While bow hunting last year, it occurred to me that success can be divided into three equally important pillars. To put it in perspective, I created the diagram below:
Think back to your last hunt. Were you successful? If not, which pillar did you fall short on? Since each step is equally important, it should be easy to pinpoint where you need improvement.
Let’s break it down:
The first step, locating a buck, is something you can start doing right now. The best way to locate more bucks is to study their behavior, habitat, and ecology. You can also research harvest data and biologist’s reports on the unit you are planning to hunt. Then later, the scouting begins.
The second step, stalking a buck, is not always intuitive. Getting close to big bucks is the hardest step to master because, unlike shooting, it’s something we rarely get to practice. What it really boils down to patience: knowing when and how fast to move depending on conditions such as wind and cover.
Finally, shot execution. Almost everyone I talk to is pro-class shooter…until their arrow flies wide of an unsuspecting buck. Bowhunters are lucky just to get one or two shot opportunities in a season, so it’s very important to prepare for real-life hunting scenarios in advance. The best way to do this is to practice shooting in different positions, unknown yardages, around objects, and in adverse conditions such as wind.
I’ll certainly keep this “wheel of success” in mind when going into the next hunting season. I call it a ‘wheel’ because it just keeps on turning, year after year. After completing all three steps in a season, it begins again the following year. The goal is to keep the wheel from going in REVERSE, which only happens when you blow a stalk or botch a shot.
The following is my 2016 Idaho deer story as published in Eastmans Bowhunting Journal, Issue 101, May/June 2017:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Recently I addressed some frustrations that today’s hunters have to deal with thanks to exponential population growth coupled with decreasing wildlife and habitat. What it boils down to is less hunting opportunity for everyone and ever-increasing competition afield.
For many years I’ve joked with fellow hunters about being “duded” while hunting or even during a stalk. My brother, Russell, wrote a story about his 2015 rifle hunt which perfectly illustrates my point. His exciting and insightful story will be published here on tomorrow’s blog.
By the way, each year many hunters write great stories which are never published in big-name magazines, and are therefore rarely heard. If you have a great hunting story that you’d like to share with the world, then email it to me and I’d be more than happy to share it here on the ZenBowhunter blog.
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.
So, this is a good year; my worst was 2008. I won’t get into the specifics, but rather what I learned as a result of determined contemplation of what adversity means:
Life is made up of three controlling mechanisms. They are as follows:
Constants: Things you cannot change: i.e. genetics, age, physiology, general appearance, I.Q., gender, etc.
Controls: Circumstances or occurrences that are out of your control: i.e. accidents, illness, other people, the economy, death, etc.
Variables: Things which you have control over: i.e. attitude, lifestyle, relationships, career, extracurricular activities, etc.
These three mechanisms of control dictate our daily struggle, mind-set, attitude, and ultimately our success. We can control some things, and are controlled by others. But what I want to focus on today is the greatest enemy of peace, which is Controls. Controls is the great fear and the great unknown. It can change your life in a second and you never see it coming. It is the finger of God. It is fate.
Some may argue that our attitude can eliminate the effects of controls, or that our happiness is purely dictated by our negative reaction to stressful events. This is the case when, say, your car breaks down or you catch a cold. But if your son gets flattened by a garbage truck or your house burns down, well, positive thinking won’t help much, at least not in the short run. You are no longer in control, but being controlled.
So what can you do to avoid controls?
Nothing. You don’t have to like it; flee from it if you can. We are justified in fearing Controls. You can never control the Controller. But when crap happens, fight it if you can, embrace it if you can’t. Turn tragedy into action, not reaction, and you’ll get through it, eventually, and be stronger for it.
You will always have controls. This is how we learn and grow; this is the purpose of life. There is no pleasure without pain. The knife is honed by friction.
In my book, Zen Hunting, I address two important life concepts which are linked. The first is what I talked about in my last blog (Adverse Conditions), and the second is “the steely claws of responsibility.”
The steely claws of responsibility represent the controlling aspects of daily life which causes stress and affects our mood in adverse ways. These metaphoric ‘claws’ grasp hold of us when we least expect it and keep us from our goals or happiness. Examples might be a car crash, a serious illness, family emergencies, financial struggles, etc.
How do the steely claws relate to bowhunting? Good question. Allow me to get personal:
This year was going quite well in almost every way, and until recently I thought I’d be going into the bowhunt next month with a stress-free mind and a positive attitude. But, in just the last week or two, I have endured surprise attacks from every direction: financial woes, family problems, work problems, and car problems. As the stress and negativity mounted, I was suddenly hit with déjà vu. This sort of thing seems to happen every year at almost the same time, and in similar ways, and as far back as 1997 when my now ex-wife ran off with another man from her work. That year, I went into the woods feeling like I was going to throw up on my boots every second of the day. The fact is I can’t remember the last time I entered the peaceful woods without some huge, black cloud looming over me.
This is NOT a pity-party. This is just how life works. You see, when I go into the woods this year, I’m going to shoot an innocent and beautiful animal to death in cold blood with a razor-tipped arrow, and then watch it die right in front of me. Do you think that sort of action is free? Do you think the Natural Universe would allow me to do this without some sort of sacrifice? Every culture in the world previous to ours knew this. We just forgot.
Nowadays, a failed hunt results in a little disappointment, and maybe a razzing from fellow hunters. In ancient times, a failed hunt meant starvation. Do you think those ancient peoples—for tens of thousands of years—didn’t experience some level of stress prior to and during the great hunt?
And so I embrace it. The long-term effects of stress can be very harmful, but the short-term effects are good. Stress raises my heart rate, focuses my mind, and separates the trivial from the important. The regular seepage of adrenaline into my blood gives me an energy boost on an otherwise hot and lazy day. My patience is thinner, but my decisions are quicker and clearer.
As dreadful as it might be, ‘the steely claws of responsibility’ exist to help me succeed in hunting and life.
Part 1 of a 4 part series on life, hunting, and overcoming adversity.
Adverse Conditions = Success
In teaching advanced archery, one of my lessons revolves around ‘adverse conditions.’ What I mean by adverse conditions is that when you’re shooting arrows in your backyard, you are generally shooting at a large target, on a flat surface, at a known yardage, and in fair weather.
But the inexperienced bowhunter quickly figures out that in the mountains, everything changes. Now you are shooting kneeling down on a steep hill, through some brush and limbs, at an unknown distance, with a fly buzzing around your eye, and aiming into the sun. No wonder so many bowhunters have such poor success! In the real world, whether fighting the mountain or fighting the rat race of life, we are constantly battling adverse—or at least unpleasant—conditions. We must learn to welcome adversity and use it to our advantage.
The secret to successful shooting, then, is to practice in adverse conditions. Place as many mental and physical obstacles between you and the target. Have your shooting partner yell or poke you right before you shoot. Shoot at unknown distances. Shoot with a strong crosswind. Shoot through heavy cover or around obstacles. Do whatever you can do to make practice harder and it will pay off in the woods.
From years of real-life hunting experience, I’ve learned that the biggest obstacle is yourself. Even if you shoot 10,000 arrows in the preseason, you’re never really ready for that buck-of-a-lifetime to step out in front of you. And when it happens, I guarantee you’ll come unglued! My brother, Russell, relates a story of this happening to him many years ago when he was still new to bowhunting. A small, two-point buck stepped out right in front of him at only fifteen yards. Sure enough, the instant pressure caused him to send his arrow plowing into the dirt at the buck’s feet!
So how do you prepare for that kind of pressure? The following are some of the best ways I’ve found to create high-pressure practice:
Don’t shoot square targets; shoot realistic 3D targets. If you don’t have a 3D target, you can always dangle small balloons from a string in front of your target. You’ll be surprised at how difficult it is to hit them as they dance around in the breeze. Not only will this prepare your mind for realistic situations, but it’s a lot more fun.
Compete! At least once or twice a year, sign up for a 3D tournament, even if you aren’t that good. Competitions–especially ones with lots of money on the line–always raise adrenaline levels. If you aren’t up for a formal competition, you can create competitions by practicing with a couple friends. Put a couple bucks on the line and watch the competition soar.
Sprint to and from your target to get your heart rate up, shoot quickly, and repeat. I admit, it’s not a fun way to practice, but it helps.
Remember, overcoming adversity is how we grow stronger in life and bowhunting. Anticipate it–even welcome it–and you’ll be better for it.