Learn to recognize and control buck fever to take more bucks.
By Bill Scruggs
A deer hunter for most of my life, I have experienced and witnessed what we call buck fever in various forms. That is, I have observed the symptoms of acute anxiety episodes when the fear object (buck) is presented to the subject (me).
Buck Fever is a diagnosis given to someone at the same time a short comedy is being told in camp about the hunter who precipitated the buck fever attack, or BFA. Symptoms include sweating, dry mouth, increased heart rate, heart palpitations, tremors (some severe), numbness and tingling, shallow or rapid breathing, loss of urinary and/or bowel control, confusion, poor judgment, poor decision-making, impulsiveness, muscle tension, fatigue, nausea and dizziness.
Not all of these symptoms need to be present in order to be diagnosed with BFA. Most of us are afflicted with two or more of them during an attack. Obviously, some are more serious than others, but any can make the situation more difficult to handle.
To look at this phenomenon clinically, you must understand your body’s way of preparing itself to deal with acute stress. We are equipped with a stress response system that produces the fight-or-flight response when confronted with a perceived threat. When the threat is presented, our bodies begin to respond well before we begin to think about what to do. When a car pulls out in front of us unexpectedly, we respond without thinking about it. If we took time to think about it before responding, we would hit the car.
The fight-or-flight system is of great benefit to us in the right situation. However, since most of us have evolved into creatures with highly developed brains, we have the ability to think, anticipate, imagine and create. We can produce our own threatening situations by the way we perceive and interpret our environment and our role in it. You’ve probably heard it said that perception is reality.
The act of hunting in a group or as part of a tribal community dates back to before dates. And we continue to share many of the rituals and traditions that were begun thousands of years ago. As youth, we listened to the elders tell stories of the wily buck that was so smart or who had senses so acute that he could not be harvested. We heard how he would always know where you were before you knew where he was. His antlers were so massive that you would turn to stone if you were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them. These stories developed the creatures that we were to one day hunt, and possibly be confronted with, into bigger-than-life quarry.
In the late 1960s, when I first started deer hunting, the ritual of getting your face painted with blood after harvesting your first buck was a big deal. It was a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. If you missed your buck, your shirttail was cut off. Both were public displays of status among hunters. Young ladies are not immune from these traditions, either.
Even today, the painted face is much more pleasant and less embarrassing. Though one may have earned the respect of the adult hunting community, anything short of a harvest, when an attempt is made to take an animal, is unacceptable and open to humiliating attention at camp.
As if imagination and social pressure were not enough, there is competition among hunters, too. Many of us, if we will be honest, are somewhat envious as we stand around the skinning rack watching someone else take our spot under the gambrel. Though we may be glad for the fellow hunter who was lucky enough to be successful, we wish that it were us who had the luck that day. There are only so many good bucks out there and you are looking at one less for you to pursue. Again, the pressure is on for you to seize the opportunity to harvest your trophy.
The pressure put on us, from whatever source, creates a level of anticipatory anxiety that primes us to possibly become overwhelmed with symptoms of BFA at the moment of truth. Most of the time, these overwhelming events wrap up with a comical story of blunders and harmless mishaps. But the sad truth is that people are killed every year by careless hunters who did not identify their target before shooting or shot themselves by a blunder or mishap that was the result of a BFA.
I believe BFA is a significant influence in both the comedies and tragedies. Of course, not all of us have a serious problem with it. You might experience just enough symptoms to perceive them as excitement. In fact, if I ever stop experiencing the excitement that comes with the opportunity to harvest a buck, I’ll sell my gun and bow.
This article is for those who do have problematic symptom clusters that adversely affect your hunts. I would like to offer some ideas as to how you can manage your BFA symptoms so you don’t lose the excitement of the hunt, but also don’t lose your head or your life due to a confounding BFA.
As with any anxiety problem, learning to identify your symptoms is the first step. You must be motivated enough to commit to training your body and mind to respond differently when presented with an anxiety-producing situation, whether it is a buck or job stress in front of you.
The following points may be useful in training yourself and others how to maintain manageable symptoms of BFA.
1) Review what you were taught through stories, rituals and traditions regarding what it means to be a hunter. The fact is many of us equate shooting a buck with “manhood.” If you believe that, please consider that the source of manhood comes from within.
2) Reframe your unrealistic or creative knowledge of the animal that you are hunting into a more realistic knowledge of the creature. Let the animal be what it is, rather than what you have made it to be.
3) Become aware of the expectation placed on you by your peers and yourself. Realize that harvesting a buck is the successful conclusion to an enjoyable hunting experience — nothing more, nothing less.
4) Identity the BFA symptoms that you usually experience. This in itself can help you control your symptoms.
5) Train yourself in deep breathing. Without holding your breath at any point, inhale, pushing your stomach out, and exhale, pulling your stomach toward your spine. Inhale to the count of 3 to 4 and exhale to the count of 6 to 8, slowly. Try closing your eyes. Relax your shoulders. Practice this technique until you are able to relax quickly during the breathing. Practice this technique enough so that when you use it in a hunting situation, you will not experience any dizziness due to the increased amount of oxygen in your system.
6) Practice this breathing while shooting your weapon and/or while sitting in your stand.
7) Find a quiet place to sit comfortably. Once you are able to relax using this technique, begin imagining yourself in a hunting situation. Include all the behaviors, sounds, sights, and feelings that occur when it is time to take your trophy buck. Imagine every detail and every move you make until the harvest is successful. Make sure that you remain relaxed the entire time. Take time out to get yourself relaxed by breathing. It is best to use this imagery technique with your eyes closed. In your imagery training, always end the imaginary experience with a successful harvest.
8) Have a plan. Pick your shooting lanes. Get in shape. Know your weapon, and know your quarry’s behavior. Anxiety that occurs over a task to be performed can be better controlled if the task is rehearsed and you are well prepared.
9) Eliminate alcohol intake prior to the hunt. Keep in mind that 1 ounce of alcohol takes about one hour to metabolize through the liver. Alcohol is bad medicine for someone with symptoms of anxiety, not to mention that it impairs your senses and sensibility.
Routine use of these relaxation techniques will result in being better equipped to handle symptoms of a BFA. Just as your body must be conditioned to work harder and more effectively in athletics, your mind and body together can be conditioned to respond in a way that will prepare you to manage Buck Fever.
This article was published in the September 2005 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.