The temperature was downright brutal and the wind made it almost unbearable. The key word here is "almost." I didn't let the weather conditions keep me from hunting, for a couple of reasons. For one, only a couple of weeks were left in the season and I wanted to get in every possible minute of hunting time. On top of that, a severe winter blizzard followed by an arctic blast had the local deer piled into a honeysuckle thicket no bigger than 20 acres.
By the looks of things, I suspected that nearly every deer in the township was holed up in this thicket. A couple of days earlier, right after the snowstorm had passed, I had ventured into the edge of the cover and rattled in a couple of nice bucks. But I had failed to tag either of them. Now the cold air out of Canada had dropped the temperature in Illinois to below zero with wind chills at minus 40 degrees.
That wasn't enough to stop me, however. For three mornings in a row I woke before daylight and trekked to the thicket for a chance at one of the bucks that I knew was seeking refuge within its cover. Each morning I knew the hunt would last only a couple of hours because even with my multiple layers of specially designed cold weather clothing, a human can only endure so much.
Still, the unfilled deer tag in my pocket acted like a cattle prod to move me from a warm bed to my tree stand even when I realized that my chances for success were slim. I knew that deer movement during this time of the year would be much better in the afternoon or even at mid-day as compared to the frigid early-morning hours, but my work schedule dictated that I hunt only in the mornings and on weekends.
BRUTAL WEATHER, BRUTAL DETERMINATION
I would love to report that I tagged a trophy buck that year, but I didn't. I ended that season more than 15 years ago with an unfilled tag still burning a hole in my pocket. To this day, that week represents the most brutal conditions I have ever endured in a tree stand. Surviving each hunt was as much a mental challenge as it was physical. I honestly doubt that there was another bowhunter in a tree within 50 miles of me on those miserable late December mornings.
To offer further insight into how cold it actually was that week, the plastic fletching on my arrows literally became so brittle that pieces cracked off. One morning when I climbed down from my stand, I noticed something red in the snow at the base of my tree. When I picked it up, I realized that it was a piece of fletching. I looked at my arrows and noticed that a couple of them had the fletching broken off.
When I ran my finger over one of the remaining fletching, it instantly snapped off as well. I was using the highest quality fletching available at that time, and normally they would instantly spring right back to shape when bent to the side. In those extremely cold conditions, though, they just snapped apart.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
As I look back over my hunting career, I can think of numerous times when I faced various challenges and fought through them. The situation that I just described was the worst as far as weather conditions, but there have been plenty of other challenges as well. Some were mental and some were physical. I met them head on because my goal was to tag a monster whitetail and I had learned that excuses don't get it done.
As an outdoor writer, I've had a chance to meet a lot of truly successful trophy buck hunters. Some are well known in whitetail circles and others are simply guys who are consumed with big whitetail bucks and have little interest in publicity. As different as these hunters are, they all possess something that I believe is a key ingredient to their success. It's not something that can be readily bought or learned. Simply stated, the key ingredient that drives these hunters to higher levels is desire!
We all have some level of desire to succeed as deer hunters or we wouldn't be hunting in the first place. I believe that in deer hunting we eventually reap what we sow. Some hunters are satisfied with lesser results than others. That's fine, and I'm not putting down that mentality. However, half-hearted efforts nearly always result in lesser rewards than an all-out pursuit. Sure, a beginner might go out and kill a world-class buck during the first hour of his or her first hunt, but over time things will even out. That beginner is likely to pay a lot of dues before a second or third monster whitetail comes along.
THE POWER OF DESIRE
Even though I'm human like everyone else, big whitetail bucks consume me to a degree that very few people will ever understand, including many other deer hunters. Don't get me wrong. I don't want to sound like I'm the only deer hunter in the world with a burning desire to kill big bucks. I know I have plenty of company in that regard. My point is that desire is stronger in some of us than it is in others.
I recall a conversation I had with my good friend Alan Foster nearly two decades ago. Al, who contributed a number of stories on trophy hunting to North American Whitetail back in the late '80s, was working on a new article when he shared some of his thoughts with me. Al had come to the conclusion that hunting trophy bucks must be one of the top priorities in a hunter's life next to God, family and career! In other words, he believed that if killing mature bucks wasn't a man's primary "hobby," then his success was going to suffer.
I was in my early 20s when that conversation took place, and I remember it well to this day, probably because I have found it to be so true. It is desire more than a conscious decision that places trophy hunting at a certain spot in a hunter's list of priorities. If desire is absent, then total effort will be lacking and success will suffer. I sometimes believe that the desire to be a successful trophy hunter is something that a person is born with. Although it is possible to do so, it's hard to develop the degree of desire that I'm talking about if you don't already have it.
I recently observed a debate that was taking place on an Internet message board about which factor is most important for success in tagging a monster whitetail: knowledge, time or location. From that list, "location" would definitely be my answer. However, I feel like every respondent overlooked the most important factor of all: desire. Desire takes you to the right location. It makes you do whatever it takes to get the hunting rights on a good piece of property, wherever it may be. Desire al
so drives you to make time for your passion.
It inspires you to work all summer long without a vacation so that you can save that time for hunting season. Desire will make you work the night shift so that you can hunt during the day. Desire drives you to make time for hunting. When that level of desire is present, you'll spend your time reading books and magazines about hunting trophy bucks. Desire drives you to want to learn more. Much of that education will be self-taught as you rack up years of hard-earned lessons through practical experience.
I honestly believe that desire can drive some hunters to learn more in one season than the average hunter may learn in five. The hunter with real desire will scout harder, go farther, hunt longer, read more, think more, and in general do whatever it takes to achieve success.
A few months back, I got involved in another interesting discussion on an Internet message board. Hunting season had ended a month earlier, and I had just spent two days in brutally cold weather getting stand sites ready for the coming season. I asked the others what their goals were for the coming season and what they were doing to make those goals a reality. Several hunters posted goals for the coming season, but only a couple of guys stated that they had actually done anything since hunting season had ended to achieve them.
Maybe I'm being a little overly critical here, but I can't imagine going a month without doing something that directly affects my hunting success for the coming season. What's more, I never have to force myself to do things that have a positive effect on my hunting pursuits. I have enough desire so that I enjoy preparing to succeed. To me, the preparation is not a necessary evil. It's part of the whole overall experience!
NO PLACE FOR EXCUSES
When desire replaces excuses in the trophy hunting mix, success is bound to result. Successful hunters do not make excuses, because their desire causes them to address problems. As I look back at the earlier days of my hunting career, I remember when I, too, made plenty of excuses. I didn't have access to the great properties that other hunters had. I didn't have time to hunt as often as other successful hunters did. I didn't need or couldn't afford another dozen tree stands. The four I had were enough. I didn't need to save all three weeks of my vacation for deer hunting; one would be enough. I didn't need to walk a mile out of my way to get to a stand, because it didn't seem likely that I would spook any deer taking the easy route, anyway. I didn't need to clear that extra branch in my shooting lane; I'd simply wait for the deer to stand somewhere else before I took the shot. I didn't need to practice shooting my bow; I was good enough to hit any deer within 20 yards. The list goes on and on.
I made excuses because that burning desire to kill big bucks was not yet the raging inferno that it would later become. I had a lot of other interests. I wanted to spend some of my free time trapping and hunting small game, as well as engaging in other activities. Again, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with other activities. There is nothing wrong with deer hunters who do not have a burning desire to kill monster bucks. We're all individuals with varying degrees of passion for what we do. What I'm trying to say is this: When my desire became strong enough, I quit making excuses and started making time and giving it real effort.
I wish I could offer some sure-fire advice on creating that burning desire in your own heart. The best I can do is suggest that you look at your own priorities and decide how badly you want to be successful at killing big whitetails. If that desire is strong enough, you should be willing to make any sacrifice necessary. Then, instead of making excuses, you'll make the most of the opportunities you have. Do that, and you'll find incredible satisfaction in your success!