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3 Keys To Beating Buck Fever

by Chuck Adams

Excitement is an important and positive part of bowhunting, and without some adrenaline rush, encountering game wouldn't be half as much fun. But trouble can result if you fail to control your excitement.

It's important to understand that everybody gets nervous to some degree when a big buck or bull appears. If you want to hear stories about hunter excitement, just talk to any experienced bowhunting guide or outfitter. Such professionals have seen dozens—perhaps hundreds—of bowhunters react to close-range deer, elk and other thrilling big game animals.

At times, nervous reactions by bowhunters are extreme. A hunter who normally shoots 100 arrows during a practice session without showing the slightest fatigue suddenly becomes too weak to draw his bow. Another archer with pinpoint target ability completely misses a deer at only 20 yards and can't remember even aiming at the animal.

More often, nervous reactions are less severe, but the outcome can be the same. If your hands begin to shake as a white-tailed buck moves toward your treestand, they might cause your arrow to drop off the rest with a noisy clank. If you're foot-hunting, you might crunch gravel underfoot or make a sudden game-scaring movement just as a trophy caribou pops over the ridge.

There's no sure cure for the bowhunting shakes. Some people are naturally more excitable than others, so they become more nervous in the presence of game. But no matter how high-strung you are, you can learn to control your bowhunting excitement if you employ the following three tactics for keeping your cool.

1. Accelerate Your Experience.
There's absolutely no substitute for bowhunting experience. The more you bowhunt and the more animals you get close to, the calmer you'll become.

How can you get the needed experience to help reduce bowhunting jitters? One way is to simply hunt deer as much as possible. But deer hunting alone might not make you an “old hand” very fast. The reason is the average whitetail bowhunter shoots at only one or two deer per season, which means you might have to hunt 15-20 years before shooting at game becomes anything close to familiar.

If you're truly dedicated to bowhunting, I believe you should take steps to accelerate your experience. One great way is to sit in a deer stand or sneak through the woods on foot during the off-season. You'll have to leave your bow at home, but you'll still get excited over every close-range buck or doe. The more animals you encounter the calmer you'll become, and the more you'll learn about the animals, too.

Believe it or not, visiting a zoo can also calm some nervous bow­hunters. As an archer watches penned deer, elk and similar critters, he can become accustomed to their close proximity. Seeing a truly wild animal later on is then likely to come as less of a shock.

Hunting animals such as Spanish goats, wild boars, aoudad, mouflon sheep, javelina, axis deer and similar exotic species will increase your experience when more traditional game is out of season. And although woodchucks and rabbits don't resemble deer, such small animals can provide “moment of truth” practice. I make it a point to bowhunt jack rabbits, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, woodchucks and other tricky vermin as much as possible during winter, spring and early summer. (Be sure to check state regulations before you begin.) Such sport is fun in its own right and helps sharpen my bow shooting and improves my foot-hunting skills. But equally important, dozens of encounters with small game noticeably steadies my nerves.

2. Practice With A Purpose.
Dedicated target practice before archery season can improve your field-shooting performance. In my experience, the best bow­hunters also tend to be deadly on bull's-eyes and 3-D targets. Such archers practice for months prior to hunting season and sometimes shoot year-round to develop good shooting habits.

Such regular shooting makes archery accuracy automatic and subconscious. More often than not, a fellow who's shot 5,000 arrows during the 6 months prior to deer season will go on “automatic pilot” when a big buck walks into bow range. The guy might be nervous, but all that preseason practice will help him do everything right.

One of the standard excuses I hear for poor target shooting by bowhunters goes something like this: “I might not punch paper worth a darn, but I'm sure deadly when an animal walks in front of me.” Don't you believe it! I've yet to see a hunter who couldn't hit targets consistently suddenly become transformed into a hotshot on real animals.

The best archers learn to aim at a small spot on an animal's chest, and they practice by shooting hundreds of arrows at 3-D targets as well as paper targets of life-sized animals. That way, when a living, breathing target with large antlers sneaks by, their well-practiced skills will help them make a killing shot.

3. Trick Your Mind.
Psycho­logical tactics can help you stay calm in the presence of game. One tactic I often use is to keep my expectations low. For example, as I stalk an animal or watch it move toward my stand, I tell myself over and over that things probably won't work out. By remaining pessimistic, I talk myself out of getting overly excited about success.

Here's a final psychological tip: If you're excitable by nature, it's better to focus on your bowsight pin rather than an animal's vitals. By learning to focus your eyes on the pin or crosswire you'll mentally distance yourself from the animal. Practice this first at the range and it'll become second nature in the field.

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