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Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors Part 4 of 4

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The Future of Hunting

Hopefully by now you’ve gained some appreciation—or maybe even admiration—for these brilliant survivors. Some biologists have predicted that the mule deer will eventually go extinct. They argue that the mule deer—which split off from the whitetail deer after the last ice age and evolved to fit the rigors of the West—will eventually be dwindled down to minimal numbers due to human encroachment. After that, mule deer will gradually be bred out of existence by the natural reintroduction of the whitetail deer which more readily adapts to human pressure and is already making its way back into the West. After pursuing great mule deer for so long, I personally don’t see the mule deer going out without a fight. If they can survive to this point, they’ll be around for a lot longer…but a little help from the humans wouldn’t hurt!

All existing animals—predators and prey—have learned to survive and adapt to environmental pressures for thousands, or even millions, of years. If a predator doesn’t adapt to its smarter prey, then he starves. If the prey doesn’t adapt to a more efficient predator, it goes extinct. The biggest problem I foresee is humankind. The difference between man and other predators is that he adapts exponentially. In a few short decades, the hunting industry has exploded with new weaponry and products designed to gain an acute advantage over deer. Fifty years ago bowhunters used strictly traditional gear—recurves and longbows—with a maximum effective range of about thirty yards. Gun hunters had opens sights and relatively short-range rifles. But only a few decades ago, the compound bow was invented, and re-invented to the point that it can shoot effectively out to 100 yards or more. Scoped rifles have expanded their range to well over 1000 yards. With this kind of unnatural firepower, it’s amazing we have any deer left at all! Certainly we have a lot less.

What the hunting industry unwittingly and greedily ignores is the trade-off: less animals and/or smarter animals. And now, here we are with both! In twenty-five years I’ve seen giant bucks go from standing in the open at daybreak to becoming completely nocturnal, and nearly non-existent. What the hunting industry ignores is that the few surviving bucks—the neurotic, brilliant few—will be the only one’s living long enough to do all the breeding. And so what you’ll have in the future is an entirely new sub-species of mule deer. It looks the same—assuming you ever see one—but it doesn’t act the same…at all. The problem that overly-efficient weaponry creates is two-fold. First, there will be fewer deer in the future, which means fewer tags, which means fewer hunters. And second, the existing deer will be completely nocturnal and almost unhuntable. Ironically, this expediting of evolution will create brilliant, impossible ghosts that will inevitably put the hunting industry out of business! From what I’ve seen, most young, newbie-hunters lose interest after a just couple disappointing seasons, abandoning the woods for more entertaining and/or productive hobbies. The result of losing our deer will finally result in losing our hunting heritage.

So what does the next generation do? There can be only one solution: Learn how to really hunt—how to read sign and stalk close—but more importantly, they must first become deer conservationists (i.e. protect habitat, put restrictions on yearling shooting, discourage technology-driven hunting tactics, etc.) To succeed in the future, hunters will have to continually adapt to this new breed of wily mule deer. This can be especially difficult for the veteran hunter who continually makes the mistake of approaching today’s deer with yesterday’s tactics. Occasionally he might get lucky—after several failed seasons. And thus begins the downward spiral. He gets lucky and suddenly thinks he’s got the neo-buck figured out—maybe it was a new area, a new rifle, a new attitude, or more boot miles. But the next year, the deer have seemingly vanished, gone again, year after year, and he’s back to eating tag soup.

It seems like the only hunters who are dragging anything out of the woods these days are either very lucky, or very young. Someone old once said, “Youth is wasted on the young.”  This is mostly true, but occasionally you’ll meet a young gun who knows how to hunt! He didn’t grow up with herds of big ol’ 4x4s standing in the open. He grew up with incredibly smart bucks eluding him in the nastiest terrain every season since he began hunting. He’s only seen one or two real mature bucks—ever—but keeps after ‘em. Unlike his A.D.D. buddies who gave up hunting long ago, he sees the potential of the woods. Every day he dreams about success and understands the great, final reward of outsmarting a giant, majestic mule deer buck with wide-sweeping antlers. Voraciously he studies deer behavior, physical needs, and learns from their evasive tactics. He’s learning how to read sign and follow tracks quietly through tangled timber. He’s willing to hike many miles from the nearest road. He hunts in cliffs and sub-zero temperatures. He knows that the greatest enemy of success is comfort. He knows that these wily old bucks will continue to change from year to year, and so he too must change how he approaches them. This is the only way to have consistent success—or any success—in this modern hunting age.

Conclusion

As predators, we must adapt to our prey or be left behind. Our deer have changed, adapted, and evolved at a shocking rate. Our deer are brilliant survivors, and thank God for it! Many a trophy hunter has sought big mule deer as a way to be admired; but the true trophy hunter hunts for a trophy out of admiration for it. Conservation is key, folks. Humankind has hunted since the dawn of time, and if we are careful stewards of our forest denizens, then maybe we can pass along this invaluable tradition of hunting to another couple generations.

In reviewing my hunting notes for this article, I wondered if I was just making excuses for my failure this year. But further contemplation suggests that these ingenious evasion tactics are more a reason for failure than an excuse for it…and not just for me but for the majority of hunters out there. As failed hunters, all we can do is study these animals, admire them—maybe even obsess over them—because the more you understand your quarry, the more you’ll understand yourself and your role as a predator.

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 1 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 2 of 4)

Modern Mule Deer: Brilliant Survivors (Part 3 of 4)

Shape Up For Hunting

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A bowhunter is also an athlete. Nothing a person does on a day-to-day basis will match the great physical exhaustion caused by chasing big deer on big mountains, particularly where the air is thin and there are no trails. What happens when you spot a buck across a big canyon on the evening of the last day of the hunt? Your success or failure often boils down to your physical fitness and endurance.

Any cardio-type exercise will help you prepare for the hunt, and if you’ve spent enough time hiking and scouting in the pre-season you’ll probably be in tip-top shape for it. But if you’re planning a high-country backpacking/hunting trip, you’ll have to change things up a bit—your daily jaunt on the treadmill won’t be enough. Everything changes when you’re hiking uphill with an extra eighty pounds on your back, especially at the high altitudes where most big bucks live in early fall.

If you want to spend more time hunting and less time recovering, you’ll need to put a pack on and literally run to the hills before the season opens. I won’t get into any specific work-out regimens here; just know that your regular routine should include wearing a heavy pack and doing some vertical hiking. If you live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of mountainous terrain, you can always climb the stairs at your local football stadium. In addition to cardio, some extra weight training will do wonders to strengthen your back and shoulders.

On a recent hunting trip I felt like a machine and could hike all day without rest. But after shooting a big deer at the bottom of a steep canyon, I quickly realized I hadn’t conditioned myself for such a chore. With my pack loaded with nearly eighty pounds of venison, I was lucky to get the animal out at all, even with help from some friends. Remember, even a relatively easy hunt can become extremely difficult once you put an animal on the ground.

Pre-Season Deer Scouting

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If you put off learning your area until after the hunt has begun, then you’ll be at a serious disadvantage. As rule of thumb, you should spend at least twice as much time scouting as you do hunting. Scouting doesn’t mean just locating deer but locating crucial food and water sources, bedding areas, escapes routes, game trails, and other spoor. You don’t have to actually see a big buck to know he’s there; just watch for tracks and read the signs.

With today’s modern technologies, such as super-optics, video trail-cameras, GPS with topo maps, and 3D internet mapping, you can now scout anywhere in the country, 365 days a year, even late at night in your underpants after the wife goes to bed. But nothing beats boots on the ground. Physical scouting accomplishes two important things: first, you’ll become intimately familiar with the terrain you’ll be hunting on, and second, you’ll get plenty of crucial pre-hunt exercise while enjoying God’s natural splendors—and isn’t that what hunting is all about?

I can’t overemphasize the importance of quality optics; they are an essential part of scouting. Binoculars and spotting scopes open up the vastness of the mountain to your inquisitive eye, and quality optics will even open up the shadows during the crucial morning and evening hours when deer are likely to be out and moving. Remember, optics don’t have to be expensive, just effective.

Stealth in Hunting

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As bowhunters soon learn, the deer’s few disadvantages are greatly outweighed by its many advantages, particularly in terms of its super-sensory abilities. Now, assuming you’ve finally located a deer undetected, how does the novice hunter close the distance—that very small gap required to get within bow range? Of all the skills a bowhunter must learn, stealth is probably the most important and difficult to master.

During my early bowhunting career I climbed clumsily through the woods, snapping twigs and crunching pinecones as I went. Meanwhile, all the forest creatures sat staring my way in horror. Eventually, you get tired of busting all the deer out before you see them and learn to slow way down, becoming painfully aware of each step which is carefully placed around endless twigs, pinecones, brush, and crunchy pebbles. You become obsessed with wind direction which is your best friend or worst enemy. You must diligently adjust your approach against the breeze which carries your human scent back and away from you. Not only can you use wind direction for scent control, but the rustling leaves and howling wind can work wonders to camouflage the inevitable noises you do make. But hunting in high winds has its drawbacks too. Like most prey species, deer are extra wary on a windy day because it’s difficult for them to hear predators approaching. If you observe a buck feeding on a windy day, you’ll see his head up and looking around a lot more than usual. They also tend to stay bedded longer.

Besides using the wind to mask my noise, I try to keep my movements to a minimum. You’re obviously going to have to move to find deer; ambush plans don’t always work. When you find yourself hunting midday, for example, and it’s dreadfully hot and the deer aren’t moving, then you must move. Otherwise, you are here and the deer are there and you never meet in-between. But you can still optimize your approach. For example, I rarely take more than eight or ten steps before stopping to listen and glass over the ever-changing landscape. Many years ago I developed a game to help me with stealth. Whenever I snapped a twig I would force myself to stop and sit down in that very spot for fifteen minutes and just listen. I found that unless I continued making noise, the deer would eventually go back to what they were doing. But if I continued moving, the deer would confirm the danger and leave. A single noise in a forest full of other wildlife is eventually discarded by the deer. Countless times I’ve watched deer turn and stare in the direction of a noise with eternal patience, but if the sound wasn’t repeated, they’d eventually go back to their normal routine.

Every track, rub, bed, and sign you encounter, along with other factors such as wind, terrain, and forage, will dictate your direction of travel. The hardest part is moving undetected. It was during one of these early lessons that I had my first encounter with a bull elk. It was my third archery deer hunt and I had just spent much of the day ghosting along slowly and quietly, like a puff of smoke through the dense timber. Suddenly, a patch of tan fur caught my eye only ten yards ahead of me. I crouched down and observed a giant six-point elk standing in a thicket of pines, completely oblivious to my presence. I didn’t have an elk tag so I just sat and watched him while he stood and watched the woods. At that moment, I knew my lesson in stealth was complete.

Deer Hunting Poem

I don’t write a lot of poetry, but I was inspired to write these words in response to the many conversations I’ve had with non-hunters. It’s difficult to convey the real challenge of bowhunting to city-folk. For bowhunters, failure happens far more than success. Most days are spent hiking up steep mountains and seeing very few deer, if any.
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Do You Know What It’s Like?

Do you know what it’s like
To wake before it’s light,
And wander alone away from camp
Through tangled timber by headlamp;
To put aside all fear of death,
That today you’ll breathe your final breath?

Eyes strain through timber, search for deer
That move like ghosts you hardly hear.
Should I travel left or right,
Go up or down or just sit tight?

The day drags on eternally;
These clever beasts you hardly  see.
I wait in ambush for my prey,
It’s too hot to move now anyway,
Lie in shadow, wait out the day,
And ponder on my natural fate.

By noon exhaustion has consumed
My energy and daydreams doomed.
Slip into slumber amidst the trees,
My faithful bow rests on my knees.

The hours pass and daymares come;
A crazy flight to kingdom come.
Real or dream it’s hard to tell;
Swirling thoughts mix with surreal.

A cool breeze rakes leaves, makes me shake,
Cold shivers jerk me awake.
Evening’s falling with long shadows,
THERE’S SOME DEER, but only does.

It’s darker now and nighttime looms,
Then rustling leaves and stomping hooves.
A flash of gray between the trees,
I nock and arrow and then freeze.

Feeding unsuspecting prey,
Last opportunity today,
I draw my bow without a sound,
He stops and sniffs then stomps the ground.
He’s got my scent, I might be busted,
No shot, the wind can’t be trusted.

A flash of antler as he goes,
Before my arrow leaves the bow.
Too dark now, all out of luck,
Beaten again by a monster buck.

Do you know what it’s like;
This mighty trudge, this endless hike?

Hunter Evasion

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We could argue all day about what the mule deer’s greatest strength is, whether it’s their superfluous hearing, specialized eyesight, or powerful sense of smell. The fact that they must live in the outdoors year-round under extreme conditions requires them to have many strengths. But in my observation, the mule deer’s greatest strength is evasion.

In most instances, as you go sneaking quietly through the woods, the deer have already sensed your presence and are quietly sneaking away from you. Novice hunters aren’t usually aware of this, and if they don’t see any deer all day, they just assume there aren’t any around. Well, that’s exactly what the deer wants you to think! If every time a deer sensed a hunter, he went flying out of its bed and bounded noisily away, then experienced hunters would know there were deer in the area and continue putting more pressure on them. Instead, smart bucks have learned the art of quiet evasion.

As a rule, you’ll hear a lot more deer bound away than you’ll ever see, and you won’t see or hear even more deer that sneak silently away from you. But if you learn to slow way down and play the wind just right, you’ll eventually get within bow distance of an unsuspecting buck. This still doesn’t guarantee a shot because in most cases the buck will still sense some sort of danger before you can raise your weapon. He’ll suddenly explode from his bed and fly out of sight, carefully keeping as many trees as he can between him and you as he goes. That’s just part of hunting. There’s no way to fool all the deer all the time.

Big bucks have also developed a tactic for avoiding stealthy hunters by “lying low.” Since the deer doesn’t detect the stealthy hunter from a great distance, the sudden appearance of a hunter at close range will force the deer to make a decision: either he can flee out of his bed and alert you to his presence, or he can lie low and let you walk by, hoping you don’t see him. On numerous occasions, I’ve had bucks explode from a bed within just a few yards of me. Obviously the deer knew I was there beforehand, but chose not to flee until danger was imminent.

Since most bucks you encounter evade you one way or another (sometimes even after being shot), then evasion is obviously the mule deer’s greatest strength. The best advice I can give you is this: Never underestimate a mature buck. In most cases, the best you can do is to get in the vicinity and hope things play out in your favor. Be patient and let things unfold slowly, at nature’s pace. Even if it takes all day to stalk a buck you’ve spotted, your best chance of success is just getting close. Once the buck has sensed you, the jig is up and you’ll have to go find another one.

Mule Deer Adaptation

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My biggest frustration is empty woods. In places like Monte Cristo and the Manti-Lasal range, a hunter can travel past supreme habitat all day long without catching sight of a single deer. Thirty years ago, these places were crawling with deer, even giving up dozens of record-book bucks along the way. Today, not much about these woods has changed except there are almost no deer. And the few deer that still exist are the neurotic descendants of lone survivors.

During the seventies and eighties, while hundreds of trigger-happy hunters clambered around the mountainsides shooting wildly at any buck that dared step into the open, those few crazy-bucks held up in the thickest trees. They sprung from cover at the slightest human sight or scent and barreled along thick tree lines and out of sight without glancing back. Even something as benign as a squirrel’s bark would send these wide-eyed crazies flying into the next valley, never stopping to question the validity of the threat as they retreated into some dark hole on some private property or high mountain cliff. Today, the descendants of these neurotic deer are all that’s left—no longer Odocoileus hemionus, but Odocoileus neuroticus.

My friend Scott and I often travel together down a long and dusty road leading to an area on Monte Cristo where we both hunt. Every time we drive past a certain clearing in the trees above the road, Scott points out the exact location where his brother-in-law once shot a little two-point buck long ago. This appears to be the highlight of his family’s gun hunting tradition in recent years. Now, each time I drive down that road and look at that hillside clearing, I can’t help but wonder if that little buck was indeed the last of a generation of careless mule deer—yesterday’s deer.

What the modern mule deer lacks in numbers it makes up for in elusiveness. As an example, there are a few spots where I hunt that are always covered in deer sign—tracks, rubs, and droppings everywhere. But in a hundred days of hunting you’ll never actually see a single animal—at least not during daylight. It’s well known that deer are crepuscular animals (being most active in the morning and evening). But on heavily pressured public areas where I hunt, I’ve observed that today’s deer are mostly, if not completely, nocturnal. For the bowhunter, setting the alarm for 5 a.m. is almost useless because the deer have already fed, watered, and traveled to hidden bedding areas by starlight. That “great” area you chose to sit and watch before first light, remains quiet and empty as the sun comes up. It doesn’t matter how early you arrive because you’ve already missed the action. Utah wildlife biologist and author, Walt Prothero, wrote extensively on the mule deer’s keen ability to adapt to modern dangers. In his book Mule Deer Quest he wrote the following:

“But mule deer are quick learners and highly adaptable… The bucks that didn’t pause to watch their backtrail survived to do most of the breeding and pass on genes that made them more secretive. Bucks have essentially become nocturnal, at least during hunting seasons. They don’t pause in the open during daylight hours, and they won’t even come out in the open unless it’s dark. Most won’t move unless they’re certain they’ve been located (Prothero, 2002).”

Traditionally, mule deer experts have agreed that mule deer must rise out of their beds to feed occasionally throughout the day in order to maintain adequate energy and fat stores. However, in most of the high-pressured public areas where I hunt, I have observed that this is no longer the case. These modern mulies have simply adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle which provides plenty enough food ingestion at nighttime to negate daytime feeding. It’s like saying humans have to get up to eat occasionally during the night to survive. It’s just not necessary.

Another example of the mule deer’s ability to adapt to adverse conditions took place following the particularly harsh winter of 1983-1984. Every single deer in the mountains of Northern Utah was forced down to the lowest possible elevations in order to survive the extremely high snowpack. This forced many of the herds into our cities and even farther into the farmlands west of Ogden. By springtime, many deer had simply adapted to the city lifestyle and never did return to the mountains. Even today, small herds of mule deer are living year-round in the suburbs of Logan, Brigham City, North Ogden, West Weber, Hooper, Farmington, Bountiful, and many other small cities.

This amazing ability to adapt to innumerable adverse conditions—primarily man-made conditions—is all that’s kept the wily mule deer from becoming an endangered species.

Hunting: Right or Wrong?

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In the past two years I’ve had the unique opportunity to teach hundreds of people basic archery. Because of the nature of the organization which I’m affiliated with, many of my first time students are left-wing oriented, if not out-right liberals and even anti-hunters. Although this hasn’t been a problem, I’ve had quite a few impassioned conversations concerning the morality of hunting.

As it turns out, many anti-hunters are regular meat-eaters. In conversations about the ethic of hunting, the very first point I make is: “If you eat meat then you are directly responsible for the killing of hundreds of animals. You just have someone else just does the killing. I prefer to take that responsibility into my own hands.” This almost always brings the “offended” into the realm of reality and diffuses any potential negative redneck argument.

Learning the art of archery doesn’t mean you’re suddenly expected to go hunting. It’s just a fun skill to have. But I have to wonder, what drives a flaming anti-hunter to pick up a bow-and-arrow in the first place? In my studies I have learned that almost every culture around the world has used the bow and weapon as their primary source of food and protections for thousands of years. The reason—I think—that so many people from so many diverse backgrounds are inclined to pick up a bow-and-arrow is because it’s already deeply ingrained in their bodies, minds, and instincts. In fact, one in ten of my students becomes masterful at archery within five minutes of shooting, as if they’ve been shooting their entire life, but having never picked up a bow before.

Many first-time archers view bows and arrows as recreational toys. Often times, if I didn’t insist on teaching safety first, people would just grab a bow and start flinging arrows. Consequently, at the beginning of every session I stress the importance of safety. One of the very first sentences out of my mouth is, “The bow-and-arrow was designed for one thing and one thing only—killing!” At this proclamation you can see the slight discomfort in a few faces, but it never deters a person from shooting.

At the same time, I never push hunting on anyone; I won’t even bring it up unless someone asks—but someone always asks. Without getting too much into it, I explain how bowhunting has always been my greatest passion, how it provides the majority of meat that my family and I eat, and that shooting a bow-and-arrow proficiently has nothing to do with hunting well.

Many people from the big city have a skewed view of hunting. They are conditioned to believe that killing an animal is as easy as pulling off the side of the road and shooting some helpless creature to death. And so I go on to explain that hunting is a completely separate skill from shooting, and the hunting aspect requires a lifetime to master.

In the end, I don’t want to kill anything; I don’t glory in shooting some poor creature to death in cold blood. But I don’t want to starve to death either. Nor do I want to wander down the meat aisle at the supermarket and sift through a pile of carefully packaged, hormone-infused, mass-produced, inorganic farm-garbage-salmonella-burgers. What I prefer to eat is purely organic, super-lean, free-range, healthy meat that walks the earth freely as God intended. NOW, I digress.

Overall my arguments for hunting have been met with surprising respect, even from those who “agree to disagree.” Even more, the relationships I’ve developed with many anti-hunters have been mutually beneficial. I’ve been forced to honestly and deeply consider the ethical and spiritual nature of the sport I love so much, and at the same time I’ve witnessed a change in the hearts and minds of those who were previously misinformed about the evils of hunting.

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

Secret Bowhunting Tip #1: Weight is Everything

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Be prepared. – Boy Scout Motto

Be prepared, not OVER-prepared. – My Motto

In this article I’m going to address weight issues. I’m not talking about body fat; if that’s an issue then it’s a personal problem. No, today I’m talking about unnecessary items we carry into the field, and which are most likely hampering our success.

Utah offers a great opportunity for bowhunters who still have unused archery tags at the end of the general season. It’s called the Wasatch Extended Archery Hunt. The “extended hunt” runs from the middle of September clear through the middle of December, and encompassing the entire Wasatch Front, and even the entire deer rut. I usually see more giant bucks during the extended hunt than the whole general season and scouting trips combined. The biggest downside to the extended hunt—particularly in November and December—is the steepness of the terrain coupled with deep snow and cold weather.

In late November, 2012, I hunted the extended hunt for a few days alone. There’s always a little apprehension when venturing into those steep and freezing mountains alone. No one knows ever knows exactly where I’ll end up, including myself. To feel safer that year, I brought tons of extra gear including extra clothing, food, water, hand warmers, boots, and even some reading materials for when I got bored. In other words I over-packed, and that was a big mistake. Instead of taking three hours to drag my sled up to camp, it took five and I didn’t get to bed until 1:00 am. For the duration of the trip, my legs cramped, I blew through my water, ate more food, and had to rest more frequently. Although it was warmer than previous years, I was more tired and miserable. Miraculously I arrowed a nice buck two days later, but with so much new weight, I had to leave half my gear on the mountain and return the next day to retrieve it. Not fun!

In 2013 I returned to the same spot alone, only this time I brought my brain. Before the trip I went over the list of junk I hauled up the mountain last year and then crossed out almost half of it. Most of that ‘extra stuff’ served only to make me feel safer and had no real use for hunting. Some of the items included extra food, extra water (I could just filter water as I went and /or eat snow), extra boots, a pillow, books, propane, extra knives, hand warmers, utensils, batteries, archery tools, a handgun, extra flashlights, lighters, etc. I also noticed that my big, leather hunting belt weighed twice as much as my skinny “church belt,” so I wore that one instead.  I even cut the tags off my clothes and the handle off my toothbrush. All in all, I probably removed 30% of my pack weight, and man did it pay off. I got up the mountain in record time, ate less, and covered more ground than ever before. You’d be surprised at how difficult it is to be quiet while carrying a heavy day pack. In the end, I didn’t miss any of the junk I left home. Well, at first I did miss my handgun once I learned there was an active cougar den with kittens only 300 yards of my tent!

For most people, it’s hard to believe that such small items matter that much. But in truth, these items have a compounding effect. You never know which erroneous item will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Weight is especially  a negative factor when hunting in snow. More than anything else, a pair of heavy boots will fatigue you in the snow. For years I had two boot options for various weather conditions. One pair is a heavy, high-top, insulated cold-weather boot, and the other is a lightweight, breathable, un-insulated stalker-style boot. In 20I3 I stopped using the heavy boots altogether. What I found was the heavy boots always got too hot, primarily because of the amount of steep terrain I was covering. They were also noisy and very heavy compared to my stalker boots. Now, the stalker boots weighed only half as much (similar to tennis shoes),  but there were two minor drawbacks. First, my feet always got cold when I wasn’t moving, and second, they had minimal traction-tread. To counteract the cold, I simply wore two layers of wool socks. As for traction, I simply used a pair of lightweight ice cleats which worked wonders in the snow.

The next time you return from a grueling backcountry bowhunt, empty everything in your backpack onto the living room floor, and then make a list of everything you didn’t use. Is there still a tag on your tent? Why did you pack it into the woods? Were you going to eat it? Is there half a tube of toothpaste left in your toiletries pocket? Why did you pack extra paste?

Weight is everything; that’s what I learned in 2013. And surprise, surprise, fear is your worst enemy. Fear is why we over-pack. The more afraid we are of the mountain, the more extra stuff we cram in our packs; you know, just in case… And then there’s the great gear paradox:  the more we fear failure, the more hunting gear we carry around in our daypacks. Bowhunters, heed my plead:  You are the predator, not the crap on your back. You are too be feared, not the mountain. All that extra weight is an anchor keeping you from your goal. Pack light. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Be prepared, not over-prepared.

Click here for my Secret Bowhunting Tip #2: Success is a Decision