A few soothing words can keep you from losing your cool on a big buck.
While bowhunting in Ohio a few years ago, I met a fellow hunter who was an avid hunting TV fan. He was remembering a show he had seen where I shot a nice whitetail, and his comment took me by surprise.
“After you dropped that buck, you turned calmly to the camera and said, ‘That oughta do it.’”
He was impressed by the fact that I had remained calm through the typically tension-filled moments that preceded and followed the shooting of a trophy whitetail. He asked me how I managed to remain that calm.
At first, I didn’t know what to say, but as I pondered his question, several factors came to mind.
By today’s deer hunting TV standards, if the hunter doesn’t feign a cardiac arrest when a buck comes into view, he’s not likely going to win an Emmy. It’s funny how a trend develops into a monkey-see/monkey-do pattern, especially when in front of a TV camera. Theatrics and deer hunting make a very odd couple.
Ten years ago, hunters managed to shoot their game for TV shows without all the gasping and gagging that is so predictable today. If all those gaspers and gaggers were as out of control as they portray, a white-tailed buck would be safer than a day in jail.
Having said that, one who doesn’t do back flips and pee his pants when he shoots a deer seems relatively calm. That might be one part of an answer to the Ohio hunter’s original question.
Another part of the answer goes back to my years as a guide and outfitter in Alberta, Canada.
I quickly learned that unless I controlled my excitement, I was the hunter’s worst enemy. When my hunters first laid eyes on the giants of their dreams, they would naturally become excited, sometimes completely out of control. My job was to talk them down. But first I had to learn to talk myself down.
I learned to speak to the hunter in a calm, unexcited tone, assuring my client that the deer was completely unaware of our presence. If it was an exceptional buck, I would go so far as to refer to it as simply a “nice deer.” The key was to downplay everything and to get the hunter to talk back to me. Somehow, conversation seemed to alleviate the tension of the moment.
I talked about our strategy as it developed and asked the hunter to repeat it back to me so I knew I was getting through. It’s amazing how much information doesn’t connect when a hunter’s heart is about to explode and his mind is shorting out.
Through conversation, I could tell when the hunter was getting calm enough to function properly. I gently emphasized steadying the rifle, yardage, point of aim and breath control. It’s odd to note how often the excitement of seeing a big buck makes the hunter hold his breath. Nothing could be worse. You need to breathe normally and steadily, otherwise you’ll fall apart.
One incident I recall vividly demonstrates the value of getting the hunter to talk back to you. The hunter (I’ll call him John) and I were lying on our bellies in a snow-covered barley stubble field as a cold mid-November day dawned. A blind draw emptied up into the center of the field. When a deer walked out of the draw, it appeared as if it had come out of the ground on an elevator. Suddenly, it was just there like a genie popping out of a bottle.
Such was the case when a horse of a buck stepped out at first light. I sized him up as a 10-pointer in the 180-inch range. Distance was deceiving in the midst of such a large, open field. I told John to aim at the top of his rack since the deer was on a steady walk. At 350 yards, the bullet would drop into the boiler room.
John was really rattled by the sight of the buck and while he would say “okay” to my commands, his first shot revealed that my words weren’t reaching him. That shot kicked up snow behind the buck’s heels.
I knew then that John was aiming at the heart-lung area, which was landing his shot too low and too far back. I told him again to aim right at the top of the deer’s rack, and again he said, “okay.” But like the first shot, the second did exactly as the first, landing right behind the deer’s heels.
Meanwhile, John was hitting the panic button. I grabbed his shoulders and shook him hard and said, “John, look at me!” He looked up in wild-eyed confusion. “Listen to me. Do you understand?” I asked. “Aim at the top of his antlers! Do you understand me?” Amazingly, the buck was still on a brisk, broadside walk as if nothing was wrong in his world.
“Okay, okay. I hear you,” John said as he got control of himself. He chambered another round and aimed carefully and said, “Right at the top of his antlers.” I knew it was about to happen. He was finally going to nail this monster. The hollow click of the firing pin dropping on an empty chamber brought final defeat as the buck walked out of view.
In his excitement, John didn’t pull his bolt back far enough to pick up another cartridge. Wouldn’t you know that would be the one shot where he did almost everything right?
All this illustrates the need for calm and specific instruction. That is why I told John exactly where to aim, rather than just giving him the yardage and hoping he could figure it out. I tried to eliminate as much mental processing for him as I could.
I realize most people are not whitetail guides and in most cases they are hunting alone with no one to talk to.
You can talk to yourself to keep your wits. You don’t have to talk out loud, but you can talk yourself down just as if you were assisting an excited hunter. You’ll be surprised at the calming effect it has.
So, in answer to the Ohio hunter’s question, I would add this: I got so used to talking hunters down that it comes naturally to do it to myself. As soon as I see the deer I’m after, I start talking to myself about being calm, steadying my breathing. Subsequently, I concentrate more on remaining calm than the size of the deer. When the shot is offered. I take it. Only afterward do I allow myself to feel the excitement that I have been holding at bay.
I admit big whitetails are exciting and many hunters get genuinely torqued up, but that can be controlled with some dedicated practice.
I remember many years ago Chuck Adams telling me how he kept calm when he spotted the trophy he wanted to shoot. His approach was to tell himself it probably wasn’t going to work out and that the animal would probably win the contest. Plenty of critters didn’t win their contest with Chuck, but that was his talk-down strategy. Apparently, it worked.
As a seasoned hunter and hunting guide who has made a lifetime practice of remaining calm under exciting and sometimes dangerous situations, I was shocked at the fact that I could still lose all control of my wits in the great outdoors. Curiously, it was not in the hunting world, but in fly-fishing.
I went to Belize to fly-fish for permit on the coral flats of the Caribbean. When I saw that black, forked tail rise out of the shallows as the permit rooted around for small crabs on the coral reefs, it was really special.
I would cast my little crab fly to the fish, and often enough he grabbed it. But a lifetime of trout fishing made it automatic for me to strike the fish by bringing my rod tip up sharply. Lesson learned: You cannot catch a permit on a fly rod by striking with the rod tip. You have to point the rod at the fish, take up all your slack line, and when he bites, you yard back on your fly line with your stripping hand and drive the hook into his tough mouth.
I understood the principle but my right hand seemed to act involuntarily. Time after time, I struck with my rod tip, to no avail.
At the end of the week, I was still batting zero. I just couldn’t believe how automatic it was to rod-strike the fish, and I couldn’t seem to get control under the pressure of the strike.
Finally, I went back to my cabin and sat on the porch by myself and had a serious talk with my right hand. I said, “If you rod strike one more permit, I’m going to cut you off at the elbow!” Then I envisioned myself responding to a permit strike.
As I gently stripped in my slack line, preparing for the take, I would talk to my right hand saying, “Stay down, stay down,” as if I were talking to a bad dog.
On the last afternoon, my redeeming chance came as a black tail broke the surface and I began talking down my right hand. It was a mind-over-matter issue. When I felt the rattle of the permit taking my fly, I drove my tight line back hard with my left hand and felt the explosion of my first hook-up. I have been talking my right hand down ever since, and it works.
The object here is not to eliminate excitement, but to find a way to control it when the chips are down. Don’t wait until the buck of your dreams appears before trying to find a way to calm yourself. By then, it’s likely too late. Get a plan and practice it continually in your mind. It’s like developing muscle memory the way pro athletes do. You do it over and over until you can do it without thinking about it. Eventually, it will pay off.
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