Learning to control buck fever can help you capitalize on opportunities that ultimately might help you bring home the buck of a lifetime. Using the following methods, you, too, will have a better chance of controlling your nerves and harvesting a trophy deer the next time the opportunity arises.
1 FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH THE SITUATION
The more comfortable you feel in a situation, the more relaxed you'll be and the fewer mistakes you'll make. One of my favorite ways to feel more comfortable with big-buck encounters is by watching big-buck videos or DVDs. Viewing them helps me get used to feeling the excitement of the hunt. Through videos, you, too, can experience what it's like to have a big buck in close quarters (even if it is second-hand).
You can learn a buck's behavior and how to read his body language. Big-buck videos also allow you to see a successful hunt ending with a well-placed shot. Watching the video helps to ingrain this image into your head. The next time you are put into a similar situation, you'll feel more comfortable watching the deer come in and you'll be more apt to make a good shot, because your mind will be thinking that is what is supposed to happen.
In the same way you would feel more comfortable driving 30 mph through town after driving 70 mph on the freeway, you'll also feel more relaxed harvesting a 130-class deer after experiencing a 150- or 170-class buck being taken (either first-hand or second-hand). Watching big-buck videos has made me feel more comfortable shooting big bucks and passing on deer that I might otherwise have shot.
2 PRACTICE OFTEN
Practice gives you the confidence in your ability to make the shot. Constantly practicing and watching your arrow hit where you are aiming builds confidence and trust in your ability to make the shot. The first time I shot 90 meters (98 yards, 2 feet) with my bow, my mind didn't believe I could hit the target. Now, after years of practicing at that distance, my mind not only knows I can hit the target, but it also expects my arrows to be in the middle of the target.
The best shot I ever made on a buck I owe to practice and the confidence that practice gave me in my ability to make the shot. Using the bow setup I had at the time, I could hit a 1x2-inch sticker out to 60 yards. One day, after a couple of hours of shooting at and hitting this sticker, I was out hunting and a nice 130-class 8-pointer came by. At his closest point, he stopped at 40 yards as confirmed by my Nikon rangefinder. He was completely covered by brush except for a 4-inch open gap behind his shoulder.
As he stood there, I realized that sending my arrow through this 4-inch gap was much easier than hitting the 1x2-inch sticker that I'd been shooting at several hours earlier. Additionally, I realized that if I for some reason missed, I would hit the brushy cover and not injure the deer. After taking a deep breath and concentrating, I sent the arrow through the gap and made a perfect hit on the deer. Had it not been for my practice, I never would have had the confidence to attempt and make the shot.
Make your practice sessions as close to actual hunting situations as you can. I always practice with my hunting bow while wearing the same warm, bulky clothes I wear in the field. If you anticipate shooting from the sitting position, practice from the sitting position. The closer your practice resembles actual hunting conditions, the more comfortable you'll feel making your shot in the field.
Try to simulate shooting under nervous conditions. Most hunters are completely calm during practice, yet they often get very excited when presented with a shooting opportunity in the field. Many hunters experience increased heart rate and breathing. Simulate these conditions in practice. Run around for a few minutes until you feel your heart rate and breathing increase. Then go pick up your bow and try shooting.
Make it more interesting. Mess with your mind. Pretend you have just been presented with the buck of your dreams and this is the only shot you'll ever have at him. Now take your practice shot. If you can learn to successfully hit your mark under these conditions, you'll have the confidence to get the job done from your tree stand when it really counts.
3 USE MENTAL IMAGERY
It's the trick the pros use to help win tournaments, and it's the trick you can use to help bag your buck. When you first get into your tree stand, identify the likely paths a buck could come sauntering down. Now that you don't have much else to do for the next couple of hours, picture your buck walking in, running in, sneaking in, walking down your main path, from the right, from the left, in front of you, behind you, by himself or following a doe. In other words, try to picture every conceivable scenario.
Then picture yourself doing whatever it takes to make the shot in each scenario. Visualize where the deer will be standing when you draw and when you make the shot. Every situation may be different, but the ending is always the same: making that perfect shot!
4 STAY IN THE PRESENT
This is what Ed Eliason, former Green Beret and U.S. archery team member, used to tell me. "Wherever you are, be all there." Don't just be there physically. Be there mentally as well. When you are trying to shoot your deer, don't be thinking about how he is going to look hanging on your wall. Forget about the past and don't think about the future. Focus on the task at hand.
As the deer approaches, pay attention to its movements and try to anticipate where the deer will be standing when it presents you with the best shot. Now start preparing for that shot. Get your feet and shoulders lined up and in position to shoot. This is the foundation of your shot. Getting in a comfortable shooting position will enhance your chances of making a good shot when the time comes.
Consider the speed of the approaching deer and the size of the opening you have to shoot the deer in. This will help you determine if it will be necessary to make a noise to try to stop the deer. Remember that sometimes a faster-moving deer may still take a couple of steps before stopping, so be sure to plan accordingly. If you make a noise too early and accidentally stop the deer just before your opening, don't panic.
If the deer has not identified you, it may relax soon and continue moving forward down the path, giving you a second chance. If the deer is moving slowly and you are not rushed, take three seconds to visualize yourself shooting at the deer with good form and technique. When the time finally comes, focus on making a well-placed shot just as you have done so many times in practice. By focusing on the details of the task at hand, you will be better prepared to capitalize on the opportunity and your mind does not have as much time to let negative and distracting thoughts rattle your nerves.
5 LEARN TO CONTROL YOUR NERVES
It's OK to get nervous. It's not OK to let your nerves hinder you from completing the task at hand. I have heard an Olympic gold medalist comment that he was exceptionally nervous during his gold medal finals. Even though he was nervous, he didn't let it stop him from accomplishing his goal of performing better than anyone else. Likewise, you should not let being nervous keep you from harvesting your deer.
Remember the basketball coach who made his team measure the court they were going to play their championship finals on just to show them it was the same length and width as their court at home? Do the same thing he did to help his team: rationalize a winning shot.
You are breathing heavier and your heart is pounding. This is just the same as you practiced when shooting after running at home. The deer is 20 yards away. You are good enough to shoot a deer at 30 yards. A 20-yard shot is easy for you. Get the idea?
You can start to learn to control your nerves by realizing what causes you to become nervous. The deer does nothing to you to cause you to get nervous. You do it to yourself. It's the anticipation of shooting this deer that causes you to put pressure on yourself. This is why beginners who don't know any better often achieve success. They have no expectations. They don't realize the significance of the situation they find themselves in and therefore have little or no anticipation. So they are totally relaxed when it comes time to make the shot.
When possible, act and don't think. It's your mind that makes you nervous. How many times have you heard the following story: A buck suddenly appears out of nowhere in front of a deer hunter. The hunter doesn't have time to think about it. He simply picks up his bow or gun and shoots. Usually he makes a perfect shot. Two minutes later, after everything has had time to sink in, the hunter starts shaking so badly that he can hardly climb out of the tree stand.
Thinking too much can make you nervous. As Nike says, just do it. It's easier not to get nervous than to calm down after you've already gotten nervous. If you are prone to becoming nervous, though, you can calm yourself down. This may mean looking at a situation and realizing how lucky you are to be given this opportunity and trying to make the most of it. It may mean trying to distract your mind and trying to think of something else not so nerve-wracking and then refocusing on your situation. It may mean just taking a few deep breaths and telling yourself to relax. Try to figure out what helps you calm down the fastest and use that knowledge to your advantage.
Buck fever has plagued mankind for ages. I'm confident that by following the steps outlined in this article, you'll be better prepared for your next big-buck encounter. Getting over the ancient illness of buck fever is not as hard as you might think. Then again, if you didn't think, would you really have buck fever?