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Slivers of Opportunity: My 2019 Deer Story

Southern Utah in September

A Grim Assessment

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 replied.

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…

Opening Day

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.

The next night 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 night 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.”

Traditional hunting grounds.

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 morning stalk. 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 big 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 or two 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 been sniping 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.

Hunting the dense timber.

When hunting in dense timber, it’s almost impossible to get eyes on a deer that you’ve spooked because of the way 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 at them. 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 human 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 bow hunters 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 we 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.

Man-Eating Cougars

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 on camera.

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.

Endless summer beauty.

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 into 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.

Day #21

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 into 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!

Day #22

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 woods.

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.

My 2019 archery buck.

Conclusion

 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, without complaining, until their short lives 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.

The End.
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Better Than Perfect: My 2018 Deer Hunt

The Goal

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.

The steep country.

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.

Perfect Creatures

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.

The Draggerbuck

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.

The Draggerbuck

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.

Glassing

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.

Spearhead?

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.

A day in the woods.

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.

Day 27

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.

Reminder.

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.

My 2018 archery buck.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Advanced Archery Technique: The Relaxed State

The Advanced Archery Technique

All suffering is caused by desire.  -Buddha

Over the past several years I’ve taught hundreds of people basic archery. Of all these students, only a handful are what you might call “naturals.” They follow instructions carefully, excel immediately, and break through to the next level at an astonishing pace.

But even these “naturals” eventually hit a wall: their accuracy plateaus, they fatigue out and eventually falter. At this point they often turn to me and ask, “What now? I’ve mastered the basics, but how can I hit closer to the bullseye?”

As their intrepid instructor, it’s my duty to guide these students to the next level. The problem I had early on–and what my students didn’t know–was that I too was wondering the same thing! When you’ve mastered the basics–that is, when you’re executing the shot sequence flawlessly and still coming up short–how do you increase accuracy?

Eventually I passed this question along to a famous national archer. When he didn’t respond I had no choice but to break down my own shot sequence to see where potential weaknesses could set in. Here’s what I discovered.

The Problem

The thing that gets between the bow and the target isn’t the arrow,  it’s you! Every archer, no matter how advanced, goes through slumps. A few missed shots can quickly erode confidence by allowing negative factors such as fatigue, discouragement, and desperation into the shot sequence. It’s a vicious cycle: the harder you try, the worse you do.

The Fatigue Factor

Physical fatigue is the greatest negative factor, especially for the beginner who hasn’t yet developed his back muscles. Just as he begins hitting close to the bullseye, he fatigues out. But there’s also mental fatigue, caused by trying to over-aim the arrow into the bullseye over and over again. Finally there’s spiritual fatigue, the byproduct of chronic misses. In the end, all this fatigue erodes confidence and creates a downward spiral.

Zen in Archery

From the Zen perspective, all suffering comes from desire. Desire, of course, is healthy and even necessary for any activity. But when desire turns into obsession, that’s when we suffer.

In archery you suffer from your very first shot. You strain physically under the weight of bow while your mind strains to aim the arrow. And when your arrow falls short of the bullseye, your spirit strains from the pangs of failure, resulting in desperation.  In short order, your whole being–mind, body, and spirit–is strained!

I see this all the time. The student grasps another arrow, and another, faster and faster while simultaneously grasping for the bullseye which is rapidly becoming an impossible target. Very quickly he creates the bad habit of high-stress archery, and this can take a long time to fix.

So, what’s the fix? It’s simple.

Instead of drawing the bow to a state of high tension, we need to learn how to draw to a relaxed state. Drawing to a relaxed state removes your self from the shot by eliminating negative influences over the arrow. Hence, your bow shoots itself. In Zen archery, eliminating your “self” removes desire, which in turn removes stress and suffering.

The Relaxed State Exercise

  1. Bring only one arrow with you on this exercise.
  2. Set up five paces from a large, blank target.
  3. Load the arrow.
  4. Stand up straight and spread your weight evenly between your feet.
  5. Grasp the string firmly and draw to your face while taking a deep, deep breath.
  6. 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.”
  7. Now let down the draw smoothly; don’t shoot the arrow.
  8. Catch your breath.
  9. 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.
  10. Maintain this relaxed state as you walk to the target and pull your arrow. Repeat these relaxed shots over and over until it becomes habit.

That’s all there is to it. You are now drawing the bow to a state of high relaxation rather than a state of high stress. You’ve turned a bad habit into a good habit.

Real Life Example

One day I approached a talented young student who was literally drawing a circle around the bullseye with errant arrows. Wide-eyed and desperate, he turned to me and pleaded, “What am I doing wrong?!” I watched him fling yet another arrow just outside of the bullseye. I told him, “You’re trying to hard.” I went on to explain that missing the target wasn’t the end of the world; that his passion for archery–the whole meditative process–was far more important than a single bullseye. I had him breathe deeply and look around at the beautiful mountains. A moment later he calmly drew his bow and sank the next arrow into the bullseye. His face lit up and he hugged me. Years later he still talks about his enlightening experience.

Conclusion

Your bow is designed to shoot a perfect arrow every time. The arrow only misses when you let yourself get in the way.

For every student that asks, How can I shoot more accurately?, there are a few others who comment on how meditative archery is; how it relaxes and focuses the mind. These students typically aren’t the best archers at first, because to them the process outweighs the result. I view these students as the real naturals, and they even prove it when, eventually, their arrow finds the bullseye with seemingly little effort.

Shooting in a relaxed state is the secret to Zen archery. On a grander scale, you might say that living in a relaxed state is the secret to a Zen life!

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The Wall: My 2017 Utah Archery Buck

A New Beginning

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.

Southern Utah.

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.

Round Two

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.

September

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.

The hunters moon.

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.

Hairy current berries.

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.

Doing Time

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.

My 2017 camp.

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.

Deer retrieval route.

Home Run

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.

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The Archery Advantage

Advantages of Archery over Gun Hunting

Hunting big game with archery tackle is one of the greatest challenges a person can face, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Stalking close to unsuspecting prey, and then harvesting that animal with a stick-and-string stirs the primal spirit and reconnects us with nature in a way that gun hunting can’t. But did you know that bow hunting also has several advantages over the gun? Let’s look at a few:

1) Early Seasons/ Late Seasons: In most western states, the archery seasons occurs before the rifle season. In Utah for example, the archery hunt begins in mid-August when deer are still in their relaxed summer routines which makes them more predictable and easier to stalk. They are also velvet-clad which keeps them out of the thick timber.

By the October rifle hunt these same bucks become hard-horned and tend to stick to thick timber, making them harder to locate.

States like Idaho and Utah also have archery-only, late season rut-hunts which allows archers to take advantage of giant, rut-crazed bucks which are much easier to locate after the rifle season ends.

2) Longer Seasons: Most western states have much longer archery seasons than rifle. In Utah for example the general archery season is 28 days long compared to the 9-day rifle hunt. It certainly helps to have time on your side, and having a season that’s three times longer will allow many more opportunities.

3) Warmer Weather: Early season means warmer weather, and warmer temperatures means more time afield. You’re also less likely to get snowed out of your hunt.

Cold weather wears on your overall attitude, thus compromising mental toughness. It’s far much easier to get discouraged when you’re cold and wet.

And finally, warm weather affords lighter clothing and less gear to pack around, making you quieter and more mobile.

4) Easier to Spot: Summer bucks wear a reddish-orange coat throughout August which makes them much easier to spot against green vegetation. They also run in bachelor herds well into September, and since there’s more of them, they’re easier to spot. By October most big bucks are running solo and holding tight to heavy timber during daylight hours.

5) Better Draw Odds: Probably the greatest advantage of archery is ease of drawing a tag. In the unit where I deer hunt, I’m guaranteed an archery tag every year. But gun hunters are only able to draw every other year due to high demand. This is an important archery advantage, because if you can’t get a tag you’re not going hunting!

The same advantage applies to limited entry and other high demand tags. In Utah it takes an average of two years longer to draw a limited rifle tag than a limited archery tag.

6) Quiet Weaponry Means More Opportunities: As any archer can attest, it’s just a matter of time before you sail an arrow over some unsuspecting buck that you’ve spent hours stalking. But if you have a quiet bow–as most bows are–you’ll likely get a second chance. This happened to me last year, and fortunately my second arrow got the job done.

Probably the worst disadvantage of rifle hunting is that all the deer on the mountain are alerted after the first rifle shot. After that, any deer with any sense goes into deep hiding and becomes extremely difficult to find.

7) Archery Makes You a More Skillful Hunter: Sure, there are many skillful rifle hunters out there, but shooting accurately is only half the battle, for both rifle and bow. When the deer are holding tight to timber, you’ll need to have some decent stalking and locating skills. That’s what the bow affords: it forces you to be quiet and patient, to slow down, and to learn everything you can about your prey in terms of behavior and habits. Inevitably, the byproduct of all of this extra effort leads to a deeper connection to nature and a richer hunting experience.

Conclusion

When I made the transition from rifle to bow, I was blown away by how little I knew about deer behavior, much less my ability to stalk close to them. I burned many tags while building these skills, but in the end I’ve become a far more effective hunter.

Above all, archery hunting makes the whole experience far richer than simply sniping deer with a long-range rifle. Long after the meat is gone and the antlers are nailed to the wall, that experience will linger on. And isn’t that what we’re really hunting for?

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Why I Switched to a Single-Pin Slider Bow Sight

Montana Black Gold Ascent single-pin “slider” sight.

Why I Switched to a Single-Pin Slider Bow Sight

Watching my arrow sail harmlessly over a world-class buck at 50 yards wasn’t heartbreaking; it was traumatizing! After replaying the shot over and over for a year, I concluded it was either an error in ranging, or more likely I settled the wrong pin (60-yard?) due to buck fever. Consequently I made some drastic changes to my bow setup last year, starting with my bow sight.

Standard multi-pin bow sight.

For years I used a standard multi-pin, fiber-optic bow sight. When the single-pin (slider) sight came out, I wrote it off as just another unnecessary gadget which would likely introduce more problems than anything. But after carefully weighing the pros and cons, I decided to try it–and I’ll NEVER go back.
Here’s why:

Single Pin Pros

1) It’s far easier to focus a single pin on a small target than to wade through multiple-pins–or worse yet, shooting between the pins–especially under high stress.

2) Multiple pins–whether 5 or 7–take up way too much space in the sight picture. A long row of pins is not only distracting, but blocks too much of the target or animal’s vitals.

3) If you’re shooting heavy arrows and/or pulling a light draw weight, the pins on a multi-pin sight will be spaced widely apart. This adversely affects accuracy. A single-pin sight that can be dialed to the exact yardage has proven to be far more accurate in my experience.

Single Pin Cons

1) The most obvious drawback to a single-pin sight is that every time the animal moves, you have to re-adjust the sight. If the animal moves a lot, or is walking towards you, it can be very frustrating. But after actually using it in the field (and arrowing three animals in 2016), I realized just how rare these scenarios occur. In most cases you’ll have plenty of time to range the animal and move the slider; it only takes a second.

2) Moving a single-pin sight creates extra movement. Again, this proved to be a nonfactor. When hunting thick timber, I leave my pin set at 20 yards and don’t worry about it. If an animal busts out at 25-30 yards, I just have to hold a little higher. When I’m hunting more open terrain I leave the pin at 30 or 40 yards, but it really doesn’t matter because animals that far out are usually calm and won’t notice the slight movement of my hand. After all, just drawing your bow creates far more movement than scrolling a slider wheel.

Final Note

Just about every archery manufacturer makes a single-pin sight now. My only recommendation is buy a sturdy, all-aluminum model that can stand up to the rigors of hunting.

If you’re not yet ready to commit to a single-pin sight, then you should consider a hybrid sight. In a hybrid sight the top few pins are fixed, but the bottom pin is movable. This solves most issues listed above, but again, you still have multiple pins blocking the target. My advice is to keep it simple: one pin, one man, one giant buck.

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Whatever it Takes Bowhunting

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Doing Whatever it Takes to Succeed

During last year’s bowhunt I missed a 50-yard shot at a pretty decent buck. Since then, I’ve pondered the miss hundreds of times in effort to pin-point exactly what went wrong.

There were many factors to consider: steepness of angle, a crappy rangefinder, holding the wrong pin, buck fever, etc.

By the time I patterned the buck, the season was over and the buck had disappeared. In order to avoid making the same mistake(s), I’ve addressed every possible variable:

  1. I replaced my old rangefinder with one that calculates angles AND can actually see through brush to avoid false readings.

  2. I switched to a single pin sight in order to eliminate wrong pin selection and pin-gapping issues under pressure.

  3. I dialed up my bow poundage in order to get a flatter arrow trajectory.

  4. I began shooting steeper angles.

My summer schedule is a consummate nightmare, so rarely can I go to the mountains and shoot angles. So I found the highest point in my yard (my rooftop) and began shooting from there.

There’s an old saying: “What a fool does in the end, the wise man does in the beginning.” At this point, I implore you to anticipate the worst possible shot scenario and practice for it. Do whatever it takes, because big bucks rarely give you a second chance.

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Ultimate Archery Instructional Video

Ultimate Archery Instructional Video

I’ve been collaborating with my videographer friend, Shane Thompson, on an awesome archery instructional video. The content for this video is based on lessons I’ve put together and used to teach hundreds of people over the years.

The first instructional video will be out soon and I will post the link here.

Below is the intro video. Pretty cool, huh?!

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3 Steps to Better Archery Shooting

Three Steps to Better Archery: Video

My friend Shane Thompson helped shoot this video to demonstrate better archery shooting. These techniques were explained in my last article.

This video examines the three most common mistakes made by both beginner and advanced archers and shows you how to fix them. I hope it helps!

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Top 3 Tips to Improve Your Archery NOW!

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Top 3 Tips to Improve Your Archery

Now that spring is here, you’ve probably taken your bow out, dusted it off, and sent some arrows downrange. Maybe some were bulls-eyes while some were errant, but it’s early yet and there’s always room for improvement.

In the last ten years I’ve worked tirelessly at becoming a better hunter. But at the same time, I’ve also developed some bad habits. These habits are common to most archers and include punching the release and lack of follow-through. What you do at the end of your release has the greatest effect on accuracy. So in today’s lesson we’re going to relearn how to shoot.

Bad shooting habits develop because we’re too focused on hitting the bullseye. Everyone knows that humans can only focus on one thing at a time. Ironically, if we focus too hard on the bullseye, we’ll actually miss it!

Here’s the fix

  1. RELAX!:  A famous target archer once said, “A relaxed mind cannot exist in a tense body, and a tense mind cannot exist in a relaxed body.” More than anything else, the bow and arrow fights relaxation. First, there’s the mental stress of hitting the bullseye, especially in a hunting or competition. Second, when you draw your bow, your whole body becomes physically tense as it struggles to crank back and hold all that weight. So, now your mind and body are under duress. Your fight and flight response takes over and all that matters in the world is getting rid of that arrow. Now STOP! Tell yourself you will not release until you calm down. Breathe in and out a couple times. Put your sight pin on the bullseye, then take it off, and put it back on again. Who cares if you miss? Refuse to shoot until you are completely calm. Eventually this will become habit and will have the greatest effect on your accuracy.
  2. The Open Grip:  By now you probably know how to grip your bow, but it’s worth another look. First, your bow’s grip should begin at U-shape between your thumb and index finger. Second, your grip should contact your hand along your life line (the line that separates the fleshy part of your thumb and middle of your palm. Third, the grip should end at the center of your palm where your wrist begins. If you do this correctly, the middle knuckles of your bow hand will form a 45-degree angle slanted away from your grip. NOW, this is only the beginning. When you draw your bow, your fingers should be relaxed and open away from the bow’s grip. Your fingers should remain relaxed throughout the entire shot. The best way to do this is to make an “okay” sign with your index finger and thumb lightly touching. Your hand must remain like this throughout the entire shot.
  3. Follow-Through: Seems simple, right?! It’s not. Again, you can only focus on one thing, so if you’re still aiming at this point, then you’re not following through.  Aiming should go as far as letting the pin float tiny circles around the bullseye. At that point, your only focus should be on pushing the bow forward with your bow arm, and steadily pulling the string back with your release hand. The pin floats almost subconsciously while your focus floats freely and relaxedly between back tension, breathing, and oblivion. Oblivion is where you are free of all anticipation, free of all tension, and free of all distraction. All the technicalities of archery have become one simple action (form) and relegated to your subconscious mind. With nothing left to distract you, you are free; you are in the moment, perfectly centered between the future and the past.

The goal of archery is to relax: relax your grip, relax your body, and relax your mind. At this point, the bow is loosed on its own terms. The bow-and-arrow is accurate every time, subject only to the laws of nature which are fixed. The only variable is the shooter. The greatest obstacle YOU and how you influence the shot. When can master yourself, you will experience perfect archery with every shot.

Note:  I’ve included a video in my next blog post that demonstrates the 3 steps to better archery. Here’s the Video Link.

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