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Battling the Mind Games of Bowhunting

No matter how experienced or well-traveled we are, there are always mind games to deal with.

Battling the Mind Games of Bowhunting

Conversing with my inner demons had me off my shooting game. (Photos by Pedro Ampuero and Brandon Winterton)

It’s 3 a.m. and rain is pouring hard outside. The noise of the drops hitting the tent roof has awakened me. It is hard to sleep, not just because of the sound, but more because of what it means. Rain is bad for hunting. It’s June and the rainy season in Mozambique should have been over, but this year, for some reason, it is giving us a hard time. With my eyes open in pure darkness, my demons are sitting next to me on my bed. Yes, we all have our little demons that sit by our side, just to highlight all the things that are going wrong now, and the bad things that are coming our way…

Much has gone against us on this trip, way before we even landed in Beira, Mozambique. Bowhunting Cape buffalo in the Zambezi Delta swamps had been something I always wanted to experience, but after booking the trip for 2020 and having everything ready, our trip had to be postponed due to COVID. Without any idea about when we would be able to go, we could only sit and wait.

A year later, I read some news online that froze my heart — the Mozambique government had forbidden bowhunting of dangerous game. I couldn’t believe it, but the outfitter quickly confirmed the news. There are a lot of rumors regarding this sudden regulation change, but it’s hard to know the truth. Some said it was to legislate against poachers. Others said it was a wording mistake. And still others said it was due to legislation being copied from other countries. The reality is that they included arrows as an unauthorized method of hunting elephant, buffalo, hippo, lion, leopard, and crocodile. Since the real purpose of the trip was to spend time hunting with my dad in Africa, we decided not to cancel the trip and to hunt the buffalo with our rifles. There are more important things than just the choice of weapon.

Tonight though, my demons aren’t highlighting this purpose. More important topics are on the table. Apart from the buffalo, I came to Mozambique with a couple of other objectives — the nyala and the sable — two of the most beautiful antelope in the world. The nyala is an animal that lives in thick forest and is impossible to hunt, unless they cooperate and come out into open country. There is only one thing they hate more than the rain, and that’s the cold raindrops inside the forest after a strong storm. They love coming out to catch some sun and dry out, but the sun had not been seen in several days — until yesterday afternoon.


Mind-Games-Stalk-1200x800.jpg
This image shows me belly-crawling toward a herd of sable that were bedded down in a “pan.”

We got into a couple good opportunities at the beginning of the trip, but the fear of missing froze me more than ever before. Both opportunities could have been enough, but they weren’t 100-percent right, so I didn’t risk the shot. I didn’t want to screw up. Bowhunting opportunities are never 100-percent right, but for some reason I was missing my usual self-confidence and optimism. Both had helped me resolve many hunting situations before, but the demons were digging in the open wound. Something was wrong in me…and I felt like I was running out of time.


These thoughts were digging deeper and getting louder. I was able to quiet them down by making a great 38-yard shot on a huge warthog after a beautiful stalk. The arrow completely passed through and double-lunged him. The old boar dropped in sight after a short run. Actually, my first African animal with a bow was a warthog in Mozambique back in 2007, so I’ll call it destiny. I was back on track.

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I regained some of my confidence by making a great stalk on this big warthog and by executing a perfect 38-yard shot.

The rain finally stopped for an afternoon, and we went to do some stalking inside what is called “The Gardens.” These were old sections of forest cut for cropping purposes, which had been restored, and where new, shorter and thicker forest was growing up. Nyala love these thick places, and after heavy storms, especially when the sun comes out, the striking antelope like to come out in the open, which is mostly the roads. It doesn’t take long for us to spot an old bull, and the stalk is on. Step by step, we sneak into range and wait for the bull to give us a clear shot. The bush is thick, and it isn’t easy to find a good shooting lane.

We finally get inside 50 yards, and the bull slowly heads toward an opening. It has a feeling something is wrong and is looking toward us and trying to figure out what we are. I am already at full draw while Rye, my professional hunter, tries to give me a range. For some reason, he struggles to range the nyala through the bushes. As the bull keeps coming toward the opening, my heart beats hard while I whisper at full draw, “Rye, the range. The freaking range!”

Rye replies, “It isn’t working, I can’t…”




I am about to have a nervous breakdown when Rye says, “Wait…45 yards!”

I put the pin behind the shoulder and release the arrow. It was a bowhunter’s worst nightmare — a shoulder-blade hit. The nyala jumps the string and the arrow hits high in the middle of the scapula. The penetration is poor, and the nyala disappears, never to be seen again. There I stood, going through all that had happened and why it had happened, and how I would make sure it never happened again.

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The above frame grab, with an nyala anatomy graphic overlay, shows my point of aim.
Mind-Games-Impact-1200x800.jpg
Here was my arrow’s point of impact. (Photos by www.africahunting.com)

Here are some details that tilted the balance. African animals have the vitals far more forward than our deer. You need to shoot them straight above the leg, following the leg line. The nyala was slightly quartering-to, so I had to tighten that shot to the leg even more, and risk hitting major bones. My plan was to use a small mechanical broadhead with a 1¼-inch cut, but I was persuaded in camp to shoot a larger diameter head as I was told nyala weren’t “strong.” Making this change after I’d already built confidence in my setup, only made me more nervous. And relying on another’s range estimation pulled me out of my shooting sequence and created self-doubt. Finally, according to the staff, nyala aren’t supposed to jump the string unless they’re looking at you — something I honestly didn’t consider, given the stress of the situation.

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Under high stress, your inner demons and bad thoughts come back quickly, and you second-guess everything. Who hasn’t ranged the same tree three or four times when we know trees don’t tend to move? In those situations, you also look for external confirmation of your beliefs. My experience is that you should really believe in yourself. I’m not trying to blame external factors. My mistake was not believing in myself. When you draw the bow back and the word “miss” crosses your mind, you’re in trouble. That should not be a possible outcome.

These thoughts were all deeply stuck in me as I crawled toward a group of bedded sable. After a couple hundred yards, we finally closed the gap. I only needed five more yards to reach a little bush located 50 yards from the herd bull. The stalk felt impossible, but we took our time and it looked like it was going to work. Suddenly, I heard a car coming toward the “pan” (a large grass opening inside the forest). My dad and his PH were starting across the opening with their vehicle! What were the chances of that?

As the car approached, the whole herd stood up to leave. I needed to act quickly, so without a second thought I drew my bow back and aimed at the bull, which was already at 68 yards. The shot execution was feeling great, but as I was pulling through the shot I saw the bull starting to walk away with the herd. It was too late for me to stop the shot cycle, and the arrow was gone. It was far back. By the time the arrow arrived, the sable had made a solid full step. I couldn’t believe this was happening!

We started tracking the sable after giving it some time, as it was clearly a gut shot. We had some good blood in spots, which would confirm the tracks we were following were made by my bull. We bumped the sable from its first bed, with no chance of a follow-up arrow. In this situation, I decided to eat my pride and finish the animal as quickly as possible. It’s not the animal’s fault I made a poor shot, so after jumping it out of its bed several times, I saw a gap and used a rifle to end this horror movie.

Mind-Games-Sable-1200x800.jpg
I’m smiling here but had mixed feelings about how my hunt ended for this amazing sable bull.

After many years of hunting in Africa, it was my first time wounding an animal with my compound. And not one, but two. My stomach has been hurting since, but I know I’ll be a different bowhunter from now on — a better one. These mistakes chased me so hard that it actually pulled me out of the hunt and made me miss the most important thing of all — enjoying quality time with my dad.

It’s easy to publicly share the successes, but this wasn’t an easy story to share. As embarrassed as I feel about myself, I have learned more from this experience than from any other hunt when everything went right. I was way too confident with my bow, and myself. The forest showed me once again that I must stay humble and keep working and training every single day. I’ll come back stronger, more committed, and more dedicated. It’s time to start building everything from the ground up and to start burying those demons once and for all.

The author is an international bowhunter who lives in Spain.

Author’s Note

On this hunt, I used a PSE EVO EVL bow, Spot-Hogg Hogg Father sight, QAD Ultrarest, Doinker stabilizer, a Total Peep, and Carter Wise Choice release. My arrows were Carbon Express Maxima Reds tipped with Grim Reaper Fatal Steel broadheads. My binoculars were Leupold 10x50 BX-5 Santiam HD, and my rangefinder was a Leupold FullDraw 5. My clothing was a KUIU Gila shirt and Tiburon pants, and my pack was a KUIU Stalker 500.

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