A few years ago I was fish-guiding a bright, twenty-something-year-old man named Cliff. He was eager to fish, but just as eager to converse about the wonders of nature. Throughout our impassioned conversation I laid out some personal Zen-like experiences I’d had in nature and how these experiences ultimately led to great success.
Cliff was fascinated with the concept of Zen hunting and asked me what the “pillars” of Zen hunting were exactly. I was a little dumbfounded by his question because, up until then, I’d never thought of Zen hunting in terms of ‘pillars.’ Long story short, I went home wrote down what I considered the pillars of Zen hunting to be.
Before we get all philosophical about hunting, let’s first examine the normal, non-Zen, hunting pillars, and then contrast them with Zen hunting pillars.
Note: The following isn’t an official list of hunting pillars, but rather a compilation of both personal experience and knowledge gleaned from experts in the hunting field.
Traditional Hunting Pillars of Success
The right equipment
Good physical conditioning
Zen Hunting Pillars of Success
(There you go Cliff! The pillars are finally written in stone.)
Hunting Pillars Compared
When we compare the pillars of Zen hunting with the pillars of conventional hunting, you can see they are very different; actually I don’t see any similarities at all. That’s because each list is a completely different approach to hunting. The items in the first list are mostly tangible and readily available, while the Zen items are more of a mindset approach to hunting. As we analyze the Zen pillars, you’ll see that each is really a step—one leading to the next—and completed in consecutive order. In other words it’s a path.
Obviously you can’t practice Zen hunting without including some normal hunting pillars, like stalking and shooting. On the other hand, you can practice regular hunting without using any Zen pillars at all—heck, most hunters already do. Either they don’t know what Zen hunting is, or they’re already applying some Zen to their hunting style and just don’t know it.
The concept of Zen hunting (or Zen-anything) is mostly foreign to Westerners because we tend to be results-oriented and gear-minded. We look at nature as a commodity—something to be tamed or dominated. Moreover, today’s society has a decreasing attention span, the byproduct of this hyper-information age and its constant distractions. We get bored easily and lose our focus. All of this leads to an impatient or aggressive approach to hunting, and more often than not, to failure.
The way we combat this is through Zen hunting. Zen hunting is all about using down time afield to focus the mind and reconnect with our natural hunting instincts. This is best done alone since another person often serves as a distraction.
The Zen Process
The first step is to free the mind of distractions and expectations through the natural mediation that comes from just sitting or walking in the woods. This takes time, so be patient. Letting go of expectations is the hardest part because human nature expects instant results. As hunters we expect to kill something. We have a goal in mind and are dead set on reaching it. In Zen hunting, our eyes are open to the bigger picture.
The simple pleasure of communing with nature is satisfaction enough. Our newfound appreciation for the woods softens our kill drive, and when this happens we connect with the energy of nature and the life force of the planet (hopefully you believe in such things). This is what it means to be “one” with nature, or to achieve “oneness.”
Nature lives and breathes at a slow, rhythmic pace. You can see that rhythm in the way things move: clouds, trees, and animals, and hear it in the wind and bird songs. Zen hunting helps tune us in to that rhythm. No longer do we push our ego-driven “kill energy” ahead of us, but instead, we move with nature. In effect Zen hunting acts as a natural camouflage.
Zen hunting also gives us a heightened sense of awareness. We become more attentive to the infinite supply of subtle clues which will eventually guides us towards our quarry. Simply put, we become better hunters by using Zen afield.
That’s the whole process; easier said than done, but attainable all the same.
The goal of Zen hunting is to become a part of nature rather than apart from it. Since humans are nature in the first place, it only makes sense to reconnect with Nature to meet our needs. That is the goal of Zen hunting, and also the mission of this website: To reconnect modern-day hunters with the timeless rhythms of nature and to guide them towards a more successful and fulfilling hunting experience through Zen hunting principles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Off to Idaho
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.
Don’t you just love sitting amongst the pine needles and leaves, amidst the awe-inspiring beauty and peacefulness found only in nature? Don’t you just love how time slows way down while bowhunting on a warm September day? Me too.
But sometimes enough is enough!
If you spend any amount of time afield, you’re going to encounter downtime. Downtime is normally a good thing. But if you’ve been hunting the same mountain for multiple days and not much is going on, then downtime can get downright excruciating.
On a hot August day, when the animals seem to have hunkered down at first light and nothing’s moving; you’re getting low on water and camp is miles away; you’re already sitting in the best possible ambush spot and there’s nowhere to be for the next 8 hours; well, sometimes hunting gets downright boring! Worse yet is when you get rained in or snowed into camp for hours or days on end.
The problem with excessive downtime (aka boredom) is pretty soon your mind gets restless, and restlessness leads to discouragement, or god-forbid, homesickness. You start worrying about home stuff, or work stuff, or what your wife or girlfriend is up to in your extended absence. You start fantasizing about hot showers and sleeping in and mowing the jungle-lawn you’ve abandoned for so long.
This “mind creep” is not good. Mind creep leads to discouragement, and discouragement always threatens your success, or in the very least, your commitment level. When you get discouraged, it’s easy to fabricate any excuse to leave the mountain early. So a good hunter must learn to manage boredom, a skill sometimes referred to as “mental toughness.”
In order to while away hours and hours of downtime afield, I’ve developed multiple ways to stay entertained. Here are some examples the might help you as well:
I hate video games; I mean, who has time for them, right?! But I love poker, so I bought a little video-poker machine that I pack with me almost everywhere I go. Fortunately it’s very lightweight and fun as heck. I remember the first year I had it, it was such a blast that I didn’t even notice the little buck that walked right up on me. Since then I’ve been a little more cautious about becoming sucked in.
Like an ancient Neanderthal, I still have a flip-phone. But I’m aware that most people now carry smartphones with them in the woods. And I’m more than certain that these fancy-phones have an infinite capacity for entertainment value which will help get you through some pretty slow times afield.
Read a book:
Long before video games, many-a-hunters carried books into the field, and some still do. Nothing can kill time (or put you to sleep) like a good book. I always keep a good book or hunting magazine back at camp. Unlike video games, books are quiet, lightweight, and easy to burn in the event of a weather crisis.
Sleeping in the woods is almost critical. If you’re a bowhunter, chances are you got up at the most ungodly hour. That’s awesome! Success often comes from waking long before first light. But eventually you’re gonna crash. This is good; you need to crash! This is how you recharge your hunting batteries. Getting an hour or two of solid rest in the trees does wonders for mental toughness. It’s also where you get the energy for that grueling, three-hour stalk later in the day.
Keep a Hunt Journal:
This is no joke. The blog you’re reading right now would not be possible without a good, lightweight field journal. I recommend every hunter keeps a hunt journal. You’d be surprised just how often you refer back to it in the future for helpful tips and tidbits about your area.
I actually carry two journals! The linear, pertinent events of the day are kept in one journal, and the other is for nature-induced insights of grandeur. Throughout the monotony of everyday city-life, inspiration is being continuously leached from my soul. But in the woods, God shines forth a veritable fountain of infinite and voluminous inspiration upon my humble carcass! I soak it in and write it down; I can’t get enough. I love writing in the woods. I’d go crazy if I didn’t.
Practice Ranging Stuff:
In my experience, the biggest bucks seem to suddenly appear in front of me with no manners or warning. There’s rarely time to range anything. So a good bowhunter learns to judge distance effectively, and the best way to learn distance is to practice. Whenever my boredom alarm starts ringing, I reach for my rangefinder. Over and over I’ll pick out trees (or whatever), guess the range, and then check it with my laser rangefinder. This excessive practice does wonders for your distance-judging abilities. Besides, if you’re bored it’s probably because you’re sitting there watching a game trail or stuck in a tree stand. And since you need to know the range of several landmarks anyway, you might as well make a game of it, right?
Take Field Photos:
If you hunt long enough and hard enough, eventually you’re gonna THWACK some monstrous monarch of the woods. The whole world will be sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to read your story in some big-name magazine. The problem is that these magazines require multiple, high-quality field photos documenting your adventure. The more photos you have, the greater chance you have of getting published. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make documentary photos throughout your entire trip.
I find that the best times to make photos is during downtime. The possibilities are endless, but here’s a few ideas: a) shoot some scenery, b) shoot some closeups of your equipment juxtaposed with the landscape, c) set the camera’s timer and shoot yourself glassing, stalking, hiking, camping, sleeping, etc., d) take some photos of wildlife or sunsets or bad weather; there’s almost always something to shoot. Even if you don’t end up using the myriad of photos you take during the hunt, you’ll still have plenty of great memories to bring home and share with family and friends. In the end, these photos will become invaluable to you. Long after you’re gone, your legacy will live on, documented in living color.
Being a trophy hunter is serious business, but we must remember that hunting is supposed to be fun too. Hunting is a leisure activity that removes us from our hectic lives and grounds us with the natural universe. Turning downtime into funtime is one of the best ways to keep the spirits up afield. Have fun out there!
My brother, Russell, had some great comments regarding hunting goals. His comments and my reply are worthy of it’s own article.
“Making goals that you really set in your heart and are realistic is critical. My heartfelt goals this year were to help my daughter harvest her first big game animal. She harvested both a buck and an elk. It was awesome. I was perfectly happy with how the season went, even though I did not set any lofty goals for my own hunting, as I was concerned about the time dedication. I did manage to harvest my best buck to date, although that’s not saying much. Gotta really think about my goals this coming year. Might be time to harvest a really decent bull elk.
I think you’ll get it done in Utah this year. But i am curious, which state(s) are you going to add to your schedule that will still allow you the time you need for the Utah general hunt?”
I wrote :
Good points, Russ. Here’s some clarification:
Last year I set a goal to shoot a 200″ buck AND help Esther with her limited-entry hunt. Turns out you can’t do both. So really I sabotaged my goal from the start. But that’s okay; I wouldn’t trade Esther’s big bull for any buck! It’s WONDERFUL to help people. There’s nothing more noble than setting a goal to help someone with their goal, especially family.
My lofty goals are deemed ridiculous by most people; I mean, how can I expect to shoot a 200″+ buck on public land with a general tag?! Am I setting myself up for failure? Am I setting unrealistic goals? NO, because I’ve done it twice already and I know the secret recipe; unfortunately that recipe takes incredible resources, mostly time.
It’s important to realize that in setting a ridiculously high goal you must do something every day to get closer to it: physical training, shooting practice, map study, scouting, scouting, and scouting. Most importantly is to acknowledge your goal every single day. Keep it in the forefront of your mind. Format your mind to focus all possible energy and decisions on your goal, and you’ll find a way to reach it.
As for out-of-state hunts, I only have one in mind: IDAHO. I am a man of big vision and little means; a po’ folks po’ folk. For this reason I refuse to pay into the yuppie system of buying points in multiple western states, especially while Utah has such great bucks, even on publc land/general units. In my opinion the point system is evil. It might seem fair, but it really takes away opportunity from young hunters and new hunters, while catering only to the rich. Many of my archery students ask me how they can get started in hunting. They assume they can just buy a bow and an OTC tag for any game species. Imagine their surprise when I explain they must pay into the system for decades just to draw a decent tag!
I paid into the system for years, earning points for multiple species for my son. Now he has no interest in hunting. Where’s my refund? My wife’s ex-boss’ dad paid into the system for 15 years and finally drew his moose tag. It arrived in the mailbox shortly after he died of old age!
That being said, I need more opportunities, and since Idaho is one of the only states that doesn’t have a draw system, it’s my best chance at getting a tag. Also, Idaho has several general deer hunts that don’t conflict with Utah’s season.
Congrats, Russ, on your biggest mule deer last year and good luck with your big bull goals. Dream big! Remember, elk are EASY!
Actually it wasn’t too horrible, but I sometimes accuse myself of being overly critical. Call me a pessimist, but I’ll argue that although it’s unhealthy to be too self-critical, the only other option is to be overly accepting of mediocrity in which case I would never achieve my lofty goals and instead recede into the apathetic quagmire of an aging inflataperson.
I entered 2015 with one goal: to shoot a 200″+ mule deer buck with a bow. It didn’t happen. I failed for three primary reasons:
First, because there are so many people in the state of Utah now, I drew my 5th choice general deer unit and right away lost my inspiration.
Second, I failed to scout my 5th choice unit because of work, and work sucks, and work kept me in the smoggy city when I should have been out scouting for giant bucks.
Third, I spent half of the general hunt helping my lovely wife with her L.E. elk hunt in Southern Utah where I didn’t even carry a bow.
After all that, I entered the Wasatch extended hunt, where I’ve never even seen a 200″ deer, and failed there too.
So 2016 will be different. I’ve mentioned many times on my blog that SUCCESS IS A DECISION. Last year, while wandering endlessly down empty game trails, an annoying inner voice insisted that success is NOT a decision; that there are simply too many variables working against me, and therefore I can’t make that decision. By the time the season ended, a stronger voice confirmed that success is in fact an easy decision, so long as you are willing to do whatever it takes, which means putting in the time and effort equal to the lofty magnitude of a 200″+ monster muley…and I did not do this.
So, this year I have one resolution and one goal only: a 200″+ mule deer buck with a bow. This year I will make it happen and here’s how:
I will decline any and every job/work/responsibility that conflicts with my deer hunt.
Whatever crappy unit I end up drawing, I will scout every single week starting in spring and leading up to the hunt. I’ve always believed that somewhere, in every single general unit in the state, there’s a huge 200″+ buck. If you are willing to put in enough time you will find it.
And finally, I will hunt out-of-state. The problem with Utah is you only get one tag and that equals one opportunity. I need more opportunities.
That’s all folks. I hope all of you are setting high resolutions and standards for this coming hunting year. Remember, success is always a decision as long as you’re willing to do whatever it takes.
P.S. You can expect much more new blogs and information here in 2016. In 2015 I received tons of hunting related insights and revelations and took tons of notes in the field. All of this will be shared here in 2016.
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!
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.
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.
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…
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.
If you’re following this blog, I apologize for my 6-week absence, the longest hiatus away from my writings yet. I guess I just needed to re-find my Zen.
As a general rule I don’t like to complain, but the past few months, as we transitioned into springtime, has been rather difficult and stressful for me. Here are some examples:
Being constantly let down by family, friends, and work associates
Having my hide tanner (taxidermy) disappear with my pelts that I needed to run my taxidermy business
Ever-increasing pain and difficulties with my right shoulder which has put a serious damper on the one thing I love doing most: shooting archery
My little “adopted” feral cat, Pickles, was viciously attacked and killed by the local dominant tom-cat. Before that, I had to shoot my old pet goat, Walter, in the head when he became too weak and feeble to even sit up any more.
My first turkey hunt was a disaster when after fighting through torrential rain, snow and mud, the giant tom I stalked and shot in the last hour of the hunt ran off with my arrow. We never found him. This was the breaking point.
And these are just a few examples! But again, I hate to complain too much because I know EVERYONE is fighting a difficult battle on a daily basis–that’s just life. Still, when too much happens at once, a person can easily lose his inspiration, his drive, and even his Zen.
This is why I’ve been away for so long. How can I write inspired Zen-prose when the well is dry? Fortunately, the answer is gradually becoming clearer, and is two-fold:
First, life is difficult so that we might become stronger. As they say, “the axe is sharpened by friction.” Overcoming adversity is closely associated with the meaning of life: we are here to learn.
Second, my life is currently sad and deflating, but later it’s going to be amazing and beautiful beyond comprehension. It always is. It’s just a matter of time and perspective. While stewing in my misery, I can simultaneously glance in the mirror and see a blessed, bright and healthy living being staring back with a loving, bowhunting wife at my side. I can simultaneously look outside my window and view deer feeding and pheasants strutting around in my wild, lush, and green backyard in the country, and I suddenly realize that I’m living the dream-life I always imagined.
It’s all about perspective and embracing adversity. Yes, it’s taken a while to figure out how to mend myself, but I’m well on my way. My next several blog-posts will be dedicated to re-finding my Zen.