Tag Archives: failure and success

Moment of Clarity

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.

Sick in the Woods

Idaho 2016

Hunt Journal Entry: September 11, 2016

I just spent the last few days prowling around Idaho and still haven’t seen any decent bucks. Days are ruthlessly hot and dry, and nights are freezing, which is probably why I languish ahead with a painful head cold. My first step out of the dusty camp and my legs are sore with disease; my joints hurt, my muscles ache, my head throbs.

Foreign lands and no deer sign yet, but this remote valley looks promising. I’m headed toward the dark, north-face timber where I may get some reprieve from the glaring sun. But the route is thick with shrubs, oak brush, and cedars. Endless branches grasp at my body, tripping me and shoving me back down the steep slope.

I stop frequently to mop pouring sweat from my forehead with my camo cap. I’m still wearing the same stinky outfit I’ve donned for three days. Wind is my best ally, and my worst enemy. There’s no point trying to be quiet. I just need a vantage to glass from. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ll end up; just following my nose and reading sign.

Moments ago something crawled across my neck. I swiped at it and monstrous orange spider fell to the ground. But I won’t be dissuaded. This is what I live for; it’s all I know. Only a year ago my arrow sailed over the biggest velvet buck I ever shot at. He’s long since vanished now, which is why I’m here in Idaho. Redemption. New woods and new hope. I push onward.

Long since out of tissue, both my nostrils drain continuously, leaving a slimy trail of moisture everywhere I go, likely the only moisture this forest has seen in months. Finally some tracks, but small. I follow to see where they lead. Maybe I’ll strap on my release; I hope I brought it. Just yesterday I was hiking in grizzly country when halfway up the mountain I realized I’d forgotten to load my arrows into my quiver. Stupid head cold!

My life has been various attempts at various activities, but bowhunting has been my one true passion, and better yet, the only thing I’m really good at. But here and now, it’s hard to tell. My brain is gripped with pressure, my body is weak. I push on because I know nothing else.

In the pines a squirrel fires up, barking relentlessly, giving away my position. I always carry a squirrel arrow, but it’s all for not; there’s always another squirrel, and the biggest bucks are always in the dark timber with them. During a heavy wind last year, I stumbled upon a giant 4×4 buck bedded in a patch of thick blowdowns. Before I could even pull an arrow, a squirrel fired up alerting the buck who quickly rose from his bed and melted away into the forest.

I try to imagine heavy horns moving through the brush, and then my arrow carrying cold steel through its chest cavity. The only way I win is if I wreak maximum carnage on an innocent, unsuspecting deer. I wince at the thought. Will I ever turn away from this bloody pursuit? Likely not, because life outside the woods has little appeal to me, and even less venison. A predator must eat.

At this time I’d like to formally apologize to my faithful and finely crafted compound bow which I’m currently dragging through an almost indescribable tangled hell. Only five years old and it’s already covered in battle scars; scratches, dents and dings. Sure it’s seen some fine moments, but this year it’s just a hiking companion. Its one moment of glory is a dirty coyote I sniped near camp in Utah.

After weed-whacking for hours I’ve arrived at a fantastic rock outcropping with views of the entire valley. Only an hour-and-a-half of shooting light and still no deer. I glass empty draw after empty draw, stacked in vertical rows below the summit. I want to underestimate the mighty buck; I try to convince myself that he’s just another dumb animal eating and sleeping his life away. But I know better. He’s an ingenious survivor, evading predators year after year with very little effort and hardly a conscious thought. How is that possible? A hunter, no matter his experience, goes to his grave having merely scratching the surface of everything there is to know about these amazing survivors. Outsmarting him is the greatest challenge, and I suppose this relentless pursuit is why it never gets old.

The rest of my first Idaho excursion was nothing short of a grim letdown. The once promised land is mostly bleak, ravaged by human intrusions, just like Utah. ATVs and trash litter the landscape and the woods are devoid of huntable game. Big bucks live short lives hidden away in dark holes far removed from human access.

A Second Chance

The following is my 2016 Idaho deer story as published in Eastmans Bowhunting Journal, Issue 101, May/June 2017:

My 2015 obsession.
The infamous Monsterbuck.

During the 2015 Utah bowhunt I came across a tremendous 200”+ typical mule deer buck which I called Monsterbuck. At our first meeting, he caught me by surprise. Shaking like a newbie-hunter with buck fever, I promptly sailed an arrow over his back at 50 yards. Later in the season I filmed him at 200 yards on an open hillside. He was in an unstalkable location and surrounded by three other deer, so I let him walk, hoping to get a better opportunity the next day. But he had other plans. Like many big bucks, he immediately changed routine and kept me one step behind him until the season ended.

I promised myself not to obsess over this buck; it’s just too much pressure to bring into the woods. Apparently obsession is not a decision because that amazing buck crept into my mind every day for an entire year! I carried a picture of Monsterbuck around in my planner and reviewed the 2015 video footage often. Needless to say, I went into this year’s bowhunt with high hopes.

About a month before the season opener, I scouted for the Monsterbuck but couldn’t turn him up. No sweat, I thought, he’s a smart buck and will take a little more time to locate. Opening day was hot and dry, but I was brimming with hope and buzzing with energy. I picked up exactly where I left off last year. Right away I spotted a few forked-horns, but no Monsterbuck. I spent the rest of the day ghosting through thick timber and side-hilling steep slopes without rest. I never covered so much vertical ground in one day. I scoured the ground everywhere I went, but couldn’t find a single heavy-footed track. The evening hunt had me staring dejectedly at the same hillsides where the Monsterbuck had lived, but now completely devoid of deer.

Continuous boot-burning.
Continuous boot-burning.

And so went the next day, and the next. Eventually I moved camp low and worked upwards. Then north to south, and south to north, but still no Monsterbuck. For two weeks I clambered all over the beautiful and deerless mountains of Northern Utah. Morning, noon, and night I pondered where the Monsterbuck could be hiding, but turned up nothing.

Strangely enough, not only was the Monsterbuck missing, but so were seven other 4×4-or-bigger bucks I’d seen last year. At this point I was ready to take any mature buck, but all I could find were little ones. The best opportunity I had was a little 3-point buck that bounced into an opening at 20 yards and stared at me. I shooed him away and continued my fruitless search for something better.

Another beautiful mountain morning in Northern Utah.
Another beautiful mountain morning in Northern Utah.

By the third week I concluded that Monsterbuck had either, a) been killed by a hunter, lion, or poacher or b) had moved to another part of the unit, likely due to increased human pressure in the area. All I knew for sure was that the DWR had issued a bunch more tags for my unit, as evidenced by a notable increase in human traffic in the area. And if there’s one thing big bucks hate more than anything, it’s people pressure.

Another crazy morning in the deerless woods.
Another crazy morning in the deerless woods.

With less than two weeks left in the season, I was beyond dejected; I was mortified! I love bowhunting than anything, and to see it turn south so quickly was unfathomable. Each night I dreamed I was on the trail of the Monsterbuck, but he always stayed just out of sight. By day, I sat in the woods wondering if I was stuck in a nightmare; that any second I might wake to a more believable reality. Or maybe I was just a lousy hunter. Perhaps I’d just been lucky all these years and had been deluding myself until now. As more days passed, my hunting journal became a dark place in which to vent my frustrations. Something had to change…

Midday, halfway through the third week, while trudging across the empty landscape, it hit me: I had a valid Idaho hunting license left over from my spring bear hunt. I stormed back to camp, threw everything in the truck, and headed to Idaho. Having never actually hunted deer in Idaho, I went home first and collected some maps and some notes I’d gotten from an Idaho Fish & Game officer at the hunting expo.

My first morning in Central Idaho was memorable, not because I saw deer, but because I woke up to a terrible head cold. For the next three days I stumbled around strange mountainsides, sore and coughing while my nose drained continuously onto the dry forest floor. The first unit I visited was a bust—too open and too few deer. The next unit was heavily forested, but full of other hunters and very little game. The third unit was a little more promising, but just as I began to scare up some deer, my truck broke down and I barely made it off the mountain.

Idaho Part I
Idaho Part I

The Utah deer hunt soon came to an end, and with only four days left in the Idaho season I headed out for one last attempt. In reviewing my first Idaho adventure, I concluded that the biggest threat to success was people! Going in, I had the common misconception that Idaho was a vast wilderness full of game and opportunity. Not the case. It’s just like Utah: People everywhere, hunting, hiking, camping, and driving ATVs up and down every dirt road. As long as there’s an open road you won’t find a buck anywhere near it. This is why my Utah hunt failed. In order to avoid getting “peopled” again, I broke out my map of the unit and found the one point farthest away from any city, road, or trail. My hunt wouldn’t begin until I covered two miles of steep mountains early the next morning.

Yet another camp.
Yet another camp.

It was a rough night. Instead of drifting into peaceful slumber, I lay awake staring at the tent ceiling and thinking about the colossal disappointment the season had become. My unhealthy obsession with the absentee Monsterbuck had transformed a normally magical hunt into a desperate flail across a dreary landscape. I fell asleep counting the innumerable disappointments of the last several weeks.

On September 27th I woke long before the sun and headed up the steep and wooded ridge that separated me from solitude. I trudged like a man possessed, as if fleeing an oppressive regime and longing for new lands. As I approached the ridge top, deer began popping up on the horizon, first some does, then a small band of bucks. I continued on.

The sun finally broke the horizon, splashing light across a blanket of fresh snow splotched with golden aspen leaves. Pines glistened with melting frost as steam rose lazily from dark logs. Birds flitted about. An elk fired up in the canyon below. Deer tracks crisscrossed the forest floor, increasing in number as I went. The woods pulled me forward, upward, effortlessly. I felt like I was coming home after a long hiatus.

Idaho Part II
Idaho Part II

Nearer to the top, a group of large buck tracks appeared in the snow. They were fresh and meandering, so I sat on a log and listened. I was ready to take a buck—any old buck. I just wanted to hunt for myself, and for food, with no pressure to succeed, no worries about inches and scores.

A short time later there was a clacking of antlers and scuffle in the forest. I crept closer. Two bucks pushed and shoved each other with occasional flashes of fur and legs visible in the trees. I pulled an arrow and moved closer. Morning thermals began to swirl. Just as I was closing in, a breeze hit me in the back. I froze. Moments later the bucks bounded away, up and over the mountain. Oh well, I was going that direction anyway. It was still a wonderful opportunity.

The sun had been up for some time when I finally crested the ridge and dropped into the thick pines on the shadow side of the mountain. I had officially arrived at the farthest point from the human pile and was brimming with hope. There was really only one good corridor through the tangled briar and pines, and judging by the abundance of game tracks in the area, the deer used this route too.

After traveling a ways, my stomach grumbled. I sat down on a huge deadfall log and snacked on trail mix while pondering these new woods. Eventually I fished out my hunting journal and scribbled a short note about hope and opportunity, the only positive words the book had seen in some time. My contentment was short-lived, however, when a swishing sound erupted in the trees ahead. I whipped around to see antler tips poking slowly through the tangle. In one motion, I snatched up my bow and slid off the backside of the log onto my knees. Smoothly and mechanically I knocked an arrow and clamped my release to the string. I crouched low and stared fixedly ahead like a lion.

Ten yards and closing, the buck’s big, blocky, horse-like head appeared with tall, heavy antlers extending upwards into the canopy. Lazily, he angled down towards the game trail I had just been on. When his head disappeared behind a clump of trees, I drew my bow. He stopped. My heart pounded wildly, my eyes protruded from my skull, glaring through the bowstring. Time slowed down.

The buck remained motionless, hidden behind the trees just a few steps away. Did he hear me draw, I wondered? A minute passes. My muscles start to fatigue and my arms begin to shake. Another minute passes. He knows something isn’t right. I beg my arms to hold, but the bow finally collapses, yanking my trembling arm forward.

Looking to completely ruin my day, the buck immediately starts walking again. With all my might, I crank the bow back again. His head appears just five yards away, then his shoulder. My eyes, strained and blurry, fight to settle the pin as it dances all over the place. My release triggers and the arrow flies; it flies clean over the buck’s back and my heart sinks into my stomach.

The buck bounds into the next opening just seven yards away and looks back. Crouching lower I pull another arrow and load it as quickly and smoothly as I can. He’s still there, muscles taut, ready to blast out of my life forever. I can’t watch. My eyes squeeze shut as I draw the bow once more. When the string touches my nose, my eyes flash open. He’s still there and my second arrow is on the way.

Success!

My tall-antlered 2016 Idaho buck.
My tall-antlered 2016 Idaho buck.

Success has taken on a new meaning for me now. Many nights of delicious venison backstraps have passed while trying to figure out how to tell the story of my tall-antlered Idaho buck. Is it a story of a failed Monsterbuck hunt, or is the miraculous success of an incredibly short hunt in new lands? Perhaps neither. I think it’s really a story of self-examination, of finding my true passion again.

As a hunter I’ve come full circle. Long ago I just wanted a deer—any deer—with my bow. It seemed like such an impossible task back then, and sometimes still does. These days are spent tirelessly chasing 200-inch monsters around the hills. But this “trophy hunting” has lost some of its magic. In trying to prove myself, I’ve gradually reduced my greatest passion down to inches and strategy. My once insatiable love for the woods feels more like work now. Perhaps it’s time to hunt for the love of hunting again… We’ll see. All I know for sure is that I keep relearning the same lessons I’ve been learning all along: That success is so much more than just killing a deer. Success really lies in the journey. Success comes from pushing yourself to your physical and spiritual limits, and then letting nature take over from there.

This story, then, is a simple one to tell: One man, one mountain, one morning, and a second chance.

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Passing the Buck

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The bowhunt is a only a few days away and the anticipation is making me crazy! How bout you?

The question that continually haunts me is how big-a-buck should I pass up? My goal is always a 200-inch buck, but what if a 195″ walks by? What about a great 170″ drop-tine?

Most bowhunters are just happy with any mature buck. Novice hunters might be happy with a spike or forked-horn. Others would be fine just putting meat in the freezer, horns be damned.

In order to make the decision to pass easier, I’ve compiled a short list of things to consider before you loose an arrow:

1. Are you more concerned with meat or horns? Maybe both? After all, meat comes with horns–it’s an added bonus. I don’t believe in killing deer simply for horns. To me, the meat is sacred. That being said, the bigger the buck, the more meat. A big, mature buck can weigh twice as much as a yearling, making trophy hunting a meat-wise prospect.

2. How many days are available for your hunt? If you’re seriously limited–like just the weekend–then any buck is a great buck! But if you really don’t need the meat, then holding out and eating the tag is quite okay. There will be more deer next year.

When I first started bowhunting, I only had four days to get it done. My system was easy: First day 4-point, second day 3 or 4 point, third day 3 point, fourth day anything!

3. Are you hunting a quality area? If so, you can expect multiple opportunities. So it just makes sense to hold out for a quality buck. If your area sucks, then any buck would be great.

4. If the buck in front of you is good, but not great, ask yourself, “Will I be happy with this buck once it’s down? Is this buck worth blowing my entire season on?”

These are important questions, especially for the seasoned hunter. You’re not getting any younger. If the buck doesn’t meet your goals, you may have serious regets for the next 12 months.

Many years ago, I would be tickled pink with any mature buck. For the longest time, I would pull an arrow at the slightest hint of a buck. Now, in order avoid year-long regret, I refuse to pull an arrow until I’ve summed up the buck and am absolutely sure it’s the one I’d be happy with. Once my arrow is nocked I’m in killing mode and it’s a lot harder to let the buck walk.

In the end, the decision to shoot is completely yours and should be based solely on your own personal goals. Pressure to succeed should come from one’s own desire to progress as a hunter, and not from your ego or desire to impress other people.

Good luck on a fine buck this year!

The Future of Hunting: Part 2

This is Part 2 of 2 articles addressing changes in hunting in the future. In Part 1 we examined possible changes in the animals we hunt simply through the natural processes of adaptation and evolution. Not only are these animals getting smarter, but are capable of quickly adapting to new technology and modern hunting methods. What some modern-day hunters don’t realize–especially us older hunters–is that we must adapt just as quickly to our prey.

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Future hunters will either do what it takes to get a buck or fail most of the time. In nearly three decades of big game hunting I’ve observed a split–or chasm–developing between traditional deer hunters and the new super-hunters. In the future, hunters will be divided into two camps based on their willingness to adapt to modern animals. These two camps are: a) Extreme wilderness athletes (super-hunters) willing to spend tremendous resources for trophy-class animals, or b) Fair-weather hunters who spend little time afield, hunt mostly for fun rather than food, hunt mostly on weekends, and are happy with any size animal or even no animal.

The following items will separate the new hunter from the traditional hunter:

-The future belongs to the EWAs!
(EWAs = Extreme Wilderness Athletes)
EWAs find time each day to work on their health via diet and physical training. It’s might not be critical to be “extreme,” but you’ll still need to be a wilderness athlete (WA). Being a WA simply means getting yourself to the animals no matter where they are. The bigger the buck, the harder you’ll have to work for it. The biggest difference between successful and unsuccessful hunters is physical fitness. Out-of-shape hunters simply can’t drag their butts up the mountain to where the deer are. Today’s superdeer rely on hunters to only make it so far, and where the hunter stops the deer begins. I know it’s pretty obvious, but the guy riding around on the four-wheeler will have far less luck than the guy burning boot leather in the steep stuff all day.

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– EWAs scout more days than they hunt. Scouting isn’t optional; scouting IS hunting. With fewer trophy opportunities in the future, you’ll need to locate prime areas ahead of the hunting season. Scouting not only means locating game, but devising a Plan B, C, and D as well.

– EWAs don’t have to worry where the deer falls; they can always get it out. In the past, many of us refused to go too far into the mountain because we figured we couldn’t get the animal out if we got one. Not anymore. Wilderness athletes train hard enough to get anything out. And if it isn’t possible for one person, then they’ll enlist help from their friends, or have horses available. I spend about 20 – 25 day hunting deer each year. As much as I love so many days afield, I’d much rather drag a deer out after just 1 day! Whenever I catch myself making excuses for not going deep and steep, I remind myself of that it’s FAR easier (both mentally and physically) to spend a couple days dragging a superbuck out of some hell-hole than it is to hunt for days on end without success.

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– Go LIGHT! Future hunters hunt like cougars. In the cougar hath nature created the perfect deer killer. An adult cougar must kill a deer every 7-10 days to survive. No other animal kills more deer than a cougar. Whenever I want to improve my hunting skills, I look to this animal for advice. The first thing I notice is that cougars don’t carry any gear; well, aside from their powerful forearms, fangs, and razor-sharp claws. This goes hand-in-hand with my anti-gear mentality. Less gear = less weight = success. Simply put, the lighter your load the farther you can travel, and with less fatigue. Now, to survive as humans we need to carry a few basic necessities (fire, water, weapons, clothing, etc.), but there’s always room to cut weight. In places where water is abundant, I’ll carry a water filter instead of water bottles. One of the best ways to cut weight and reduce fatigue is to wear lighter footwear. Also, most bow manufacturers offer super-light bow options. In almost every crevice of your daypack you’ll find a way to reduce weight.

– Future hunters will rely on skill rather than equipment. For quite some time I’ve been warning people of the phenomenon known as “equipment-bandade-syndrome,” or EBS. EBS can occur in both men and women who suffer from prolonged hunting failure, or PHF. To conquer PHF, hunters often attempt to buy their way out by purchasing some hot, new piece of equipment to solve some inadequacy. The reasoning is simple: It’s far easier to change your gear than it is to change yourself. Unfortunately there’s a million items out there to buy, whether it’s some high-tech camo, a new speed bow, or $3000 optics. ATVs are my favorite! Not too long ago ATVs became a requisite for hunting; every serious hunter suddenly needed an ATV. I don’t own one but I love ATVs because ATV-people rarely travel very far from their machines. This keeps the competition down in the woods. People with EBS need to focus on HOW they hunt, not the equipment they hunt with.

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– Future hunters have no fear. The woods belong to the brave. All hunters–men, women, and children–must enter the woods without fear of being killed or maimed. Fear is more common than many think, and the problem with being afraid of the woods is it interferes with your focus. To be successful, 100% of your focus needs to be on the vast subtleties of your prey and the environment around you. If you’re scared of the boogie-man or a bear around every bend, then you’ll miss subtle clues such as tracks, rubs, sounds, etc., which will lead you to your prey. The woods are especially spooky when you stay out after dark. But if you wait to enter the woods when it’s light, or return to camp before dark, then your missing your best opportunity.

– Future hunters spend more days afield! To be successful you must be willing to put in the time. It used to be that one weekend was enough to get the job done. For me it was about four days. When I became serious about big bucks it stretched to a week, then two, and now it seems I’m constantly fighting free up every single day of the season. Unless you’re incredibly lucky, it’s going to take many days to locate a decent buck and come up with a viable strategy to take it. These aren’t the same animals our grandpa hunted. We need to incorporate a more dedicated strategy if we are to be successful.

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– Future hunters are invisible. We discussed this last month, but as a recap being invisible means entering the woods in a way that you aren’t detected by the deer. This means using the wind to control scent, not leaving scent in the woods for the deer to discover at night, and avoiding audible and visible clues as you move through the woods. All of this is necessary because today’s big bucks hardly ever give you a second chance. If they detect any sort of danger they’ll flee the area and your hunt is over.

Another facet of being invisible is being invisible to the public’s eyes. Each year hunting becomes increasingly frowned upon by the ignorant, general public. To protect our livelihoods, it’s sometimes necessary to keep our hunting aspirations secret. More importantly is to keep your hunting locations a secret from other hunters! It seems that every time I disclose anything about my new hunting or fishing spots, a bunch of so-called friends and family follows me into the woods and blows up the area. In today’s hunting world there’s just way too much competition. At the same time there are far less areas that hold good deer.

The first law of nature dictates that “Quantity always destroys Quality.” Our population in Utah grows by more than 40,000 people each year, yet we have a fixed amount of natural resources; a fixed amount of deer, fish, habitat, and public land. From this crux brews desperation, meaning more and more people are eager to blatantly intrude upon our secret-sacred areas. Some of the best hunters I know are reluctant to even share field photos/stories with anyone in order to protect their dwindling honey-holes. I suggest you do the same. Like many hunters, I used to put hunting stickers on my truck. After having my tires slashed in the woods, I no longer announce myself as a hunter. If anything I might put pro-Hillary or PETA stickers on my truck just to protect my vehicle and my camp from anti-hunter terrorists, or even worse, competitive hunters with no moral scruples.

Conclusion

For all of evolution, both predator and prey were forced to adapt to each other in order to survive. In today’s world, finding and harvesting a trophy animal is getting more difficult. Today’s deer are ingenious survivors capable of quickly adapting to us and evading us no matter what we throw at them.

In the near future I foresee a divide between hunting camps, and the formation of two distinctly different hunter types: a) traditional hunters hunting yesterday’s ghosts and rarely having success, and b) modern super-hunters continually adapting to their prey, dedicating their lives and livelihoods this greatest passion, and having consistent success on quality bucks.

Out of the Woods


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So that was the 2015 bowhunt; came and went faster than I could imagine. What I expected to be just another same-old archery season, ended up being a whirlwind of ups and downs and a dramatic unfolding of failure and success, coupled with new ideas, concepts, and a solidification of theories that sprung up during the 2014 season. But in the end I failed, which was so spiritually deflating that I decided to take a month off writing and devote my energy to calming down and digesting it all. Fortunately, the whole adventure was documented in my super-top-secret field journal. There is now enough new information in this little notebook to fill an entire book, and someday it will.

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Enough pleasantries, let’s move on to the facts. My hunt was 28 days long, but I devoted half of it to my wife Esther’s, limited-entry bull tag in Fish lake. This was the most difficult hunt of my life. The terrain was super-steep, thick, boulder-strewn, log-fallen and all-round unforgiving with 90-plus degree days. The myriad of cow and spike hunters chased the herds into the far reaches of the worst mountain tops long before we arrived. We beat ourselves ragged on two separate trips just to close the distance on this silent 320-class bull which wouldn’t respond to calls, so Esther had to shoot it bedded, facing us, at only 20 yards. Thus began a most grueling 11-hour pack out on our backs. All in all it was a wonderful success and Esther’s very first bow kill. Congrats, doll!

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In the end I shot nothing…just like last year. So here we go again, into the even more difficult extended season. The difference this time is that I am building off of countless lessons learned last year. Not only is it my goal to shoot both a Pope & Young buck, but a P&Y elk too! Unlike last year, I’m not just saying it; I’m doing it.

So we say goodbye to the 2015 general season forever. Incredibly difficult throughout, but beautiful. The story has just begun; can’t wait for next year!

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My 40-Inch Dream

(Published in Eastman’s Bowhunting Journal, Issue 81, January/February 2014)

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Twenty yards in front of me, a small 3-point buck with scraggly antlers ran back and forth snorting up a storm. I knew him; he was a sentinel. I knew him because I knew his mentor. Ignoring the flailing 3-point, I peered deep into the dark timber beyond. Sure enough, sixty yards downhill and partially obscured by trees, stood a familiar, square-racked, giant four-point mule deer. He hadn’t seen me but was alerted by his sentinel’s crazy warning system. Before I could even pull an arrow, he suddenly blasted away taking the squirrely 3-point with him…again. This was my third and last encounter with that big 4-point during the 2011 archery season.

I slowly rose from my knees and dropped my bow to my side. I stared blankly at the woods with a sickening sense of déjà vu. Like most mature bucks in Northern Utah, I knew this buck was essentially unhuntable, just like the infamous 33” double-droptine buck that I somehow managed to harvest in 2010. I spent three long years hunting that droptine buck and I knew for a long time that he too was unhuntable. Yet forces beyond my comprehension put me directly in the droptine’s path that last day of the 2010 season. But hunting the same buck for so long was just agonizing, and I wasn’t about to do it again. I needed a new area. I needed new blood.

I didn’t harvest a deer in 2011, but I did come out of the woods with a valuable new insight: If an area can grow one giant deer—especially in this day and age—it can grow another. I learned this after finding that big 4×4 living in all the same places that the droptine buck lived. Apparently, one giant buck replaces another.

Fast forward one year.

While hunting elk in 2012, I had the misfortune of blowing two tires while driving out of the rough mountains in Southern Utah. As I was being towed back to town, I struggled to start up a conversation with the quiet and sullen after-hours tow truck driver. I asked him if he knew of any good elk areas, and he gave me a couple vague tips. But when I brought up deer hunting (my true passion), his eyes lit up.

As it turned out, KC (the tow truck driver/shop worker) had a passion for deer equal to mine. Soon, we were in a long, rambunctious conversation about big bucks and past triumphs. When I told him about my infamous droptine buck, he responded, “I remember that deer! That was you!?” We talked about big bucks for the next three hours and before I left with four new tires, he informed me of a giant buck he’s seen a couple years ago—it was the biggest buck he’d ever seen, estimated forty inches wide. Since KC didn’t hunt that particular unit, he was happy to tell me where to go look for it. I took careful notes and then went on my way. I knew the odds of relocating the mythical 40-incher were slim, especially since I’d never set foot in that part of the unit. But still, if an area could grow one giant buck…

And thus began my 40-inch dream. Fast forward one more year.

Gambling on the information I received from KC, I drew my 2013 general archery tag for Southern Utah. In May I tried scouting the “40-inch area,” but the mountains proved too wet and inaccessible that early in the year. I planned a second trip in July, but life just got in the way. I didn’t return to Southern Utah until the archery opener, and since I still wasn’t familiar with the 40-inch area I spent the first week hunting a different area.

I don’t like hunting the season opener. I especially don’t like the heat or all the competition, or bucks in velvet for that matter. But there I was, hunting the opener with my friend Scott. As expected, there were quite a few bucks around; we would see close to twenty per day. The problem was that they were all small bucks. For five days we saw dozens of 2- and 3-points, but no shooters. I’d seen this before and there’s a name for it: Nursery. Nursery areas are bad for trophy hunters because, although there are lots of deer around, they are all small. By the time a nursery buck matures, he becomes territorial and runs off to find his own mountain to live on.

So, on the last day of the hunt we drove to the purported 40-inch area. This time we found a better route up the mountain. I could tell right away that it wasn’t a nursery because, a) there were hardly any deer, and b) the terrain was treacherous to say the least.

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The next morning Scott and I scaled some cliffs and entered what appeared to be the right area. We split up and by late afternoon I finally located a bachelor herd of bucks bedded in some open grass. The biggest buck was a tall, 25-inch four-point with deep forks. The next biggest was a trashy 5-point. Since these were the biggest bucks I’d seen all week, I decided to make a stalk. My first attempt was foiled when it started raining. The bucks quickly unbedded and wandered into the trees. I made a second stalk and was almost within bow range when a moo-cow wandered right into the deer and scared them off. I followed their tracks and on my third stalk it got dark before I could get close. My hunt ended right then and there, and the next morning I made the long drive back home.

As bleak as the opener was, it wasn’t a complete failure. The highlight of the whole week was an arrowhead I found on opening morning while exploring a remote area. When I stopped to glass the opposite hillside, I laid my bow on the ground and noticed a shiny, black arrowhead lying there. I got goose bumps. I always suspected I was following the same instincts and same paths as ancient hunters, but on this day there was proof lying right next to my bow. It was a magical, serendipitous moment.

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Two weeks later I returned to the 40-inch area with my lovely wife Esther. On Sunday night we hiked into the area with a week’s worth of supplies on our backs. By the time we found a flat spot to pitch our tent, we were pouring sweat and exhausted. We spent the evening bathing in a creek rather than hunting.

The next morning we woke before light and headed out. I gave Esther my GPS and sent her to the last known location of the bucks from my previous trip. My plan was to skirt the entire area in hopes of finding even bigger deer…like maybe a 40-incher…

Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, I found no bucks whatsoever. The mountain was just too big and too new and my hopes of finding a respectable buck were dwindling. That was okay though; I figured if there weren’t any deer, I’d enjoy whatever else nature had to offer. With elk bugling around me, I pulled out my camcorder and spent the long, hot part of the day stalking and videotaping multiple bugling bulls.

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While enjoying the elk show, I remembered a conversation I had with Scott towards the end of our last trip. We were both frustrated, and in a sarcastic way I said, “Ya know, there’s only one thing I love more than big bucks.”

“What’s that?” he asked, somewhat disinterested.

“Nature!” I exclaimed. “When I’m in the woods I just love seeing grand vistas, the clear blue skies, and the bright stars at night. I love the clean, crisp air and the ice cold spring water. I enjoy picking up interesting rocks and eating wild berries off the vine. I enjoy reading the deer sign, examining tree rubs, and listening to elk bugling. And in the end, after spending all that time simply enjoying nature, a buck seems to just come along. The bucks are secondary to the process. That’s usually how it happens for me, anyway.”

I don’t think Scott responded.

And so that’s what I did. There were no deer, but the mountains kept me entertained and happy. I didn’t get back to camp until way after dark. The funny thing was, the closer I got to camp the more fresh deer sign I noticed. In fact, the most concentrated tracks and droppings were located within a few hundred yards of our camp! Could it be that we haphazardly pitched our tent right in the deer’s bedroom? Later that night, while eating rehydrated meals, I told Esther about my deery discovery. We decided to wake up early the next morning and hunt close to camp.

We woke early to a heavy rain and promptly went back to bed.

The rain finally quit around 8:30, and by 9:00 we were hiking directly uphill from camp. Sure enough, we found some big, blocky tracks in the fresh mud. Not much farther we heard a commotion in the trees. It sounded like squirrels harvesting pinecones…but there was something else. I turned to Esther and said, “There’s more going on than just squirrels!” As we inched forward, I caught sight of a small pine tree waving back and forth thirty yards ahead. I quickly nocked an arrow and tip-toed closer. The tree stopped waiving and I drew. When the buck passed through a clearing, I let down my draw. It was an average three-point; nothing special. Although I had no interest in shooting a “small” buck, Esther was much less complacent. When the buck moved out of sight, Esther nocked an arrow and we crept stealthfully in its direction. We hadn’t made it very far, however, when we were suddenly blind-sided by a big four-point buck that wandered leisurely out of the trees to our right. He took one look at us and spun around, taking the three-point and one other buck with him. Luckily, they weren’t too spooked and slowed to a walk as they moved up the hillside. I could only make out bits and pieces through the dense trees, but two of the bucks seemed to be carrying heavy headgear.

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The thermals were beginning to rise so we decided to split up. I would circle above the bucks while she stayed below in case I busted them back down the mountain. For the next hour I circled high above the last sighting of the deer, carefully scanning the trees as I went. I was certain I’d either find them bedded or at least cross their tracks. But they were nowhere to be found. Eventually I began working back downhill towards the last place we saw them. Worst case, I could always track them from there. Another hour passed as I carefully inched forward. The bucks were sure to be bedded, and in my experience there’s nothing harder than stalking deer in their beds. Finally, my GPS told me I was within 250 feet of where we left them.

It happened fast. I was skirting around a steep, tree-tangled slope when a deer suddenly stood up behind a large pine tree twenty yards away. I pulled and nocked an arrow in record time which was good because the buck was nervous and started moving downhill quickly. I drew my bow and scanned ahead for a shooting lane. The buck that appeared in the opening was a giant! Instinctively, I let out a n’yoo sound. He paused and whipped his head in my direction. I settled the pin and touched the trigger. My arrow jumped from the string and zipped right through him. Never before had a hunt transpired so quickly!

The huge buck blasted away, but then  paused for a couple seconds to let his four-point buddy catch up. He dropped his head for a second and I could tell he was hit hard. Then, the two bucks bounded down the mountain together.

I think the rain began the very second my arrow left my bow. I looked up and cursed the skies. Experience tells me that rain is bad news for a blood trail. I started tracking early and with some definite urgency. Fortunately, the heavy blood trail, accompanied by large, dug-in tracks, made my job easy. About 200 yards from the shot location, I could see where the buck had paused. There was a deep elk track completely filled with fresh blood. I plunged my finger to the bottom of it, painting my finger red to my second knuckle. I knew the buck wouldn’t be far. Still, he’d covered way more ground than I hoped; tough buck! Not wanting to bump him, I carefully scanned ahead, hoping to see him piled up. The last thing I wanted was a long tracking job in the rain.

Scanning even farther ahead, my heart suddenly leapt at the sight of a large, grey body lying on the opposite hillside 100 yards away. He still had his head up, but I could tell he was fading. He was even bigger than I thought. From behind, his tall and sprawling rack looked like a caribou, with trash and stickers going everywhere. The buck had made it across a ravine but collapsed while climbing the steep, opposite slope. Just then, the other buck—his four-point companion—came prancing down the hill towards him. In disbelief, the big bruiser buck rose up on wobbly legs. Again, I started to worry, but only for a second because instead of prancing up the mountain, he took three steps and began running sideways, then flipped over upside-down. When he lay motionless, I sighed with relief and thanked God for such a beautiful gift.

I pulled out my walkie-talkie and hailed Esther. “I just shot a giant buck,” I whispered. “Come help me…”

Half an hour later, we cautiously approached the fallen monarch. I’ve walked up on a few impressive animals before, but this one was out of control: extra mass, extra points, extra eye-guards…extra everything! This was no ordinary buck. This was the next level. This was Superbuck! What caught my attention right away was his mass which he carried all the way to the points. I could barely fit my hands around his bases.

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Superbuck may not be the mythical 40-incher that brought me to the mountain, but he’s the buck of my dreams. How could you ask for anything more? Emerson once wrote, “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.” I have no doubt that this mountain could actually grow a 40-inch deer, but I won’t be greedy. I have achieved more with my bow than I ever dreamed of. Superbuck is a buck of a lifetime…again…and I can’t wait to see the buck that replaces him. For the record, Superbuck was entered into the books with a net score of 193 2/8 and a gross score of 205 5/8”.

From this relatively short hunt, I am reminded of all the same lessons I’ve learned from a relatively long life: Dream big, set lofty goals, and take risks. Do whatever it takes to get close, then let Nature unfold on its own terms.

Thanks KC; your tip was right on. Thanks almighty God for allowing me two blown tires; from lemons come lemonade, blessings in disguise. Most of all, thanks Esther for being there during all my greatest hunts. I almost always hunt alone, but when I hunt with you, miracles happen.

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Secret Bowhunting Tip #2: Success is a Decision

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It took half a lifetime to finally understand that success in bowhunting is a decision. Failure comes not from luck, but from failure to commit to the goal. The decision to succeed is not made a week or two before the hunt, but the very second the last season ends.

In sharing this insight with other bowhunters, I’m usually met with some skepticism or hesitated response. They want to agree with the premise, but don’t really understand it. So here’s what I mean:

When I make the decision to succeed—to arrow a great buck—I set a goal for the entire year. And it’s not just any goal, but the most difficult goal to reach. It’s so difficult because there are just too many variables in bowhunting, and no guarantees. What if I simply can’t find a buck this season?

By setting such a lofty goal, one’s mind begins making immediate preparations to accomplish it. This goal is broken down into planning, studying, shooting, equipment preparations, mind-set, and a myriad of other sub-goals.

Keeping this goal in the forefront of my mind, I find myself making daily decisions to achieve it. One example is to block out my intended hunting dates on the calendar. No matter what opportunity or “responsibility” arises, I adamantly refuse to alter my schedule. This year alone I’ve turned down two potentially profitable jobs because they would interfere with my hunt dates. Admittedly this can be very difficult for some people. Most jobs will allow one week off work, or two if you’re lucky. The sad fact is, if you let your all-important job interfere with your hunting schedule, then you CANNOT set the goal in the first place. The decision isn’t yours to make, thus you must prepare for failure.

Making such a big goal sets a precedence upon which failure is not an option. If you are truly committed, subconsciously you will make mental and spiritual goals which you aren’t even aware of; goals which will seemingly magically bring you and your quarry together into a single space and time.

As prepared as I might be, successful bowhunting still feels overwhelming to me at times. I believe that bowhunting is the hardest thing a person can do successfully and consistently. I also know that there are greater forces at work than I can ever understand which will increase my odds. Call it the power of positive thinking. Call it Zen.

There is nothing more magical than the breaking dawn of a season opener. And there is nothing more deflating than last light of an unsuccessful season closer. I have no intention of ever experiencing a failed season again. I’ve made the decision!

Click here for my Secret Bowhunting Tip #3: Be Patient

The Learning Meadow: My Son’s First Deer

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Three years ago I took my son Jake to the Sawtooth Range in Northwestern Utah for his first muzzleloader deer hunt. It was a bust. There were too many people and not enough deer.

While bowhunting on Monte Cristo last year I stumbled upon a promising new area that very few people know about. There’s a nice feeding meadow atop a steep slope there. The first day I stumbled across 3-point buck feeding leisurely, but passed on him in hopes that Jake would find it during the fall muzzleloader season.

In September (2011) I took Jake to that little meadow, but lo, there was no 3-point. Instead, there was a giant, heavy racked 4-point bedded near the opposite side of the meadow’s edge. At the same instance we spotted him, he spotted us and stood up, offering a perfect broadside shot at only 75 yards. Well, Jakey had only practiced shooting square targets, and as much as he struggled to get this mighty beast in his sights, he just couldn’t. Frantically, I whispered, “SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT…” But didn’t. Instead, the buck turned and disappeared into the trees. At that point I almost blew my lid. “WHY, WHY didn’t you shoot?!” I implored. Jake replied, “I couldn’t see it in my sights good enough.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but what could I say? I was a frazzled mess as we trudged back down the hill towards camp. The next day was a bust and we went home empty-handed.

The following year, in spring of 2012, I went to Sportsman’s Warehouse and bought Jake a life-size, cardboard deer target. Never again would he shoot a square, paper target. A square target looks nothing like a deer or anything else you’d find in the wild. So, he practiced on that deer-shaped target during the summer while we made plans to return to Monte Cristo and our secret little feeding meadow in fall.

On the second evening of the hunt, we climbed up the mountain and sat in the trees at the edge of the meadow. A little while later, just as the evening light was fading, we heard a rustling in the brush. Sure enough, a respectable 3×4 buck with tall antlers slowly materialized at only 75 yards away. It wasn’t the same great buck as before, but it was good enough. Jake got into shooting position, but the cover was too thick for a shot. Fortunately, the buck continued feeding along and started walking right towards us! At fifty yards the buck suddenly jerked its head up as it recognized us as humans. Jake was ready and shot. As the smoke cleared, we could see the big deer prancing down the hill unscathed. We walked over to where the buck was standing and there was no blood. Jake missed it, plain and simple. This time I wasn’t upset and just asked him what went wrong. After thinking about it for a minute, he figured he must have dropped the gun at the shot, causing the bullet to travel beneath the buck. In other words, he didn’t follow through. At that moment, the feeding meadow would forever be called, “The Learning Meadow,” as Jake was learning some valuable lessons there.

Monte Cristo is tough! The next day, there were no bucks anywhere near the Learning Meadow. Another lesson: you can’t shoot at a deer one day and expect him to return the next. On Monday, we sat in a promising new area with lots of deer sign. But Monte sucks, and we saw no bucks. Shooting light was fading fast when we decided pack it up and move uphill towards the Learning Meadow. Maybe we could catch a last minute buck out in the open. As we approached the top of the draw opposite the Learning Meadow, a deer suddenly jumped out of the trees right in front of us and bounded across the open sagebrush hillside. Right away, I could tell it was a buck; a small buck, but a legal buck nonetheless. I asked Jake if he wanted to shoot it, and he said yes. Unfortunately, the buck was bounding directly away from us and offering no shot. Jake dropped to one knee while I set up the shooting sticks, just in case it stopped. Near the top of the ridge, 120 yards away, the buck paused and turned broadside. Jake was ready. Through a cloud of white smoke we watched the buck drop straight down like a sack of potatoes. Neither of us could believe it!

Jake’s eyes were wide with excitement as he stood over his beautiful trophy. I congratulated him and told him I was proud. The buck fell only a hundred yards from the Learning Meadow. Later that night, we dragged that little buck right through the Learning Meadow on our way back to camp. We took a break there. The meadow was dark and mysterious, but the lessons Jake learned were still there, burning bright as day.

Part 4: The Good Fight

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“Keep up the good fight.”

How many times have you heard that? “Keep up the good fight!” What the heck does it mean?

In my last post, I wrote about adversity and how each year, right before the bowhunt, the metaphoric ‘steely claws’ tighten their grip, making life downright miserable. As this disrupts my focus on the hunt—the one thing I fight for all year long—then I have no choice but to fight back. So today, I’m addressing the good fight.

My research tells me that ‘the good fight’ is a reference to the biblical figure, Paul, who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) Though once a Christian reference, the good fight now refers to anyone who fights for what they believe in.

For me, the good fight is the fight against evil or any unfair person or entity. It’s the fight against selfishness and those who unfairly take advantage of others. It’s the fight against governmental intrusion into our personal lives, over-taxation, ignorance, and general stupidity. I fight against anyone who tries to steal or destroy my feedom, property, or peace of mind. Sometimes I simply fight weeds in my garden or insects in my house. I fight daily for my tiny little space on this planet.

Now, let’s get back to the Christian reference. In Christianity there’s a whole lot of gospel about forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and basically maintaining the peace. I like that…but it doesn’t apply here. After all, Paul was a fighter. He fought the good fight (whatever that was), and ever since, Christians have been fighting against something, whether it was persecution, evil, or for our country’s freedom. Occasionally throughout history, Christians even went looking for a fight, as was the case with the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War. The point is, good people always have and always will fight for what they believe in. That’s the good fight!

Years ago I was on a bowhunt and minding my own business. I returned to my truck one night and found that someone had cut up my back tires with a knife. Long story short, I was lucky to get off the mountain. For a long while, I was filled with pure hatred and ready to fight. But with no known assailant or motive, I wasn’t allowed to fight, nor was allowed to forgive. Thus, the fight stuck with me for a long time.

As with any marriage, my wife and I occasionally have a good ol’ fashioned brawl. We’re both somewhat bull-headed and prone to skirmishes. But later, after we’ve made up,  she tells me how she hates fighting. And in a jovial way, I tell her that I love fighting! Fighting is how you resolve problems and address relationship-corroding issues. Like it or not, fighting is progress. After a good fight we usually feel better. It’s just a matter of perspective, I guess.

In the recent past, I had two conversations about the good fight with two different people with whom I’m close to. They are both good people, but had exact opposite opinions. The first person said something along the lines of, “You shouldn’t fight! It’s a waste of energy. Instead, lie low and stay out off the radar. That’s what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.”

At first this made a little sense. But after further contemplation, I realized I’d never heard anything more selfish and stupid. His argument admits there will always be evil, but we shouldn’t do anything to stop it. What a pile of crap! In his defense, he was trying to convince me not to be a martyr; not to waste my energy fighting “the system,” a battle which I can never win. But I still disagree.

The second person I talked to is a fighter. He believes you should always fight. He actively fights against liberalism, stupidity, government intrusion, over-taxation, corruption, and any other kind of evil on a daily basis. He’s a family man, a devout father, and a Christian. He’s humble and kind and one of the few great people I know.

I say fight the good fight! Fight evil where you can. Avenge the evil done unto the innocent. Hunt the hunters. Any person or entity that exacts purposeful harm onto another person should be fought.

By absorbing all the pain caused by unchecked aggression, you invite despair, depression, and madness into your life. When I was a kid, my dad said, “If anyone bully’s you at school, I want you to punch them square in the nose as hard as you can. Don’t worry about getting in trouble; I’ll back you up.” Now, my dad was a very peaceful person, but he knew that by allowing myself to be bullied would set my life up for failure.

Kids these days are encouraged NEVER to fight back. When my son was very young, I told him to fight back against bully who hurt him. Much to my chagrin, he refused adamantly, pleading that it was ‘against the rules.’ This pacifism attitude is very unhealthy in the long run, as well as completely un-natural. Without the fight, some kids eventually absorb so much mental torture that they crack, and one day they bring a gun to school and kill a bunch of innocent people. And every time this happens, society divides the blame into  three categories: 1) blame the gun, 2) blame the bully, and 3) blame mental illness. The truth is: BLAME SOCIETY for teaching the kids NEVER to fight.

In conclusion, life can turn on you in a second. There is too much evil and too many controlling mechanisms all collaborating against you. Happiness is fleeting and no one is immune to calamity. By ignoring the good fight—by allowing blatant evil to thrive—you indirectly hurt the innocent. It reminds me of a quote by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Evil thrives in a pacific society that teaches kids never to fight. Fighting back is healthy and natural. If you never fight, you’ll eventually lose your freedom, and then your mind.

Fight the good fight!

Part 1:  Overcoming Adversity

Part 2: The Steely Claws

Part 3: Constants, Controls, and Variables