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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Surprising Mule Deer Facts
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.
Can you feel it? The changing season, a shift in the sun’s angle? Nostalgic aromas of ripening vegetation? We’re almost there, almost in the woods.
If you’re like me, you’re already out there, in your mind. Wits sharpening, watching the ground for clues, listening.
The annual ritual of prehunt mediation is upon us. We look like we’re working a job–we go through the motions–but we’re really out there, in the woods, sharpening our Craft–woodscraft, stalkcraft, bowcraft, huntcraft.
As my spirit stretches into the wild landscape, I’m reminded of so many experiences unwritten and nearly forgotten. But the hunter spirit stirs the sediment of the mind into a swirling patchwork of sights, sounds, and smells.
In my next few articles I’m going to reach into murk and materialize some of these experiences. I hope they’ll inspire you to do the same.