August 23, 2022
It was 1:11 A.M. alaska time when the first message came through. “Holy Crap!” it read.
Boone, my five-year-old yellow Lab and hunting partner, groaned and stretched as if I was inconveniently waking him up from his beauty sleep. Then came another message that read, “That’s a dandy bull.”
The messages were from my brother back in Michigan, where it was just past 5 a.m., and he was responding to the three pictures I’d sent him a few hours earlier. I was wide awake and waiting for daylight to break, so I could pack out the remainder of my first caribou. I’d seen a grizzly in the area a few days earlier and wasn’t too keen on packing out meat alone in the dark — even with my 10mm and trusty watchdog close at hand. It was 31 degrees, so I knew the other half of my meat was fine until morning. I finished texting with my brother and then tried to get some sleep. A similar pattern would play out a month later when I sent him a photo of my second bull of the season.
Looking at the two bulls, it would be easy to say I’d had a great fall. I can’t argue with that. Everything about bowhunting caribou resonates deep within me. How their lives are interdependent and inextricably tied to all the critters in the Arctic; their quirkiness and free-spirited nature, and the humility they teach you while trying to get close to them. Few things are more humbling than working to get close to a bull caribou, only to have him bust you and prance away. But this article isn’t about my admiration — let’s call it my obsession — with caribou. It’s about last season and the barriers I created for myself.
When I’m outside, my thoughts usually surround one of three themes: life and death, finding things (animals, antlers, berries, etc.), or work. This past fall, I was approaching caribou hunting as a reprieve from the grind — a mental clearing from the year. The season was going to be movie worthy. I could feel it. I could see a montage scene in my head where multiple images scrolled. The last scene would be with the sun setting in the background, caribou antlers glistening on my back, Boone in a caribou-hide cape, the tundra grasses parting, angels singing, and Bob Ross painting us with fluffy little clouds in the sky. My mentality was that caribou hunting was going to be a reckoning; a settlement of the score for the long, COVID-filled year of uncertainty that would end in a Zen-like state. Except that isn’t what happened. Far from it, in fact. It was a year of learning about my decision-making skills and the cognitive biases I bring to the table.
When I am not enjoying Alaska, I am an associate professor of business administration and director of a sports and recreation business. My expertise and experience lies primarily in sports marketing and data (analytics), but I love the psychological aspects of business. Biases impacting our decision-making is a topic I think about often in business, and while bowhunting. The following are a few biases that crept up on me this season, with an anecdote sprinkled in here and there.
A year ago, a friend I was hunting with left his bow on the tailgate of his truck, drove away, and proceeded to watch his bow tumble down the road, cracking the limbs. After that incident, I decided I needed a backup bow. I’d been shooting my trusty Bowtech Destroyer 350 for almost 10 years, but I committed to a new Bowtech Realm as my main bow.
I shoot my bow almost daily year-round, so at the end of July, as I was getting ready to head out for my first caribou hunt, I was good to go. Then, being the genius that I am, I decided to shoot some of my target broadheads to make sure everything was good. I watched in horror as my first three arrows missed the target at 40 yards. What the fudgecicle? I thought to myself. I shot what felt like a thousand arrows over the next four days — adjusting my sight, adjusting my rest, sight again, rest again — before eventually switching broadheads. I even changed my arrow weight, as my draw weight is 55 pounds, and my draw length is 28.5 inches, so I’m right on the cusp of 340 or 400-spine arrows. Switching to mechanical broadheads worked, but I knew my bow was not in tune.
After 10 years of shooting my Destroyer, Easton FMJ arrows, and G5 Montec broadheads with no problems, I was overconfident in my setup and magical thinking (i.e. bias). I accomplished complete pass-through shots on three moose and two caribou at over 60 yards. The issue here was not my gear; it was me. My “overconfidence bias” was that my broadheads would fly similar to my fieldpoints, so long as my cams were aligned properly. They weren’t. Thinking I’d need minimal practice with broadheads was poor decision-making at its finest.
My next series of unfortunate events were the result of “anchoring bias.” In decision-making, anchoring bias shows up in how we fixate on a set of initial datapoints or information and fail to adjust for new information as it’s collected. We all tend to have a little anchoring bias with certain hunting spots. For example, I hunt caribou in places where I’ve had various forms of success in the past. But at the end of the day, hunting caribou is a lot like ice-fishing for perch: The caribou (perch) are either there or they aren’t, and they may or may not ever be found where they once were again.
Anchoring bias crept into my decision-making in two distinct ways in the fall of 2021. On one particular stalk, I took off my pack (which held all of my survival gear) to lower my profile as I belly-crawled toward a group of bulls. I ended up in a borderline hypothermic state and unable to find my pack in the fog. Fortunately, two other hunters picked me up and I used my Garmin inReach’s tracking feature to retrieve my pack the next day. Never leave your pack is the lesson here.
Onward to the second story of how anchoring bias impacted a bowhunting opportunity.
It was a windy morning, and I was climbing up a steep hill to one of my favorite caribou spots. As I climbed, something brown caught my eye. It looked out of place against the grey rocks. I stepped cautiously, thinking, It’s velvet antler tips. It’s a caribou. It’s a bull. I took one more step. Shoot, that is a big bull. He’s bedded. Be quiet. Step. More antler. As I reached for my quiver, I thought, Something isn’t right. The antlers are oddly angled. At that point, I could only see antlers awkwardly twisted and leaning against the hillside. I took another step. I could now see the monster bull’s head, tilted against the hill in the most bizarre angle. I took my hand off the arrow in my quiver and thought to myself, He’s dead. No way could I walk up on a caribou like this. Two more steps put me at about 30 yards, and I could now see the entire animal. He was a dandy, and I thought for sure he was dead. I frowned in disappointment, figuring another hunter must have wounded him and he came up here to die. I solemnly looked at the dead animal and decided I would check the Alaska hunting regs to see if I needed to tag him if I took the meat, because I couldn’t leave him to rot if his meat was salvageable.
As I set my bow down, the limbs lightly clanked against the rocks. The presumably dead caribou suddenly jumped up and looked at me in terror. My somber nature quickly dissolved as my heart jumped. In shock, I fumbled to pick up my bow, but the bull was off and running. I’m not sure who was more scared, me or the beautiful bull, which I now affectionately refer to as “Sleeping ‘bouty.” Lesson learned. I was so fixated (anchored) on the angle of his head and antlers that I assumed he was dead. Good thing it wasn’t a grizzly!
The last bias that impacted my decision-making while hunting this past year is “confirmation bias.” This is when a person seeks out information that reaffirms thoughts and past experiences. Confirmation bias appeared at the end of the season after I had already tagged one bull. Two of my close hunting friends, and fellow professors, and I decided we should hunt caribou as a group. Drs. Mark Lindberg and Eduardo Wilner and I have worked together for three years on a number of hunting-related projects. We also created and teach an interdisciplinary class together called “Huntology: The Business, Science, and Philosophy of Hunting.” I know them well and respect them deeply as colleagues and friends. However, as soon as I committed, I overanalyzed every aspect of why it would be a disaster to hunt with others.
The past four years, I have hunted moose and caribou alone; not necessarily by choice, but because of conflicting schedules, distance, differing philosophies, responsibilities, etc. As someone who has always considered herself a risk-avoiding wimp, hunting alone in Alaska was intimidating at first, but I’ve grown to love doing it. So, when the suggestion of hunting together came up, I automatically looked for reasons to confirm my bias of hunting alone. My personality, which is rooted in independence and rational thinking, kicked in. My mind told me: Three people stalking caribou is too many. Despite my pessimistic, overanalyzing nature, we all committed to going.
Arctic Ovens Base Camp
The date we agreed upon rolled around and I left the night before Mark and Eduardo did to find a good camping spot. Early fall in the Lower 48 coincides with late fall in Alaska, and snow had already covered the ground. Temperatures were between 10 and 30 degrees, so we decided to bring our Arctic Oven tents — a staple shelter in Alaska for hunters, trappers, and other outdoor folks. Mark brought his larger dome version that included a wood stove for him and Eduardo, and I brought my smaller Arctic Oven for me and Boone.
On our first morning, I walked over to their tent for coffee as we waited for the sun to come up. That’s when we heard some rattling outside. Mark thought Boone was getting into his cooler. I insisted that Boone never gets into anything. As it turned out, Boone did help himself to Mark’s entire roast chicken (overconfidence in my cooler-opening, camp mutt). We laughed over my confirmation that Mark knew much more about sneaky Labs than I did, as he’d hunted waterfowl for decades with the food-driven retrievers. We collectively agreed that Boone could not be trusted, and then we came up with a game plan before leaving camp.
Later that day, Eduardo and I were sitting together in our whites, waiting as we thought a group of caribou would be crossing our paths at any second. As the caribou crested the edge we had anticipated, I ranged the distance. Most were at 70 to 75 yards — out of our comfort zone. As they funneled closer, I whispered, “68, 65…60 yards.” Eduardo drew and shot a beautiful bull. That evening, as the three of us hauled out the dandy bull, I thought to myself, I don’t think I could have asked for two better friends to share this hunt with.
That same thought would cross my mind multiple times over the next two days as we packed out two more great bulls and enjoyed fresh tenderloins cooked over the wood stove. We each ended up harvesting a beautiful bull with our bows, and we took another trip together a few weeks later. My seeking confirmation that hunting alone was better went out the window. I sent my brother a message via inReach the last evening that read, “Epic trip.” Nothing else needed to be said.
I suppose I could say I knew it would be a good hunting season all along, but that would be “hindsight bias,” where I overestimate my ability to foresee an outcome. As I reflect on my season’s mental battle with decision-making, the bigger picture becomes clear. I learned a lot about my resilience and about my ability to make decisions. Instead of another bias, I will leave you, dear readers, with a deeply rooted quote about the effectiveness of checking your mental biases before and during caribou hunting. The quote comes from the philosopher Brian Fantana who is played by Paul Rudd in the movie “Anchorman,” where Rudd laments the effectiveness of the cologne Sex Panther to Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell): “They’ve done studies, you know. Sixty percent of the time, it works every time.”
I suppose that is caribou hunting. Just ignore that 40 percent, and you’ll be successful all the time.
The author is an avid bowhunter, washed-up athlete, and is an Associate Professor of Business at the University of Maine.