As I’ve been preparing for this upcoming fall that I have jam-packed with more bow hunting than I’ve ever managed in one season before, I’ve found myself reflecting on my first hunt ever. It was 15 years ago at this point, and I had never even been around hunting before. My dad didn’t hunt, my grandpa didn’t hunt, as far as I know none of our family friends hunted…I had simply never been exposed to it growing up. And then I met the woman who is now my wife all those years ago, and came over to meet the parents only to have her father (who is 6’ 3”, barrel-chested, and at the time was sporting a ballin’ biker ‘stache) take me into his den to show off his hunting trophies. I walked into this room, stared at all these heads of massive creatures he had personally killed, and had two very conflicting reactions. The first was, “well, this guy clearly knows how to kill things, I’m dating his daughter, and there’s a spot on that wall that looks just right for my head.” But the second reaction was pure fascination - I wanted to know more about this hunting thing.
Well, being that my father in law is actually a terrific man (despite looking like someone who would shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die), the Christmas before I married my wife he gifted me a camo shirt with an archery cow elk tag in the pocket. I was going bow hunting…now, if only I knew the first thing about what I was doing! He set me up with his very first bow (an old PSE…maybe the first PSE ever, I’m not sure), and had me practice flinging some leftover aluminum arrows at sloth-like speeds. He took me out to one of his favorite spots in the elk woods, and we built a brush blind for me. I remember him marking-off certain distances for my reference (I didn’t have a rangefinder) with pink flagging tape to let me know where 10, 20, and 30 yards was. In his exact words, “If it’s farther than 30, you really shouldn’t shoot.” Solid advice, given my absolute beginner status in the world of archery.
Opening morning came, and we hiked out well before dawn. He dropped me off at my blind to give me some final instructions before he walked another mile to his tree stand. He reminded me that the elk will most likely be moving from the Southeast to the Northwest past my blind. Now, he was telling me a typical pattern he observed, and assumed I would know that elk (or any animal, for that matter) do whatever the heck they want when they want, and you can’t always count on them to do what they “should” do. Well, I didn’t know that, so I sat down in my blind, faced the Southeast, and waited for something to happen.
The sun came up, the hours started to tick by, and I didn’t see anything. After a while, the fact that I had been up since 4:00 started to catch up with me, and I could feel my head starting to droop. Eventually, I straight-up fell asleep. I’m not sure how long I was out, but I remember being suddenly awakened by the loudest, most hair-raising sound I had ever heard in the woods…a giant bull elk bugled directly behind me. I snapped awake, and slowly turned my head to see a bull and five cows standing less than 10 yards from my blind. The adrenaline dumped into my veins, my heart-rate went through the roof, and I remember thinking, “holy crap…this is about to happen!”
Now, I realized I had to move slow, and I knew I had a lot of steps ahead of me. I had to move from my seated position, drop to my knees, turn 180 degrees, remove an arrow from my quiver, get it nocked, draw, take aim, and shoot one of those cows. How hard could that be? As you may expect, I got down to my knees and half-way turned around, I started to remove an arrow from my quiver, and by then the jig was up…those elk caught my movement, the bull stared at me as if he was considering trampling me to death, then they hopped the barbed-wire fence my blind was next to and disappeared into the woods. At that point in my life, it was the single most exhilarating encounter I had ever had with an animal (way cooler than a field trip to the zoo, by far)!
I sat there for another couple hours, this time keeping my head on a swivel (since those elk taught me that they won’t come from a predetermined direction). No other elk came in, and by late morning my father in law came heading back my way from his tree stand. I told him the whole story, probably talking a mile-a-minute in my excitement. When I got to the part about how I was trying to drop to my knees and nock an arrow, he cut me off: “You didn’t already have an arrow nocked?!?!”
Me: “No, was I supposed to?”
We spent the rest of the weekend hunting, and neither of us tagged out. A buddy of his who was up there with the same tag was able to connect on a cow elk, and so I did get my first experience helping field dress an animal and pack out some meat. (Which, as I recall, I did with a Jansport backpack I was using for college at the time) And while that was not what most would consider a glamorous or successful hunt, it opened my eyes to this amazing sport - this way of life - that has changed everything for me. It is a memory I will forever cherish, and now 15 years later, I’m still learning new things every time I’m out in the field. But, I do look back and laugh about how much I didn’t know back then. And since there are really simple things I should have known but didn’t even think to ask, let me drop a few of those “obvious” nuggets in here, because surely there are others who don’t know them and I want to spare you the embarrassment. Here are just a couple of the big lessons that I apply to every hunt I’m on now that I learned on that first hunt…
Always have an arrow nocked when you’re waiting
Okay, obviously that was one of my bigger mistakes in that first encounter (in some ways, I had to learn this one twice - read about that here). Had I been sitting there with an arrow nocked, it’s quite possible I would have been able to slowly drop to my knees, pivot and draw with enough time to get a shot at one of those cows. Now, I didn’t write “always have an arrow nocked” because that’s simply not safe. The only time I walk around with a nocked arrow is if I’m stalking-in those last few yards on an animal (I’m not just hiking through the woods with razor blades dangling off my bow all the time). But, I never stop and sit for any length of time to eat, catch a nap, or whatever without an arrow nocked and my bow within reach. I can’t count the times I’ve been just sitting for a couple hours during that mid-day lull after a long morning of hunting, and that’s when the opportunity arises. Right at the time of day that all the animals are supposedly bedded down and not going to be huntable, that’s when I hear a branch snap and look up to see a random bull elk wandering my direction. I never want to be caught trying to nock an arrow on an in-range animal ever again, so it’s always ready to go if I’m not on the move!
Expect animals to be unpredictable
The second big mistake I made was not keeping my head on a swivel because I thought I knew exactly where those elk were going to come from. If you’ve never hunted before and somebody tells you “they’ll probably come from here”…you’re going to assume they’re going to come from there. Even if you’re further in your hunting journey and think you’ve got some animals figured out, don’t let that put you into a false sense of security. Just because you think, “oh, the deer never go into that drainage" doesn’t mean they won’t ever under any circumstances. I’m all for having honey-holes and reliable spots where you can regularly turn up animals, but don’t rule out something just because you’ve never seen animals there before. If you’re blind-hunting, keep your head on a swivel. If your plan-A spot isn’t panning out, jump on over to the next hill or drainage just to have a look. Many times I’ve run into animals simply by popping up to a new hill “just to have a quick look,” even when I wasn’t all that hopeful that animals would actually be there.
Along those lines, I’m a big believer in staying out ALL DAY. As I said earlier, I’ve had plenty of mid-day encounters with animals that never would have happened if I had gone back to camp to eat some food and take a nap. I’ve been glassing hillsides looking for what I assumed would be bedded deer at 1:00 in the afternoon, and picked up groups just meandering through the brush feeding as if it were 6:00 in the morning. They weren’t supposed to be doing that at that time, but there they were. The more you can be willing to just try stuff because animals can be unpredictable, the more opportunities you’ll have.
Naps are for mid-day
Listen, I’m all about a good nap in the wilderness (or anywhere I can get one, frankly). There are few things as rejuvenating as getting some shut-eye in the dirt with your pack for a pillow (I don’t know why, but hunting naps are just better). And while I just said you should hunt all day and animals may unpredictably be up and moving around, the simple fact is a statistically large portion of the action you’ll see from game animals comes in the early morning and just before dark. So, if you’re going to sleep, you should save it for the middle of the day.
Here’s the problem (and what I fell victim to): if you’re hunting from a blind or tree-stand (you know, where you’ll be sitting for hours on end), it’s really easy to fall asleep. You probably woke up super early, you hiked to your spot, and then as the sun starts to warm you up and the early morning catches up with you…sleep just wants to wrap around you like the sleeping bag you wish you were still in. Resist the urge! Obviously, you don’t want to do jumping jacks or something that’s going to draw a lot of attention (or make you fall out of your tree stand), but eat a snack, bust out your little stove and make another cup of coffee…do something to keep yourself awake when the animals don’t seem to be showing up and you want to sleep. Then, about 11:00 or so, feel free to lean back and catch a little nap (make sure your bow is next to you with an arrow nocked though…’cause you never know).
Now you know
As I said in the title, those are three simple things “everybody” knows, so I hope you, veteran hunter, weren’t waiting for me to get to the earth-shattering stuff. But, somewhere out there is a guy who is brand new to the sport without a mentor to show him the ropes, and he doesn’t know this stuff. He doesn’t even know to ask, and I’d rather he go out with three more tools in his tool belt than he had before. Wherever you’re at in the journey, never stop learning (because these animals will never stop finding ways to surprise us).