You get out of hunting what you put into it. The harder you work, the more you endure, the better you will get. The better you get the more consistent results you will have. When you get a chance at a big buck or big bull and have prepared for the moment the entire season or maybe multiple seasons you will understand, “Success is when preparation meets opportunity.” You could not describe bowhunting any better. If you want consistent success on public lands you have to work at it, you have to be driven!
The biggest asset a public land hunter can have is strong mental fortitude. A success oriented mindset while preparing for a hunt and also on the hunt is vital. To be a successful archery hunter the first thing you have to do is set your mind to it. Figure you are going to do everything in your power to get better and become more efficient at your passion, bowhunting! I know most folks have families and work obligations but if it’s important to you, you can make the time for it.
Mental conditioning is not something you are born with it is something that is earned. The experienced probably know that backcountry bowhunting is not fun all the time. You have to survive and suffer with what Mother Nature throws at you. It is through these trials and tribulations that you learn you can overcome challenges. Bowhunting is never easy and if it isn’t the weather, it’s the hunting pressure or maybe picking yourself up after a miss. It’s hard to know what challenges a hunt will throw at you but if you are mentally strong you will come out on top.
I use my physical training to help sharpen my mental conditioning. I plan my runs for the week or for the month and then I make myself stick to them no matter what. I come up with a plan and then hold myself accountable for it. It will be the same thing on a long hunt. You will have challenges and days that don’t go your way but you have a plan you have to stick to. I gain mental toughness by making long runs and scouting missions, mile after mile of hiking or running where I have to push myself to keep going. I have to keep going when I am cold, wet or tired. This iron discipline forges mental toughness and mental toughness is your best friend on tough grueling hunts.
Physical fitness and bowhunting go hand in hand but I see very few guys that really work hard at being in good shape. Seems bowhunting is an endurance sport and most guys can walk a ways before they are worn out. I can tell you my physical fitness is one of the most important parts to my success. Whether it is mile after mile with a heavy pack, high altitude, or grueling pack outs, I will have my body ready. I trust in my fitness and can push deeper into country or for a super long stalks. I have also killed a lot of critters being able to push a fast pace to cut them off or to get to them before dark.
I have seen multiple buddies that are in good shape make themselves sick on a hunt by pushing past their physical limits. I had a buddy with me this year that has tons of backcountry hunts under his belt. He usually trains all year and has come out on top on many hunts; he is as tough as they come! Well, this year he had changed jobs and did not make the time to work out as much as he should. He thought he could rely on past hunts and his youth and those would be enough. We backpacked miles of extreme high country to make it into camp. It was too much and his body began to shut down. He was dizzy and nauseous, throwing up constantly. We tried to nurse him back to health but his body rejected water and food and after a couple days of not being able to get him out of camp to hunt, we had no choice, his hunt was over and we had to get him out of country. He made it out but it took him nearly a week to recover and feel normal again. He had waited years to draw the tag and was exited for months leading up to the hunt but it wasn’t enough.
I had another buddy who came on a backcountry hunt this season. He did well and pushed hard to get an opportunity. On day six we spotted some bucks a long way off and he decided to go for it. He ended up killing a really nice buck but the pack out was too much. He tried to get the buck back to camp and made himself sick. Same deal, throwing everything up and feeling horrible. I gave him a hand packing out his buck and we got it out of country but he was a hurting unit. Now I did not put these stories in to embarrass these guys as they are in good shape and tough as nails. They are both great bowhunters but did not work on their physical fitness throughout the year and paid for it. I have been there myself on a 50-mile mountain race and another time chasing a herd of elk where I made myself sick. I call it exhaustion sickness and when it strikes there is nothing you can do. The difference is now I train like a mad man and it seems no matter how hard I push or how many miles I do my body is prepared for it. Backcountry bowhunting is as tough a challenge as you will find, make sure you are training for it!
Research is a huge part of hunting success and something you can work on year round. I am constantly trying to find new hunting locations. If I am happy with the area I am hunting I will look for different drainages or ridgelines. I will look at different hunts within the area I am hunting. I will make notes of hunts and vantage points I want to get to. I will also look for totally new areas researching roads, access points and mountain trails. I will make myself a plan to scout or to go in there to hunt. It’s this constant evolution of spots that keeps me in trophies. I will spend an hour after work or an hour before bed looking at maps and Google Earth. One new tool I have been using is the app onXmaps. You can overlay Google Earth and topo maps with public land and road systems. You have to pay roughly $30 per state per year but it’s worth its weight in gold. I can sit on the couch with my phone or tablet and look over an entire state. I get to know all the spots by heart and where I plan to walk and spots to check out. I probably spend more hours than I should looking at these things but I also think that is what makes the difference. I am constantly driven to find the best spots to hunt.
Glassing and then knowing when to make moves on animals is a key skill. Once you have an animal located knowing how to stalk proficiently will also be key. These are skills that you will need to harvest that trophy you are after. The best way to get better at these skills is to spend as much time hunting as you can. High opportunity hunts where you will get a lot of chances are great building blocks. Practice finding animals and then making plays on them. Try to take realistic looks at what went wrong on busted stalks and then learn from it. If you got busted by sound, slow down or use stalking shoes. If you got busted by wind try to figure out why. Was it thermals or directional winds? Was it hunting on the lea side of the windy ridge or did you try to cheat the wind. Everything that happens is an opportunity to learn, evolve and get better.
Everything on a hunt will come down to making the shot. Making shots on targets and making them on trophy animals are two totally different things. I have seen great target shooters crumble under the pressure of shooting at something with hair. You are working for days or maybe weeks just to get an opportunity. When it starts to finally come together you get a huge adrenalin dump, heart rate and breathing speed up and your aiming deteriorates. Making a shot on a critter is a totally different ball game and begs the question, how do you prepare? I may not have all the answers but I will walk you through what works for me.
I start every season with getting my equipment dialed. I set up my hunting bow and get it shooting as good as I can. I shoot different distances but always shoot with standing form and very little wind. I get my sight tapes dialed and make sure my pins are sighted in perfectly. I build confidence in my weapon by practicing shooting tight groups. After I have my bow shooting well I start working on shooting from kneeling positions and shooting angles. I shoot at 3D targets practicing aiming at actual silhouettes of animals. I shoot a lot of practice broadheads and shots that have a high degree of difficulty. The last couple weeks leading up to a hunt I start shooting one arrow groups. I will walk by the garage and fire only one shot down range. An hour later I will walk by and fire another. This gets me ready for season as most likely it will be my first cold arrow that counts. I continue to shoot during season keeping my skills sharp. The better and more proficient you are with your bow the more likely you are to make your shot count.
For me shooting at an animal means I have to keep my head in the game. I have to tell myself to calm down and to aim. My biggest mistake is to rush my shot. I will just get the pin on the animal and punch my trigger. If I can remain calm and execute my shot it’s a dead animal. Also, I try to remember all the little things. At this point in my life I have shot at enough animals to know how to make a shot. My mistakes come as a missed yardage, hitting a limb or having an animal jump the string. Just this year in Nevada I logged a miss on a big buck. I had him lying there and ranged his horns over and over. Well His horns did not register but the tree behind him did and when he stood up I sailed one over his back. I had gotten a range of the tree a handful of yards behind him instead of his horns. If I had it to do over I would have grabbed a range when he stood up and then sent an arrow. Oh well, it happens, just a matter of learning from it and getting better. I did learn from it and the next arrow I sent was on a giant buck in Colorado. Almost identical circumstances; the range, could only see his horns, waiting for him to stand, this time I got a good range when he stood and center punched him.
Along with making your shots on animals it is important to become the best archer you can be. It is about learning and improving your archery knowledge. Leagues and tournaments are a great ways to put pressure on yourself and to improve. The guys involved in these activities are pretty knowledgeable too so you can always pick up a few good tips. Make some effort this off-season to improve your skills; it will pay huge dividends when that giant buck is in front of you, broadside.
Public land bowhunting is tough and there aren’t any short cuts. The key is to work hard and become better. Never stop improving, evolving and never stop trying. Bowhunting is my passion, it’s what gets me up in the morning and what gets me out on those long runs. I live for the challenge of tough hunts and love the preparation that goes into it. I am at my best when the chips are stacked against me. You can bet when next season rolls around I will be ready, will you?