible time locating the giants. Giant bucks are only found in tiny slivers of terrible timber on steep, high-elevation slopes. Using territoriality, they take over the deepest woods where the wind is always in their favor. They live by their over-sized snouts, using scent rather than sight to dictate their movements.
When hunting in dense timber, it’s almost impossible to verify a deer that you’ve spooked because of how they move. Big bucks don’t just beeline away, but rather dive behind the nearest tree(s), and then zigzag from cover to cover, ensuring the hunter never gets a clear shot. Even unpressured bucks zigzag through cover throughout their daily movements. If you get a chance to track a big buck, you’ll notice he rarely travels in a straight line, but moves from cover to cover, always avoiding open areas. On top of that, deer make very little noise when moving. The same crunchy ground that makes a hunter sound like a bulldozer is nearly inaudible with a deer’s carefully placed hoof.
Finally, ‘big bucks’—any buck over five years old and having antlers scoring over 180-inches—are extremely rare on public land. How rare? In thirty years of deer hunting I haven’t found an area/unit/region where more than two percent of the bucks meet trophy criteria. Skillful hunters can still find big bucks, but you’re lucky to get more than a sliver of opportunity. Despite all of this, about half the bowhunters I see are still road hunting with bewildering hope. Many small, inexperienced bucks are regularly picked off this way, but a serious hunter must adapt continually with each passing year, just as the deer do.
Where Are They?
Each night Esther and I returned to camp and conferred with Brent about the bleak situation. We concluded that the majority of deer must be lower on the mountain due to the unseasonably dry conditions. So we spent an evening in the even hotter lowlands, but still saw nothing. Ultimately we learned that the majority of deer were situated on intermediate lands, somewhere below 9000 feet and lower elevation private property. From that point we began exploring these new slivers of forest, and right away saw more bucks.
One morning, Esther and I took a mile and a half climb through rough country to get to one of these spots. At first light, Esther had a nice 4×4 buck appear at 20 yards. Her shot was true, but the arrow penetrated poorly and the deer ran off with hardly a speck of blood. Desperate to relocate the buck, we kept returning to the area. By this time, my aspirations of arrowing a trophy had drastically declined. Considering the conditions, I was ready to take any mature buck. A dude must eat!
Late one morning, while ghosting through heavy timber, I spotted a decent 4×4 rack sticking up and facing me from a stand of trees. By all descriptions, it appeared to be the same deer Esther shot days earlier. Unfortunately I was pinned down in the sweltering sun. Minutes felt like hours as I stood there with swarms of bees and flies circling and landing on my face. I wanted to scream and run away, but couldn’t move. Eventually the buck got nervous and melted into the timber.
This hunt was the opposite of my usual “Zen” hunt; it was torture. Every day was Groundhog Day: hot, cloudless, dusty and buggy.
As if we didn’t have enough troubles,
the lions paid a visit. On opening day I came across a freshly shredded fawn,
and figured there must be a cougar in the area; no big deal. The next morning,
while hiking up a well-used trail with Esther, I was disappointed to find boot
tracks of two hunters traveling ahead of us. A short distance later, big cat’s
tracks overlapped the dude’s tracks, and all three continued up the trail for
nearly a mile. All evidence suggested the cougar was actually following the
unsuspecting hunters in the predawn murk. Esther and I eventually split up; I
went around the backside of the mountain and she continued along the trail.
After a couple hours of fruitless hunting, I radioed Esther to meet up for our
hike out. She sounded a little shaken up as she related the following story:
Shortly after separating, she rounded a corner in the trail and came face-to-face with a cougar coming back down the trail. At 20 feet, the lion semi-crouched while staring straight into her eyes. Apparently the cat had backed off the two guys—a daunting meal for sure—and by luck stumbled upon a lone, medium-build woman instead. In a semi-panic, Esther began waving her arms above her head and yelling, but to no avail. The cat stood its ground, assessing its newfound prey. Fearing the worst, Esther loaded a trembling arrow and flung it past the cat’s face. Somewhat discouraged by this gesture, the cougar casually turned and strolled into the forest. Esther’s morning hunt was suddenly over, too.
Cougars primarily prey on deer while avoiding more dangerous prey, like people. But when deer numbers are low, like this year, they must consider alternate food sources. That’s fine and good, except that an over-abundance of cougars puts the remaining deer on high alert, making hunting and stalking exceptionally difficult. This appeared to be the case here.
Note: The next time Brent checked his trail camera in the area, there was a photo of what was likely the same cat prowling around at night.
September: Round Two
By September (really August by
weather standards), Brent had abandoned the deer woods and headed to Idaho to
chase elk. Over Labor Day, Esther and I went back home to work and pack things,
whereas our house had gone under contract. When we returned to the mountain
three days later, something magical had happened: big bucks began popping up in
all the traditional areas!
In one of our favorite areas, Esther would setup a lower elevation ambush while I prowled around higher up the mountain. On the first morning I busted a group of deer near the trail and was happy to see some real good antlers in the group. That evening I snuck into the same area, and sure enough, a beautiful, tall-antlered buck appeared feeding 100 yards away. But just as I began my stalk, a horrible squirrel fired up in a nearby tree. The buck immediately whipped his head up and stared in my direction. The squirrel methodically worked his way down the tree, limb by limb, barking wildly until it was five feet away, screeching in my face. I could feel my face turning beet red and wanted nothing more than to send an arrow right down his throat. The next time I looked up, the buck was walking nervously away.
The next morning found me in the
same place hoping to catch the big buck coming out of feed. Sure enough he
appeared in almost the exact same spot, cautiously surveying the open shooting
lanes in front of me. Just as I began loading an arrow, there was a loud snort
behind me, and then another. I turned slowly around to see an angry doe a few
yards away, stomping her feet and snorting relentlessly. Horrified, I turned
back to see the buck had vanished. I must be cursed! That big buck was nowhere
to be found the next evening and again the next morning.
Meanwhile, Esther was getting a similar dose of bad luck. While I was getting busted by various, nefarious wildlife, she had a mature buck come feeding along just 10 feet away. But as she began drawing her bow, two unsuspecting hunters came traipsing through the area and spooked the deer off.
The People Party
My mountain doesn’t feel like my mountain anymore. This beautiful, high-altitude portion of the Dixie National Forest is a popular destination for campers, cyclists, and hikers. Most years, the cold and wet weather of early fall invariably chases most of the campers away; but not this year.
Instead, the perpetual bluebird skies and warm weather encouraged human activity all over the mountain throughout the entire hunt. Not good. You see, deer hate people more than anything. They don’t discriminate between hunters and recreationalists, so with each encounter with a random cyclist or hiker, they grow increasingly wary, and consequently less huntable.
Worse yet is the great Highway of
Death. To access my woods, one must traverse a busy, two-lane highway for many
miles. Throughout the summer and fall I can count between 8 and 12 dead deer on
the road in just a fifteen mile stretch. Half the collision-killed deer are fawns,
and the rest are does and smaller bucks. This has a detrimental effect on herd
numbers, and it gets worse every year.
The Highway of Death isn’t just perilous to deer. Throughout the hunt, emergency vehicles could be heard whirring up and down the highway. One lovely evening, as Esther was driving back from antelope hunting, she observed an oncoming driver drift onto the shoulder, over-correct, and come skidding across her lane before rolling twice down a gully on her side of the road. The male driver got out okay, but his wife was carted off to the hospital with critical spinal injuries. A deer was blamed for the over-correction, but from Esther’s vantage, it appeared to be good old-fashioned driver distraction.
We rested our area 24 hours, but unable to turn up anything better, returned for an evening hunt. Determined to outsmart the squirrels and does, I took a lower route to the buck’s feeding area. Sneaking quietly along, a forest grouse suddenly exploded from the brush in front of me. I thought nothing of it until I eased around a tree and found The Big One staring at me 60 yards away, obviously alerted by the grouse. He didn’t stick around.
I hit rock bottom. Surely the mountain had turned against me! Absolutely mortified, I turned and dragged my feet back down the trail, grumbling to Esther the whole way back to the truck. How could the one thing I truly love be so miserable? So many painfully early mornings, sweating and heaving up and down the mountain on sore feet, eating crappy meals way too late, and then long, hot days in the bugs and dust; it was taking its toll on my body and sanity.
I hated the mountain. Every day I fantasized about sleeping in and spending the whole day sitting on the couch in my undies watching NFL with a cold beverage. Oh, to be comfortable and in control again. How I longed for an easy hunt, just once in my life!
With no real hope or plan, we almost didn’t get out of bed in the morning. Esther was leaving for her antelope hunt later that day, but I convinced her to join me for one more shot at deer. We took the usual route, Esther low, Nate high. But this day was different. A cold wind howled all morning, a sharp contrast to the previous three weeks.
As expected I found my area devoid
of deer, and with nothing better to do, began wandering aimlessly into the wind,
just killing time, really. Then, deep into the woods, I was surprised to
stumble upon some fresh, green buck droppings, jarring me back to alertness.
The bucks weren’t gone after all; they were just living deeper into the dark
I estimated their direction of
travel and looped around to get in front of them. Slipping quietly down a small
ridge, I rounded a spruce tree and there he was, forty yards away: the big one,
with a heavy, symmetric 4-point rack and a great wall of fur. Behind him, a
sentinel buck milled around, oblivious to my presence. The big buck caught my movement
and froze, staring in my direction, partially obscured by a tree. Knowing he
was about to bolt, I quickly loaded an arrow and drew. To my dismay, a pine
bough stretched across his vitals. Would the arrow clear it? I began a slow
motion crouch until my knees hit the ground. Bending even lower, I settled the
pin and hit the release. My arrow sailed just under the branch, and then under
the buck’s chest, burying deep in the dirt behind him. As expected, he bounded away.
Immediately I loaded another arrow, and simultaneously the second buck trotted forward, stopping with his front half showing in the same clearing. Fearing an empty freezer back home, I settled my pin and let him have it, narrowly threading my arrow forward of some branches that obscured his back half. He whirled and blasted away.
My, how quickly things change!
I worked down to where the buck was standing and immediately found blood—lots of blood—unlike I’ve ever seen before. It was basically a steady drizzle, as if someone had walked through the woods pouring red syrup on the ground. Where the buck paused, there were great pools of blood. The whole time I expected to see him around the next tree, but no luck. The tough buck trotted a quarter mile, and then dropped down an incredibly steep mountainside. I slowed way down, following the red carpet and glassing ahead. Just when I thought the buck was somehow unkillable, I spied an antler in the shadows of a tree. He was bedded with his head still up! Afraid he might recover and run, I crept forward for a follow-up shot. At twenty yards the buck laid his head down for the last time; he was mine.
As I pried the buck loose of the tree, the
same old emotions spewed forth. I was simultaneously overjoyed by success, but disappointed
at missing The Big One. My buck wasn’t the glorious trophy I came to the
mountain for, but then I wasn’t the same person either.
I radioed Esther for help, and then sat for a while with my deer, listening to the wind whistle through the pines in the middle of nowhere. Sadness loomed as I pondered mine and the deer’s fate. These powerful animals are smart survivors whose daily existence is one of pain, hardship, and fear. But they just take it, year-round, until their short lives are cut even shorter by some natural or unnatural foe like me.
Maybe we can learn something from
our quarry: accept the pain and discomfort, even revel in it. These admirable
beasts deserve our greatest respect, and we deserve what the mountain dishes
out precisely because we take so much.
My sacred hunt always plays out in a familiar way: In seeking antler-clad glory, the mountain beats me down, and then, in my darkest hour I find humility. The hunter earns his meat.
Hooray, we lived to see another year! Anyone who values the infinite miracle of life will appreciate a shiny new year.
Now is a great time to reflect on the future, and ensure mistakes of the past don’t interfere future opportunities. More specifically, I’m talking about new deer’s resolutions.
Since bowhunting is my life’s passion and purpose, I set the same goal each year: shoot a 200″+ buck with my bow. Sometimes I get close, but it’s been a while since I’ve actually done it.
This year I’m aiming higher.
Goal #1: Shoot a 220″ buck with my bow.
Yeah, 220-inches sounds lofty, but given enough time and scouting, I know I can find a 220-class buck. Maybe he’s in my general unit, or perhaps outta state, but I’ll find him.
Goal #2: Stay healthy enough to hunt big bucks.
You can’t hunt if you’re dead, so health is priority #2. I’m not talking about fitness and exercise, but overall wellness. As the years fly by, wellness is quickly becoming a major hobby of mine. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Here in the far-flung future, we live in a toxic environment. Our air, water, and especially our food is full of toxins and devoid of nutritional value. This will inevitably break us down and kill us.
Avoiding disease and death is product of a healthy immune system. A healthy immune system is driven by three major factors: diet, sleep, and stress.
My advice: Grow your own food, harvest your own meat, drink clean water, and avoid environmental toxins. In the mean time, get 8+ hours sleep per night–come hell or high water–and avoid chronic stress at all cost.
My plan is to put off the inevitable by becoming self-sufficient and living off the land…hopefully a land far away from all this toxic sludge!
Goal #3: Make enough money to afford time afield.
Work is the great necessary evil of life. Most unsuccessful hunters think they can blame their job for failures afield, but it’s really misplaced priorities.
If hunting is your passion, and your job doesn’t allow enough time to hunt (say a week or two), then you have a crap job and severely misplaced priorities.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working. Work affords hunting, food, and shelter. But in a hundred lifetimes, I’d never allow the almighty J.O.B. to shave off even a single day afield. And it doesn’t…
…but at what cost???
…probably millions of dollars. I earn about 1/4th what most of my family and friends do. I don’t have dollar one set aside for retirement, and most times I feel like I have nothing to show for a whole year’s worth of work.
But I wouldn’t change a thing. I have a room full of fantastic trophies and trophy experiences, all worth billions to me, and all afforded by time afield, not time at work.
What are your new year’s resolutions? Is there a big buck in your future? Well, it’s yours for the taking, assuming your priorities are in order.
My advice to fellow hunters:
Dream big, avoid distractions, stay healthy, put in the time, and be grateful for past accomplishments.
A dire warning jumped from the pages of last year’s hunt journal: “Plan to hunt the entire 28-day season or plan to fail!” Midway through the 2017 season, the daunting task of arrowing a trophy buck inspired me to write these words. So my goal in 2018 was to hunt the entire season no matter what. I never had this luxury before, mostly due to work obligations. Last year was my longest stint in the woods at 18 days. In order to reach my goal I had to shirk work at every turn, turning down a myriad of jobs, not to mention several fishing trips and other opportunities. I was in for the long haul.
A Quest for Knowledge
I dedicated the first week of the hunt to helping Esther. I would set her up in prime ambush areas while I went off to explore new places and learn everything I could about big buck behavior. This strategy worked out great. Esther finally got a shot at a mature buck, and I got in the habit of collecting data and scouting rather than just hunting.
While exploring a new area one morning, I spotted an old 30-inch wide 3-point buck. I wasn’t completely sold on shooting a 3×3, but he was well out of bow range anyway. Instead I followed his tracks in hopes of learning where big bucks go during the day. The tracks wrapped around the mountain and eventually dropped off a dreadfully steep, shale-rock slope. It was hard to believe a deer would travel so far just to bed down. His route was confirmed by very large tracks and big, green droppings measuring three-quarter inches. They were such large pebbles that I’d always assumed they were elk droppings in the past.
Just when I was about to give up pursuit, the old buck stood up from his bed in a clump of trees 30 yards ahead. He, along with another big buck, took one look at me and hopped away. I stared blankly for a minute, and then had an epiphany: I’ve been hunting wrong my entire life! In 27 years of big game hunting I never realized just how far unpressured deer were willing to go just to bed down for the day. Sure I had my suspicions, but now it was confirmed.
In most of the hunting books I’ve read, the author categorizes big bucks the all same way, whether they are young-mature bucks (3+ years old), older bucks, or old trophy bucks. But young bucks act very differently than old bucks because deer learn exponentially each year they survive. They adapt rapidly to hunters with each encounter, so much so that old bucks (in the 6-10 year range) essentially become unhuntable. Biologists have theorized that 80% of bucks aged 5 years and older will never be harvested, and die natural causes instead. The great majority of bucks taken by hunters are only one or two years old. These “toddlers” have some basic survival instincts, but with so little experience, they cannot effectively avoid hunters. Old bucks on the other hand basically evolve into a completely different animal, so you need to hunt them differently.
Mule deer are the most perfect creature I know of, even better, I dare say, than humans, at least from Nature’s perspective. Here’s what I mean: Deer ears are 10 times larger than ours; they hear everything. Their 310-degree field of view and night vision overshadows our own narrow focus. Their nose is tremendous, shaping their entire head into an olfactory funnel capable of smelling danger a mile away. Every big buck is built like a linebacker; muscular and lean, with the strength and agility to blast away from hunters for miles before setting up shop on some distant, near-vertical slope. Then there’s intelligence—but a different kind of intelligence. It’s widely known that intelligence is the human’s only advantage over the buck (weapons, optics, camouflage, etc. are all products of our intelligence). Yet 80% of bowhunters fail each year because they cannot beat the deer’s seemingly simple intelligence.
From first to last light the hunter gathers information and formulates a series of well thought-out plans to ambush his four-legged foe. The deer, on the other hand, catches the slightest human scent, and without actually seeing the hunter, completely alters his behavior so he’ll never cross our path again. Instantly he goes nocturnal; his evening routine becomes a night routine. He moves from bed to feed on a completely different route and schedule. Simultaneously, he decides to go a few days without water just to keep a low profile. And for the rest of the hunt that buck is never seen. All of this occurs in the buck’s little brain with lightning strike brilliance and hardly a conscious thought.
In hunting stories, people often state that “the buck made a mistake that morning,” or, “I just had to wait for the buck to make a mistake.” The truth is that big bucks don’t make mistakes, they just get unlucky. Every step a deer takes is deliberate, with the purpose of conserving energy and surviving. It’s people who make mistakes—continuous mistakes, actually—and then once in a while we get lucky. The buck is not only “smart” at surviving, but mentally tough from living in the cruel woods 365 days a year. He’s accustomed to constant pain, fear, and discomfort. So it’s hardly a chore for him to avoid a bow-toting hunter who can barely get own his lazy butt up the mountain. Worse yet, while we clamber around the mountain, complete with frustration, the buck sits in the shade of a seemingly random tree, half-asleep, and chewing his cud. Simply put, he’s vastly smarter at surviving than we are at hunting him. Thus, the mighty mule deer buck is God’s perfect creature, perhaps even better than perfect.
Speaking of frustration, week one brought me face to face with a pair of velvet-clad bull elk. For years I fantasized about harvesting a bull in velvet, but these elk spotted me first and blew out of the area…permanently. Esther went home after the first week and I was left alone; just me, my tent, and the mountain. One day, while driving up a nasty dirt road in the velvet elk area, I glimpsed a wide deer butt in the trees. I backed up and was befuddled to see a massive antler glued to the head of an enormous sway-belly buck just 10 yards off the road! Long story short, I spent the next four days tracking that buck through heavy timber.
Back and forth he went with no apparent pattern. All I could glean from this fruitless endeavor was that he dragged his right, rear leg, likely the result of a past human encounter. So I called him the “Draggerbuck.” I set up a trail camera in the area and eventually caught the old warrior on film. Thank goodness he was only a 3×4, because I was beaten and abandoned the pursuit altogether.
Putting it All Together
By the third week I’d seen a lot of new country and a lot of mediocre bucks; so many bucks that I gave up counting them. I’d fallen into a monotonous rhythm: Hunt prime feed at first light, then after 9:30 or so, when the deer had bedded, I’d go on an intel-gathering mission, following big tracks along travel routes while searching for likely feed, water, and bedding areas. Knowing that bucks will go to any horrible place just to avoid hunters, I really pushed myself. Around midday I would drag my sore feet back to camp for lunch and try to catch a “crap-nap” before setting out again. (Daytime sleep was rare and often interrupted). Then, in the early afternoon I’d head back out to explore prime areas and work bed-to-feed routes.
Through it all I never had a bad day because I was learning so much. Each day I returned to camp with a handful of clues—puzzle pieces if you will—that I’d picked up, photographed, or noted in my field journal. During periods of downtime, I meticulously pieced things together until a picture gradually developed. Sure there were gaps here and there, holes to remind me that the pieces are infinite, and can’t all be found. But we’re not meant to know everything; we can only get close. Some pieces probably got vacuumed up, and the dog probably ate some. But the picture was becoming clear and just what I’d hoped for: A monster buck, God’s most perfect beast, standing majestically in the timber, stoic and powerful, with a gleaming coat of coarse-gray fur, his massive antlers glistening above his muscular neck and wizened face. Dramatic, pastel-painted clouds loom overhead, and there’s a title at the bottom, barely visible in gold calligraphy etched in a boulder below his hooves. One word: UNTOUCHABLE. What a picture.
In one of my secret areas I can glass an adjacent mountain peak where a band of bucks often feed late into the morning and then take a predictable route through the pines towards a known bedding area. I had the wind right one evening, so I took my time carefully working into the timber in hopes of ambushing the bucks as they came up to feed. I worked carefully through the thick timber until I found the perfect ambush point between two deer trails and set up there for the evening. I sat motionless until the whole mountain and even the squirrels forgot I was there. I listened intently and glassed often, but nothing happened. As darkness fell I stood up in dismay and wondered deeply, how can I be better than perfect?!
My Mountain Home
A lot happens in 27 days of hunting. I found a couple broken arrowheads and what appears to be a spear tip fashioned of pale blue flint. One night a horrible, screeching witch-monster (or something) walked past my tent at 2:00 am. 27 years of hunting and I’d never heard such an awful noise in the woods! It woke me from a nightmare and I lied there frozen in terror, listening as the monster moved through the trees. I slept with my revolver close that night, and then, undeterred, resumed normal hunting activities the following morning.
The woods are cruel, I’ve decided. They may seem benign to the uninitiated, but to the veteran hunter they’re downright mean. Big buck areas are often protected by a near impenetrable network of barking squirrels, doe snorts, and crackling ground cover. Trying to navigate these obstacles is a daily exercise in futility. Squirrels are the worst and can effectively ruin a hunt. Observe any buck when a squirrel fires up with its relentless, mindless barking. The buck whips his head around and stares in that direction. The older bucks won’t even look, they just walk away.
It gets worse in September when the squirrels have amassed a collection of pine cones and become territorial. The entire pine forest becomes gridded out as squirrel territory. But there’s more going on than just random barking. Oftentimes, the obnoxious rodent simply ignores me until I’ve crawled into bow range. At that point, he seems to have a moral responsibility to alert the buck to my presence. I suspected this before, but now I believe it. Here’s one example: I’m sneaking down a trail when I hear some rustling 20 yards ahead. I crouch down as a mature 4×4 buck steps into view. As I raise my binos for a closer look, a nearby squirrel loses his mind. Then a chipmunk joins in. The buck turns around and glares at me before nervously moving off. This happens all the time, and now, at risk of sounding insane, I fully believe the squirrels are protecting the deer from hunters.
Week 4: Hell Week
Twenty days afield wears on a guy. Days and days go by without speaking to anyone. I stave off loneliness well enough, but then there are the constant bugs, heat, dust, and the crappy air mattress taking its toll on my spine. Weary exhaustion from waking too early, hiking all day, and getting to bed late makes time go by in a blurry haze. Days are very long and time is perceived differently. What day is it, I often wonder.
Summer gradually changes to fall; mornings grow cooler and evenings grow shorter. Suddenly it’s a new month, a new moon, and a whole different season. Then there’s dinner: a can of soup, the same kind every night, alone in the dark, sometimes with moths floating in it. But you get used to it. Still, this hunt feels tougher than most, probably because work- and home-life were so stressful preceding the hunt. It was a record year for ripped off, even by good friends, so I carried a lot of negative energy into this hunt. But I suppose it’s easier to spend a month in the woods when you’re disgusted with humanity.
As I sit in the dark, rhythmically slurping my soup, I suddenly realize that everything back home is a luxury. I ask myself, what do I really need to survive? The forest mind, now focused by chronic stinging silence, sees clearly that the vast majority of what consumes our lives is totally unnecessary. The constant din of technology—the TV, phone, internet, ads—is all distractions, even dangerously distracting, because these digital devices distract us from what really matters—purpose, meaning, friends and family. These are digital toxins, stealing away our precious time and scattering our minds. Modern man is becoming an aberration, the byproduct of over-consumerism and selfishness perpetuated by technology and too much information.
That ubiquitous phone-device we poke at all day is the portal from whence the monster comes. It feels like tentacles around my neck. Being self-employed, I live project to project, not by a wage. I haven’t had a paid vacation day in almost fifteen years, so time is valuable. But my phone rings and beeps all the time, interrupting my focus and wrecking my productivity. 90% of the time it’s no one I want to talk, or worse yet, scammers and crooks, seething vultures prying at my wallet and vying for my life’s energy. Even the device itself is constantly trying to sell me something, begging for updates or demanding upgrades. Like I need an upgrade; if anything, I need a downgrade!
Technology has gone too far. It’s a detriment to natural life. It’s ridiculous and abhorrent. Sci-fi predicted our fate a long time ago, and now, here in the future, the machine really has killed us, we just don’t know it yet. I shudder at the thought of returning home. I love the mountain; it’s my rescuer.
The Big One
By week four I’d seen nearly a hundred bucks and only two were worthy of my arrow (180 inches or better). 2% sucks, but it’s still better than most places in Northern Utah. Week four is also fraught with regret. That big 4×4 I passed up early in the season suddenly doesn’t seem so small. I busted him low, then high, and that was the last I saw of him. He changed mountains altogether, went nocturnal, and practically stopped existing. The following week I went looking for him and in his stead was a beautiful 4×5. I passed him too, first at 15 yards and again at 40. Now I’d be happy with either one. But I was convinced there was a bigger one lurking somewhere.
Well, I met that bigger buck with only five days left in the hunt. I estimate him at 190 gorgeous inches. I left camp early that morning, heading to the same far-off ridge where I chased the 30-inch buck early on. Just as the sun began streaming through the trees I heard a swishing sound in the dry brush, and out popped a monster buck 50 yards away. He was a majestic 4×4 tank-of-a-deer, beautiful and old. He was feeding broadside on a steep slope, barely visible in the thick pines. I pulled an arrow, but there was no shot. The buck was working steadily towards the only opening in the forest when a squirrel fired up. Then the wind began to swirl. The buck looked around nervously.
Realizing my only chance at a great buck was about to fall apart, my adrenaline surged and I began shaking like a little girl. The buck continued, slower now. I was coming unglued; my heart pounded and my hands shook. When he finally sauntered through the shot window, I settled my dancing sight pin best I could and hit the release. The arrow took a last minute nose dive into the dirt and the buck smashed away unscathed. After a minute of disgust, I raised my binos and lo and behold, there he was, deep in the woods, antlers sprawling through the trees. He was scowling at me—really scowling—like I’d never seen a deer do before. We stared at each other for several minutes before he finally turned and melted away.
With only four days left I hammered the monster buck area relentlessly. I found two prime feed areas and two prime bedding routes all bearing huge, pebble droppings. I put in full days afield, ghosting through the woods tirelessly, but I never caught up with that buck again. The great, unsolvable problem was navigating the “gauntlet” each morning. The whole area was booby trapped with does, squirrels, swirling winds, and lesser bucks sprinkled around perimeter. The bucks had the decency of just B-lining out of there, but the does were evil. They snorted, stomped, and sprinted around in circles alerting the entire forest to my presence. By the time I got to the big buck area, everything was blown out. With only three days left, and painfully aware of my empty freezer back home, I lowered my standards. Now any mature buck was good enough.
Friday, September 13; only two days left. There was a short sentence scribbled on my bow hand in heavy ink: This is IT! Everything I’d endured all year came down to this. Besides, you never know which hunt might be your last. I took the same route that morning and by some miracle made it through the gauntlet. But as expected, the prime area was empty.
The secondary area was a third-mile away, so I needed to hurry. I was trotting through the woods at 7:45 when I spotted two small bucks feeding a short distance ahead. When I paused, a squirrel lit up like its tail was on fire. The two bucks looked back at me, and then promptly shuffled away. To the right a large bush swayed back and forth. A third, unseen buck was raking a bush with his rack, too distracted to hear the squirrel’s alarm. I pulled an arrow just as the bush stopped moving.
The buck, suddenly alarmed by the squirrel, began walking briskly to the right. Through the first opening he came to I glanced at his headgear, four points, good enough. His shoulder appeared and I launched the arrow without a second to spare. The shot felt good and the buck blasted up the near-vertical slope like a cannonball and disappeared in the trees. I stood for a while trying to get my bearings. It all happened so fast.
The blood trail was instant, crimson splashes on both sides of dug-in tracks blasting uphill. After a short bit I found my broken-off arrow covered in bubbly blood. Fifty yards up the mountain, his tracks veered sharply right and there he was, his grey body piled up in some yellow bushes with a heavy antler protruding upward. I knelt down by the beautiful buck and grasped for understanding.
Everything had transpired too quickly to process it. All these years of intense learning had led to this sudden, surprising encounter. I was kind of expecting a grand crescendo to an epic hunt, but instead got an abrupt end to a chance meeting. Nevertheless I was happy; my spirit was full.
The story is really a short one. On a far-off mountainside, somewhere between two prime deer areas, a bowhunter met a random buck, and that’s all. A person can dedicate his whole life to learning about these wondrous creatures—collecting data, photographing, admiring, and pondering—but they’re really beyond comprehension and almost beyond reach. My buck appeared when I needed him to, 27 days into a 28-day season. But the real trophy was knowledge. In just two seasons I’d put in 45 days afield and went farther than ever before while simultaneously expanding my mule deer knowledge ten-fold.
My buck wasn’t really old, nor was his rack really wide, nor tall. He was just a solid 4×4 buck with good mass and some extra cheaters. But considering all I’d been through and how little time was left, I’d say he was perfect, maybe even better than perfect.
Preface: Yeah, I know this is a bowhunting blog, but fishing is hunting–underwater hunting to be exact–and many of the same hunting concepts apply.
Every Fish in Utah
Way back before video games and cell phones, when I was a little kid growing up in Northern Utah, we farm kids wiled away our time in the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories were time spent trout fishing with my family. My love for fishing continued strong into my teenage years and pretty soon I was dodging work to go fishing any time I could.
It wasn’t long before I began exploring new waters with exciting, new fish species ranging from bass, to sunfish, and weird stuff like arctic grayling and tiger musky. I guess variety truly is the spice of life because I loved catching a new fish way more than the same old boring trout.
Somewhere along my angling path I picked up a DWR fish regulation booklet in which was printed dozens of full color fish pictures. I was pleasantly surprised at just how many fish species we had living in Utah, due primarily to the wide range of temperatures and elevations this state affords. In a nanosecond I decided to catch every single fish before I died; it was my life’s goal. As an aside, I had no interest in catching the wide variety of trash fish (carp, suckers, and chubs) so I left them out.
Throughout my troublesome twenties, I systematically checked off fish after fish. It was quite the adventure. Some fish, like the white bass, pike, and tiger musky, existed in only one or two lakes, which forced me to make several surgical strikes along the way. Not only did I end up exploring countless new waters, but I was learning all about specific fish behaviors and special techniques for catching them. I talked to dozens of fish shop owners and DWR officers over the years and found the whole process to be fascinating.
Only Five to Go
As I neared my thirties, my list of remaining species had shrunk to only five species: walleye, whitefish, striped bass, and northern pike. This is where things got complicated. The DWR, in their infinite wisdom and biological prowess, began cross-breeding several species to produce entirely new species of sterile hybrids. These included tiger trout, splake, and wiper bass. It seemed that every time I crossed a fish off my list, they added a new one. It was frustrating, but fun!
The tiger trout was the craziest fish I ever met. The first one I hooked actually took of “running,” or skipping, across the lake surface. I lost several before finally landing one. There’s something about crossing a brown trout with a brook trout that brings out the crazy.
The toughest fish was the elusive walleye. This silver-eyed, nocturnal bottom-hunter exists in just a few Utah lakes, the closest being Willard Bay. For five long years I researched walleye, bought piles of walleye-specific lures, and beat the waters to death trying to catch one. I fantasized about punching the walleye in the snout if I ever did catch one. Finally, one cool and dark evening on the shores of Willard bay in 2000, I landed an 18-incher on a white curly tail jig. I didn’t punch it, but made a delicious walleye dinner instead.
The whitefish–an ugly, bottom-feeding fish resembling a cross between a trout and a carp–fell next to my fly rod on the Weber River. One freezing, winter afternoon I bounced a nymph along the bottom and BOOM, caught and photographed a whitefish, then tossed it back. Only two fish left!
The Lowly Burbot
Nope, make that three… Around this time, some ass-clown, bucket-biologist tossed a ling cod (aka burbot) into Flaming Gorge and it just took off. This ugly fish, which resembles a cross between a snake and a living turd, exploded in the vast waters of the Gorge and now threatens to wreck the entire fishery. Nonetheless, it was placed on my hit list. In the winter of 2011 I signed up for the Burbot Bash Fish Derby and caught an ugly burbot the first night out. I almost didn’t want to touch it, but man was it delicious!
Only Two Left
In spring of 2011 I made a solo trip 400 miles to Lake Powell to target striped bass from shore. I’d amassed a huge pile of striper data over the years…none of which really helped me, that is, except for chumming. Shad lures were the purported ticket: buy a bunch of white and silver lures and throw ’em till you catch a striper. I chummed the water with a pile of cut-up shad pieces and then casted and reeled and casted and reeled to no avail.
An hour later, with nary a bite, I was rummaging desperately through my tackle box when I spotted my secret weapon: a 4-inch, green tube jig with red flakes. This unsuspecting lure had caught more fish than any lure I own. In no time I was fighting a big ‘ol striper bass to shore…and then 12 more! Amazing! Only one more fish to go: the northern pike.
Pike occur in abundance at Yuba Lake in Central Utah, which just happened to be on my way home from Powell. Could I actually do it???
Nope. Runoff was high that year, and the lake was flooded and freezing cold. I wandered all over the limited public access shoreline while tossing everything I had into the water to no avail. Then I went home empty-handed.
2012 was a great year, not because the world didn’t end, but rather I got several days off with my wife for a second round at the northern pike. My goal was simple: Fish all day, every day, and NEVER come home till I’d accomplished my life’s goal.
It was a warm and calm day, the 22nd of May, 2012. We loaded the old green canoe on the roof of my truck and headed south. (NOTE: You definitely need a boat when fishing Yuba. A canoe will work.) We canoed around while tossing spinners into likely pike areas…I think…though I’d never actually seen a pike in reel life. ANYHOO, I got good tug, set the hook, and reeled in a small pike, but a pike nonetheless.
I was ecstatic! Well, I was ecstatic for about 2 minutes. After taking pictures however, a deep emptiness set in. It caught me off guard. All I could think was, “Now what!?” I guess I didn’t believe it would actually happen. Now what?
After 30 years, I’d fallen in love with the chase even more than the fish. Each new species was an exciting new adventure. Countless nights I’d stayed up late studying fish behavior and learning new tactics. Each new fish was accompanied by an adrenaline surge and a great sense of accomplishment. And now it was over.
Such is life.
I have since set newer, bigger outdoor goals. I probably won’t live long enough to reach them all, but I now understand that it’s the pursuit I love most. Moreover, it’s the people who support your goals and accompany you on your crazy adventures. (Special thanks to my wife, Esther, who supported me whole-hardheartedly through my mad, mad life.)
Without goals we flounder through life and get lazy. Mediocrity sets in. Give me adventure, give me passion, give me conquest, or give me death!
Conclusion – The Art of Zen Fishing
The most valuable single piece of information I gained from my quest is fish Zen. No matter where I fish, I can pretty quickly get a feel for when, where, and what the fish are biting on. As my lure moves through the water I can almost visualize where the fish are and how they’ll respond to it. Infinite knowledge and experience is archived in my subconscious and conscious mind. I make my next cast and retrieve based not on speculation, but infinite data points, some of which I’m not even conscious of. What does it all mean? I’ll never starve. There’s a simple, primal, and invaluable confidence in knowing that you’ll never starve.
Now It’s Your Turn
Now it’s your turn, if you so desire. Utah has 30 game fish species strewn all over the state, and I’ve never met another person who’s caught them all. Close, maybe. So why not try it yourself! Send me any questions you may have and I’ll be glad to help you out. Truthfully, I’m sitting on way too much fishing information to just take it to my grave.
A few years ago I was fish-guiding a bright, twenty-something-year-old man named Cliff. He was eager to fish, but just as eager to converse about the wonders of nature. Throughout our impassioned conversation I laid out some personal Zen-like experiences I’d had in nature and how these experiences ultimately led to great success.
Cliff was fascinated with the concept of Zen hunting and asked me what the “pillars” of Zen hunting were exactly. I was a little dumbfounded by his question because, up until then, I’d never thought of Zen hunting in terms of ‘pillars.’ Long story short, I went home wrote down what I considered the pillars of Zen hunting to be.
Before we get all philosophical about hunting, let’s first examine the normal, non-Zen, hunting pillars, and then contrast them with Zen hunting pillars.
Note: The following isn’t an official list of hunting pillars, but rather a compilation of both personal experience and knowledge gleaned from experts in the hunting field.
Traditional Hunting Pillars of Success
The right equipment
Good physical conditioning
Zen Hunting Pillars of Success
(There you go Cliff! The pillars are finally written in stone.)
Hunting Pillars Compared
When we compare the pillars of Zen hunting with the pillars of conventional hunting, you can see they are very different; actually I don’t see any similarities at all. That’s because each list is a completely different approach to hunting. The items in the first list are mostly tangible and readily available, while the Zen items are more of a mindset approach to hunting. As we analyze the Zen pillars, you’ll see that each is really a step—one leading to the next—and completed in consecutive order. In other words it’s a path.
Obviously you can’t practice Zen hunting without including some normal hunting pillars, like stalking and shooting. On the other hand, you can practice regular hunting without using any Zen pillars at all—heck, most hunters already do. Either they don’t know what Zen hunting is, or they’re already applying some Zen to their hunting style and just don’t know it.
The concept of Zen hunting (or Zen-anything) is mostly foreign to Westerners because we tend to be results-oriented and gear-minded. We look at nature as a commodity—something to be tamed or dominated. Moreover, today’s society has a decreasing attention span, the byproduct of this hyper-information age and its constant distractions. We get bored easily and lose our focus. All of this leads to an impatient or aggressive approach to hunting, and more often than not, to failure.
The way we combat this is through Zen hunting. Zen hunting is all about using down time afield to focus the mind and reconnect with our natural hunting instincts. This is best done alone since another person often serves as a distraction.
The Zen Process
The first step is to free the mind of distractions and expectations through the natural mediation that comes from just sitting or walking in the woods. This takes time, so be patient. Letting go of expectations is the hardest part because human nature expects instant results. As hunters we expect to kill something. We have a goal in mind and are dead set on reaching it. In Zen hunting, our eyes are open to the bigger picture.
The simple pleasure of communing with nature is satisfaction enough. Our newfound appreciation for the woods softens our kill drive, and when this happens we connect with the energy of nature and the life force of the planet (hopefully you believe in such things). This is what it means to be “one” with nature, or to achieve “oneness.”
Nature lives and breathes at a slow, rhythmic pace. You can see that rhythm in the way things move: clouds, trees, and animals, and hear it in the wind and bird songs. Zen hunting helps tune us in to that rhythm. No longer do we push our ego-driven “kill energy” ahead of us, but instead, we move with nature. In effect Zen hunting acts as a natural camouflage.
Zen hunting also gives us a heightened sense of awareness. We become more attentive to the infinite supply of subtle clues which will eventually guides us towards our quarry. Simply put, we become better hunters by using Zen afield.
That’s the whole process; easier said than done, but attainable all the same.
The goal of Zen hunting is to become a part of nature rather than apart from it. Since humans are nature in the first place, it only makes sense to reconnect with Nature to meet our needs. That is the goal of Zen hunting, and also the mission of this website: To reconnect modern-day hunters with the timeless rhythms of nature and to guide them towards a more successful and fulfilling hunting experience through Zen hunting principles.
Over the past several years I’ve had the privilege of teaching hundreds of people basic archery. Due to the nature of the organization I work for, the majority of my students are left-wing oriented people in their early twenties. Most have never hunted before, and some are even ardent anti-hunters! As you can guess I’ve had quite a few passionate conversations over the years.
As it turns out, the majority of the anti-hunters are regular meat-eaters. This obviously adds a lot of weight to my arguments, the most effective being, “If you eat meat then you’re directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of animals; you just hire someone else doing the dirty work for you. Hunters, on the other hand, are directly responsible for their meat.” This point usually brings the offended into the realm of reality.
The Anti-Hunting Archer
Learning archery doesn’t necessarily mean a student wants to kill anything. To them it’s just a fun activity. But I often wonder what drove a flaming anti-hunter to walk over and pick up a bow-and-arrow in the first place. There seems to be an instinctual allure to archery for almost everybody.
Historical data reveals that every civilization around the world has—at one time or another—used the bow-and-arrow for survival. I believe the reason so many modern-day non-hunters are attracted to archery is a hidden connection ingrained in their DNA. (Well, that and popular television shows.)
About 1-in-10 of my students are naturals; they shoot masterfully within minutes of picking up the weapon for the first time. The bow seems to awaken something deep inside, and they beam with excitement. For this reason, teaching archery to this new generation has been the most rewarding job I ever had. It’s my calling.
Many first-time students view bows-and-arrows as recreational toys. If I don’t insist on teaching safety first, some will just grab a random bow and start flinging arrows errantly and dangerously. I’ve even seen stragglers pick up a bow and proceed to pull the bow backwards (toward themselves)!
Before going over safety rules, one of the very first questions I ask is, “Can anyone tell me what the bow-and-arrow was originally designed for?” There’s always a short pause, and then someone sheepishly responds, “Killing???”
There’s always a few despondent faces, but they won’t be deterred.
The Truth about Hunting
City folk often have a skewed vision of hunting. They think that hunting is as easy as pulling off the side of the road and shooting some helpless creature to death. This misconception is reinforced by hunting shows that portray every hunt as a short jaunt through the woods, followed by chip shot from a blind on private property. I’ve even had people say, “How hard could it be? Heck, I saw a bunch of deer on the side of the road this morning!”
“Well, it’s spring…” (Sometimes it’s an uphill battle).
Actually, I won’t push hunting on anyone; I won’t even bring it up unless someone asks…
…but someone always asks.
Without getting too crazy, I explain how bowhunting is my greatest passion, and it provides the majority of the meat for my family. I tell them that hunting is a completely different skill than shooting. Hunting–especially bow hunting–is very difficult and takes a lifetime to master.
I go on to explain that, in the end, I really don’t want to kill anything; that there’s little glory in shooting a creature to death in cold blood. But I don’t want to starve to death either! Moreover, I really don’t want to wander down the meat aisle at the supermarket and sift through carefully packaged, hormone-infused, mass-produced, inorganic, salmonella-oozing farm garbage. My body is my temple, and the only meat I allow in is purely organic, free-range lean meat that once walked the earth freely as God intended.
For the most part my arguments are met with great respect, probably because I’m so passionate about it. I get comments ranging from, “Wow, I never looked at it that way…” or “I could never shoot an animal, but I really respect the way you do it.” Even the most ardent anti-hunting vegan will politely “agree to disagree,” and then go back to flinging arrows.
I believe these conversations with non-hunters have been mutually beneficial. On one side, I’m constantly reminded to take a closer look at the ethics and morals of my sport. On the other, I’m grateful for the opportunity to shed some good light on the delicate subject of killing.
Hopefully this article has been beneficial to both hunters and non-hunters alike. The best way we hunters can preserve our precious sport for future generations is by hunting ethically and arguing our side in a thoughtful and respectful way.
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 quickly, 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?
For the first time in my career I had no choice but to break down my shot sequence and 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 quickly erodes confidence by allowing negative factors such as fatigue, discouragement, and desperation into the shot. 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. But there’s also mental fatigue, caused by trying to over-aim the arrow into the bullseye again and 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, which 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 this process 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 if 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 to keep your honey hole a secret
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!