Overcoming Buck Fever
On a cool November morning I sat in my truck before first light studying the aerial photograph of the farm I would be hunting that day for a trophy whitetail buck. I had packed a lunch and was both excited and frustrated prior to entering the timber. The good news was that I had pinpointed a major funnel that I knew a huge whitetail buck was using on a regular basis. The bad news was the cold Missouri morning and all throughout the day I was going to be subjected to a steady sleet storm. Still determined I packed my lunch, got dressed, and entered my location in pursuit of the trophy whitetail buck. I sat motionless for 7 hours before I caught movement from the corner of my eye. A mature whitetail doe came trotting up through the funnel. The doe stopped 10 yards from my tree stand and then began trotting off after looking back after her shoulder. I knew what was about to come up through the funnel. I quickly grabbed my bow and got ready for the trophy buck to arrive. Just as the doe did, a big trophy ten point trotted up through the funnel and stopped broadside a mere 10 yards from my tree stand. He stopped. He looked the other direction, and was not aware of my presence. I drew back my bow, and released an arrow straight into the ground beneath him. He ran away and my stomach began to churn. I got down out of my tree stand and paced back and forth under my stand. I begin to experience the disappointment of buck fever. It felt like a family member had died or I had just went through a nasty divorce. Buck fever had overcome me, and the trophy buck was certainly glad it had.
Several years ago, a prestigious nationally known hunt club did a study to determine the effects of buck fever on whitetail deer hunters. Buck fever is defined as, at the moment the whitetail deer hunter is ready to or inducing a shot on a trophy whitetail buck the hunter makes some mistake, as a result of anxiety and misses the whitetail buck. The club determined from a survey of hundreds of thousands of members that when the average whitetail hunter has a trophy whitetail buck within weapon range that the hunter has a mere 17% chance of harvesting the buck, while when shooting at does the harvest rate was 87%. I didnít believe the stats so that year as a deer outfitter in the Midwest in 5 States I did my own study. During the year I performed my study we presented success rates to shoot record book bucks at less than 30 yards at more than 100%. (More shot opportunities than hunters in our camps.) Of those hunters presented with ethical shots at record book whitetail bucks my hunters produced a mere 19% harvest rate. Thus the study was accurate as performed by the Club. Obviously, a result of buck fever. To be honest with you if I had killed every record book whitetail buck I had shot at I would be the next Myles Keller. For years I could successfully set myself up for shots at record book whitetail deer, but when it was time to produce a qualitative shot I would choke due to buck fever. As of 10-4-2009 I have harvested 15 whitetail bucks that would qualify for the Pope and Young Record Books, but I spent years coming home empty handed prior to overcoming buck fever.
Archery hunting for whitetail deer is a sport that takes years to develop oneís skills at. Buck fever is a huge part of archery and firearms hunting that almost all whitetail deer hunters must learn to overcome in order to be successful. Hunting trophy whitetail deer is a game of precision. It takes coordination, concentration, shooting skills, calm nerves or tactics to calm your nerves, yardage estimation, weaponry upkeep, practice shooting, estimations of shot angles, as well as many other techniques to overcome buck fever.
Iíve heard a few whitetail deer hunters say they donít experience buck fever. These whitetail deer hunters claim they only get nervous after the shot.
For the majority of us, the second we view a trophy whitetail buck while hunting our hearts begin to race, some hunters sweat, our knees shake, we forget all techniques we have implemented during practice shooting during the off season. This is buck fever.
How Do I Overcome Buck Fever
Still after 30 years of whitetail hunting when I see a trophy whitetail buck my heart races and I get excited. If I didnít I would quit hunting. However I have used tactics to overcome buck fever. Here is how I overcame buck fever and began to put down many trophy record book whitetail deer. Let us look at the many areas one must address to put this aspect of whitetail deer hunting behind us so we can move forward with the harvest of trophy whitetail deer.
1. My first step in overcoming buck fever was to stop looking at the bucks antlers. When I go whitetail deer hunting and am on my tree stand and spot a trophy buck heading my direction, I briefly view the buck through my binoculars to determine if indeed it is a trophy buck. Once I have determined this I donít look at the antlers again. Literally even at close distances I refuse to look at the antlers at all. I will only allow my vision to observe the trophy buck from the ears down. I have learned to study the body, and watch for when and where my possible shot opportunity will occur, and when to take the shot.
2. One of the worst things that can happen to a hunter that is struggling with overcoming buck fever is when the whitetail deer hunter sees a trophy buck from hundreds of yards away, and has to watch the animal all the way to within weapon range. Heck by the time the trophy buck gets within weapon range the amount of time it has taken for the whitetail deer to close the distance youíre a mess. In these scenarios I have learned to whisper to myself or silently count backwards from 100. I have learned to train my mind to think about other things while keeping a close eye on the deer without looking at his antlers after I have determined heís a ďshooterĒ. I hold a degree in Psychology, and to the best of my ability to overcome such a situation one needs to almost implement some barbaric form of cognitive therapy. Iím not telling you to go see a psychiatrist to overcome buck fever but let us review what cognitive therapy is: Cognitive therapy seeks to help the person overcome difficulties by identifying and changing dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses. This involves helping clients develop skills for modifying beliefs, identifying distorted thinking, relating to others in different ways, and changing behaviors. Treatment is based on collaboration between client and therapist and on testing beliefs. Therapy may consist of testing the assumptions which one makes and identifying how certain of one's usually-unquestioned thoughts are distorted, unrealistic and unhelpful. (For example once one begins to believe he or she will experience buck fever or is convinced they canít make the shot due to buck fever, the mind actually may be powerful enough to just make that happen. Think positive and tell yourself over and over as the buck approaches that you will not miss, and that you can calm yourself down. Breath deep long soothing breathes from the abdomen. In fact while Iím not a fan of Yoga, this is called rythmic breathing.) Once those thoughts have been challenged, one's feelings about the subject matter of those thoughts are more easily subject to change. Professor Beck initially focused on depression and developed a list of errors in thinking that he proposed could maintain depression, including arvitrary inference, selective abstraction, over-generalization, and magnification (of negatives) and minimization (of positives).
A simple example may illustrate the principle of how CT works: Having made a mistake at missing a trophy whitetail buck due to buck fever a whitetail hunter may believe, "I'm going to miss this whitetail buck and Iím going to experience buck fever. How can I overcome buck fever. Iíll never overcome buck fever." Strongly believing this then tends to worsen your odds at harvesting the trophy buck due to buck fever. The problem may be worsened further if the individual reacts by avoiding activities and then behaviorally confirming the negative belief to himself. An example of this is the hunter that walks around saying, ďIíll probably miss a shot at a trophy buck because I get buck fever.Ē As a result, any adaptive response and further constructive consequences become unlikely, which reinforces the original belief of being a victim of buck fever. In therapy, the latter example could be identified as a self-fulfilling prophecy or "problem cycle," and the efforts of the therapist and client would be directed at working together to change it. This is done by addressing the way the client thinks and behaves. If, as a result, the client escapes the negative thought patterns and dysfunctional behaviors, the feelings of buck fever will begin to decrease. The whitetail hunter attempting to overcoming buck fever will then begin to become more active, succeeding and responding by harvesting trophy bucks with double lung shots on a consistent basis.
3. Movement in the tree stand. A common mistake whitetail deer hunters make who are experiencing buck fever is quick movement. If your shooting a doe you move slow and methodically to get just the perfect shot. However, when the whitetail hunter sees the trophy buck approaching one is prone to stand up quicker, raise his binoculars to his eyes faster for verification of the animals size, and simply get in too big of a hurry to get a shot off thinking that he has less time to shoot at the whitetail buck than he would if it where a doe. Most often times a whitetail deer will take much time meandering through a given piece of terrain. The hunter that overcomes buck fever moves the same on a shot at a buck just as if it were a doe. Donít hurry the shot nor your movement, unless the deer is closing the distance at a very quick rate.
4. Yardage estimations are vital but need to be taken upon your arrival to the tree stand. After I reach my tree stand I hook up my safety belt, put an arrow in my bow, and then grab my rangefinder. I will range different landmarks of the area. For example: That black tree is 20 yards away. That dead stump is 30 yards away. The hunter that tries to use his rangefinder only after the deer comes into bowrange creates additional movement that is detected by the whitetail deer most often. I canít remember the last time I used my rangefinder on a whitetail deer just prior to taking the shot. You should have yardages memorizes early in the hunt so you arenít moving around ranging the whitetail deerís yardage when heís in weapon range.
5. Taking of unethical shots. For the whitetail hunter dealing with buck fever often times we take shots that are not ethical just because itís a trophy buck. Sometimes we take the first available shot at the trophy buck in fear no other shot will present itself. This is also a result of buck fever. In 2008 I had a hunter in camp on a Missouri deer hunt that shot 88 yards with a bow at a buck just because the buck was over 170 inches. He missed and I was simply thankful he hadnít wounded the monster buck. I passively scolded the whitetail hunter and told him if he would have just let the buck walk that night it would have been quite possible the buck would have eventually come into range, or we could have harvested him the next day. Donít take unethical shots at record book whitetail bucks just because you can in fear you wonít get another chance. As long as your not detected its almost a certainty that same deer will come by in the day or so presenting a better shot.
Myths about Buck Fever
Many generic articles you read about buck fever will not address the mental aspects of buck fever. They will tell you to practice shooting a lot and sharpen your archery skills. While this is important its not the cause of buck fever. Just days ago I watched my hunters stand in front of the Morrell Target Range at our hunt lodge in Pike County, Illinois. The best shooter of the whole group was holding 1 inch groups at 30 yards. I even commented on the fact, ďHe was a killing machine.Ē That hunter has missed twice during his whitetail deer hunt. Thus while itís important to practice it is my belief that your archery skills have no bearing on experiencing buck fever.
If you recall years ago, Realtree Outdoors, produced a video showcasing a Gold Medal Olympic Archer who misses a record book deer at 20 yards on video. A prime example of the difference between archery skills and the anxiety of buck fever.
Equipment Upkeep is vital to the harvest of a record book whitetail deer also, however a whitetail hunter can be holding one inch shot groups at great distances with the finest most upkept equipment afforded to todayís whitetail deer hunter, however it doesnít have a thing to do with overcoming buck fever. The only exception to this premise is that if one is confident in his equipment and upkeep of archery equipment it may be that little slice of confidence needed to overcome buck fever.
Trust me, buck fever is all Psychological. You simply have to reprogram your thinking and learn mental skills to overcome buck fever. Think positive, stay calm, and donít be too hard on yourself. We all miss shots at whitetail deer from time to time. Itís just a part of deer hunting. Since reprogramming my thinking I have put my last 7 Pope and Young Whitetail Deer on the wall with either heart or double lung shots. Prior to that all my whitetail deer I harvested were either shot in the hind quarters or in the wrong location. You can overcome buck fever. I promise you if you re read this article in detail over and over you will walk into the promised land. I went from the worst shot in the County to a very effective shooter.