September 30, 2022
My 2021 deer season was over before it even started That’s what I told myself as I hobbled my way back to the house on a humid early August afternoon. I had taken off on a long hike, intent to check several trail cameras and pick through some summer habitat looking for deer sign. Halfway through my work in the timber, I came to a low creek bottom full of stinging nettles about as tall as a man. I decided I’d take an easier way through the itch weed and tried to cross the creek using a down beech tree that spanned the bottom. As I was slinking down the tree trunk, my foot slipped on some greasy moss, and I fell off my tree bridge down into the nettles. Another down tree broke my fall, but it did a number on my leg.
I landed left-knee-first on a big hunk of dead wood that was as hard as iron. It felt like a grenade exploded in my knee joint, and it was so unstable it was like I had a G.I. Joe leg: one that bends 90 degrees at the knee and in any direction. I kept on working as best as I could, and by the time I got home, I was nearly certain I had torn my ACL. All I could think about was how much work I had already done to zero-in on several mature bucks, and how a couple dumb choices may have cost me the ability to hunt this season.
MY OWN WORST ENEMY
When things aren’t going my way, my default setting is usually heavy on the negative and light on the positive. When I was in college sociology and psychology classes, the term “self-talk” was often used here. Self-talk is simply your own thoughts to yourself, like a constant internal monologue. After my fall, I immediately began tearing myself down with negative self-talk. At first, I began personalizing my thoughts on the matter: You idiot, you tried to take the easy way around and now being lazy has cost you. You made a stupid choice in footwear. You’re not as young as you used to be. What were you thinking? I was not mentally kind to myself in this situation, and that did me no favors in the long run.
Then my thoughts turned to the worst-case scenarios: What if I can’t hunt this fall? What if I must have surgery? What if I can’t hunt from a stand anymore at all? I sat with my leg in a bucket of ice for half the night once I got home. My negative self-talk kept up. I began focusing on only the negative aspects of the afternoon afield while filtering out all the possible positives. All I could focus on was my fall, but I should have been happy with the effort. I was able to get some nice velvet images of growing target bucks and accomplished most of what I’d wanted to for the day. The scouting trip wasn’t a total loss, but I had a difficult time telling myself that over the throbbing in my knee and the negative thoughts in my head.
The next day I went to my doctor about the injury, and he did a great job getting me in for x-rays and an MRI of my knee. As I laid in the MRI tube, I had more negative self-talk: What if I can’t work? What if I have surgery and I get an infection in my knee and I become disabled? My mind was focused solely on the negative, that is, until I talked to my doctor again with the results.
THE SKY ISN'T FALLING
I felt like a fool when I got off the phone with my doctor. MRI results showed no ligament damage, but it did find a small compression fracture of my tibia. With rest and ice and a little rehab time, I would be climbing trees in the fall as planned!
I had beat myself up mentally for about three days for nothing. Negative self-talk did no good for me here, and I certainly need to learn to ease up on myself. I always want to tag a mature buck every fall, but I absolutely need to get out of my own way sometimes.
A negative mental approach hinders so much of the whitetail hunting mindset; I will profess it to be an important influence on my own success, and I do not give it enough credence or attention. I need to harbor a more positive mindset, and I feel like studying healthy thought can make a tremendous impact on success in the deer woods. I was certainly learning this lesson as the 2021 season approached.
With a bum leg, one thing I could still do is shoot. So, I flung more arrows in the month of September than I ever have. I reasoned that there was no excuse to procrastinate on practice or getting my whitetail weapon systems in tip-top shape.
Spending time with positive people helped change my mindset, too. My hunting buddy Barrett and I hammered out our shooting form and our archery setups, and I found this time to be super up lifting.
Later, I knew I’d have to improvise to get some late summer intel and get my cameras in place for the coming fall. I used my e-bike to carry me into areas I needed to scout, and I found this piece of equipment to be invaluable, being hobbled. It allowed me access to some critical trail cameras and long distance scouting locations without too much trouble. Once the Illinois bow season started, I was far from ready; but with a more positive outlook, I felt like I could still have a fine year!
STRUGGLES WITH NEGATIVITY
As the 2021 deer season progressed, I had to re-program my negative mindset yet again. The harder I hunted, the worse my luck got. I had a close encounter with a tremendous buck in mid-October, only to have him skirt me enough to catch my wind and flee. I hunted the buck several more times, but I must have tipped him off.
By Halloween, my hopes of tagging my primary target buck were fading as timber logging and an influx of hunter pressure near the buck’s core area had him scattered. The buck was M.I.A, and I had to force myself to drop three years of history with the animal and move on.
I then shifted my focus to a third buck, only to have several dud hunts in a row with little deer movement. I went to check some trail cameras only to find some to be tampered with, damaged, missing their SD cards or missing altogether. By mid-day on Nov. 7, I started wondering if I was going to find success in 2021. I was tired, sore and aggravated. Frustrated and floundering.
The weather was warm and deer movement had been extremely poor, and that negative mindset began creeping back in. Not sure what to do, I went back into the timber and sat an old pre-hung stand in a rut funnel, trying to get out of my mental funk. My morale was down in the dumps when I reported for duty at about noon, I practically forced myself to climb up the tree. My hopes were not high as I had hunted this area very hard with little to show for the effort, but the black cloud of negativity was about to lift.
TURNING THE CORNER
After climbing up for the rest of the day, I tried to talk myself into a positive mindset. The target buck I was chasing after, a whopper we called “Wild Side,” was known to be in the area. And I just kept telling myself: You just have to be here. Anything can happen on November seventh. And then it did.
Wild Side slipped in behind me with my wind dangerously close to his proximity. The buck paid no attention, and I watched in disbelief as his giant rack disappeared into a large doe bedding thicket. Instead of assuming the hunt was over and flirting with more negative self-talk, I tried to remain upbeat, telling myself that I may see him again and the buck wasn’t spooked.
About an hour later the buck resurfaced. He had made it into an alfalfa field and was scent checking the timber’s edge for does, keeping company with a younger 10-point. Both bucks made a big sweeping arc in the field and hooked back my direction. I knew getting an opportunity was a long shot, but I kept up with the positive mentality: Who knows, maybe they’ll come back by. I still have plenty of daylight left.
During all this tension, a moment of levity came in the form of road noise. A hot rod sports car came screaming down a nearby road with a furious growl at a speed I’ve never seen on a legal roadway. I tried to follow it with my binoculars, and I busted up laughing as all I could see was a red streak doing triple-digit speed; and I could hear it for miles! I don’t know why, but this took the stress out of the hunt, and I laughed my face off. As evening approached, I heard splashing in the creek bed below my funnel stand. The young 10-point from earlier came out of the water and crossed beside me on a thin little game trail, hugging the upwind side of my position. I gave myself one last positive mental pep talk: Wild Side was with that young buck. He’s coming. Get ready.
I stood, turned the camera to an opening in the trail and readied the bow. A few minutes later, I heard more sloshing creek water below and hit my camera’s record button. Then I saw a glimpse of Wild Side, his wide frame climbing the bank to repeat the same travel scenario as the young buck. I clipped my release onto the string and gave myself one last positive affirmation: Nine yards, focus. Don’t rush. He’s in no hurry. You can do it.
The rest of the shot sequence was automatic. Auto-pilot from all those reps I took in the late summer punching targets and hobbling around on a sore leg. I’ll forever remember the visual of my sight pin floating on that buck’s vitals, and seeing my arrow fletching strike right where I had envisioned in the series of make-believe encounters I had with the deer in my mind. The big buck bounded 40 yards, stopped and toppled over just behind my tree. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I had just taken a tremendous target buck on a warm, sunny day during the Illinois rut, and it happened in an unlikely stand that had been in place for years. When I hurt my leg in the summer, I thought my season was over. When I lost track of or missed opportunities on other mature bucks earlier in the season, my mindset suffered. Encounters with trespassers and trail camera pirates didn’t help either. When warm weather made for poor deer movement and a strange progression to the rut, I figured I may not tag a single buck in 2021.
As I wrapped my tags around Wild Side, I was a bit ashamed by how negative I had been in my mindset prior to the hunt. I almost felt guilt over the matter with such a tremendous trophy at the end of a short blood trail. Before I field dressed the animal, I sat beside the buck and gave him thanks and reflected on the lessons learned here.
If you’re a DIY whitetail hunter striving for success, I feel like keeping a strong mental edge is one of the most important qualities to master. I will be completely honest here: I am still a student in the positive mindset subject, certainly not having mastered it during one euphoric hunt after a tough fall. A goal of mine for the coming season is to consciously cultivate a more positive internal monologue while attempting to avoid negative self-talk. One must focus on the positives while filtering out the negative. Constantly beating yourself up for a lack of tagging a trophy buck and personalizing it won’t up the odds for the next hunt.
A hunter also shouldn’t polarize their success through the social media deer world. If I’m having a tough fall, seeing everyone’s hero photos can spark bitter self-loathing. It’s the old “everyone is tagging but me, and I’m a loser” routine. I must start cultivating a consistent positive mindset approach to chasing trophy bucks, and I need to be conscious of when I am hearing negative thoughts in my mind. I need to learn introspection, looking inward and reasoning as to why I feel a certain way. When I’ve got the proverbial black cloud, I need to ask what things I can do to fix it, and respond with a positive mental vibe.
At some point all of us hunters will stress about things out of our control: such as weather, wind direction or little deer movement during a slow rut. You can only control what you can control, so there’s no reason to stress about the things you can’t.
One thing about positivity I’ll leave you with is that positivity can be found if it is sought. Chasing wall-hanger bucks is fun; that’s why we all do it! And you don’t want to ruin that fun by producing negativity. Surround yourself with positive people who love deer hunting like you do, and remember to have fun! So, this fall remember to leave the negative self-talk at the truck. Hike in, and once on stand, stay upbeat as you wait for your chance. Today could be the day to notch your tag and, quite literally, the only absolute requirement is attendance. You must be present to win!