If you haven’t been on a grueling hunt yet, you will. It doesn’t matter how much prep-time you put into it or how much scouting you’ve been able to do, once the season opens and your boots hit the ground, everything can change. Suddenly, the animals don’t show up, the woods are overcrowded with people, or a spot you thought would be perfect is actually off-limits thanks to the whims of the Forest Service (all 3 of those happened to me in just one weekend).
As the days drag on and success evades you, it can become so easy to get discouraged. “This will never work!” “What am I doing out here?” “I am just a terrible hunter and my family is going to starve!” Anyone else have these thoughts running through their head out there? That alarm goes off early in the morning, and you lie there arguing with yourself about how it’s a waste of time to even bother…why not just stay in your sleeping bag and save yourself the embarrassment of taking your bow for a hike today?
But, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the NUMBER ONE factor that determines your success in the field is your ability to win the mental game. Anyone can shoot their weapon, anyone can hike into an area that should hold deer or elk or whatever you’re chasing, and anyone can get lucky on opening day and tag-out - feeling like a million bucks! But, not everyone can keep themselves going on day-6 of a grueling hunt, not everyone can make themselves get out of bed and still give it 100% when they haven’t seen a buck yet, and not everyone can keep themselves believing that success is possible. Frankly, far too many people give up (at least mentally), and I believe that’s what costs them their hunt.
Now, I’m not here preaching at you…this is something I have to consciously work on every single time I’m out in the field. I’ve never tagged out on opening day! I have those days where I’m sitting against a tree trying to convince myself not to just hike back to camp and call it a day. I think of all the justifications there are for taking it easy or heading home early. But, I try to keep the following three thoughts at the front of my mind on any hunt, and it drastically changes my ability to be successful.
I Can Do This…
Okay, I know this sounds like something a 3rd Grader might say to himself standing at a free-throw line, but it’s the primary thing we need to remember. After a few days of not finding animals or blowing stalks, your brain will start to tell you that you can’t do this. It’ll convince you that any prior success you’ve had was a fluke…you just got lucky. And you’ll start picturing yourself back at work looking at those confused and judgmental faces from non-hunters who can’t understand how a person goes hunting and doesn’t get an animal (anyone else want to slap every non-hunter that asks, “you didn’t get anything?!”)
The trick is reminding yourself that you have all the necessary skills for success and that hunting (especially bowhunting) is a low-percentage game. You know how to shoot, you have other spots to keep looking, and it only takes one animal - one unique situation - to present you with that opportunity, and you know you’ll get it done when that opportunity arises. Remind yourself of all the success you’ve had so far - maybe you found fresh sign, maybe you’re seeing lots of does (which means you’re in a deer area…you just need to keep pushing and find where the bucks are hiding), maybe you saw a big bull elk and though you don’t have a tag this season, that’s a new waypoint in your GPS and an extra spot to check next time you have that tag.
At the end of the day, you are a hunter. You are a predator, and you have all the skills necessary to be successful. You can’t control the animals, but you refuse to give up. You will be out there in their backyard, and as soon as one of them makes the mistake of crossing your path, you will be successful.
I Have Waited for This…
I’m always amazed at my own tendency to think about the next thing and to fail to enjoy the moment I’m in. it happens in virtually every area of my daily life, and I’m really trying to work on it. The time I’m the most surprised by this is when I’m out hunting - season is open, there’s a tag in my pocket and a weapon in my hand - and suddenly I’m thinking about what I could be doing at home, or some work stuff I should get back and get finished. I am actively in the middle of the activity I spend the whole year thinking about, and suddenly I can’t stop thinking about the other (more boring) things I should be doing. Anyone else?
Now, when I’m knee-deep in animals and jumping from encounter to encounter, I’m not thinking about much else. It’s when things are slow - when it’s been days of grinding - that I find myself thinking I should be somewhere else doing something different. Whenever that kind of distraction or discouragement creeps in, I remind myself that this is the moment I’ve waited for all year. I spend countless hours researching, training, and dreaming (yes, I have literal hunting dreams ALL the time) for this, and I don’t want to miss these few precious days every year that I get to be out in the field. Just because it isn’t going well at the moment doesn’t make it a less special time in my calendar. I find that pausing to remind myself that as soon as I’m back to my regular life I’ll be longing to be back here helps me re-set and enjoy the fact that I’m hunting…even if it’s not going my way.
Everything Can Change in a Second…
This is such a trite expression in the hunting world, but it’s so insanely true! After days of unproductive hunting…even days of not seeing anything that you’re looking for…in one brief moment, the whole hunt can turn around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down frustrated to eat a snack or take a nap, already trying to figure out where to relocate to since it seems like the hunting is just dead in that spot. That always seems to be when an elk comes wandering in or a buck suddenly shows himself. Any hunter on any day in the field can go from total frustration to shots-fired in a matter of seconds.
The one exception to this is if you let your brain talk you out of hunting in the first place. If you decide to call it a day early and head back to camp, or worse - you quit the hunt early and head home - then nothing is going to change in any amount of seconds. As long as you’re in the field with a tag and a weapon, the whole hunt can drastically turn around at any moment. So, even when it seems hopeless, just keep doing what you know you should…stay out there, check the next drainage, send out another bugle. There’s always a chance as long as you keep hunting!
Stick With It!
Again, I’m not preaching at anybody…this is almost more of a way to remind myself of what I know to be true heading into my elk hunt. I can be just as pessimistic as the next guy (my wife would tell you it’s probably more), and I just wrapped up two unsuccessful weekends in the woods chasing deer. There were a lot of these mental battles going on, and I wanted to throw in the towel a bunch of times. But, I would pause, remind myself of these three things, and eat some candy (that always seems to help the attitude). Then, I’d put my pack back on and get after it. Hopefully, these three mindsets will stick with you and help you stay out there and get it done this fall. Good luck to everyone, and don’t forget to pause and just enjoy the whole experience.