That adrenalin rush when an animal is in shooting range, one reason why we hunt!
Monster deer have a way of making hunters weak kneed, unsteady and they can send your head spinning, in the wrong direction. This was the case on a foggy morning in southern Michigan.
I spotted the wide-racked 11-point while scouting during summer. But after gaining permission to hunt and spending countless hours in the woods, the big boy had disappeared. Word came of a big buck taken across the section and I was certain my trophy was already resting at the local taxidermist.
Fog lay thick on the early morning lowlands as I still hunted my way to the stand. Air temperature was hovering around freezing as I settled into my blind, glassed the horizon for deer and peered through the thick fog, trying to locate antlers. In the distance I thought I heard something moving, then it stopped and I convinced myself it was snow falling from trees. The day was still, calm and the humid air hung thick on cedar and pine making it almost impossible to hear deer moving. Everything was rain or snow drenched, the ground was soft and water saturated, droplets of water hung from the tree branches and needles, brush and tall grass. It was difficult to see but I was convinced the big boy would be slithering through the fog, looking for a receptive doe.
An hour passed, I was in a trance from staring through the dense gray fog. My mind drifted to thoughts of the big buck dancing in August alfalfa with tall antlers covered with velvet sticking far above his head. To my right my eye caught motion, there in the thick fog stood the big buck I was hunting. He was so close he had me pinned down and I could not move to get my sight on him for a shot. My pulse raced as the brute walked directly at me, turned and moved broadside at less than 30 yards. I could feel my heart racing, blood pumped through my fingertips at an alarming rate and I could feel my pulse as I settled the sight on the big buck’s shoulder and touched the hair trigger. With a thunderous roar from the Ultimate Muzzleloader the dense air was filled with blue smoke and I could not see if I hit the buck or not. Everything was a blur, the action happened so fast I was under the spell of buck fever. Closer inspection revealed a beautiful buck laying stone dead at the point of impact.
It probably sounds like I lost control, however my system went on auto-pilot and I managed to execute the shot with deadly accuracy. Fact is, I spend countless hours in the woods, plenty of time practicing, through repetition, my body is trained to remain cool and calm and follow my shooting regimen, even when adrenaline tends to cloud thinking.
Hey, if you don’t get “buck fever” when you are hunting and a deer suddenly comes into range you need to become a bounty hunter with your ice cold nerves. Buck fever, which is your body’s reaction to an adrenalin rush when an animal is in shooting range, is one of the reasons we hunt. Sure, it’s ideal if you end a hunt with a beautiful buck and freezer full of backstaps and tender steaks, but it’s the emotional rush that attracts people to deer hunting.
For me the emotional rush I get when a deer comes kissin’ close is what keeps me coming back for more. Big bucks really get my motor purring and sometimes my brain goes into a catatonic state when a trophy deer is close. The closer the animal, the more nuts I become, whether hunting with bow, gun or camera. Sometimes I have difficulty maintaining composure and that’s exactly why I’ve missed plenty of bucks with bow and arrow, crippled deer with muzzleloader or placed my digital telephoto on the wrong setting. Nothing is more embarrassing than having the perfect shot and you simply miss. Heck, on one occasion I took stand, waited patiently and when a big 10-point caught me off guard I could not get my auto-lens to focus, only to find later that the camera was not turned on.
It is unfortunate that “buck fever” destroys too many hunts for many Michigan hunters every year. If you want to keep your cool and score this year, follow these steps.
The more you hunt the more control you will have when deer appear. Each fall I’m amazed at how excited I get when the first deer comes into close range, my heart is pounding but I strive to maintain control, keep my cool and don’t spook the animal. Truth is, it can be a challenge to get close to deer and if you sit tight, control your heart beat, relax, try not to look directly at the deer, you will win the battle of nerves.
Bow hunters have a big advantage over gun hunters because they can hunt prior to gun opener. They see animals, become relaxed in the deer blind and have learned the steps needed to maintain emotional control. However, all bets are off when Mr. Big steps into view.
I hunt deer year round with bow, gun and camera. By the time Oct. 1st rolls around I’ve had plenty deer kissin’ close. I can just tell you that even when I hunt, hunt, hunt; a big buck will get my heart racing. It has been my experience that the larger the rack the more “buck fever” comes into play.
Practice Before And During Season
When you are in your blind or treestand take a few moments and pretend a deer is in range. Draw on the imaginary animal and go through the steps needed to make a kill. The old saying “practice makes perfect” holds true for deer hunting. You can hone shooting and accuracy skills at the range, but you should mimic hunting situations outdoors. If you shoot from a treestand, practice from one. Force yourself to shoot with a narrow stance, practice by turning in all directions. If you hunt by still-hunting or stalking, practice shooting kneeling, and standing in uncomfortable conditions. If you hunt from a ground blind, practice shooting through a small opening while sitting or crouched.
The trick is to get used to shooting while wearing all your hunting clothes, face mask, gloves, from your blind, in the field and you will gain the confidence needed to score when a buck comes in range.
Get Gear Prepared
To have confidence in the field, you need to have your gear in tiptop shape. Archers need to match bow, arrows and gear to their body and shooting style. Seek out the advice of a pro shop that can offer good advice, quick remedies and they can outfit you properly. Bow hunters must practice in order to attain accuracy. I recommend joining a league where you can shoot indoors and outdoors, all year. Make certain your bow is set at a weight you can comfortably pull, use spined arrows that match your bow and keep accessories simple.
Learn to use a thin bow grip to avoid torque or hand-on-bow over-grip, use a consistent anchor point to maximize accuracy and follow through by keeping bow steady until the arrow hits its mark. Too many gadgets, sights, can lead to missed opportunities during the blindness of buck fever. Shooting at lifelike 3-D targets teaches you to pick a spot on the animal and shows you the location of vital organs.
Gun hunters need to spend time at the range. Pick a warm, relaxing day and don’t wait to sight in your gun until the weekend before opener. Try to shoot frequently, learn the trigger pull of your gun, and get confident with your weapon. One common mistake is using a gun with nasty recoil. Shoot a gun that you feel comfortable aiming, squeezing the trigger and accurately hitting the bull’s-eye. Shooters who flinch from the kick will certainly miss or wound animals more frequently than hunters that enjoy shooting their gun and can lay into the stock and squeeze off an accurate shot.
Select The Perfect Setup
Once you have confidence in your shooting skills, it’s time you pick the perfect ambush location. In most cases you can prepare a whitetail blind or treestand in advance. Scout your hunting grounds and determine the exact location where you expect to see deer. Make certain there is enough cover to hide your blind and you blend into the environment. Evaluate the setup for limbs, brush, tall grass that will need to be trimmed in order to have a clear shot.
Place stand downwind from where you expect to see deer and make certain it has sufficient backdrop cover and trim shooting lanes for clear shots. Once your setup is complete it will instill confidence, and you will see deer and in the process keep you calmer come daylight.
Many Michigan hunters sweeten the pie by using bait. Bait is a Godsend for those who lack hunting skills to set up on natural deer runways. Truth is the vast majority of Michigan deer are harvested over or near bait. By placing food on your property you will draw deer from afar and keep them in your hunting zone. While most writers do not want to talk about baiting because of hate mail, I’m the exception. In fact, I recommend the use of bait to increase whitetail sightings and guarantee wide open, close shots. There are baiting tactics that will up your odds.
First, just about any food will work, carrots, corn, beets, apples, but my choice is whole kernel corn. Rather than making a single pile make two or three small piles in range and if a doe comes in first and a buck is following, he will bump the doe to another pile, while he scent checks the first bait pile the doe visited. This gives you a shot at rutting bucks.
One trick is to set the bait next to a stump or fallen tree so deer must turn sideways in order to eat, giving you a broadside shot at the vitals. Keep bait upwind of your stand. Use several stands that offer good hunting regardless of wind direction.
Years ago, while chasing big bucks in early fall, I learned a slick baiting trick. I found that big boys go nuts over apples, not just any apples but apples cut into quarters and distributed among the whole kernel corn. If you cut apples the deer can smell them at a longer distance and they can eat them with ease because they can pick them up and chew without dealing with a large, round, saliva slippery apple. I witnessed mature bucks rushing my bait in broad daylight, standing over the cut apples and eating the entire pile, keeping other deer away by lowering their massive racks, until the cut apples were gone and they moved to eat corn. Come extreme cold and freezing temperatures various foods freeze, like apples, carrots and beets. That’s when you want to switch to corn, although some hunters like to bait with sugar beets because deer can only nibble at the food, rather than gobbling the entire offering in a single night.
The biggest advantage of baiting is not that you will kill the trophy buck in the section but you will have confidence in your setup, sit longer and therefore see more deer. Bait can certainly take away the sting of buck fever, when you know that approaching deer are concentrating on food. An interesting study done by North American Whitetail discovered that use of bait helped hunters to relax, gave them broadside, close, perfect shots and provided incentive to stay on stand longer than those hunters not using bait. Get the point?
Understand Deer Body Language
Buck fever can take over when you have only a couple seconds to get off a shot. Sometimes this can be avoided by understanding deer behavior and looking for signs that indicate the animal is relaxed and there is no need to rush your shot. When you first see those massive antlers moving in your direction, learn to expect your heart to skip a beat, heck, that’s normal. But now control the urge to go out of control and make a bad shot. Learn to slow your heart rate, get comfortable and make a solid hit. This is often accomplished by looking at the buck and judging his behavior.
The trick is to identify if the deer is relaxed or high-strung. If he is nervous, on the move, you might have to pass a shot with bow. However, with gun you need to pick a spot and get the sights steady and dump him, pronto. The ideal situation is to spot the buck and have enough time to get prepared, move your feet, get into shooting position, get the sights on him and take your time shooting. Archers should avoid shots at moving deer, but if you can grunt, get him to stop, make the shot. If the deer seems playful, wagging its tail, licking its lips and contentedly moving, allow it to come close as possible because all indications are the deer is relaxed. It has no idea you are there, it appears calm, giving you the green light for a perfect shot at an unsuspecting animal.
Forget About The Huge Rack
This tip requires plenty of mind control. You have hunted your entire life to score on a trophy buck and now that he is kissin’ close you must muster enough strength to ignore his massive rack. My suggestion is to concentrate on the shot. Forget about focusing on tines, mass, number of points, huge body size and center your attention on a tiny spot where you want to place the shot. Stay focused on the vital organs; keep the sight on the exact spot that will bring him down, concentrate on placing the shot in a small area the size of a dime. Think through the shot, hold steady, get a smooth trigger pull and send the shot into an itsy bitsy imaginary bull’s-eye. Don’t make the common mistake of just shooting at the entire animal and jerking the shot because the sight was somewhere on the massive frame. Remember, accuracy is the key to success. Ignoring a buck’s antlers, having your gear organized, practicing before season, understanding deer behavior can help you to be calm and relaxed for the shot. Learn to control the adrenalin rush, savor the excitement of seeing deer, keep your cool and accurately place the shot and you will overcome buck fever.