In my early thirties I read everything I could read about tracking whitetail deer in the big woods of the Northeast. I read every Benoit book and article, watched every video they produced, read Hal Blood’s books and watched his videos as well. Then I sought out more information through R.G. Bernier’s works, and the Salerno Brothers, as well as the countless books on the great hunters of the Adirondack Mountains both past and present. My search for information went on and on…I was hooked, and the flood of information filled every crevice of my mind.
Generally speaking I was a little ahead of the curve than the average stand hunter or still-hunter when I started my tracking quest. I had already still-hunted with some success throughout my youth and my twenties and had dabbled in tracking. I killed a lot of small deer, but, by no means was I an accomplished tracker. As a matter of fact, it really wasn’t until I spent a week in 2006 hunting in Maine with Hal Blood and Chris Dalti of Big Woods Bucks that I really began to see what it took to kill big deer in the great forests of the North. The problem was, and it was a big one, by the time I spent that week with Hal and Chris, my mind was already fettered with so much random information, tactics and stories on the tracking subject, that I became somewhat lost and confused in the sea of mental data that had accumulated over the years. What made it worse was I didn’t realize how this mental logjam would actually hurt my chances for a big buck rather than increase my odds. I thought knowledge is power, the more the better. Well, it certainly is if that knowledge is organized in some fashion, and it doesn’t overwhelm you. That was not the case here…
And that is precisely why I wanted to get this experience on paper – to help those who are experiencing what I like to call analysis paralysis.
I’ve talked with dozens who find the idea of tracking whitetails in the big woods to be daunting and intimidating, but they still want to give it a try. So, like me, they read, they watch the video’s, they watch outdoor television and buy more gear, they get a new tracking gun, read some more, watch another video, and then eventually head into the woods – hoping to kill like the pro’s. A few will get lucky. Most won’t. And the majority will have quit before they learn to simplify.
How to Simplify
Breaking down the information overload to bite sized effective strategies is not as hard as it sounds. The good news is that I did much of the homework of sifting through the sea of information for you through my years of frustration, confusion and trial and error. So listen up!
Let me begin with a parallel story that will help you understand how to overcome this mental paralysis:
I see this same mental overload problem happen with some of my guests at my retreats in Upstate NY. People attend the St. Jude Program at one of my St. Jude Retreats looking for a solution to their substance addictions. Like the discipline of tracking, overcoming an issue like this takes some work and knowledge. We take our retreat guests through a six-week process of presenting life-saving information, and then they return home to put what they have learned into practical application. Like my obsession with big woods tactics and planning, some of the retreat guests delve into the research behind the program, then on top of that they read the ancillary supporting research, they debate the method; they obsess on all the material; they want to know it all. They are incredibly focused on learning all of the material and can’t seem to get enough. Their enthusiasm drives them! As they get closer to their return home date they begin to over-think the entirety of what they have learned; it becomes a massive logjam. Then, a few days before they are scheduled to return home, they exclaim how utterly overwhelmed they are; that they don’t know where to start – they have created their own version of debilitating analysis paralysis. They are frozen in an overloaded state of mind.
The first step we take is to simplify and organize their thoughts and plans. Getting over an addiction, any addiction, is not difficult when you know the facts and you have a clear and concise roadmap to apply the facts in an effective way. We focus on the core points that anyone with an alcohol or drug problem would want to know. For example, first we debunk the addiction disease concept – we show them that they do not have a disease, but rather they have a choice and they have power. This frees them from perpetual treatment and recovery. We then focus on goals that they know are doable. This is important; we focus like a rifle instead of blasting away a scattergun approach that can only serve to further confuse and create the fear of failure. We prioritize their tasks and goals and make the plan easy to understand and apply. The fear goes away, and they find the success through facts and organized planning. Essentially, like the tracker, they learn to put one foot in front of the other.
The Rifle or Shotgun Approach?
Do not make the tracking discipline unnecessarily difficult as I did. It is essentially finding a track and following it to a satisfactory conclusion. Any ideas beyond that core and you might find yourself out in the weeds without a buck on the game pole. Simply put, finding a track is an odds game, (with the odds in your favor if you do the correct things) and following that track is more of a persistence game than anything else.
In my case, I had so much information in my head that just finding a track became a mentally taxing process. Let me be frank about this; it shouldn’t be. If you walk in the snowy woods, and you walk in a straight line for long enough you will eventually cut a fresh big buck track. That is a fact. That is where your logic should start, and work from there. However, if you suffer from analysis paralysis what should be easy becomes mentally and emotionally complicated. I spent so much time looking over maps, stressing out whether I was finding the biggest buck, the best buck, the dominant buck, that I was forgetting that I was just out there to find a buck and follow it. As I wandered the woods, I had forty things I was thinking about…what would a big buck think of that ridge, would he walk in the edge of that green growth or on the other side of it, which way does the wind typically blow, and if I was a buck would I use those thermals to my advantage to find does during the rut…on and on it would go in my head. Analysis paralysis! All of this mental minefield is the shotgun approach – I was spraying my mind with unnecessary variables. Make no mistake, these kinds of mental games will exhaust you, and create doubt in yourself. I had learned too much information and it made me slower and unsure and it made me second guess myself which just added to my eventual exhaustion. Like my retreat guests, doubt and fear of failure would creep in clouding the reality that tracking should be a focused and pleasurable venture. It took some time for me to realize this; 8 years of intense frustration in fact. Once I did finally realize that what I was doing was ineffective, I simplified to the core issues.
I began to search for a track by “letting it flow.” I simply cleared my mind and walked where I wanted to walk, kept a good pace, and covered ground. By doing this, I enjoyed it much more, and I learned more! I found tracks more quickly, I followed them, and I learned. Each time I let it flow I learned more about deer behavior from the deer, not from the baggage in my head from the outdoor television “pro’s.” I cannot explain how important this shift in thinking and doing is. Let the deer do the teaching. Let go of your analysis paralysis. Tracking is about doing, not in thinking about doing.
If we carry too much data, and half of that information is based on people that make a living talking about what they think a deer is “thinking,” well then my friend, you, like me, have followed a pied piper down a bad path.
So where do I Start?
(Reader’s note: I am assuming you have some basic survival and navigational skills for the big woods. If not, learn those skills prior to hitting the big woods.)
First, go when there is snow. It’s easier. Be prepared to walk at least 5 miles, probably more. Find a large swamp and skirt the edges where the green growth meets the hardwoods and walk. If no tracks are there, go to the next ridge or swamp and do the same thing. By noon you will be on a track. It might be old or new, but for now begin following it (even if it’s an old track).
If after five to six hours of good paced walking and you are not on a track, go somewhere else. Get back in your truck or just look at the map of the area, and find the next big swamp or ridge or mountain and repeat the process.
If the tracks you do eventually cut are old, you will still learn from them, and my experience says an old track will almost always cross with a newer track, so stay on it! If and when you cross a newer track, switch off and follow that one. Again, just stay on it, and observe all that you can. Do not leave the track, I cannot stress that enough. Your mind will try to convince you that leaving the track will be better – it’s not. The big woods are called that for a reason, and being on a track is always better than not being on one, the odds of seeing a big buck go up dramatically with a track in front of you. When it seems the track is gone missing – it hasn’t. Deer can’t fly. Figure it out; spend as much time as it takes to sort it out. Do not leave that track at all costs – this is how you get good at this. Learn from the deer. Keep going. Enjoy the sights, the adventure, the smells, the crisp air. Smile. Let it flow. Keep walking. Look around, observe; let your gut guide you. When the track changes for any reason, slow down, enjoy it, observe. He, the buck, is teaching you what you need to know…its happening. You’re learning…you’re living.
I realize that sounds limited or myopic. But it’s not. Remember, tracking is about tracking. It’s not about all the other mental games that get in the way. I guarantee that if you approach tracking like a focused rifle shot rather than a messy shotgun blast, your odds of success will skyrocket. In the last five years since I began to approach my hunting in a much more focused approach I’ve shot six deer, and four of them in their beds. Two of those four were shot with a bow as they slept: an eight and a ten pointer. This was possible because I focused like a laser, I slowed down and I observed. I approached the hunt with a clear mind and let it flow by allowing the deer to do the teaching. Do that for your first season of tracking big woods bucks. Don’t let analysis paralysis muck up your thoughts and emotions like I did. Let the deer teach you. And never forget the famous words of Thomas Edison, “There is no replacement for hard work.” No truer words said.
If you or anyone you know has a problem with addiction or would like more information about the St. Jude Retreats and/or the St. Jude Program click here or if you would like to call Mark Scheeren directly and confidentially dial toll free (888) 424-2626.
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