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How To Avoid Buck Fever
It’s the time and place we’ve dreamed about. All the range hours and scouting time spent during the off-season and every minute we’ve invested since opening day has been focused on making this hope a reality. Now the dream is unfolding right in front of us and the season is on the line. We call it the moment of truth, and what we do during the next few seconds will write the memory we carry for years to come. Will we be victims to buck fever or will we rise above it? The next few seconds will tell.
If you have a hard time swallowing and your knee starts to shake, join the club. We’ve all had that happen even when we’re drawing on a doe. But, if you come totally unglued, the experience may end up being one that brings only memories of disappointment rather than pleasure and joy. So often, the difference between success and failure comes down to expectations, and there are many bowhunters who just don’t expect to be successful. How else do you explain all the weird “accidents” and “bad luck” that seem to befall the same people year after year?
Here are some simple steps you can take to assure that you’ll come through during the moment of truth.
Don’t stop practicing just because the season starts. This is the time when you need the fine-tuning most. Keep a small portable target handy so you can fire a few shots every day.
You're Better Than You Think
In a recent interview with the famous archery coach, Tim Strickland, something he said struck us as very insightful. “In your heightened mental state you think everything is coming apart, but it’s really not. All you have to do is focus on each step and take your normal shot. Don’t worry about how you feel about it.” Strickland’s approach was designed to help Olympic archers overcome throat-tightening moments in competition, but he applies it just as appropriately to his hunting. So should you. The wheels aren’t coming off nearly as quickly as you think they are. Don’t trust your emotions at these times, they are under the influence of adrenaline. Trust your preparation.
In fact, Strickland offered an example. He told about an elk hunting camp in which one of the hunters was having a confidence crisis. Tim gave him the same pep talk and the hunter took a beautiful bull later in the week. Tim found out only later that the hunter had been trying for years but had always gotten in his own way. The lesson: you don’t have to feel confident to perform well.
Mental conditioning is just as important as physical conditioning when preparing for a deer hunt. When you expect to be successful, rather than merely hoping, you are much more apt to do the little things correctly that lead to filled tags. When you plan for success – even to the extent of picking a taxidermist and figuring out how you’ll get the animal out of the woods – you are setting the stage for success. If you don’t take those steps you are subconsciously telling yourself that you don’t actually think the hunt will pay off. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy; you think the hunt is doomed so it is.
In addition to planning the logistics of how you’ll care for your downed trophy buck, it is also a good idea to preview the events of the moment of truth in your mind to give your nervous system a chance to get used to being around trophy animals. If you really don’t believe you will have a chance for a nice buck, your nervous system will be so shocked when one shows up that it will shut down. I’ve seen it happen time and again.
This kind of daydreaming is fun to do. Spend several minutes each day during the week leading up to your hunt visualizing trophy animals approaching. Visualize everything in high definition detail, from drawing the bow, picking the lane, estimating the distance, aiming and in the end see yourself making a perfect hit. If you can’t see the arrow hitting home, it is because you subconsciously think it won’t. You have to break that cycle. Go back and start over; keep at this drill until you can preview a successful encounter flawlessly in your mind many times over. It will set the tone for your reactions when the event occurs for real.
Establish A Pre-Shot Routine
The best way to keep it all together during the moment of truth is to have a practiced and instinctive pre-shot routine. You should start using it during the off-season as you begin thinking about the hunting season (we can’t remember ever stopping). A typical pre-shot routine goes something like this:
1. Use a rangefinder: If you’re going to use a rangefinder you have to do it right away. You can’t wait until the animal is passing through your shooting lane to zap him with the laser. Instead, estimate his course and range a few reference points well ahead of him to get a general feel for shot distance. Of course, it’s much better if the reference points are ranged well in advance and committed to memory so you can skip this time-consuming step.
2. Decide when to draw:
The next requirement is deciding when to pull the bow back. Drawing your bow is one of the most overlooked acts in bowhunting. How often do you read advice on when to draw your bow? But, you’re not going to get a shot unless you do. And this is the single most aggressive action you make and the greatest opportunity for being spotted by approaching game. Knowing when to draw is an art form. There are two schools of thought on this subject.
The first one suggests that you wait until the animal is close and then draw when it is looking away. This way you won’t get stuck at full draw waiting for a shot. The risk is having the animal pick you off (sensing noise or movement) as you try to draw the bow in such close quarters. Another risk is that he never actually turns away, or he may see you in the tree and lock on, never giving you a chance to draw.
The second approach requires that you draw early and wait for the shot to develop. As long as the animal is committed to coming your way and is moving at a moderate and consistent pace, you can draw while it is still well out of range and wait. There is much less chance of it seeing or hearing you when you draw early. This is our preferred method. We can’t wait to get to full draw, because once we hit anchor without being busted our confidence in getting a good shot soars. All that’s left to do is squeeze the trigger. Looking back over the animals we’ve drawn on in this way, we have never once had to let the string down. Just be careful to draw early only if the animal is moving consistently in your direction.
3. Pick your opening: Gauge the animal’s course and determine the closest point that allows an open shot. If you have pre-cut shooting lanes in all directions, the job becomes a lot easier. If not, you’ll have to pick a hole and wait. Just make sure that you have plenty of room above the line of sight. It is easy to overlook mid-range obstacles when they are above the line of sight, but since your arrow arches upward, they cause the majority of deflections.
4. Estimate the range and pick a pin: If you didn’t have time to use the rangefinder and don’t have any pre-ranged reference points you have to make a quick estimate of shot range. Pick the right pin and take a couple of seconds to get settled mentally.
5. Time the shot: Keep both eyes open during the preliminary stages of aiming so that you can clearly see any branches in the path of the arrow. A wide field of view also permits you to keep close track of any changes in the animal’s course without having to turn your head or move your bow away from the opening. When you actually get ready to shoot, you can squint your non-dominant eye if that helps clear up the sight picture.
6. Should you stop him?: This is sometimes a tough decision but one you’ll have to make often given the non-stop pace of rutting bucks. Everyone has to make the decision their own way; we’ve come up with a set of criteria that works well for us. We don't like to stop walking game when we have only narrow shooting lanes. If the animal takes an extra step and freezes behind a screen of cover, we’re sunk. Instead, aim at the center of the opening and shoot as soon as the animal’s shoulder appears beyond the pin. As long as the animal's pace is leisurely and the distance short (20 yards, or less) this timing results in a double-lung hit.
As a rule of thumb, consider stopping a moving animal in each of the following situations: 1. When you have ample shooting lanes. 2. If you lack the confidence to time the shot. 3. If it is moving faster than a walk. 4. If the range is past 20 yards.
7. Pick a spot: Often the moment of truth could better be called the moment of panic, and it’s tough to change gears fast enough to pick a specific hair you want to hit. Do your best because your best shots will occur when you can pick a specific spot and focus on it until the arrow hits. This is especially important on longer shots.
8. The release: Concentrate on squeezing off a slow, surprise release. It is the single best step you can take to assure that you remain in control of this hectic moment. You’ll notice that we didn’t advocate any shooting form checkpoints. If you haven’t built solid fundamentals through pre-season practice, it’s too late to start now. Execution needs to be instinctive as much as possible. If you fear that your form is not up to par and needs attention, address that concern on the practice range, not while you’re trying to arrow an animal. Also, you should never second-guess a decision once you’ve made it. Unless the situation changes, don’t rethink a decision. Move on to the next one.
Pre-Plan Big Decisions
Brains don’t function well when faced with a fast approaching buck. If you’re like us, the time to do your important planning is before the adrenaline pumps kick into overdrive. Take advantage of the downtime during your hunts to decide when you’ll draw and where you’ll shoot for every possible approach pattern that an animal can take around your stand. Similarly, spend some time thinking how you’ll handle different scenarios before closing in for the last few yards of a stalk. As a result, you’ll act more decisively and more quickly when the shot occurs for real.
The moment of truth is one of the most exciting times in any bowhunter’s year. These few basic steps will also make it one of the most rewarding.