Some bowhunters can't win for losing; others learn to win because of losing.
Sooner or later, you'll make a bowhunting blunder that will sting like getting snapped with a wet towel. For me, some of the most painful pangs have occurred on tremendous trophy animals. Here are but a few of those stings -- and the lessons I have learned from them.
Keep Your Shooting Form
Creeping along in sock-covered feet in northern California's alpine wilderness, I eased down a steep set of benches where three Pope and Young-class Columbian blacktail bucks chewed their cuds. Focused entirely on these bucks, I didn't notice the considerably larger buck resting much closer to me. As soon as I saw him, I knew it was the giant buck I'd glassed from long distance the night before -- and judged would score in the top 10 ever killed with a bow.
Instantly he jumped from his sandy bed and bounced down the mountain. But then he stopped, well within my effective shooting range. I estimated the yardage and was starting to draw my bow when I noticed a tree branch blocking my shot.
Cautiously, I sidestepped -- once, twice, three times -- until I finally had a clear shot at the still-standing buck. Once at full draw, I had a brain lock and forgot everything I knew about shooting an accurate arrow. Quickly I got my pin on the buck and flung my right hand out and away -- as if the string was on fire -- to release the arrow. The arrow drifted wide right, whizzing harmlessly past the buck's nose, and that gut-wrenching sting of regret quickly settled in my bones.
The problem? I was thinking more about killing that buck and how great of a hunter I'd be with such a trophy blacktail to my credit -- the outcome. Instead, I should have been thinking about the procedure, the shot sequence, and concentrating on the steps of good shooting form. The most successful bowhunters don't change their routine when shooting at game. They shoot just as they do every arrow in practice -- deliberately.
Trust Your Guide -- and Your Mind
On a chilly September morning, I was chasing elk in the Big Belt Range with Central Montana Outfitters. My guide, Jim Kirkpatrick, and I had hunted hard for more than a week. We'd had a couple of close calls but no shots. At sunrise on the last day, we spotted a huge bull silhouetted on a ridge about a mile away. This bull looked like one of those elk shown in a calendar -- the ones with the digitally enhanced antlers.
When hunting with a guide, trust his judgment. He has experience with the species and the area he guides in. Also, trust your own judgment. Never let past failures enter your mind. To maintain your confidence, dwell on your successes.
About two hours later, drenched in sweat, feet sizzling, and completely exhausted from the fast-paced hike, we approached the bull's core area, and when we peeked over the ridge, we saw the largest elk either of us had ever seen. His antler mass was incredible, and his tine length and main beams seemed to sweep back forever. Jim and I both thought he'd score more than 400 inches.
Numerous other elk milled around on the brush-pocked landscape as I ranged the herd bull at 63 yards. Aiming for 55 yards would do the trick. When the big bull walked out into a small clearing, I drew my bow and found my familiar anchor.
Just then, the bull turned and started feeding toward me. No shot. I let down and waited.
Approaching the edge of some thick brush, he paused broadside with just one pine bough dangling exactly where I needed to aim.
"Shoot!" Jim whispered with an urgency I felt in my soul.
"I can't," I countered. "There's a branch in the way."
In bitterly cold weather, the slightest sounds echo like a booming voice in a big canyon. Even more critical than wearing quiet clothing, you must learn to draw ultra-slowly and at just the right moment. You have no room for error.
Looking through binoculars from a different angle, Jim said, "Your arrow will arch over it." As I learned later, he was absolutely correct; the bull was about 12 yards beyond the pine bough. However, from my viewpoint, it looked like the branch was stacked close to the elk's chest.
As I waited, the wind swirled. One of the closer cows caught our scent, and the entire herd stampeded away like wild mustangs. Immediately, I slumped to the ground like a stunned boxer. The sting consumed me like an aching flu. My dream bull had just vanished from my life.
What made me hesitate? For one thing, I had failed to trust my guide. All week I'd put my faith in Jim. He knew what he was doing -- that's why I hired him. So I should have trusted him at crunch time. He was absolutely right in his assessment.
In addition, a few days earlier I'd messed up a shot at a dandy mule deer, and I allowed that totally different scenario to momentarily erode my confidence on the elk. I should have known better than to allow the previous error on the mule deer even to enter my mind. What you picture in your mind greatly influences your successes or failures.
Whatever you think a situation to be, that's what it becomes. That's how powerful your mind is. You must maintain positive thoughts -- or get stung.
Don't Get Greedy
Still-hunting a nearly vertical ridge in Nevada's high country in search of mule deer, I peeked around a rock bluff. Standing there, head down and feeding in a lush green pocket of mountain grass, was a mature buck. I ranged him at 44 yards.
Then, through binoculars, I took a good look at his headgear. His antlers had incredible mass and deep forks with long tines. But his rack was tall and narrow.
This was only the first day of an eight-day hunt, and for some reason I wanted to shoot a wide-racked buck. Of course, those familiar with the Pope and Young scoring system know that main beam length and tine length add up higher than antlers with just a wid
e spread. The antlers get credit for the width only if it's equal to or less than the main beam length. So, a narrow, tall, heavy rack will score higher than one with a wide frame and shallow forks. I estimated this buck's score between 175 and 185 inches -- yet I decided to pass him up. Mistake!
All week I hiked and stalked and sneaked with the best of them -- and failed to take a deer. On the long flight home from Nevada to Alaska, where I lived at the time, I burned with regret for not shooting that buck on the first day. That stung!
The lesson here is to figure out your personal standards for any given hunt and to stick with them. I truly believe most bowhunters set standards too lofty for their abilities, always holding out for a monster. In reality, most of us, including me, would be better served by gaining experience through taking average animals.
I do not advocate indiscriminate killing, but I do encourage bowhunters to harvest as many big game animals as they can legally take. That way when Mr. Big presents an opportunity, you can draw on past success to bolster your confidence. Remember, success begets confidence, and confidence begets success.
The December evening was graveyard still and bitter cold. The slightest sounds from my Eastern Washington treestand seemed to travel for miles and to echo like the sounds of hollering into a big canyon.
I was afraid to move. Just shifting my weight might spook the cautious, mature whitetail buck just 20 yards from me. I had dressed in the softest, warmest clothes I own.
Regardless, the zero-degree temperatures made even the best hunting apparel seem brittle and noisy.
Further, the buck was nervous. A nearby doe had been snorting all afternoon. I could see the buck's hide twitch and his legs shudder as he eased forward into my shooting lane.
Just another step, and I would get my chance.
When the buck's chest cleared the last tree branches, I started to draw my bow -- in slow motion. Regardless, the buck heard the slightest wrinkle of my frozen clothes as I achieved full draw. That's all it took for him to nervously prance off from whence he came.
I should have waited just a few more seconds and let him settle down a little, perhaps let him start feeding. Then, I might have been able to draw my bow undetected.
With eyes on the sides of their heads, prey species have almost 360-degree vision. So, if you can see the eye of a big game animal, the animal can probably see you. Before you draw, wait for an animal's eyes to go behind a tree, or for the animal to look away. And, always draw your bow in super-slow motion. Quick moves are what really spook game.
That's what makes bowhunting so challenging -- drawing a bow in close proximity to wary game animals. Learning when to draw without getting busted is an ongoing process.
To improve as a bowhunter, always learn from the sting of your mistakes. But also learn to accept reality -- you will not always take the trophy buck, bull, or ram. Sometimes the big ones get away, which is what makes bowhunting so compelling.
Feel the sting a few times, as I did in Washington, and you'll learn to draw smart.
Accept Your Fate
On the 10th day of a coveted lottery Dall sheep hunt in Alaska's Chugach Mountains, I finally caught up to the ram I had dreamed of all my life. This monarch's horns had such a deep curl that when he rested his horns on the ground, his chin was suspended about six inches off the ground!
For seven hours I curled up in a sheep bed in the snow, wearing a white Polarfleece "sheep suit," watching this ram and his two companions as they rested and chewed their cuds. My rangefinder showed they were 437 yards away.
With a spotting scope I sized up and scored that ram countless times. My best estimate had his horns scoring between 173 and 177 inches, which would make him a new archery world record. Even with my most conservative judgment, I believe he would have scored 167, placing him in the top handful of Dall rams ever killed by archers.
Finally, the three rams rose and starting feeding their way into a steep crease in the mountainside. Once the sheep had dropped out of sight, I hustled to the point where I'd last seen them.
Moving as slowly as cold molasses, I eased over the ridge and with much care managed to clear the ridge enough to shoot -- and the sheep still didn't know I was there. My rangefinder told me the big fellow was 43 yards away.
When all three of the rams were feeding, and I couldn't see any of their eyes, I slowly drew my bow. Just as I had settled my sight picture and started to squeeze off the shot, the giant ram sensed danger and bolted!
This one stung more than any "almost" in my bowhunting career. I was more numb from not getting the shot than from lying in the snow for seven hours. The lesson learned here?
Sometimes the big ones get away. But still, I was honored to be so close to such a tremendous Dall ram.
It's the odd mix of emotions, the painful sting of messing up, and the exhilarating jubilation of success that keeps me coming back for more bowhunting adventures.
Lon Lauber, a nine-time state archery champion, has taken more than 50 Pope and Young-class animals.