As a child I began my goal to kill a whitetail buck by walking the ridges and creek bottoms of the farm land around my parent's home. I walked those hills and valleys like a boy possessed, driven by my intense desire to hunt and find peace in my life. I did shoot deer as the years went on, but most of the time I seemed to do a lot more scaring of game than I did successfully shooting them. In contrast, my buddy (and lifetime hunting partner) Bob, would always shoot deer. We were so close – like brothers – that I was never jealous of this fact. We celebrated deer hunting as free souls, and a deer he shot was as good as a deer I shot. But as the years progressed I watched Bob turn into a deer slaying machine while I continued to bump big bucks more than I shot them.
As time went on, it became evident that I was too impatient to still hunt effectively. Don’t get me wrong, I shot a deer nearly every season of my 36 years of hunting, but with the amount of footwork I put in, you’d think I would have found more success. Bob however, found amazing success with his skills of walking, poking along and peeking. He is the epitome of what I call a stand-still-tracker. He can stand-hunt, still hunt and track effectively; it doesn’t matter - he’s good at all of them. There is a reason for that success. He’s got real patience and a methodical gait about him. All of the different styles suit him fine and he will switch tactics mid-hunt without a hitch and find success. Me, I just keep trucking. I probably sling more lead than Bob each year, but I connect with less frequency.
One day not that long ago, I realized that I needed to do something different. I could see that Bob’s track record was pretty telling – he was slaying some big deer regularly. So without saying a word, as Bob and I hunted together, I watched Bob with a deliberate interest to see exactly what he does in the woods that makes the difference. Now mind you, we have hunted for more than 36 years together, so being in proximity to each other in the woods is absolutely nothing new – its second nature. But in all those years, I never stopped and really watched him hunt in this deliberate manner. And what I found was something quite special and interesting. It also made me a better hunter, and a more importantly, a happier person.
So What Did I See?
What I saw was a man who was comfortable in the woods. That’s it. I know, you were probably waiting for some great insight – but to me this was a revelation. He blends; he is absorbed into the backdrop. He’s not pushing the experience because it’s all just simple hunting to Bob. He’s simply walking, observing, waiting, and then walking some more. It’s incredibly straightforward and methodical. It’s also peaceful to watch.
In contrast, I’ve always wanted to conquer the woods, conquer the terrain, conquer the deer, see what’s over that next rise etc., etc.. My mind naturally races and it takes me conscious effort to slow it down. What is ironic is all the years of hunting has actually been a subconscious effort to conquer myself; my emotional compulsive nature, although I didn’t realize it until I watched Bob that day. I needed to see that contrast. Here was my best friend, my hunting partner of decades, and the styles in which we hunt could not have been more opposite. I had developed as a child such an intensity with the manner in which I conducted myself, (for a variety of reasons that aren’t important to this article) that that intensity carried into my hunting where it caused ineffective strategies to develop over time. Here’s the simple truth - You can be too aggressive when hunting, and that includes tracking; and that’s a style that encourages personal drive! Even when tracking, you can push the envelope too far. I have, too many times. Unfortunately for me, and those others I’ve met who are also intense driven people, you can’t push nature – it won’t bend to your will no matter how hard you try.
That day with Bob opened my eyes. I became much more aware of myself and how I carried myself in the woods. Later that same year I put into practice the lesson Bob taught me; to ease my mind and thus ease the tension I felt in my body. Not a week later I shot my biggest buck ever in its bed.
It took me to my forties to finally understand that I didn’t have to fight the world. I had developed a certain intensity when I was young, and up to then it was leaving me with an empty buck pole all too often. Without realizing it, when I would hit the woods, that old drive would kick in. I loved the woods, always have. I feel joy there, but it also incites this natural compulsion for motion within me. The intensity of my personality has always driven me to seek out the next hill, valley, ridge or swamp. But sometimes the deer is right there – he’s not on the other side of the next hill, valley or swamp.
As I grew into my forties and I had developed into a competent tracker, the part of my personality that drives me was given a chance to be released, because now I had an excuse to just forge forward on a track. My son once said, “My God Dad, you get on a track and you’re like a bloodhound possessed!” He was right. But here’s the kicker: I still needed to put into practice that which Bob’s example demonstrated, especially at the end of a tracking job when the deer was close at hand. Sure, I could go gangbusters catching up to an old cagy buck, but to close the deal I needed to shut down my intensity and anxiousness. Like all the successful trackers out there, I too needed to learn to blend and flow and slow down, none of which is all that natural to me.
This Past Year – A Lesson in Mental Control
This past year (2015) I had one day of snow to track on. It was late season, and I knew I had only the one day to close the deal. We had seen very little sign in comparison to previous years, and where we hunt, the winter was brutal so the winter kill was big. The point is, the pressure was on after a week of not seeing many deer and time was running out.
If I’m under any kind of mental pressure like this, the old Mark gets fired up without realizing it. It’s almost subconscious, an old habit unearthed from its dormancy. I get aggressive and begin to get that “I need to conquer” thing going.
And so my day started…
…I went up and over Bear Hill in search of a track; then through the Saddle and back and forth through a series of small mountaintops. I kept wandering into the thick stuff, thinking I might discover a buck bedded. I was beginning to get that frantic feeling – like I needed to force the issue. I felt the clock ticking. Still no tracks. Then I stopped myself. I could sense that I was making a straight forward operation into something it didn’t need to be, and I was wasting precious energy doing it. I realized I felt tense. When I searched my mind for what I was feeling, I realized I was afraid I was not going to get a track, and that I was not going to get my buck. I was afraid I was going to fail. That’s when it hit me…I needed to relax. I thought of Bob. He would simply wander around calmly until he found what he needed to take the next step in the hunt. A voice inside said, “You make things too difficult for yourself. Stop it. Just walk straight ahead and relax.” Within ten minutes I was on a fresh set of buck and doe tracks heading into the open hardwoods. They were close. I smiled. I felt vindicated and successful; confident. Now I could just let it flow.
I could see down the mountain clearly for about a hundred yards. There was a small ravine on the side of the mountain where a seep drained into a large swamp at the bottom. I could see the tracks go into that ravine, but I couldn’t see into the bottom of it – the angle was wrong and it was too deep. So I took out my binoculars and looked at the opposite side of the ravine and saw tracks coming out of the other side of the depression and they made their way across the side of the mountain I was on. Without caution I walked forward thinking the deer were out of sight far off somewhere past the ravine on the other side. As I got closer to the edge of the ravine to cross it, a bedded eight pointer and doe jumped up out of the bottom of the depression and immediately bolted into a thin line of pines near the watery bottom. I was so caught off guard I never even had time to raise my Marlin before they were out of sight. I had thought the tracks coming out of the other side were theirs, so I was totally unprepared for their presence.
When I got down to their beds in the snow, I could see the tracks of a few other deer that had previously come up the bottom of the seep from the swamp below and then turned out of the ravine. From where I had looked with the binoculars earlier I was unable to see where those tracks had come from and consequently I thought they were the tracks of my buck and doe leaving the ravine. They weren’t – I was annoyed.
So the hunt was on. Now it was afternoon. Now I really felt an urgency as time was clicking away. I began to walk faster, heart rate up – I was determined to kill that buck. He was a nice symmetrical eight. Probably would dress out at 160lbs; a very typical Central Adirondack buck of 3 years old or so. Not a monster, but I wasn’t being choosy; it was my last 3 hours of the season…and it had been a tough season at that.
Just as I marched clear of the top of the ravine, I stopped. I again forced myself to analyze how I felt. Again I was tense. And in the back recesses of my mind I was quietly filled with doubt. I was really surprised that I felt these things again. I had to laugh at myself. I said in my mind, “There’s no one to fight here Mark. Relax. Breathe.” I sat and had a sandwich. I looked around, and looked at the beauty around me. I put all feelings of doubt or failure to rest. I was in a giant grey beech stand. Below was a sea of green Christmas spruce. It was really pretty and it was peacefully quiet with a slight breeze. A chickadee landed to eat some of the crust I threw on the snow. I caught motion down the hill…way off. It was a pine martin. He too was hunting. I smiled again. I felt the anxiety leave me. Confidently and slowly I got up and started on the track again.
I played cat and mouse with this buck for the next couple hours and another bigger buck that crossed my path near sunset. I got a glimpse of the first buck one last time before I jumped onto the bigger bucks tracks. I never got a shot off. It just didn’t work out…the two points just didn’t connect. But through it all I felt calm, alert and alive. I smiled all the way to the truck. I was successful – I had consciously tamed myself. I found peace and let go of the fear of failure and the anxiety that goes with it. I realized I can’t lose, if I’m willing to learn.
My life up until I was about 40 was a constant search to prove myself worthy…mostly to myself. What I didn’t understand for many years was that life isn’t something you force and neither is nature. It’s a matter of understanding what challenge is in front of you and applying the right mix of solutions minus the fear and anxiety. And for me, taming those negative emotions and replacing it with living in the moment, was the biggest key to extracting the most joy from a hunt. The famous philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He was right. I had examined my thoughts and what I was feeling, and was astounded at the number of times I felt doubt. You would think that after so many years of living and hunting in the outdoors that these kinds of thoughts wouldn’t exist. But I have since talked with scores of hunters who struggle with their self-doubt and anxieties about what constitutes a successful hunt. It’s a common experience – but one that can be reversed with a little mental awareness.
Confidence does not necessarily come from always getting the big buck. Sometimes it comes in other packages. For me, 2015 was a huge success. I had learned to tame my emotions and instead look at the hunt as a process that unfolds naturally. And in being a participant in the process I’ve found greater joy and peace…and that is after all, the best reason to be outdoors.
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