December 21, 2016
I was frustrated. Back in the days that the kids were short, my wife was working and going to school full time, I knew every day I was away from home placed massive stress on the family. The family was extremely supportive, but that didn't change my realization that I needed to maximize my effectiveness and minimize my away time. They didn't have to tell me what I was doing was unfair to them. I knew it already and it ate at me.
So, I hunted harder than I'd ever hunted before. In my own messed up head, I viewed it that every trip I took without tagging a buck was an unfair burden on my family that served no benefit. If I tagged out, at least they had sacrificed for something that helped us all by advancing my own career. To say that thinking was foolish on so many levels is a tremendous understatement.
I choose to bring this up because, despite already knowing better, that approach hurt my results, not helped improve them. I'd head straight for what I felt were the highest odds stands and hunt them into submission. Unfortunately, that submission was disproportionately my own, as I was burning out stands by hunting them during the wrong phase of season and/or on horrible deer movement weather days.
I did that for a stretch of 4 years. I was hunting harder than ever — often on awesome properties that I managed for clients — where killing a good buck is comparatively easy. Still, my results were worse than they'd been in many, many years, and the sport that had meant so much to me was losing its allure.
Regardless of how or why, that is really the foundation of this piece. Hunting is supposed to be fun. Sure, most all of us do it to put meat in the freezer and help out our friends in need. Still, few of us got into this with that as our primary motivation. Most of us simply got into hunting because we thoroughly enjoy it.
Don't get me wrong. Hunting is a critical management tool and populations left unchecked suffer horrifically. As just alluded to, it also supplies some of the healthiest meat one can ever find. Still, it's the near religious experience so many of us experience sitting in trees, the challenge of putting ourselves within weapons range of an unaware prey species and the exhilaration of those somewhat rare times when everything comes together. That's what got most of us into hunting and kept us up the night before the opener each year, just too dang excited to sleep.
Whether it's the quest for bigger and bigger antlers, taking deer or property management too far, self-imposed pressure to fill that tag or a host of other reasons, I see more and more hunters losing the "fun factor" from hunting. As already mentioned, it's something I endured myself. Hopefully, this piece will help others solve their own fun draining issues or avoid them all together.
Realizing That It's Just a Deer
Sorry to swear, but the first step for me was the realization that after we scrape away the manufactured glamour and our own testosterone levels, bucks are ultimately animals not that much different than dairy cows, sheep or other live stock. I really shouldn't say this, but I do respect deer more than I do the majority of the human race. Still, the world will NOT be a better place if I fill my one remaining buck tag. It's just a deer.
We hunters strive to make deer, particularly mature bucks, into far more than they really are. They are a prey species and we are one of their predators. Because we have eliminated or greatly reduced so many of their natural predators, I do believe we have the responsibility to keep the populations in check and strive to minimize the brutally cruel population correction tools Mother Nature uses to keep the deer numbers in check with their habitat. Still, at the foundation, deer are prey and we are predators, nothing more or less than that.
Where things start getting messed up is that we hunters are placing more and more emphasis on inches of antler. No doubt, large racks are exciting. There's absolutely nothing wrong with trying to grow or chasing them, but one must not allow antlers to consume us. That's where things start getting ugly and stupid.
The simple fact of the matter is that rack size has next to nothing to do with how good a hunter is or isn't, as well as how challenging a buck is to kill. There are properties I manage where 160-inch 3 1/2-year-old bucks are flat out easy to shoot. We're talking absolutely prime Midwestern dirt that's managed for low impact, high odds hunting.
Then there are grounds where one has to work a bit harder for them, but killing a 160-inch 3 1/2-year-old buck is a realistic goal. No, they aren't behind every tree and one has to work for them, but it's a reasonable goal.
Now look at the rest of the grounds deer call home. On more ground out there than not, 3 1/2-year-old bucks just will almost never hit 160 inches. Heck, on most of the ground deer call home, I think it's safe to say that few — if any — bucks will ever hit 160 inches no matter how old they live to be. The fact of the matter is that inches of antler has nothing at all to do with how smart or tough a buck is to kill. End of story!
I see this play out with many of the best hunters I've ever known. Most of them have never killed a buck over 140 inches. Their areas just don't produce many, if any at all. Yet, year after year they are tagging 3 1/2- to 7 1/2-year-old, 120- to 130-inch bucks. Here's the dirty secret, those bucks are very often 100 times more challenging to tag than the bruisers I drag off of prime, well managed Midwestern dirt. I know, as I also chase those same 120- to 130-inch bucks in areas that just don't produce top enders.
Antler size has next to nothing to do with how good a hunter is. I know a surplus of great hunters that will never kill what many readers consider a giant buck. I know a surplus of extremely marginal hunters that lay down jaw-dropping inches. How you hunt and where you hunt has far more to do with how good a hunter is or isn't than rack size ever will. Most all 160-inch 3 1/2-year-olds are far easier to kill than that 120-inch 5 1/2-year-olds.
It bears repeating yet again. Inches have absolutely nothing to do with how challenging a buck is or isn't to hunt. Inches are just the result of genetics, habitat, age and region.
For me, one of the keys to making fun again was the realization that inches of antler is nearly meaningless in gauging success or failure. To drill that point home a final time, I managed a property in Iowa that had a 2.5-year-old buck on it that grossed Boone. He would have been one of the easiest bucks to take that I ever had. On the flip side, the 7-point, grossing 130 inches, his teeth worn down to the gum line was the most challenging buck I've hunted to date. Dragging him off that chunk of public ground he'd lived to old age on is what I see as my greatest buck hunting achievement, despite shooting other bucks that have 40+ inches on him.
Focus on what you have, not on what you don't. That, along with the realization that inches are next to meaningless in gauging the challenge a buck presents, was a big step in putting the fun back into hunting for me.
Adding Family and Friends Back into Hunting
Most of us started hunting with family and friends. For me, it was a couple buddies, an uncle and cousin that first drug me along with them into the deer woods. In those days, I was every bit as thrilled to hear about their hunts and successes as I was when I had a good one, myself.
In time, as I began getting more and more serious about hunting and land management, I shifted more and more to the lone wolf mentality. I see this happening a lot. Most of the most serious hunters I know are a lone wolf.
There are tangible reasons for that. When hunting solo, the odors, sounds and other disturbances on a property are generally reduced from when hunting in groups. This is often hammered home directly and indirectly in print and on TV. The importance of keeping impact low is preached to no end. Many doing the preaching have that 250-, 500-, 1000-acre property that no one other than themselves hunts.
I'm not going to lie. Anyone that wants to give me a big chunk of dirt that only I can hunt will be greeted warmly by me every time. That is an ideal setup.
However, it is a fallacy that one must keep hunter numbers very low to hunt unpressured deer. The key is merely setting up the ground and stands to create low impact, high odds stand sites. So long as the deer can't see, hear or smell you, you are as good as not being there to them. Determine low impact entrance and exit routes from low impact stands and you, your family and buddies can all hunt the ground, with minimal negative impact.
Better still, you can enjoy that ground with your friends and family. I can virtually guarantee that, 15 years from now, none of you will look back and say they wished they'd spent less time with loved ones and more time hunting by themselves.
Remove Yourself from the Pressure Cooker
As important, simple fact is that no one can make you feel pressure but yourself. Sure, many things beyond our control can and often do add challenges and hardships to our lives. That doesn't change the fact that we ultimately control if we allow anything to make us feel pressured. No one or nothing can do it to us, unless we allow it to.
That applies to hunting as well as anything else in life. Back when the kids were really short, the family wasn't pressuring me to put inches on the ground. I was 100% doing it to myself. As mentioned, I decided that I had to kill to make the away time worthwhile. I put myself in trees in every conceivable condition, hunted sick and sat as long as I could, all to drop inches. When I did, I felt relieved, not happy or even momentarily satisfied.
I know now how incredibly foolish that was. It took a long heart to heart with myself to stop that toxic pattern. Outside of being happy for me, the wife and kids could care less if I tagged a giant or not. I had given up 8 years of having any kind of a life, getting up at 7 AM each day, working the real job until 5, spending until 9ish PM with the family each night and then writing until 2 AM, only to do that the next day and every other for 8 years. I did that because I absolutely love the outdoors and hunting. I knew that doing it as a job would be a dream come true, and I got to the point where I was ruining it for myself with the pressure I placed on me.
The end result of that heart to heart with myself was that I gave myself permission to relax. From that day forward, if I want to sleep in on a prime rut morning, I'm going to do it. If I want to climb down early from stand, I do so without a second thought. If I don't feel well, the weather stinks or I just don't want to, I'll skip hunting, no matter how good the hunt promises to be.
The human brain is an amazing thing in many ways. One is that once you give yourself permission not to do something, suddenly you generally want to do it. I still hunt nearly as much as I did back then. I just do it because I want to, not because I have to. As a surprising side bonus, I've been more successful at tagging bucks than I ever was before, and the enjoyment factor has reverted back to the early days of my hunting endeavors.
I'm sure I've lost more than a few readers already in this piece. I don't blame anyone for concluding that I'm a spoiled person that is unbelievably lucky to get paid directly and indirectly to hunt. It's a dream job and I should cherish it.
That's 100-percent true and none of that is ever lost on me. I do cherish it and I do not want or deserve the least bit of sympathy. I've got it made, I know it and I appreciate the heck out of those that follow my work and enable me to literally live my dream.
That is really why I shared this story. Sure, many of your reasons for losing the fun factor in hunting will be completely different than mine. Still, it's my hope that by sharing this personal story with all of you that you may be able to find your way out of the darkness, as I was. I'll gladly trade making myself look like a spoiled baby for the off chance of helping those of you out there that have done so very, very much for me over the years.
For me at least, the first key was realizing that inches tagged means next to nothing either way about how good of a hunter one is or isn't. Next was involving friends and loved ones with my hunting activities again. Finally, it was not giving myself permission to feel pressure, while also giving myself the freedom to hunt or not hunt however I see fit on any given day. Add it all together and I've enjoyed hunting the last 10ish years every bit as much as I did when I was a starry eyed kid, first sitting on branches with a recurve, all those years ago. Hopefully this has helped you find that kid you were, as well.