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Better Than Perfect: My 2018 Deer Hunt

The Goal

A dire warning jumped from the pages of last year’s hunt journal: “Plan to hunt the entire 28-day season or plan to fail!” Midway through the 2017 season, the daunting task of arrowing a trophy buck inspired me to write these words. So my goal in 2018 was to hunt the entire season no matter what. I never had this luxury before, mostly due to work obligations. Last year was my longest stint in the woods at 18 days. In order to reach my goal I had to shirk work at every turn, turning down a myriad of jobs, not to mention several fishing trips and other opportunities. I was in for the long haul.

A Quest for Knowledge

I dedicated the first week of the hunt to helping Esther. I would set her up in prime ambush areas while I went off to explore new places and learn everything I could about big buck behavior. This strategy worked out great. Esther finally got a shot at a mature buck, and I got in the habit of collecting data and scouting rather than just hunting.

While exploring a new area one morning, I spotted an old 30-inch wide 3-point buck. I wasn’t completely sold on shooting a 3×3, but he was well out of bow range anyway. Instead I followed his tracks in hopes of learning where big bucks go during the day. The tracks wrapped around the mountain and eventually dropped off a dreadfully steep, shale-rock slope. It was hard to believe a deer would travel so far just to bed down. His route was confirmed by very large tracks and big, green droppings measuring three-quarter inches. They were such large pebbles that I’d always assumed they were elk droppings in the past.

Just when I was about to give up pursuit, the old buck stood up from his bed in a clump of trees 30 yards ahead. He, along with another big buck, took one look at me and hopped away. I stared blankly for a minute, and then had an epiphany: I’ve been hunting wrong my entire life! In 27 years of big game hunting I never realized just how far unpressured deer were willing to go just to bed down for the day. Sure I had my suspicions, but now it was confirmed.

The steep country.

In most of the hunting books I’ve read, the author categorizes big bucks the all same way, whether they are young-mature bucks (3+ years old), older bucks, or old trophy bucks. But young bucks act very differently than old bucks because deer learn exponentially each year they survive. They adapt rapidly to hunters with each encounter, so much so that old bucks (in the 6-10 year range) essentially become unhuntable. Biologists have theorized that 80% of bucks aged 5 years and older will never be harvested, and die natural causes instead. The great majority of bucks taken by hunters are only one or two years old. These “toddlers” have some basic survival instincts, but with so little experience, they cannot effectively avoid hunters. Old bucks on the other hand basically evolve into a completely different animal, so you need to hunt them differently.

Perfect Creatures

Mule deer are the most perfect creature I know of, even better, I dare say, than humans, at least from Nature’s perspective. Here’s what I mean: Deer ears are 10 times larger than ours; they hear everything. Their 310-degree field of view and night vision overshadows our own narrow focus. Their nose is tremendous, shaping their entire head into an olfactory funnel capable of smelling danger a mile away. Every big buck is built like a linebacker; muscular and lean, with the strength and agility to blast away from hunters for miles before setting up shop on some distant, near-vertical slope. Then there’s intelligence—but a different kind of intelligence. It’s widely known that intelligence is the human’s only advantage over the buck (weapons, optics, camouflage, etc. are all products of our intelligence). Yet 80% of bowhunters fail each year because they cannot beat the deer’s seemingly simple intelligence.

From first to last light the hunter gathers information and formulates a series of well thought-out plans to ambush his four-legged foe. The deer, on the other hand, catches the slightest human scent, and without actually seeing the hunter, completely alters his behavior so he’ll never cross our path again. Instantly he goes nocturnal; his evening routine becomes a night routine. He moves from bed to feed on a completely different route and schedule. Simultaneously, he decides to go a few days without water just to keep a low profile. And for the rest of the hunt that buck is never seen. All of this occurs in the buck’s little brain with lightning strike brilliance and hardly a conscious thought.

In hunting stories, people often state that “the buck made a mistake that morning,” or, “I just had to wait for the buck to make a mistake.” The truth is that big bucks don’t make mistakes, they just get unlucky. Every step a deer takes is deliberate, with the purpose of conserving energy and surviving. It’s people who make mistakes—continuous mistakes, actually—and then once in a while we get lucky. The buck is not only “smart” at surviving, but mentally tough from living in the cruel woods 365 days a year. He’s accustomed to constant pain, fear, and discomfort. So it’s hardly a chore for him to avoid a bow-toting hunter who can barely get own his lazy butt up the mountain. Worse yet, while we clamber around the mountain, complete with frustration, the buck sits in the shade of a seemingly random tree, half-asleep, and chewing his cud. Simply put, he’s vastly smarter at surviving than we are at hunting him. Thus, the mighty mule deer buck is God’s perfect creature, perhaps even better than perfect.

The Draggerbuck

Speaking of frustration, week one brought me face to face with a pair of velvet-clad bull elk. For years I fantasized about harvesting a bull in velvet, but these elk spotted me first and blew out of the area…permanently. Esther went home after the first week and I was left alone; just me, my tent, and the mountain. One day, while driving up a nasty dirt road in the velvet elk area, I glimpsed a wide deer butt in the trees. I backed up and was befuddled to see a massive antler glued to the head of an enormous sway-belly buck just 10 yards off the road! Long story short, I spent the next four days tracking that buck through heavy timber.

The Draggerbuck

Back and forth he went with no apparent pattern. All I could glean from this fruitless endeavor was that he dragged his right, rear leg, likely the result of a past human encounter. So I called him the “Draggerbuck.” I set up a trail camera in the area and eventually caught the old warrior on film. Thank goodness he was only a 3×4, because I was beaten and abandoned the pursuit altogether.

Putting it All Together

By the third week I’d seen a lot of new country and a lot of mediocre bucks; so many bucks that I gave up counting them. I’d fallen into a monotonous rhythm: Hunt prime feed at first light, then after 9:30 or so, when the deer had bedded, I’d go on an intel-gathering mission, following big tracks along travel routes while searching for likely feed, water, and bedding areas. Knowing that bucks will go to any horrible place just to avoid hunters, I really pushed myself. Around midday I would drag my sore feet back to camp for lunch and try to catch a “crap-nap” before setting out again. (Daytime sleep was rare and often interrupted). Then, in the early afternoon I’d head back out to explore prime areas and work bed-to-feed routes.

Through it all I never had a bad day because I was learning so much. Each day I returned to camp with a handful of clues—puzzle pieces if you will—that I’d picked up, photographed, or noted in my field journal. During periods of downtime, I meticulously pieced things together until a picture gradually developed. Sure there were gaps here and there, holes to remind me that the pieces are infinite, and can’t all be found. But we’re not meant to know everything; we can only get close. Some pieces probably got vacuumed up, and the dog probably ate some. But the picture was becoming clear and just what I’d hoped for: A monster buck, God’s most perfect beast, standing majestically in the timber, stoic and powerful, with a gleaming coat of coarse-gray fur, his massive antlers glistening above his muscular neck and wizened face. Dramatic, pastel-painted clouds loom overhead, and there’s a title at the bottom, barely visible in gold calligraphy etched in a boulder below his hooves. One word:  UNTOUCHABLE.  What a picture.

Glassing

In one of my secret areas I can glass an adjacent mountain peak where a band of bucks often feed late into the morning and then take a predictable route through the pines towards a known bedding area. I had the wind right one evening, so I took my time carefully working into the timber in hopes of ambushing the bucks as they came up to feed. I worked carefully through the thick timber until I found the perfect ambush point between two deer trails and set up there for the evening. I sat motionless until the whole mountain and even the squirrels forgot I was there. I listened intently and glassed often, but nothing happened. As darkness fell I stood up in dismay and wondered deeply, how can I be better than perfect?!

My Mountain Home

A lot happens in 27 days of hunting. I found a couple broken arrowheads and what appears to be a spear tip fashioned of pale blue flint. One night a horrible, screeching witch-monster (or something) walked past my tent at 2:00 am. 27 years of hunting and I’d never heard such an awful noise in the woods! It woke me from a nightmare and I lied there frozen in terror, listening as the monster moved through the trees. I slept with my revolver close that night, and then, undeterred, resumed normal hunting activities the following morning.

Spearhead?

The woods are cruel, I’ve decided. They may seem benign to the uninitiated, but to the veteran hunter they’re downright mean. Big buck areas are often protected by a near impenetrable network of barking squirrels, doe snorts, and crackling ground cover. Trying to navigate these obstacles is a daily exercise in futility. Squirrels are the worst and can effectively ruin a hunt. Observe any buck when a squirrel fires up with its relentless, mindless barking. The buck whips his head around and stares in that direction. The older bucks won’t even look, they just walk away.

It gets worse in September when the squirrels have amassed a collection of pine cones and become territorial. The entire pine forest becomes gridded out as squirrel territory. But there’s more going on than just random barking. Oftentimes, the obnoxious rodent simply ignores me until I’ve crawled into bow range. At that point, he seems to have a moral responsibility to alert the buck to my presence. I suspected this before, but now I believe it. Here’s one example: I’m sneaking down a trail when I hear some rustling 20 yards ahead. I crouch down as a mature 4×4 buck steps into view. As I raise my binos for a closer look, a nearby squirrel loses his mind. Then a chipmunk joins in. The buck turns around and glares at me before nervously moving off. This happens all the time, and now, at risk of sounding insane, I fully believe the squirrels are protecting the deer from hunters.

Week 4: Hell Week

Twenty days afield wears on a guy. Days and days go by without speaking to anyone. I stave off loneliness well enough, but then there are the constant bugs, heat, dust, and the crappy air mattress taking its toll on my spine. Weary exhaustion from waking too early, hiking all day, and getting to bed late makes time go by in a blurry haze. Days are very long and time is perceived differently. What day is it, I often wonder.

A day in the woods.

Summer gradually changes to fall;  mornings grow cooler and evenings grow shorter. Suddenly it’s a new month, a new moon, and a whole different season. Then there’s dinner: a can of soup, the same kind every night, alone in the dark, sometimes with moths floating in it. But you get used to it. Still, this hunt feels tougher than most, probably because work- and home-life were so stressful preceding the hunt.  It was a record year for ripped off, even by good friends, so I carried a lot of negative energy into this hunt. But I suppose it’s easier to spend a month in the woods when you’re disgusted with humanity.

As I sit in the dark, rhythmically slurping my soup, I suddenly realize that everything back home is a luxury. I ask myself, what do I really need to survive? The forest mind, now focused by chronic stinging silence, sees clearly that the vast majority of what consumes our lives is totally unnecessary. The constant din of technology—the TV, phone, internet, ads—is all distractions, even dangerously distracting, because these digital devices distract us from what really matters—purpose, meaning, friends and family. These are digital toxins, stealing away our precious time and scattering our minds. Modern man is becoming an aberration, the byproduct of over-consumerism and selfishness perpetuated by technology and too much information.

That ubiquitous phone-device we poke at all day is the portal from whence the monster comes. It feels like tentacles around my neck. Being self-employed, I live project to project, not by a wage. I haven’t had a paid vacation day in almost fifteen years, so time is valuable. But my phone rings and beeps all the time, interrupting my focus and wrecking my productivity. 90% of the time it’s no one I want to talk, or worse yet, scammers and crooks, seething vultures prying at my wallet and vying for my life’s energy. Even the device itself is constantly trying to sell me something, begging for updates or demanding upgrades. Like I need an upgrade; if anything, I need a downgrade!

Technology has gone too far. It’s a detriment to natural life. It’s ridiculous and abhorrent. Sci-fi predicted our fate a long time ago, and now, here in the future, the machine really has killed us, we just don’t know it yet. I shudder at the thought of returning home. I love the mountain; it’s my rescuer.

The Big One

By week four I’d seen nearly a hundred bucks and only two were worthy of my arrow (180 inches or better). 2% sucks, but it’s still better than most places in Northern Utah. Week four is also fraught with regret. That big 4×4 I passed up early in the season suddenly doesn’t seem so small. I busted him low, then high, and that was the last I saw of him. He changed mountains altogether, went nocturnal, and practically stopped existing. The following week I went looking for him and in his stead was a beautiful 4×5. I passed him too, first at 15 yards and again at 40. Now I’d be happy with either one. But I was convinced there was a bigger one lurking somewhere.

Well, I met that bigger buck with only five days left in the hunt. I estimate him at 190 gorgeous inches. I left camp early that morning, heading to the same far-off ridge where I chased the 30-inch buck early on. Just as the sun began streaming through the trees I heard a swishing sound in the dry brush, and out popped a monster buck 50 yards away. He was a majestic 4×4 tank-of-a-deer, beautiful and old. He was feeding broadside on a steep slope, barely visible in the thick pines. I pulled an arrow, but there was no shot. The buck was working steadily towards the only opening in the forest when a squirrel fired up. Then the wind began to swirl. The buck looked around nervously.

Realizing my only chance at a great buck was about to fall apart, my adrenaline surged and I began shaking like a little girl. The buck continued, slower now. I was coming unglued; my heart pounded and my hands shook. When he finally sauntered through the shot window, I settled my dancing sight pin best I could and hit the release. The arrow took a last minute nose dive into the dirt and the buck smashed away unscathed. After a minute of disgust, I raised my binos and lo and behold, there he was, deep in the woods, antlers sprawling through the trees. He was scowling at me—really scowling—like I’d never seen a deer do before. We stared at each other for several minutes before he finally turned and melted away.

With only four days left I hammered the monster buck area relentlessly. I found two prime feed areas and two prime bedding routes all bearing huge, pebble droppings. I put in full days afield, ghosting through the woods tirelessly, but I never caught up with that buck again. The great, unsolvable problem was navigating the “gauntlet” each morning. The whole area was booby trapped with does, squirrels, swirling winds, and lesser bucks sprinkled around perimeter. The bucks had the decency of just B-lining out of there, but the does were evil. They snorted, stomped, and sprinted around in circles alerting the entire forest to my presence. By the time I got to the big buck area, everything was blown out. With only three days left, and painfully aware of my empty freezer back home, I lowered my standards. Now any mature buck was good enough.

Day 27

Friday, September 13; only two days left. There was a short sentence scribbled on my bow hand in heavy ink: This is IT! Everything I’d endured all year came down to this. Besides, you never know which hunt might be your last. I took the same route that morning and by some miracle made it through the gauntlet. But as expected, the prime area was empty.

Reminder.

The secondary area was a third-mile away, so I needed to hurry. I was trotting through the woods at 7:45 when I spotted two small bucks feeding a short distance ahead. When I paused, a squirrel lit up like its tail was on fire. The two bucks looked back at me, and then promptly shuffled away. To the right a large bush swayed back and forth. A third, unseen buck was raking a bush with his rack, too distracted to hear the squirrel’s alarm. I pulled an arrow just as the bush stopped moving.

The buck, suddenly alarmed by the squirrel, began walking briskly to the right. Through the first opening he came to I glanced at his headgear, four points, good enough. His shoulder appeared and I launched the arrow without a second to spare. The shot felt good and the buck blasted up the near-vertical slope like a cannonball and disappeared in the trees. I stood for a while trying to get my bearings. It all happened so fast.

The blood trail was instant, crimson splashes on both sides of dug-in tracks blasting uphill. After a short bit I found my broken-off arrow covered in bubbly blood. Fifty yards up the mountain, his tracks veered sharply right and there he was, his grey body piled up in some yellow bushes with a heavy antler protruding upward.  I knelt down by the beautiful buck and grasped for understanding.

My 2018 archery buck.

Everything had transpired too quickly to process it. All these years of intense learning had led to this sudden, surprising encounter.  I was kind of expecting a grand crescendo to an epic hunt, but instead got an abrupt end to a chance meeting. Nevertheless I was happy; my spirit was full.

Conclusion

The story is really a short one. On a far-off mountainside, somewhere between two prime deer areas, a bowhunter met a random buck, and that’s all. A person can dedicate his whole life to learning about these wondrous creatures—collecting data, photographing, admiring, and pondering—but they’re really beyond comprehension and almost beyond reach. My buck appeared when I needed him to, 27 days into a 28-day season. But the real trophy was knowledge. In just two seasons I’d put in 45 days afield and went farther than ever before while simultaneously expanding my mule deer knowledge ten-fold.

My buck wasn’t really old, nor was his rack really wide, nor tall. He was just a solid 4×4 buck with good mass and some extra cheaters. But considering all I’d been through and how little time was left, I’d say he was perfect, maybe even better than perfect.

The Wall: My 2017 Utah Archery Buck

A New Beginning

2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.

In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.

Southern Utah.

The Wall Buck

A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the wall buck into the trees. That was the last I saw of him.

Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience and the challenge. Above all, it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.

Round Two

After seven days afield I drove home, dropped off the wife, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.

A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

September

As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.

Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places in hopes of finding another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring within. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.

The hunters moon.

A Different Approach

Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.

Hairy current berries.

Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”

The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.

Doing Time

I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.

Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.

Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.

Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.

My 2017 camp.

A New Hope

I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.

Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.

I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.

Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.

As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.

An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.

It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.

The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.

Deer retrieval route.

Home Run

Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.

This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.

Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres and the wall crumbles.

Prehunt Meditation 2017

Prehunt Meditation 2017

Can you feel it? The changing season, a shift in the sun’s angle? Nostalgic aromas of ripening vegetation? We’re almost there, almost in the woods.

If you’re like me, you’re already out there, in your mind. Wits sharpening, watching the ground for clues, listening.

The annual ritual of prehunt mediation is upon us. We look like we’re working a job–we go through the motions–but we’re really out there, in the woods, sharpening our Craft–woodscraft, stalkcraft, bowcraft, huntcraft.

As my spirit stretches into the wild landscape, I’m reminded of so many experiences unwritten and nearly forgotten. But the hunter spirit stirs the sediment of the mind into a swirling patchwork of sights, sounds, and smells.

In my next few articles I’m going to reach into murk and materialize some of these experiences. I hope they’ll inspire you to do the same.

100th Blog Post Celebration

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My 100th Blog Post

Hello Zen-bowhunter blog readers. Today marks my 100th blog post. A year and a half in the making, my little archery/hunting blog is still going strong thanks to you, my loyal readers. My sincere hope is that everyone has enjoyed at least some of my content. I truly believe there’s something here for everyone, not just hunters.

One of my greatest passions in life is seeking self-improvement through archery. Archery is an individual sport, which means each person learns and grows at his own pace. There is no competition or pressure to succeed, except from yourself. Most people find archery (and bowhunting) to be a wonderful, meditative way to achieve clarity and peace and even Zen. After all, Zen-through-archery has been taught in Japan for a thousand years. My goal in this blog is to help you succeed in both Zen-archery and in life. Once a person achieves Zen, he realizes he can do anything he puts his mind to.

On a personal note, we are entering the peak of the mule deer rut in Utah. This means the biggest bucks will be climbing down from the high country to participate in their annual mating ritual. For those of you that still have an unused archery tag, it’s going to be an exciting (and COLD) month. Maybe I’ll see you in the hills.

Best of luck in your own endeavors, and may the Zen-force be with you!

Hunting Goals and Priorities

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Hunting Goals and Priorities

I didn’t shoot the photo above; I borrowed it from the Utah DWR. However, it perfectly captures what goes on in my mind 25 hours a day, 8 days a week, 366 days a year.

The Utah archery deer hunt opens this Saturday! From there I’ll have 4 weeks to accomplish the one thing I live for: harvesting a trophy buck with my bow. In this article I’m goint to talk about goals and priorities and how they relate to hunting and life.

Hunting Goals

Each bowhunt I go through the same process: A grand, ritualistic prehunt meditation that consumes my being. My mind is being reformatted. Time expands to include the present, past and future simultaneously. As I sit here typing, I’m already in the woods. For the last couple weeks I have become useless in every facet of my life. My soul is set upon a nearly impossible goal that consumes every minute of the day. My phone rings, people talk, and I walk around, but it is all background noise. I can’t focus on anything but the glorious task ahead of me.

As the hunt nears, I also become overly hopeful. Last year my goal was to shoot my third 200+ inch deer in five years. I hunted harder and put more days in than ever before, and I didn’t even see a 200″ deer. The biggest was maybe 180″.

Half-way through the season I started to realize that any big four-point was the best a bowhunter could hope for these days, mainly because there just aren’t that many big bucks left. Thanks to greater and greater human expansion into Utah’s winter range–not to mention a whole new onslaught of statewide poaching and highway casualties–fewer and fewer bucks live to maturity. So the odds of success are always declining. Does this mean I should set the bar lower? Maybe; I’ll wait for that deer to step out and then decide.

Hunting Priorities

Being a professional photographer, archery instructor, taxidermist, and writer has made this the busiest year of my life. I worked every single day in July, mostly out in the hot sun, sometimes ten hours without a break. As busy-ness began winding down, I was discussing work with an associate of mine. He remarked, “Hey, at least the money is good, right?” I said, “You know, the only reason I work so hard is so I can take the entire hunt off work if necessary. Bowhunting is all I care about. Every single thing I do–the whole reason I even get out of bed in the morning–is so I can hunt. Everything else is secondary. When my wife asked me to marry her, I tried to warn her, but she married me anyway (ha-ha). I know my purpose in life…”

There’s a saying: People enjoy what they’re good at (and despise what they suck at.) A couple years ago I had an epiphany: I’m good at lots of things (archery, photography, music, taxidermy, etc.), but I’m great at only one thing: Bowhunting. I didn’t choose it; it chose me.

Not too many years ago I stunk at hunting, so I only committed to hunting three or four days a year. Now I commit several weeks, mostly because I know that quality bucks take a lot of time, skill, and yes, even luck. And the best way to be successful and lucky is to be in the field, not at home, not at work, not golfing, etc. I set a very lofty goal, then do whatever it takes to achieve it.

I also know a whole lot of very unsuccessful hunters, some whom are close family and friends. Most of them say that I’m lucky and they’re not. Maybe they’re right, but I’ll tell you right now: while I’m alone in the woods from Tuesday through Friday, or trudging five miles up some frozen canyon in three feet of snow, those people are sitting at work or in front of the television, waiting for me to get lucky. And then I stumble into some unsuspecting giant…

Conclusion

Long story short, trophy hunting isn’t for everyone. Most hunters would be happy with any deer, or at least some sort of consistency from year to year. But it’s hard to achieve even moderate success when we put so many other priorities ahead of hunting.

I believe everyone get’s ONE THING; one big thing that you’re great at. That’s the great mystery of life; finding that one thing! Unless that “one thing” is hunting, don’t expect a trophy deer too, because in the deer woods it’s all or nothing. You either commit 100% to the task loooooong before the season opener, or you’ll likely fail. The season blows in and out, haphazardly.

This blog is about one thing: Successful trophy bowhunting. I truly believe that success in hunting is a decision, and anyone who sets their priorities in that direction will accomplish it year after year.

When I was just starting out as a photographer, I made a conscious effort to learn only from the greatest photographers and study only their methods. There were tons of “good” photographers out there, but great photography can only be learned from the greats. The same idea applies to hunters.

I don’t know that I am a great hunter. But I do believe in the methods I’ve developed and follow. I also believe that the greatest teacher is the woods itself. I know there is a natural law and how to follow it. I know how a mountain lion hunts and survives by successfully taking a deer every ten days or so all year-round. Lions are the “greats” of the hunting world.

Lastly, I believe that the road map to success is fully integrated into the text of this blog and my book, Zen Hunting. I don’t think I’ve left anything out, but I will keep trying to help.

Good luck this year!

My 40-Inch Dream

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

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My 40-Inch Dream:  2013 Deer Hunting Story

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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Pre-hunt Meditation

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Pre-Hunt Meditation

Bowhunting success for general archery deer in Utah is about 20%. That’s about double what it was 20 years ago, mostly due to better equipment. Still, the average bowhunter is looking to harvest a deer only once every five years. That’s bleak!

Zenbowhunter.com is dedicated to raising those numbers for people looking to expand their outdoor knowledge and shooting skills.

Bowhunting success hinges upon five factors:

1. Luck: The truth is most big bucks are stumbled upon by chance, not skill. By improving your hunting skills, you also increase your luck.

2. Equipment: Having precision weaponry, optics, and gear certainly helps tightens your arrow groupings and reduces the chances of error. But it doesn’t contribute anything to actual hunting technique or woodscraft. These factors come through experience and diligent study.

3. Technique: This is the actual hunting part: learning everything about your prey, then locating it, and finally executing a successful stalk. Humans are as much a part of nature as the deer are, so the goal is to reconnect with your natural predatory instincts and use it to your advantage.

4. Information: Learning your area through scouting, studying maps, and collecting data from your state’s wildlife division will provide an outline of what you can expect to see in your area.

5. The Unknown: This is what separates the consistently successful hunters from the rest. The great “unknown” is what Zen Hunting is all about; aka, turning the unknown into the known. You might call it “advanced hunting techniques” but it’s really just the natural process of human development, or Zen enlightenment. The purpose of Zen is to achieve clarity and ultimate truths through meditation, and then finally harness greater powers over the elements by expanding your consciousness.

The bowhunt is only a week away! As with most years, I won’t be hunting the opener. By holding off for a couple weeks I can avoid the hunting pressure and the extreme August heat. In the meantime I’ll remain in a state of pre-hunt meditation. I will go about my work and other responsibilities in a seemingly normal way, but my consciousness is consumed by hunting; in my mind I’m already in the mountains. Phones ring, people talk, distractions arise, but nothing can assuage my focus.

Pre-hunt mediation can be a lot harder to achieve in this modern era, mainly due to constant distractions. Most people are just too busy and/or too distracted to relax and meditate. Between work, texts, emails, family, and the myriad of other responsibilities, we can’t seem to get in the zone. Sure, we’re excited about the upcoming hunt, but we can’t really break free from the busy life until we pull out of the driveway and head for the hills. It will then take at least a few days of hard hunting to get into the rhythm of nature. By then, the hunt could be over! Pre-hunt mediation might sound like a bunch of hippie-hogwash, but it has worked for me for many years.

If you’ve stuck with me this far, then you’re in luck. I’m going to share a few techniques for getting into the rhythm of nature:

  • Spend some time in nature alone. Drive to the mountains and take a short hike. Spend some time sitting near water, trees, etc. Just sit and listen. Take some photos. Taking pictures forces you to look for beauty in nature, which in turn helps you appreciate and connect with it.
  • Watch hunting videos and read hunting books and magazines. By observing how animals act and react to other hunters, it will help you prepare for similar encounters. It will also get you into the hunting mindset before the upcoming own hunt.
  • Study topo maps of your hunting area. Look at places you’ve had success before, and even places where you’ve failed. What are the differences? Can you find similar places on the map? Mark places where you’ve seen big bucks in the past. Chances are there will be more. Make a skeleton plan of your hunt; where will you be hunting on opening morning, and then where will you go from there?
  • Shoot daily. Even if you already shoot daily, do it differently. Instead of just seeing your same old target, make up scenarios. Before you draw the bow, imagine a deer feeding along. Take a second to let the scenario play out. The deer is behind cover, steps forward and looks the other way. Now shoot. On the next arrow imagine an elk, a bear, a rabbit, whatever. Just make it more realistic. Brain studies show that the subconscious mind has a hard time distinguishing between reality and make-believe. This exercise will put you into the hunter mindset. Plus it’s fun.

These are just a few of the methods I use to get into the spirit of the hunt before I set foot in the woods. Establishing the hunter mindset ahead of time will contribute more to success than anything else you do.

The few hunters who have consistent success are the ones who don’t view bowhunting as a hobby or a sport, but a lifestyle. Try to make that commitment in yourself, set a goal, and make hunting a way of life. The numbers say your odds are 1-in-5, but you can beat the odds by putting forth a little extra effort. I truly believe that success in bowhunting is a decision, not luck.

Deer Hunting: Art or Science?


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Deer Hunting: Art or Science?

Is deer hunting an art or a science? What a great question!

A year ago I had a really interesting conversation with a non-hunter about art and science and how it relates to hunting success. Now, this non-hunter has a friend who loves hunting more than anything, but his results over the years have been very poor. The hunter is not only a scientist by profession, but a scientist in just about every other facet of life. Almost everything he does has to be calculated and planned out, with little left to chance. In other words, he’s an extreme left-brain oriented person.

In contrast, I’m a real right-brain oriented person. I’m an artist not only by profession, but in every other way as well. So, my only common ground with the scientist is our love for hunting. This got me thinking.

If you aren’t familiar with the difference between left and right brains, maybe this comparison will help:

Scientist-hunters tend to be left-brained. Some characteristics of left-brainers are:

  1. They tend to be numbers oriented.
  2. They are very rules oriented
  3. They are facts oriented
  4. They tend to be less open to abstract ideas such as religion, mysticism, romance, etc.
  5. They are more confident, but also more close-minded
  6. They tend to be politically conservative
  7. They tend to be more financially successful

In contrast, abrainers are:

  1. They are art oriented
  2. They are more intuitive and open-minded
  3. They have distrust for science, facts, and numbers
  4. They are more hopeful and romantic
  5. They have more politically liberal views
  6. They are more visually oriented

Ideally, a person is perfectly balanced between the two, meaning the two halves of their brain work together rather than one dominating the other. Mbalanced somewhere between the two extremes, but a lot of people aren’t. Being extreme one way or the other is actually dangerous because it means we are close-minded and prone to mental disorders.

How does being left- or right-brained affect hunting success?

When a person bags a giant buck, the scientist will immediately begin assessing the situation. Where, when, and how did this hunter come to arrow such a great trophy? If the scientist can just answer these three simple questions, then the formula can be implemented and success can be repeated, right? But in real-life hunting, it doesn’t always work that way. For instance, what if the hunter just wandered into a section of unknown woods on a hunch and stumbled into a big buck. Miraculously, the buck didn’t notice the hunter who immediately sent an arrow sailing perfectly into the buck’s heart. End of story for the hunter, but great mystery for the scientist. None of the scientist’s questions were answered so there can be only one possible explanation: sheer, lethal luck. And the scientist knows that absolutely nothing can be learned from luck, so all the data must be dismissed. Could it be that the scientist is asking the wrong questions?

In contrast, the artist views hunting is art. Yeah, there might be a little science thrown in, such as knowledge of deer behavior and physics-optimized weaponry, but the true artist-hunter glides fearlessly along a path of infinite variables and gut feelings. He might begin the day with a basic plan or direction of travel in mind, but almost immediately veers away from preconceptions, and ends up in mysterious places he never thought of. The scientist may do this occasionally, but it’s usually avoided. Scientists tend to stick with the plan at all costs.

As an artist, I’m probably a little biased. I see the purely scientific approach to hunting as a triple threat to success. The first problem is over-planning. The scientist has probably stared at a map for so long that he just knows where the deer will be the next day based on a number of physical factors, and nothing can lead him away from his plan. The second problem is over-packing. He is aware that the woods are full of infinite problems, variables, and dangers, so he overfills his pack which in turn slows him down and makes him noisier. The third problem is ignoring intuition. As a predator-animal, the scientist is prone to intuition and a heightened sense of awareness just like every other hunter. The problem is that he resists acting on hunches, premonitions, feelings, etc. This narrows his vision both physically and metaphorically. If your vision is narrow, you will ignore the gentle prodding’s of Nature.

Game over. The results are in and the winner is…

The Artist.

But scientists, don’t despair. Anyone can change. The first step to becoming more artistic in hunting is to realize you’re a left-brainer. This in itself can be a challenge since left-brained people tend not to buy into the whole left-brain/right-brain idea. To help identify your bias, simply review the traits listed above and make an honest assessment of your priorities. Do you love math? Great, you’re left-brained. Now that you’ve accepted this title, read back over my previous blog-posts entitled Zen in Hunting: Part 1, 2, 3. The left-brainer is bound to scoff at such Zen-nonsense, but that’s exactly why he experiences such limited success in the field. So read it again.

By now you’ve probably concluded that the author is a pompous jerk; pointing fingers and calling names. Nothing could be further from the truth. In life, money, and relationships I’m really a big failure. There’s only one thing in life I’ve been great at and that’s bowhunting. So, bowhunting is all I can give back to the world.

Happy Hunting!

Zen in Hunting: Part 3

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Zen in Hunting Part 3

By now you probably have a pretty good understand of what Zen is. But how does a person go about channeling Zen-energy?

Students in traditional Eastern Zen generally spend many years in painstaking study to learn how to achieve Zen. But since most of us don’t have the resources to travel to Japan for a formal study in Zen, my goal today is to sum up some of the key steps the best I can:

  1. Concentrate on your breathing. When you concentrate only on breathing, you are brought into the moment. I’m not talking about shallow breathing, but deep breathing to the bottom of you stomach. Since breathing happens in real time, focusing on it will bring you into the moment, which is the only thing that is real. To make way for Zen you must not let your mind wander, neither into the future or the past. This is the key to meditation.
  2. Make your activity a ritual. Whether you’re sitting down to play the piano or picking up a bow to shoot, take your time and make each preparatory movement deliberate and meaningful. Break it down into many, small steps and concentrating solely on each step. Think of nothing else. By making a ritual out of your activity, you are preparing your mind for greater awareness.
  3. Practice makes perfect. Think of Zen as pure inspiration. Inspiration is useless if you don’t know the fundamentals. In archery, for instance, you shouldn’t pick up the bow for the first time and riddle the target with arrows until you hit the bulls-eye. Instead, practice nocking an arrow, setting your feet, breathing in while drawing, exhaling during the shot, and making a surprise release. Then shoot at nothing. For the beginner archer, there should be no intended target, just a blank bale of hay until the basic foundation is firmly set. Another example is a musician. The first time you sit at a piano you should not expect to play a symphony, but a single note. Zen will happen ONLY after hours and hours of practicing the basics. Only then can you conduct pure, enlightened inspiration.
  4. Let go. The Zen-masters will encourage you to stop trying. In archery, stop aiming. If you believe the skills you’ve acquired after countless hours of practice resides inside of you alone—internally rather than externally—then you can learn nothing more. You’ll fall into ruts. Your progress stifles. Zen happens by letting go of your ego and allowing a stronger, greater, faster force to take over.

Is that all there is to it? Did I miss something? Like I said from the start, Zen isn’t something to be explained, but experienced.

Practical Zen doesn’t always require you to go through a specific ritual and meditation. These are just guidelines to help expedite the process. Zen is actually more common than you think. In fact, I am certain that just about everyone has experienced Zen at one time or another. Have you ever said to someone, “Man, I’m really in the zone today?” What you mean is, you’re really in the Zen today. For unknown reasons you suddenly feel unconquerable, like you can do anything. But it’s fleeting. The problem is that most people don’t reflect back on what factors led up to that moment of fleeting enlightenment, in which case they can’t repeat it. Or they call it ‘luck.’ But luck can’t be repeated so it’s dismissed.

The goal of Zen enlightenment is to summon those powers at will and use them to our benefit. The famous virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai explained it like this: Every once in a while a person latches onto a fleeting moment of inspiration. For no conscious reason, he can suddenly play guitar beyond his normal abilities—beyond anything he’s ever practiced. But a moment later it’s gone. Vai states that his unwieldy virtuosity is the result of learning how to hold onto that moment—to summon it and use it at will. Incidentally, Vai is also an adamant student of Eastern philosophies. He is speaking of Zen.

Unlike specific religious practices, Zen is universally available to everyone. It’s your birthright. It comes with the gift of consciousness. Personally, I only at the beginning of Zen understanding. But lately I find myself making more frequent, conscious, ritualistic efforts to channel those forces. I can also recognize it when it happens and hold onto it longer.

What I’m attempting to do here is share this understanding with you. Through Zen practices we can achieve more in whatever art we wish to explore.

Zen in Hunting: Part 1

Zen in Hunting: Part 2

Adverse Conditions = Success

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Adverse Conditions = Success

In teaching advanced archery, one of my lessons revolves around “adverse conditions” training. 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 is different from practice. 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 become stronger.

Adverse Conditions Training

The secret to successful shooting is to practice in adverse conditions. This is achieved by placing 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 when that buck-of-a-lifetime steps out in front of you. When it finally 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 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

What are you doing to make practice more challenging?