In the heat of the moment having a mental checklist can make the the difference between keeping it together and falling apart.
Any seasoned bowhunter knows the instant charge that jolts us when we hear the unmistakable sound of dry autumn leaves crunching under the feet of an approaching deer.
Is it a doe?
A small buck?
Or that big Booner that has been sneaking around these parts?
That charge hits another level when the first hint of a deer is actually seeing a big set of antlers floating surreally through the woods. Which is exactly what happened to me on a late-season hunt in Western Virginia.
The deer was maybe 60 yards out, appearing silently out of a damp laurel thicket. Head on, the buck's 20-inch-plus wide rack made an immediate impression.
"Holy'¦" I muttered.
As the deer — not a giant but a solid Virginia shooter — kept moving my way the initial thrill gave way to a constant charge. You know, the rush that gets us out of bed in the dark on frigid mornings and causes us to make all kinds of sacrifices to head into the woods day after day during the fall.
One thought kept going through my mind: "You've got this."
No, there was no certainty the buck was going to give me a shot. But I was certain that I was going to do my part. That confidence was born not just from preparation prior to this particular hunt, but from lessons learned over years and years of bowhunting.
Trophy whitetails can be highly unpredictable creatures. Hunters who are in control of all the factors they can control stand a much higher likelihood of closing the deal when a trophy buck shows up.
A Solid Foundation
Bowhunting success requires a solid foundation, and that foundation is our primary equipment — our weapon and our projectiles. Modern archery equipment is amazingly consistent and user-friendly, from entry-level to top-of-the-line offerings.
In many cases a hunter can pick up an unfamiliar bow or crossbow, make some basic adjustments and be shooting relatively well in short order.
But fit is a critical element of the interface between a shooter and his weapon, especially in the case of vertical bows. A bowhunter might be able to achieve fair results with a bow that doesn't fit perfectly, but the problems with poor fit are amplified when shooting in tense situations, such while hunting.
World-class 3D shooter and hardcore bowhunter Levi Morgan recently told me that he believes poor fit is one of the biggest problems facing bowhunters.
While some shooters have the expertise and experience to set up a bow, many are better served leaving it up to a true professional.
When I picked up a new bow prior to the 2015 season I immediately made an appointment at my favorite pro shop. After two hours of working with the pro I walked out with a perfectly dialed-in setup. One part of that fit that Morgan also advocates is that the bow was set up for a draw weight that was somewhat less than what I was capable of shooting.
Too often shooters opt for draw weights that cause strain and loss of shooting form, problems that are, again, exacerbated in stressful situations. At 55 pounds, the bow still gives me plenty of speed for a two-pin sight setup out to 35 yards, which is my maximum hunting range.
We all know bowhunters who pull their gear out of the closet a few days before opening day, shoot a few arrows to make sure the bow still works and call it good.
While today's bows and crossbows can help an archer shoot reasonably well at targets even with limited practice, hunters who don't put in time on the range are much more likely to whiff on real animals than shooters who are consistent with practice.
Does NBA MVP Steph Curry shoot 3-pointers only in games? Of course not. Practice leads to improvement, but just as importantly, to confidence. A bowhunter who knows he can make a shot is usually going to make the shot.
If a bowhunter is worried that he might miss, there's a higher chance he's going to miss. Shooting at uncomfortable distances is a great way to build confidence.
If your comfortable max in a hunting situation is 35 yards, gradually work out to 50. That doesn't mean you should take 50-yard shots in a hunting situation. Rather, it makes that 35-yard shot seem like a slam-dunk.
Finally, simulate hunting situations in practice. Shoot from elevated stands. Shoot while wearing hunting clothing. And shoot in poor weather conditions.
Some hunters hunt the same stand locations season after season. Others prefer a more mobile approach, adjusting constantly and moving sets frequently throughout the season. While some hunt a combination of established stands and new sites.
On established sites we should get in there well before the season to set ladders, secure steps, hang stands, and clear shooting lanes. The more we disturb an area immediately prior to and during hunting season, the less the likelihood that a wary mature buck is going to return to the area during shooting hours, if at all.
Establishing new sets during the season presents its own challenges, the primary one being the disturbance of setting up the stand and prepping the site. Climbing stands are quick and convenient, but site selection can be limited by the availability of suitable trees.
For this reason my first choice for a quick setup is usually a set of lightweight sticks and a hang-on stand.
To minimize disturbance in a quick set I usually trim away branches only at the stand site itself rather than in shooting lanes. However, if you get set up on the stand and see an obvious branch or branches that need to be trimmed, take time to get out of the stand and get it taken care of.
When possible use handheld ratchet or bypass pruners, which are quieter than a saw. Always be consistent with the placement of bow- and gear-hangers. If you know your bow is always going to be over your left shoulder, that's one less thing to have to think about when a deer shows up.
The same general prep rules apply when setting up a ground blind, though hunting from ground level can often require more shooting lane trimming.
Ready For Action
How many times have you gotten into a stand and had a deer show up within minutes? Or even within seconds?
It's happened to me. The first time, where do you think my bow was? It was 15 feet below me because I hadn't been in a hurry to pull it up into the stand.
Now, the very first thing I do when getting into the stand is to screw in a bow-hanger, pull up my bow, nock an arrow and hang it at the ready. Then it's time to get accessories ready.
Make sure your binoculars are on and eyepieces and lenses are clean. Pull them up to make sure the diopter focus is set so both eyes are in focus.
Have calls at the ready either on a lanyard around your neck or hanging from a dependable gear hook.
Ensure your release is on and buckled. That may sound like a no-brainer, but who among us has realized we weren't wearing our release only after a deer shows up? I check this box by always drawing my bow when I first get into my stand.
Next, I pull out my rangefinder and start working my way around to various landmarks. I do this even if it's a stand I have hunted many times because repetition drills the distances into my mind. When a deer walks into a shooting lane I don't want to be wondering, "Was that 23 yards? Or 29 yards?" This part of the checklist needs to be automatic.
The Final Countdown
Now comes the "fun" part: the wait. A basic rule in stand hunting — provided you've done your homework and are hunting in a good spot and practicing smart scent control — is the more time you spend in the stand, the better your chances of having a deer show up. So stay as long as you can. And then stay longer.
Modern technology has, admittedly, made long sits in the woods more tolerable. When our minds start to wander we can pull out our smartphones and check football scores (or even follow games live), text or email our buddies to get reports on their hunting action, or even take care of work chores.
But getting glued to a smartphone is risky. Even when the woods are dry and you think you'll be able to hear a deer coming from 100 yards away, whitetails have an amazing ability to materialize out of nowhere.
So, as tough as it may be, keep your eyes on your surroundings as much as possible. Even if a buck is passing by well outside bow range — and earshot — seeing him gives you a chance to try to pull him in with a call or, if you have good cover, rattling.
As you scan your surroundings, keep your mind active. Imagine every possible scenario that may unfold. What if the buck comes from there? What if he shows up there and then turns there? The more of these scenarios you go through, the less the chances of being surprised.
The Moment of Truth
As vivid as our imaginations may be, no vision we create in our mind can replicate the physiological reaction we will have when our quarry actually appears. Simply put, there is no substitute for game action.
For hunters who target mature bucks, that can translate to a lot of time sitting on the bench, so to speak, waiting to get into the game. One way to ensure more game-time action is to shoot does, something many hunters already do in areas with robust herds.
This isn't meant to downplay a doe's status as a game animal. In fact, any experienced hunter has had encounters with does that were every bit as wary as mature bucks. But in most areas, does outnumber mature bucks so we will get more opportunities.
Filling a couple of doe tags helps us fill freezers, manage deer herds and gain confidence. I'd filled my first doe tag of the season a few weeks before my encounter with the wide eight pointer.
My new bow had performed flawlessly, as it had in pre-season practice, but it was still a nice confidence boost to get the job done in the field. As that eight-pointer walked down a well-traveled ridge, he was on a path that was going to take him right past me, upwind, 15-yards out. A slam dunk.
Of course that didn't happen. He turned and headed right for my tree. In a minute he was 5-yards away, dead-on. I had no shot. I waited. Because I knew I could. Long before the deer arrived I'd gone through the scenarios.
I knew this had two potential outcomes. If he headed any of several ways, I was going to get a shot. If he headed any of a couple of other ways, I was not. That part was out of my hands.
What was in my hands was blowing it by spooking him. So I stood frozen and hoped he would go in the right direction. And when he was 15-yards out a soft grunt stopped him and the arrow flew true.
As he fell within sight I found myself wondering, "How did that just happen?" I tried to replay the scene in detail in my mind, but found that it really wasn't that vivid. Yes, the excitement was. But not the actual act of drawing, aiming and releasing.
It had just happened. Automatically. Like it had in those hundreds of hunts over the previous six weeks of the season.