The Real Reason You’re Not Growing as a Hunter

There’s a strange psychological phenomenon that takes place when people go from pressing forward and straining for growth, to pulling back and just trying to maintain. As a result, we lose perspective and develop what is affectionately called, “Mission Creep”. It sounds like, “Eh, as long as I can hit a pie plate, my sights are on.” or “I just get my bow out the week before season and make sure it shoots ok.”

It happens to us all. Life gets busy. Time seems to drift by like a summer wind and before we know it, we’re completely ruining a hunting situation or just flat missing an opportunity.

I believe that for every behavior, there is a root cause that produced it. For example, if I miss a routine shot because I rushed it, or because I didn’t give the shot its full respect during the shot process that’s no one’s fault but mine. With the right practice, I could have avoided those issues.

I get it, nerves get the best of us. That’s why we love it so much right? But nerves get the best of athletes too, and the mind has to flip the switch to be able to perform. Where that switch is flipped is in their training.

What’s my theory? Aside from not studying the hunting culture and the people, laws, and efforts made to sustain the sport, the reason hunters become stagnant, is because they slack off in four core areas of practice. Physical improvement, shooting, woodsmanship, and scouting.

Building Your Baseline  

Here it comes…… ready? You need to begin getting in an improved physical condition for this season.  By making some solid adjustments to your eating and exercise behaviors, you totally can. Try walking a mile each day and removing excess sugar from your diet. Take it from a Mountain Dew addict, in a few days, you’ll stop sucking wind when you walk up the stairs. Try doing a few sets of push ups and sit ups every morning. You’ll notice a change in a month. Yes. A month. Moral of the story, you’ll enjoy hunting so much more if you can put less of a physical strain on your body due to being out of shape.

Your physical condition will always be directly related to your ability to persevere in the field. It’s your baseline. Someone in good physical condition will be able to maintain a heightened alertness for extended periods of time, more effectively thermoregulate their body during temperature swings, and if the hunt requires a good deal of hiking or climbing, they will be able to more safely push thier cardio-vascular system as they increase the aerobic demand on thier body. This also leads to increased ability to slow down breathing and heart rate when it’s time to take the shot.

Some folks will never need to be in the kind of high altitude shape that a mountain sheep Hunter will. I can say from my personal experience, however, that hunting is much more enjoyable when you can be in good enough shape to not be concerned with your physical condition when creating your hunting plan.

5 Pillars of Good Shooting

Becoming an effective shooter in hunting has five elements working on improving these things will make you more efficient and safe in the field.
1. Safety
No matter how far you can shoot, or how well you can execute a shot under marginal conditions, taking safety for granted immediately undermines your classification as a “good shot”. No animal or hunting situation is as valuable as your life or the life of another Hunter. If you have never been introduced to the Ten Commandments of firearm safety, I recommend you see them here.
2. Situational Awareness
What’s going on outside of your sight picture? There may be other animals with the one you are attempting to harvest that may walk into your shot path. There may be terrain obstacles like rocks, sticks, trees, or other items in the path of your shot. Most importantly, what’s beyond your target? Taking a shot without that data could turn what seems like a harmless shot into a nightmare. Something else to consider is where the animal is standing when you take the shot. It’s critical to be able to find blood, hair, or tracks to determine whether or not the animal is hit. Otherwise, tracking could be impossible.
3. Problem Solving
Moving parts fail, sometimes non-moving parts fail. Being able to identify potential mechanical failures and deal with them safely in the field is a part of hunting. Do you know how to safely clear a jammed cartridge in your firearm? Do you know how to re-attach or adjust a part of your bow that has fallen off in transit? A major part of effective shooting is being able to properly handle and manipulate your choice of weapon. Hunting season is not a good time to have to deal with these sorts of failures, so it’s important to have your equipment ready before the season opens. If you do not know how to properly inspect or tune your equipment, I recommend taking it to a gun dealer or bow shop and having a reliable professional walk you through making sure your equipment is in hunting condition.
4. Understanding Your Target
Although you use the same technical procedure to shoot a target as you do to harvest an animal, hunting is very little like punching paper at a range. The goal of shooting a paper target is to hit a single dot with the highest degree of accuracy you can as consistently as you can at varying ranges. Shooting an animal is about placing a single shot, without any warm up, in a most efficient area that will cause the animal to expire most quickly and ethically. The only way to do this is by understanding the animal’s anatomy, and the capability of your bow or gun. Typically this means placing a shot in the heart and lung region(for larger game species) or in the head (for birds like turkeys or water fowl.) But this isn’t where this understanding stops. What does a heart shot do to an animal after it is hit? What’s the difference between a broad head impact and a bullet? Knowing these things will help you decipher animal behavior after a shot, and interpret blood trails more effectively.
5. Consistent Accuracy
It sounds counter-intuitive that you need to practice as much as you can to be able to make a one-time hit on a target in the field. Consistent and accurate shooting is about a person being able to use a gun or bow that has been zeroed in properly and at any moment, execute a shot with precision multiple times if necessary. Just as with a sport like golf or baseball, we have to train our body and our mind to make the proper calculations and recall necessary muscle movements to recreate a system that leads to a successful shot. This means we have to develop a reliable technique and be able to utilize that technique again and again until it is second nature. Our equipment and our technique work together to make an accurate shot. Therefore, it’s helpful to view shooting practice as giving yourself time to condition your body for when that specific action is called for.

Don’t be that hunter…

We’ve seen them. The ones who go somewhere and do one thing: Shoot. They don’t even touch the animal they kill. No scouting, no tracking, no gutting or quartering. It’s nauseating. If you to look up the definition of “woodsmanship” online, you would find some remarkably unhelpful language used. The best I could find during a quick Google search was from Dictionary.com that said, “a person accustomed to life in the woods and skilled in the arts of the woods, as hunting or trapping.” Fair enough I suppose. There is a mountain of skills that hunters have used over the centuries to survive and be successful in the woods and there’s no way I could cover all of them here. Woodsmanship isn’t just about hunting either. It’s about being able to maintain yourself and your equipment, it’s about utilizing what’s in the field around you to make yourself effective. What’s unfortunate is that many folks today have lost these skills and have had them replaced with technology that does much of the leg-work for them. Here’s a list of essentials to research that will be helpful to you:
– Knife Sharpening
– Whittling
– Fire Building
– Building a Makeshift Blind
– Blood Trailing
– Using the sun to tell time
– Using Paracord
– Field Dressing
– Determining Wind Direction
– Tracking
– Animal Calling
– Hide Tanning

Where the Real Reward is Earned

An “Outside-In” Approach
In my previous post on gear, I talked about using an “Inside-Out” approach to assessing your hunting equipment needs. In this post, I’ll be focusing on an “Outside-In” look at breaking down your property to make more educated decisions as you begin building your hunting strategy.
Go digital
What’s the most low-pressure approach to scouting? Not going in the woods at all…. So, using the right online tools can put you on the right track toward success.
There are several ideas out there concerning how much time you should spend in the field checking cameras and scouting before the season begins. Some say that the more you are out there, the more the animals will become accustomed to your activity. Others prefer a much more hands-off approach. I would argue that both strokes are two broad in dealing with scouting. Both are subject to daily activity on the property you hunt.

If your property is a working farm or ranch, many times from a whitetail standpoint, those animals are used to a certain amount of pressure from human or livestock activity, but here we go again with the broad strokes. I hunt an 800-acre working cattle ranch in East Central Missouri. Every week, a portion of the herd of cattle is moved from section to section. It’s rare that any one section will sit dormant for very long. Because of this, deer will begin showing up within a few days of the cattle being moved from a location, but will quickly vacate the immediate area once the cattle are put back on that section. This is typically within a 24 hour period. Why? It hasn’t been proven on this property that the cattle physically chase the deer off. Rather, the cattle will completely decimate the small clover that is scattered throughout the pasture and also, because the deer share travel routes with the cattle, cattle will move through bedding cover without any reservations of walking down small cover that the deer use to bed. Immediately, two out of three basic needs of both does and bucks are gone. This is particularly true once the leaves begin to fall and food sources become more scarce.

That’s why I rely heavily on two methods: Glassing, and Maps. Glassing helps me formulate what is really going on in a specific stand location from a distance that will not further disturb what is already unsettled without the help of trail cameras. (Cameras on this farm are almost useless due to cattle). While I know the terrain of almost all of the tree stands on the property, mapping helps me pinpoint what wind directions will be helpful or detrimental when I’m trying to close in on a particular animal.

There are several great hunting apps on the market right now that will allow you a lot of flexibility with regard to seeing and marking your hunting property. My favorite is still my maps application on my phone strictly because it doesn’t take up a lot of space, and it’s readily available. I like to use the satellite imagery to determine terrain features, and to see how dominant wind directions can work against me or in my favor. It’s super simple. Just put in your hunting property address, adjust the map as necessary and go to work. I also like that I can zoom in on certain locations and break them down in more detail.

Wind Direction: Best Friend or Worst Enemy
Another resource you should have at your fingertips is a solid weather resource. Preferably one that you can use to research previous year’s temperatures, weather patterns, and dominant wind directions at the time you will be hunting. This is not always 100% accurate, but it is a good baseline to begin determining what some connections are between the normal weather conditions and the deer movement within the general time of the season. Remember, weather trumps a lot of other conditions in the field, and the wind that goes with it can be your biggest ally or your worst enemy.

The wind direction on your stand site demands four questions. First, where are the deer coming from? This means knowing where the bedding areas and travel routes are located. Second, what is the dominant wind direction? Third, do I have access that will not spook bedded deer? (Is my scent blowing toward a travel route or bedding area?) Fourth, what are the thermal currents doing while I am in my stand? Thermals rise in the morning and fall in the evening. Falling currents disperse themselves around the base of your stand, and are carried by the wind. Are you covered?

What about trail cameras?
It would be silly for my to try to argue that trail cameras aren’t valuable. They are. They can help you zero in on tough animals that may otherwise never be patterned. They help with property inventories and so many other things. I typically don’t use them because the properties I hunt don’t allow me to manage them well. As I mentioned before, one is a cattle ranch that constantly rotates the herd, which means lots of cattle photos and even damaged cameras if I’m not very careful about where I set them up. The other property is 3 hours away, which doesn’t allow me to get to the camera as often as I should.

Utilizing cameras well can be a lot of fun and can mitigate the need for a lot of time spent in the field glassing. They can also tell you a great deal about times and conditions in which the animals are most active. If your hunting property allows for good use of cameras and you can afford them, use them.

Time to Begin Your Approach
After you have done all your digital research, you can begin a more aggressive approach if necessary. I like to know exactly where travel routes to and from bedding, water, and food are located. The only way I can do that is on foot. As mentioned before, I like to start by glassing and actually seeing the animal behavior. Then, during slower movement times of day, I will work into specific areas that I have already identified through online maps to identify prime stand or setup locations. This is also the time to factor in dominating wind direction if necessary and begin planning your hunting strategy.

Plan the Hunt, Hunt the Plan

Once you’ve done all the work you believe is necessary to begin hunting, then it’s time to devise a strategy that will take all of your research into consideration. The reason this activity is called hunting is due to the fact that sometimes, your strategy won’t work. When it does, it makes all the work that much sweeter. A good friend of mine encouraged me after an unsuccessful hunt with a simple phrase that has made me more successful. “Plan the hunt, and hunt the plan.” The more experienced you become with the animals you are hunting and the property you are hunting them on, you will begin to devise more well constructed hunting strategies, and eventually it will all come together. Keep hunting.

Don’t fall for the misconception that you’re going to continue to enjoy hunting if you are not willing to put the work in year after year. Stagnant hunters make hunting far less enjoyable than it actually is.

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