September 16, 2015
By Mark Kayser
Year after year, it's that adrenaline-charged moment when a buck arrives on your bowhunting scene that keeps you coming back. Unfortunately, that same nerve-rattling moment is also the reason many of us, me included, send arrows to Neverland.
I relive my worst case of buck fever almost every time I perch high in a treestand. I had scouted a heavy-duty 5x5 buck for several weeks, when he finally provided a pattern perfect for ambush. I placed my sultry doe decoy under the stand and climbed in to wait for the brawny buck. He arrived with the timing of a FedEx package, and his travel route was on a crash course for my decoy.
Things got heated when the buck fell in love with my decoy and started a backdoor approach to the leading lady. With bow in trembling hand, I drew back as the buck paused to assess the eHarmony hookup. How I missed the 10-yard chip shot still astonishes me to this day, but facts are facts. The buck trotted away, and buck fever was the clear winner as I tried to calm my frazzled form. Don't let this fever demon give you nightmares. You can control the torment with an advanced plan.
Practice For Autopilot
Confidence in the heat of a buck encounter begins with confidence at the shooting range — starting with the proper bow setup. If you have a career, family, and community obligations that eat up your time, use the expertise of a certified pro at a local archery shop to match a bow to you.
First, try out a variety of bows, and choose one that fits you, draws smoothly, anchors firmly, and doesn't want to launch an arrow without your command. Pro-shop owners can offer advice on proper draw length and weight, as well as provide information on top-selling bows and helpful accessories. They deal with archery issues that may seem confounding to you but are just daily doses of reality for them.
When I was shopping for a new bow this year, I asked the advice of Black Hills Archery pro-shop owner Al Kraus on the new Mathews NO CAM HTR. "It's the real deal," Kraus said. That was enough for me to go ahead and put one on order, plus hire him to tune it to perfection.
As you complete your bow setup, keep in mind the phrase "keep it simple." Too many gadgets and gizmos can create confusion when the fever hits. Getting rid of one extra step in the shot process may be the best step toward archery success.
With a well-thought-out archery rig in hand, your next step is to polish your shooting form. This is imperative, since it is the basis for a shooting regimen that leads to autopilot, or muscle memory — an important tool when nerves unravel. Shooting correctly isn't rocket science, but self-taught shooters like me often create bad habits. And bad habits have a knack for returning time and time again.
You can learn proper shooting form from books, videos, pro-shop owners, or even by taking lessons from coaching experts like Larry Wise. Having coached or trained at all three Olympic training centers, Wise works with clients one on one, or in scheduled training courses at archery dealerships across the country.
By learning the correct elements of shooting, you can incorporate those into a training regimen that helps your body retain its form during a case of buck fever — be it mild or extreme.
Veteran hunters may be able to traverse the steps to a proper shot with the sight of a buck within bow range, but why risk it? Repetition creates a shooting habit that is second nature, and leads to an autopilot response. I needed this on my latest whitetail adventure.
On the last day of the hunt, a mature buck showed up unannounced and within bow range. I was a bit unnerved, but once I had my bow in my hand, my subconscious took over. Minutes later, I was speechless while admiring a corn-fed giant. That's your goal. Train the right way, and train for your body to pull off the shot when your mental engine sputters.
Practice Like You Hunt
My son practices 4-H Shooting Sports archery indoors at predetermined distances, and at a bull's-eye target. It's ideal for winning ribbons, but only accomplishes half of what is necessary to beat buck fever. That's why you should practice like you hunt.
First, have your bow set up the way you'll be using it in the field. Use the same arrows, shoot broadheads, fill the quiver, and don't add new accessories like a different stabilizer the week before the season opens.
Next, shoot at 3-D targets. The variety of 3-D animal targets on the market gives you plenty of budget to work with for a realistic target. Shooting at lifelike targets forces you to pick a spot on the animal, just like you would do in the field.
Look for a crease, a tuft of hair, or even a scar as your X-marks-the-spot location. Simultaneously, study the location of vital organs on an animal's body while you practice. Several 3-D target companies even have the vitals outlined on the back of the target for quick confirmation of arrow placement.
Shot angle is vital for a clean kill, especially when shooting from the extreme angle of a treestand. Three-dimensional targets show a true picture of an arrow's travel route. You'll see firsthand how low shots can miss a far lung, how high shots can skim into no-man's land, and how hitting too far back may create a sleepless night.
Of course, to get those angles, you'll also need to shoot from positions that mimic a treestand perch or uneven terrain. Many of you may set up a treestand in the backyard for just such practice. I have a few friends who shoot from a ladder, or even from the roof of a shed.
My horse pasture has some steep draws, so I put the target below and climb to a treestand height for my elevated practice. I even force myself to bend, crouch and contort, as if I was shooting around limbs and brush.
If you shoot from ground level, either in a still-hunting or ground-blind style, practice by shooting from sitting and kneeling positions as well. Shooting indoors is great when the weather is frightful, but flinging arrows at lifelike targets from realistic hunting scenarios in the wind and rain gives you confidence to intensify your autopilot regiment.
Lastly, opening day doesn't equal closing day for practice. You can always find a Judo-style, small-game head in my quiver while I bowhunt. I use it to shoot while I walk to and from my treestand, and I even launch it into the duff from my stand to boost my confidence. You can do the same at your truck with a portable cube-style target. Nevertheless, keep practicing throughout the season to quell the fever.
Your buck fever end game is to know how your bow and arrow will react in all conditions, not just at the indoor range. Plus, by shooting during the season, you'll boost confidence on every outing to help minimize the adrenaline anxiety.
Organize Yourself And The Woods
Have you ever attempted to complete a surprise task under deadline in an unorganized setting? The clutter and chaos can disrupt your concentration, and rattle your nerves. The same is true of putting an arrow where you want it. Clear the clutter, and organize your gear for a buck fever-free bowhunt.
Start with your hunting location. For the majority of you, this means whitetail country. Preseason treestand preparation, shooting lane cleanup, and the placement of mock scrapes, or scent-dispersion sites, should be on the to-do list.
Place your stand in a downwind position, make sure it has sufficient backdrop cover for it to disappear, and trim all shooting lanes for clear arrow flight at both treestand and ground level.
Next, add a bow hanger and test it to ensure easy access to your bow. Again, trim any limbs that could hook on your clothes or bow as you swing into action. When a buck arrives, the encounter will likely last seconds.
You'll need to spring into action, and any snag could send your nervous system into panic mode. I even add hooks for my calls and daypack, and I always have my rangefinder hooked to my safety harness on a lanyard. It's within easy reach, and dangles free and out of the way of my draw when not in play. All of my gear is in sight and within easy reach, ready to calm my nerves.
Ground-pounders won't have the same home-style luxuries, but by always envisioning an encounter as you still-hunt or stalk, you'll begin to look ahead for setup locations. Constantly scan for game, but also look for habitat to help you disappear at a moment's notice.
You can hide your draw using tree trunks or brushy cover in front of you as game passes behind the obstruction. As you prepare for the shot, evaluate the site for any nearby limbs that may impede your draw or obstruct the flight of your arrow. Alter your flight plan if something appears on the vegetative radar screen.
On archery elk hunts, more than once I've scrambled ahead a few feet to snap a branch, or flatten down brush that could impede my arrow's flight. I'm not worried about the extra noise, since in most instances I'm calling to the elk, and they're expecting to hear movement from my calling location.
Be an organizer, and you'll meet your goal to reduce buck fever. No last-second distractions will shock you, causing your autopilot to falter on takeoff.
Hunt, Hunt, Hunt
Finally, nothing quashes buck fever like experience. Hunt more, experience more buck fever, and you'll slowly begin to tame the adrenaline devil. You can gain experience by bowhunting everything from small game to turkeys, but think big. I'll admit that even a gobbling tom unravels my nerves, but having a deer or elk within bow range really jolts my heart rate. To get that experience more often, consider extra tags for does and cow elk.
States regularly disperse additional antlerless licenses for management purposes. And don't think for a minute that does and cows are pushovers. Bucks and bulls in the rut depend on females as security. They are lost in a fog of love, but old does and cows have evaded hunters for years, making them extremely challenging.
Hunting more also gives you the chance to study animal body language and the science of knowing when to shoot at an animal in its most relaxed, or inattentive state. Look for simple signs. Avoid shooting at animals that are standing still and staring, walking stiff-legged with ears cupped forward, or that are nervously looking around.
On the other hand, wagging tails, flicking tongues, playful movement, and content nuzzling all indicate a calm animal, and confidence for a good shot. Your best shot will be on animals that are browsing, busy sniffing a trail, rubbing their antlers, or making a scrape.
One tactic I employ to beat back buck fever even further is to initially give a buck or bull a mental thumbs-up for shooting. After that I never look at the rack. Instead, I concentrate on the animal's path and position.
More than once friends of mine have shared stories of how they kept staring at a shooter buck approaching their stand. By the time it reached them, they were so jellied by mentally scoring the big buck they bombed the shot.
A buck pulled a surprise move on me a few seasons back. I actually watched the buck amble toward me through a section of immature willows for several minutes. The buck was mature, and sported a decent frame. That was enough for me to quit focusing on antlers and concentrate on a good shot. I didn't count a point after that, but I did get an uneasy feeling as it approached a trail junction below me.
Would it continue to the perfect shooting lane, or detour to questionable country? The buck took the detour ramp.
By pre-plotting, I was organized and had cleared another shooting lane on the off-ramp trail. I swiveled 180 degrees and drew as the buck passed directly below me. It took four more steps in a quartering-away position as I sent an arrow downrange. Autopilot was in perfect working order, and I never had to think about the steps to the vital zone.
Once again I had beaten buck fever during the heat of the encounter, but I'll be honest, my body was shaking like a dashboard-mounted hula dancer on a dirt trail as I walked over to the trophy whitetail. Buck fever was present, but not in total control.