I’ll never forget. Ten years ago I rounded a large fir tree and spotted a 180-class buck bedded in some deadfall at thirty yards and facing directly away from me. But before I could even pull an arrow, a nearby squirrel lit up with a world-class barking fit. The buck instantly stood up and walked into the deep woods without offering a shot. Since then, I’ve had innumerable stalks thwarted by these cursed tree rats, some ending entire seasons in failure by a single squirrel.
Aside from using other deer as sentinels, big bucks use a myriad of other forest creatures for safety too. As you travel through the woods you might notice that squirrels, chipmunks, and a variety of birds are continually announcing your presence. They do this to warn their own species of danger, but the deer pick up on their calls and use them to their advantage. Big bucks, especially, are completely aware of their surrounding and pick notice anything out of the ordinary.
How Deer Use Squirrels
If you’ve had the chance to observe many deer in the deep woods, then you’ve probably noticed that every time a squirrel fires up, the deer will stop whatever he’s doing and stare in that direction. Squirrels don’t bark randomly; there’s always a threat, even if it’s just another squirrel in their territory. Either way, if you agitate a squirrel, then just know that any deer within earshot is now looking for danger. Conversely, squirrels bark at deer as well as people. Several times I’ve found deer in places where I’ve heard a squirrel fire up. So don’t be afraid to investigate random squirrel barks.
Like elk, big bucks enjoy the security of bedding in thick, over-grown conifer forests. The problem with conifers is the abundance of squirrels and chipmunks that inhabit them. Like most animals, squirrels are territorial. Long ago I noticed that the whole conifer forest is gridded in squirrel territory. When you leave one barking squirrel behind, you’ll likely run into another and another as you move through the woods.
Squirrels aren’t too noisy early season, but it gets progressively worse in September as the squirrels begin to amass food stores (pinecones) for winter. In my neck of the woods, August 25th is the beginning of mayhem.
If you have an abundance of chipmunks in your area, you might notice they’re equally bad, erupting with a myriad of alarming noises that deer pick up on. One time I stumbled upon a crabby 4×4 buck feeding off a trail at 15 yards. Immediately, a cantankerous chipmunk situated between us erupted into a machine gun-like, high-pitched chirping fit. The buck stopped feeding and spent the next five minutes scanning the woods for danger. Eventually he marched nervously away. Just last year my eight-hour, once-in-a-lifetime mountain goat stalk was nearly blown by a single chipmunk who threw an alarming fit in a nearby tree.
Knowing that squirrels and chipmunks are such threats to bowhunting success, what do you do? I’ve tried everything, but here are a few tried-and-true techniques that might help you.
Squirrel Avoidance Techniques
Unless you are sitting in a fixed ambush position, your best strategy is to just get up and move. Once out of sight, squirrels will soon shut up and go about their business. Fortunately, not all squirrels are bad. Some will even allow your presence, like if they’re too busy gathering pinecones to notice you.
A second option is to wait the squirrel out. Squirrels will generally bark for 30 minutes or less, during which time no deer will enter the area, guaranteed. After 30 minutes squirrels will tire out and go back to their business. Another effective technique is to walk directly towards the squirrel’s tree. Most squirrels will get nervous as you approach and shut up—but not always. Some just get louder! Fortunately chipmunks are more skittish and scare easily.
As a last resort, feel free to shoot the wretched beast. You don’t necessarily have to kill him, just whiz an arrow past his head. When he realizes he’s in danger, he’ll likely run off. For this reason, I always carry a cheap, aluminum “squirrel arrow” in my quiver—because you’re not likely to get your arrow back; believe me, I’ve shot at a lot of squirrels. My Spanish name is actually Squirlero! Okay, it’s not, but it should be.
Again, it depends on the squirrel you’re shooting at. Some just climb higher and bark louder. For this reason, a more lethal method might be in order. I know one hunter who carries a lightweight BB pistol in his pack…just in case.
If you hunt long enough, you’ll inevitably have an entire hunt go down the toilet thanks to a random tree rat. So be prepared by using the aforementioned squirrel-avoidance techniques. On a side note, I’ve actually eaten more squirrels than the average person. It was a long time ago, but eat them I did. They’re actually quite tasty; like chicken but with a nutty overtone. Bon appétit!
Hunting with passion will take you farther than anything else. When the mountain is just too big and too steep, it’s not physical strength that pulls me up, but a deep-seated, burning passion that keeps my legs churning. It’s much more mental than physical.
I first noticed this back in 2015 while elk hunting with my wife. In the early light I could hear the elk herd moving farther up the mountain. My legs burned as I huffed and puffed steadily behind them. Still, I didn’t stop or rest as I was compelled with great desire to catch up to them. For a moment I felt as though I’d split in half: my boundless spirit was moving ahead of my faltering body, and then reaching back to pull my body along. It was a weird mental moment, but it got me up the mountain despite the apparent physical impossibility.
That drive comes from the hope of infinite possibilities lying ahead, or some magical opportunity lurking in the near future. Unfortunately, this “drive” is nearly impossible to teach; it has to come from within.
How to Find Your Drive
Learning to be passionately driven will bring more success than anything else, even extreme physical training. If you can learn to fan that initial flame into a burning desire, then you’ll find your passion and use it as a tool.
The best way to kindle you hunting passion is to set realistic goals, and then do whatever it takes to reach them. As you begin to have small successes, set bigger goals. By continually striving for bigger and better bucks, your love for hunting grows forever.
Throughout this process, try focusing on the whole hunting package, not just the kill. Take time to appreciate the miracle and beauty of nature. Read and learn about the long history of the bow-and-arrow and its precious heritage down through the ages. Feel the power you transfer to the bow from your own body, and then observe the mystical flight of the arrow into the target. It’s a beautiful, artistic craft!
Be sure to immerse yourself completely into the entire hunting process, from preseason preparation to the final harvest. Try processing the animal’s sacred meat by yourself and you’ll attain a greater appreciation for the animal.
This is the recipe for passion that will drive your spirit up the mountain and towards long-term success.
If however your intentions are impure; if you just want to kill something with little regard for the sanctity of life; if you’re really hunting for recognition and ego, then your passion will erode and eventually falter. As exciting as the kill might be, most people—hunters and non-hunters alike—don’t really care about your success. That is, unless you shoot a real monster, in which case they’ll just be jealous.
In the end if you aren’t hunting for yourself, or your family’s dinner table, then you’ll lose your passion for the sport. That’s because the mountain is cruel; it often beats you up and holds out on you. Over time you’ll grow to resent it. Finally, one day, tragically, hunting becomes too much a burden and you don’t return.
Don’t go down this route! Instead foster your passion and you’ll find success afield, whether you harvest something or not.
2020 was been a terrible year for most people, and hunters are no exception! After all the difficulties I personally endured afield, I finally mustered the mental fortitude to write a new post, and just in time for Thanksgiving.
Note: This will be my first hunting-related post since moving to Southern Utah last year. This move was prompted by several factors, primarily getting away from the hordes of the big city, taking control over my time, and being closer to Nature (see my previous post: Panguitch Manifesto).
After settling in to my new home, I looked forward to having more time afield–and thus more success–during the 2020 archery season. This was not the case. Instead, the Covid crowds bombarded the forests with hunters and non-hunters alike, thus driving the deer deeper and further away from my usual haunts. Long story short, I spent a record 42 days afield with nothing to show but a handful of missed opportunities.
For the first time in five years I was left with no story to write. Returning from failed trip after trip took it’s toll on my spirit as I sunk into a hunting funk like never before. Fearing a continual descent into despair, I took heed of one of my life-long mantras: Always turn reaction into action.
I started by reading all the following books:
The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale Blood in the Tracks, by Jim Collyer Creativity, by Osho
These books proved invaluable for creating a new mindset based on hope and positivity. Sure I stunk it up this year, but that doesn’t change who I am, nor does it discredit all the invaluable hunting skills I’ve accumulated over decades of hard hunting. Gradually I began to look forward rather than dwelling on the past.
But was the past really that bad? No way. Despite 2020, I can still walk downstairs and bask in the glow of past success; successes almost unimaginable, and for which I am eternally grateful!
Next, and in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I sat down and wrote a list of gratitude. This included items such as my health, home, freedom, and my supportive hunting-wife partner; what else does one need? Well, does of course! After all, I did harvest a beautiful Idaho doe to fill the freezer this year.
Success or failure isn’t as important as how we react to it. Simply put, failure forces change.
Already I’ve begun making plans for next year. There are still plenty of great deer in my unit, I just need to change how and where I hunt for them. This includes more effective scouting and strategies to avoid people…which is something I specialize in.
Guy Eastman once wrote that “a failed hunt just makes the successful ones that much more special.” This might be hard to stomach, but it’s true.
Over-achievement can actually inhibit our growth by making us complacent. Inflated egos cultivate an air of entitlement which goes against everything natural. Nature requires us to continually evolve. If we aren’t moving forward, then we’re moving backwards. Challenges are therefore something to embrace because it perpetuates growth.
This year I’m most grateful for continual opportunities to pursue the greatest passion of my life–bowhunting–even in this difficult time. I’m also grateful for my past successes, and even my failures from which I continually learn. I’m especially very grateful for an old doe harvested with my bow.
Over the past several years I’ve taught hundreds of people basic archery. Of all these students, only a handful are what you might call “naturals.” They follow instructions carefully, excel quickly, and break through to the next level at an astonishing pace.
But even these “naturals” eventually hit a wall: their accuracy plateaus, they fatigue out, and eventually falter. At this point they often turn to me and ask, “What now? I’ve mastered the basics, but how can I hit closer to the bullseye?”
As their intrepid instructor, it’s my duty to guide these students to the next level. The problem I had early on–and what my students didn’t know–was that I too was wondering the same thing! When you’ve mastered the basics–that is, when you’re executing the shot sequence flawlessly and still coming up short–how do you increase accuracy?
For the first time in my career I had no choice but to break down my shot sequence and see where potential weaknesses could set in. Here’s what I discovered.
The thing that gets between the bow and the target isn’t the arrow, it’s you! Every archer, no matter how advanced, goes through slumps. A few missed shots quickly erodes confidence by allowing negative factors such as fatigue, discouragement, and desperation into the shot. It’s a vicious cycle: the harder you try, the worse you do.
The Fatigue Factor
Physical fatigue is the greatest negative factor, especially for the beginner who hasn’t yet developed his back muscles. Just as he begins hitting close to the bullseye, he fatigues. But there’s also mental fatigue, caused by trying to over-aim the arrow into the bullseye again and again. Finally there’s spiritual fatigue, the byproduct of chronic misses. In the end, all this fatigue erodes confidence and creates a downward spiral.
Zen in Archery
From the Zen perspective, all suffering comes from desire. Desire, of course, is healthy and even necessary for any activity. But when desire turns into obsession, that’s when we suffer.
In archery you suffer from your very first shot. You strain physically under the weight of bow while your mind strains to aim the arrow. And when your arrow falls short of the bullseye, your spirit strains from the pangs of failure, resulting in desperation. In short order, your whole being–mind, body, and spirit–is strained!
I see this all the time. The student grasps another arrow, and another, faster and faster while simultaneously grasping for the bullseye which is rapidly becoming an impossible target. Very quickly he creates the bad habit of high-stress archery, which can take a long time to fix.
So, what’s the fix? It’s simple.
Instead of drawing the bow to a state of high tension, we need to learn how to draw to a relaxed state. Drawing to a relaxed state removes your self from the shot by eliminating negative influences over the arrow. Hence, your bow shoots itself. In Zen archery, eliminating your “self” removes desire, which in turn removes stress and suffering.
The Relaxed State Exercise
Bring only one arrow with you on this exercise.
Set up five paces from a large, blank target.
Load the arrow.
Stand up straight and spread your weight evenly between your feet.
Grasp the string firmly and draw to your face while taking a deep, deep breath.
At full draw, look up and away from the bow. Look at the sky and the clouds and the trees. Breathe out, and back in again. Feel the strength of your body as it overpowers the scrawny bow. Forget the bullseye; no one cares if you hit it anyway! Say to yourself, “I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been in my life.”
Now let down the draw smoothly; don’t shoot the arrow.
Catch your breath.
Repeat the process, only this time, when you’ve reached your highest state of relaxation, release the arrow. Don’t aim at the target. Just relax your shooting hand until the shot goes off. This is what a relaxed arrow feels like.
Maintain this relaxed state as you walk to the target and pull your arrow. Repeat this process over and over until it becomes habit.
That’s all there is to it. You are now drawing the bow to a state of high relaxation rather than a state of high stress. You’ve turned a bad habit into a good habit.
Real Life Example
One day I approached a talented young student who was literally drawing a circle around the bullseye with errant arrows. Wide-eyed and desperate, he turned to me and pleaded, “What am I doing wrong?!” I watched him fling yet another arrow just outside of the bullseye. I told him, “You’re trying to hard.” I went on to explain that missing the target wasn’t the end of the world; that his passion for archery–the whole meditative process–was far more important than a single bullseye. I had him breathe deeply and look around at the beautiful mountains. A moment later he calmly drew his bow and sank the next arrow into the bullseye. His face lit up and he hugged me. Years later he still talks about his enlightening experience.
Your bow is designed to shoot a perfect arrow every time. The arrow only misses if you let yourself get in the way.
For every student that asks, How can I shoot more accurately?, there are a few others who comment on how meditative archery is; how it relaxes and focuses the mind. These students typically aren’t the best archers at first, because to them the process outweighs the result. I view these students as the real naturals, and they even prove it when, eventually, their arrow finds the bullseye with seemingly little effort.
Shooting in a relaxed state is the secret to Zen archery. On a grander scale, you might say that living in a relaxed state is the secret to a Zen life!
I just spent the last few days prowling around Idaho and still haven’t seen any decent bucks. Days are ruthlessly hot and dry; nights are freezing, which is probably why I languish with a painful head cold. My first step out of the dusty camp and my legs are sore with disease; my joints hurt, my muscles ache, my head throbs.
Foreign lands and no deer sign yet, but this remote valley looks promising. I’m headed toward the dark, north-face timber where I may get some reprieve from the glaring sun. But the route is thick with oak brush and cedar. Endless branches grasp at my body, tripping me and shoving me back down the steep slope.
I stop frequently to mop pouring sweat from my forehead with my camo cap. I’m still wearing the same stinky outfit I’ve donned for three days. Wind is my best ally or my worst enemy. There’s no point trying to be quiet. I just need a vantage to glass from. I don’t know where I’m going or where I’ll end up; just following my nose and reading sign.
Moments ago something crawled across my neck. I swiped at it and monstrous orange spider fell to the ground. But I won’t be dissuaded. This is what I live for; it’s all I know. Only a year ago my arrow sailed over the biggest velvet buck I ever shot at. He’s long since vanished now, which is why I’m here in Idaho. Redemption. New woods and new hope. I push onward.
Long out of tissue, both nostrils drain continuously, leaving a slimy trail of moisture everywhere I go, likely the only moisture this parched forest has seen in months.
Finally some tracks, but small. I follow to see where they lead. Maybe I’ll strap on my release; I hope I brought it. Just yesterday I was hiking in grizzly country and halfway up the mountain I realized I’d forgotten to load my arrows into my quiver. Stupid, stuffy head!
My life has been various attempts at various activities, but bowhunting has been my one true passion, and better yet, the only thing I’m really good at. But here and now, it’s hard to tell. My brain is gripped with pressure, my body is weak. I push on because I know nothing else.
In the pines a squirrel fires up, barking relentlessly, giving away my position. I always carry a squirrel arrow, but it’s mostly futile; there’s always another squirrel, and the biggest bucks are always in the dark timber with them. During a heavy wind last year, I stumbled upon a giant 4×4 buck bedded in a patch of thick blowdowns. Before I could pull an arrow, a squirrel fired up alerting the buck who quickly rose from his bed and melted away into the forest.
I try to imagine heavy horns moving through the brush, and then my arrow carrying cold steel through its chest cavity. The only way I win is if I wreak maximum carnage on an innocent, unsuspecting deer. I wince at the thought. Will I ever turn away from this bloody pursuit? Likely not, because life outside the woods has little appeal to me, and even less venison. A predator must eat.
At this time I’d like to formally apologize to my faithful and finely crafted compound bow which I’m currently dragging through an almost indescribable tangled hell. Only five years old and it’s already covered in battle scars; scratches, dents and dings. Sure it’s seen some fine moments, but this year it’s just a hiking companion. Its one moment of glory was a dirty coyote I sniped near camp in Utah.
After weed-whacking for two hours I’ve arrived at a fantastic rock outcropping with views of the entire valley. Only an 90 minutes of shooting light left and still no deer. I glass empty draw after empty draw, stacked in vertical rows below the summit.
I want to underestimate the mighty buck; I try to convince myself that he’s just another dumb animal eating and sleeping his life away. But I know better. He’s an ingenious survivor, evading predators year after year with very little effort and hardly a conscious thought. How is that possible? A hunter, no matter his experience, goes to his grave having merely scratching the surface of everything there is to know about these amazing survivors. Outsmarting him is the greatest challenge, and I suppose this relentless pursuit is why it never gets old.
The rest of my Idaho excursion iss nothing short of a grim letdown. The once promised land is mostly bleak, ravaged by human intrusions, just like Utah. ATVs and trash litter the landscape and the woods are devoid of huntable game. Big bucks live short lives hidden away in dark holes far removed from human reach.
While bow hunting last year, it occurred to me that success can be divided into three equally important pillars. To put it in perspective, I created the diagram below:
Think back to your last hunt. Were you successful? If not, which pillar did you fall short on? Since each step is equally important, it should be easy to pinpoint where you need improvement.
Let’s break it down:
Break-down of Hunting Success Components
The first step, locating a buck, is something you can start doing right now. The best way to locate more deer is to study their behavior, habitat, and ecology. You can also research harvest data and biologist’s reports on the unit you are planning to hunt. The next step is a concerted scouting effort to locate and pattern bucks.
The second step, stalking a buck, is not always intuitive. Getting close to big bucks is the hardest step to master because, unlike shooting, it’s something we rarely get to practice. What it really boils down to patience: knowing when and how fast to move depending on current conditions such as wind and cover.
Finally, shot execution. Almost everyone I talk to is pro-class shooter…until their arrow flies wide of an unsuspecting buck. Bowhunters are lucky just to get one or two shot opportunities in a season, so it’s important to prepare for real-life hunting scenarios in advance. The best way to do this is to practice shooting in different positions, unknown yardages, around objects, and in adverse conditions such as wind or near-darkness.
Keep these three pillars of hunting success in mind when you enter the woods this year. Try to pinpoint which area needs more work based on past hunts or failures.
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 the 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 disappeared 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 he never turned up.
Strangely enough, not only was the Monsterbuck missing, but so were seven other 4×4-or-bigger bucks I’d seen the previous year. At that 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 been killed by a hunter, lion, or poacher, or 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.
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 sickening. Each night I dreamed I was on the trail of the Monsterbuck, but he always stayed just out of sight.
Every day I sat in the woods wondering if I was stuck in a nightmare; that any second I might wake to a better reality. Or maybe I was just a lousy hunter. Perhaps I’d just been lucky all these years and deluding myself. As more days passed, my hunting journal became a dark place in which to vent my frustrations. Something had to change…
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 collected some maps and 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 more deer, but because I woke up to a terrible head cold. For the next three days I stumbled around strange mountains, 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 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 misconception that Idaho was a vast wilderness full of game and opportunity. This is 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 and found the one place as far 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 absent Monsterbuck had transformed a normally relaxed hunt into a desperate flailing 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 and increased as I went. The woods pulled me forward, upward, effortlessly. I felt like I was coming home after a long hiatus.
Nearer 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 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, and just as I was closing in, a breeze hit me in the back. I froze as 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 shadowy 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 path through the thick tangle of brush 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. I whipped my head around to see antler tips poking slowly through the trees. In one motion I snatched up my bow and slid off the backside of the log and onto my knees. Smoothly and quickly I knocked an arrow and clamped my release to the string. I crouched low and stared fixedly ahead like a lion in ambush.
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 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 and hidden behind the trees just a few steps away. Did he hear me draw? 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 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; but it flies clean over the buck’s back and my heart sinks into my stomach.
The buck bounds into another opening just seven yards away and looks back. Crouching lower I pull another arrow and load it as quickly 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 again and rise up on my knees 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. These days are spent tirelessly chasing 200-inch monsters around the hills. But “trophy hunting” has lost some of its magic. In trying to prove myself, I’ve gradually reduced my greatest passion down to inches and strategy. My once insatiable love for the woods feels more like work now. Perhaps it’s time to hunt for the love of hunting again… We’ll see.
All I know for sure is that I keep relearning the same lessons I’ve been learning all along: That success is so much more than just killing a deer. Success really lies in the journey. Success comes from pushing yourself to your physical and spiritual limits, and then letting nature take over from there.
This story, then, is a simple one to tell: One man, one mountain, one morning, and a second chance.
Recently I addressed some frustrations today’s hunters have to deal with thanks to an exploding human population coupled with decreasing wildlife and habitat. What it boils down to is less hunting opportunity for everyone and ever-increasing competition afield.
For many years I’ve joked with fellow hunters about being “duded” while hunting, even during a stalk. My brother, Russell, wrote a story about his 2015 rifle hunt which perfectly illustrates my point. His exciting and insightful story will be published here on tomorrow’s blog.
By the way, each year hunters write great stories which are never published or seen in big-name magazines, and are therefore rarely heard. If you have a great hunting story that you’d like to share with the world, then email it to me and I’d be more than happy to share it here on the ZenBowhunter blog.
There is an image, not unlike the one above, that still haunts me today.
It was the muzzleloader hunt of 2001. I was still getting used to my new hunting area near Fairview, Utah. I knew the hunting pressure would keep the big bucks in the thick timber, so that’s where I spent my days. I’d never gotten a real trophy-size buck before, and up until then, I’d only seen a few true trophies in all my years of hunting. But I’d seen enough in this unit to know it was possible. These were the bucks I daydreamed about.
On opening morning our camp dispersed across the land. I dropped into the deep and steep pine forest below camp. The deadfall was so thick I had to hop from log to log, not touching the ground for a hundred yards or so. Eventually it opened up with aspens and narrow feeding swathes. Judging by the sign—and I was no expert back then—there were plenty of deer around, but where they went during the day, no one knew.
I’d grown accustom to blowing stalks on large deer, and as you’ll see, my confidence was way down. I knew there were big deer in this unit, attested to by an occasional flash of antler, a loud snort, and the sound of heavy hooves smashing away through the dense woods. I pressed on, but really, I’d already given up.
Judging by the high sun, it must have been close to noon. I knew the deer wouldn’t be up on their feet at midday, but I wouldn’t allow myself to return to camp and make excuses for my failure; blaming the lack of deer on the area and then bedding down for the day myself. That would be submission. No, I would continue my quest, beating the pine-needled forest floor to death with my stinky old boots.
I was still-hunting along on a steep and rocky slope. The timber was less dense at the edge of the pines where interspersed aspens and deer brush heedlessly begged for a more sun. My predator eyes suddenly and haphazardly caught the slightest bit movement a hundred yards below me in some tall brush. My cheap, murky binos came up and locked on. ANTLERS! Little bits of tines bounced and bobbed through the tall brush. What they were attached to I could not tell in the thick brush; no fur nor face nor hide nor hair, just bits of antlers appearing and disappearing. How big was he, I wondered? A two-point? A four-point? No way to tell and no shot; I needed to get closer.
Here’s where my lack of confidence shines brightest. Based on previous buck encounters, I told myself this would never work out. I didn’t really believe I could get close enough for a shot, but I had to try—I desperately had to try!
It’s different these days, here in the future. Today, I would just sit tight. The wind was most likely rising from late-morning thermals. I would sit and wait for the buck to feed into the open, even if it took all day. 100 yards is an easy shot with a gun. Woulda-coulda-shoulda. But this is how we learn…
I dropped to my butt and began my slow-motion descent. The pine needles were dry and loud, and the terrain was terribly steep. I used the wind and forest sounds to cover my approach. For twenty minutes I slid, scooted, and crab-crawled down the hill, drawing closer and closer to the sighting. Minutes felt like hours.
The buck eventually moved out of sight, swallowed up by the forest. Unable to keep tabs on him, I became increasingly skeptical. Did he bed down? Did he sense me and move off? Gotta get closer! I crept closer and closer until I was within a few yards of where I first saw him. All was quiet. Now what?
He’s gone! I must have busted him out. I knew this would happen. Oh well… I would’ve been a little upset if I ever truly believed I had a chance at this buck.
I stood up, slung the gun on my shoulder, and dug my GPS unit out of my pocket. I stared blankly at the screen as it tracked and tracked and tracked for satellites. There’s nothing more tedious than waiting for the GPS to track in thick timber. My eyes lifted and floated around the forest. What direction did he go, I wondered.
As my gaze drifted to the right, my lethargic eyelids suddenly flashed wide-open; my heart stopped. Fifteen yards away, a massive, tall, sweeping, 4-point antler stuck directly out from behind a large tree trunk. On the other side, the long gray line of a deer’s back extended outward.
No thoughts, just action.
In one motion my left hand opened and the GPS went into free-fall. My hand flashed to the butt of my gun. The GPS was halfway to the ground as my gun twirled like a baton in front of me. My right hand caught the gunstock and lifted it to my shoulder. The GPS bounced inaudibly as the gun’s muzzle swung towards the buck.
Too late. Heavy hooves dug into the ground with a loud thud and every trace of that monster buck instantly vanished into the woods. Frantically I aimed at the crashing and snorting of my invisible foe, but he was gone.
And that was that. Nothing left but a haunting technicolor image of a huge antler sticking straight out of a tree trunk, burned forever in the forefront of my long-term memory. For the duration of the hunt I beat myself up for my failure.
I am tempted to leave the story right there, but habit forces me find the good in the bad. I knew then, as I know now, that my biggest mistake was over-estimating the buck, and under-estimating myself. I failed because I accepted failure from the start. I had him in my hands, if only I’d been patient. If only I had believed this one burning truth: that he was “just a deer” and not an impossible phantom.
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 for me. Here are just a few examples:
I’ve been consistently let down by family, friends, and work associates.
Having my taxidermy tanner disappear with my pelts that I need 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 killed by the local dominant tom-cat.
I had to shoot my old pet goat, Walter, when he became too weak and feeble to even sit up any more.
Then my first turkey hunt was a disaster. 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, never to be found. That was the breaking point.
But again, I hate to complain too much because I know EVERYONE is fighting a har battle–that’s just life. Still, when too much happens at once, a person can lose his inspiration, his drive, and even his Zen.
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. There is always balance; yin and yang. The universe demands it! So I guess 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 and healthy being staring back with a loving, bowhunting wife his side. I can look outside my window and view deer feeding and pheasants strutting around in my wild and green backyard in the country. Even in despair I can see that I’m living the ife I always imagined.
In the end, it’s all about perspective and managing 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.