I was thirteen years old and had just finished crawling through knee-deep Wisconsin snow in December to position myself within bow range of a deer feeding in a cut corn field. In addition to the numbingly cold temperature, I recall feeling heat pounding in my ear drums and slight trembling throughout my body. I nocked an arrow, rose to one knee, and came to full draw. The next thing I remember was seeing my arrow sail a foot over the deer’s back. That was the first of many experiences I would have with what hunters call “buck fever.”
Thirty-one years later I was eighteen feet up an oak tree in early November, watching a deer enter the clearing in front of me. I felt a second or two of mild nervousness and then relaxed completely as I picked a spot tight to its shoulder. With a calm and controlled shot, I sent my arrow through the buck’s chest and into the ground. A few seconds and forty yards later, he folded onto the forest floor. As I slumped back into the seat of my tree stand, I looked at the wet, red fletching twelve yards in front of me and gave thanks.
So how did I go from being an uncontrolled mess to relaxed and methodical during my hunting shots? Before we can solve the problem of buck fever, we first need to identify and understand it. From there, we can formulate a solution. So, let’s back up a bit and take a look at the buck fever phenomenon.
The inability to control our shot process—not reaching full draw before releasing the string, having our bow arm freezing off target, and so on—is called target panic. This is not to be confused with poor shooting form. Target panic is a mental block that prevents us from doing what we’re otherwise capable of doing. With few exceptions, true target panic is a full time condition. It occurs whether we’re shooting in the back yard, at a local 3-D shoot, or in the hunting woods.
Target panic that manifests only under pressure is called competition anxiety. If you’ve spent much time around competitive shooters, you’ve likely known someone who was incredibly accurate when shooting for fun but crumbled during tournaments. They could knock the center out of targets at their home club, but under pressure their heart rate spiked, their hands shook, and they couldn’t seem to hit a wall tent from the inside.
Think about the last poor shot you made on an animal you very much wanted to kill. Does this sound familiar—shooting well in practice, but messing up when a filled tag is on the line? Buck fever is to bowhunters what competition anxiety is to competitive shooters. It is the inability to control your shot while under pressure.
Completely self-inflicted, pressure is nothing more than how we respond to a particular situation. External influences cannot put pressure on us; they can only create an environment in which we will be likely to put pressure on ourselves. Since we are all human and therefore imperfect, simply choosing not to feel pressure isn’t entirely realistic. But we can train our minds to avoid the kind of thoughts that lead us to put pressure on ourselves. This is the first step to managing buck fever.
Controlling what we think about before and during a shot is important. All we should think about when it’s time to shoot an arrow is the process of shooting that arrow. That’s it—nothing else. This holds true whether we’re at a tournament or in the woods. Irrelevant thoughts about filling freezers or trips to the taxidermist do nothing to help us shoot accurately. As a matter of fact, such distractions often lead to otherwise clean broadheads sticking in the dirt.
Since experiencing some degree of pressure is inevitable, we need to learn to cope with it. More specifically, we need to desensitize ourselves to it. When I was in high school I worked part time in an automotive quick lube shop, which meant servicing hot engines. At first my hands were very sensitive to pain caused by hot surfaces—oil filters, for example. Eventually, unless something was hot enough to raise a blister, handling it didn’t bother me anymore. It’s not that I didn’t feel pain, but I had built up a tolerance to it.
Think about the last joke you heard that made you laugh hysterically. You’re probably snickering right now just thinking about it. If someone were to tell you that joke several times a day, every day, how funny would it be after a month? You probably wouldn’t even crack a smile anymore because you’d heard it so many times you were numb to it. Shooting under pressure works the same way. The more you do it, the less it affects you.
I’m a firm believer that live animals, including small game and fish, are not the proper medium on which to work out shooting problems. So how then do we simulate the pressure we feel during those one or two important hunting shots every year? We need to seek out other pressure situations for our shooting, and for many people that means competition.
When I say competition, I’m not suggesting that everyone should run out and register for the next national championship. Rather, we should find a venue where we put pressure on ourselves and engage in it frequently. For some folks, that means stump shooting with friends or attending local 3-D shoots. For others, it may mean training for and competing in state, national, or world championships. Find some type of competitive shooting that makes your heart pound, your hands sweat, and your knees shake, and then do as much of it as possible.
I’ve been blessed to shoot with and against some of the best competitive traditional archers in the country, and the ones who hunt are as deadly on real animals as they are on foam ones. Their trophy shelves and full freezers don’t lie. I suppose because I grew up in a family where folks shot competitively and hunted, I never doubted that the first complimented the second. If you look at some of the revered bowhunters of yesterday—Fred Bear, Howard Hill, Art Young—you’ll see they were competitive shooters as well as bowhunters.
We constantly advise people to practice how they hunt. This includes shooting while wearing hunting clothes, while sitting and kneeling, and if applicable from tree stands and ground blinds. But for some reason we overlook the need to apply that same excellent advice to the mental side of shooting. If we don’t practice shooting under pressure, do we really think we’ll be good at it for one or two shots a year? Probably not, which is one of the reasons so many people suffer from buck fever every hunting season.
I spent the first decade plus as a bowhunter practicing everything I thought I needed to do to shoot effectively in hunting situations. I practiced on deer targets year around, simulated hunting angles and positions, and broke untold dozens of arrows stump shooting by myself in the woods. I spent all my time trying to perfect the physical aspects of my shot, but because I failed to appreciate the mental side of shooting under pressure, I missed more deer in those early years than I could begin to recall. Buck fever and I were joined at the bow quiver.
It wasn’t until I started competing and shooting under pressure frequently that I turned a corner with respect to my hunting accuracy. By shooting hundreds of arrows in high pressure situations every year, the few shots I get during hunting season feel completely natural. I’m mentally prepared for those shots because I’ve already done them thousands of times.
That being said, I need to be perfectly clear about something. The title of this article is “Managing Buck Fever,” not “Eliminating Buck Fever.” That’s not by accident. Perfection is a virtuous pursuit, but an impossible goal. None of us is perfect, not the person writing this article or the one reading it. Despite our best efforts, there may be times when buck fever rears its ugly head once again. But with the right preparation, these instances should be extremely rare, not the norm.
Once we learn the basics of form and aiming, the act of shooting an arrow is primarily a mental process. The difference between successful hunts and tales of regret often comes down to shooting a single arrow accurately. If we don’t prepare for the mental stress of that shot, we are setting ourselves up for failure. So take time to reflect on your own archery practice throughout the year and ask yourself what you’re doing to help keep buck fever under control in the field.