By BWB Team member Mark Scheeren
When we think about practice in the off season as it relates to hunting and tracking, it tends to conjure up images of shooting our rifles, tuning our bows for the fall, and working out during those long summer months. All of these activities are forms of practice and are the necessary preparatory pieces of the puzzle to be sure. If you want to be successful, then those items need to be on your to-do list as well. But with that said, there is another form of practice that gets less attention – practicing the art of tracking in the off season. Because there’s no snow in the summer, most people don’t think about tracking during the hot months. But what if you could practice it in that time of the year? Would you do it?
Most of what happens on the track is mental. Sure you need to be in shape physically, but even with that being true, the mental game is usually the clincher when it comes to outwitting a cagey old wilderness buck. Truthfully, if you are out of shape physically, there is not much you’re going to do about it once season rolls around. Either you’ve prepared physically or you haven’t, so that part almost goes without saying. So let’s assume for the sake of this article that you have remained in some semblance of good physical shape for the actual deer season. So now the question remains – are you mentally prepared to track down a mature buck, or is it going to take you a few days to get back into the mental groove?
The “Tracking Mind”
The tracking mind develops every time you track a buck – it’s a learning process no matter how many bucks you’ve tracked up to that point. In essence, when you track deer, you are exercising the primitive parts of your mind and then cataloging the experience in your memory. Modern living does not touch this part of your consciousness; it can’t. This is important to understand. Sitting in your office or putting up sheetrock does not stimulate the mind in the same way that chasing a buck through the big woods does. So naturally, these portions of your mind and brain lie dormant when not hunting. The tracking mind goes through a process of atrophy no different than the physical body does with lack of exercise. Once deer season begins again, it takes a few days for the mind, the brain and the body to get fired up and kicking in that latent tracking mindfulness. That intense state of focus while on the track and in the death creep, is the tracker’s mind at its best. Yet, most of us will only train our bodies in the off season, we don’t exercise our tracking mind. So how is one to train the mind for the opener of tracking season?
A Sixth Sense – The Tracking Sense
How many times have you gone into the woods knowing it was going to be a stellar day – you could just feel it? And then, almost as if you could read the future, you went out and killed a buck that day. (I had this experience this past season in the Adirondacks.) Or maybe you went into the woods in a particularly positive state of mind and you had an experience that was memorable or special that particular day? It’s almost like you have the powers of premonition – you just knew that things were going to come together in some special way. There was a positive feel in the air; something felt different; you had a skip to your step; a keenness in your eyesight; a sharper ear; more energy; maybe even a calmness and surefooted confidence as you made your way up the mountain or across that swamp. All of those things are pieces of the tracker’s mind being particularly focused. Now let’s be real here. Humans don’t actually have a sense of reading the future – if we could, life would be very easy after all! What actually is happening on those days is the natural sense of confidence that occurs when our minds are sharp on a particular task at hand. Those in sports use the term of being “in the zone” when explaining this acute mental perception and sense of focus. The late Larry Benoit talks about this same sense of body and mind in his description of what it feels like to be a “real deer hunter” in the last few chapters of his famous book, How to Bag the Biggest Buck of your Life.
What if I told you that you too could feel that same confidence more often, and that you have a lot more control in the positive outcomes of your hunts than you believe you have. And no, this isn’t some new age nonsense, or silly psychological drivel. What I’m proposing is a way to keep an active “tracking mind” during the offseason, so that sharpness you develop during deer season does not fade and need to be rekindled each fall. I used to find that it took me a few days of being in the woods to get back into the groove, and being that I don’t have a tremendous amount of vacation time each year, I wanted to avoid this three day ramping up period. I wanted to develop a way where I could keep my tracking mind sharp all year long, so once deer season rolled around I was ready to go full guns on that first day. I wanted to feel that innate sense of confidence that is there in those last few weeks of season after you’ve put in the miles and maybe shot at a buck or two. If you too want your first day tracking to be as good as your best days of the past, then you need to create the “trackers mind” in the off season. So how does one go about doing this?
The summer has its challenges to be sure. These months are devoid of snow, the woods are filled with foliage that limits your view, the ticks and black flies are rampant, and your days tend to be filled with distractions such as working hard making money, being with the wife and kids barbecuing, watching the kids play sports and maybe doing some traveling too. Hunting – especially tracking tends to go dormant during these summer months. But it doesn’t have to be. I have all those same distractions that could also keep me from the woods in the late spring to early fall months. But over the last few years, I’ve found I can practice tracking in those warm months, but I had to do it in a way that is different than directly tracking a buck on snow.
Play Connect the Dots
One of the things you learn in the big north woods is to still-hunt sign when in search of a good buck on those days or weeks when you don’t have any snow. If you find lots of sign in a certain area, that’s when you slow down and sneak and peak. In the Adirondacks I have two big areas (one is 44,000 acres, the other is 62,000 acres) I’ve hunted for many years now and I know where signpost rubs are, and where scrape lines can be found most years in certain areas of these vast tracts of mountains. These are a few of the places where I can almost always find a descent buck track if there’s snow or wet leaves to work from. If I look on a map I can find similar areas in other parts of the Park that contain analogous land and water features, and thusly I can find those areas that bucks like to travel in and out of in those sections of the mountains as well. Again, most of this reconnaissance was done during deer seasons when there was no snow and I was forced to still-hunt rather than track. I didn’t mind this because I’m the kind of guy that needs to move; to know what’s over the next hill, across the swamp, or on the next ridge. Because the north country demands you cover ground to find those big racked wilderness buck’s lairs, I got into the habit of seeing the big picture in these huge tracts of unbroken wilderness. Once you have still-hunted a big chunk of ground in this same way, you automatically will create a map in your head of the land and its features and where those honey holes are. This happens naturally. Each of those honey holes is a “dot” that your mind will naturally connect to other honey holes nearby; more “dots.” Once you’ve still-hunted and canvassed a large area thoroughly, you’re mind will continue to connect these dots and begin to form the travel routes of these nomadic old bucks. Each of these areas of heavy sign becomes a track of sorts. If you are energetic enough, you will begin to “see” the map in your mind with all those dots (tracks) and how deer move through that particular area of the big woods. This connect the dots type of still-hunting literally massages and exercises that part of the mind where the tracking discipline is stored. Think about it, when still-hunting in this manner you are tracking deer, just on a much larger macro scale.
Now do the same in the Off Season
Here’s the point though…scouting during the off season works the same way. It’s the exact same connect-the-dots adventure as still hunting, but without shooting when you bump deer. And make no mistake, with enough effort; it will inadvertently keep your tracking senses sharp. Again, it’s tracking but not tracking actual deer tracks, but instead you are tracking areas with a lot of last year’s buck sign. Each area that’s packed with lots of sign from the previous year’s rut is a track of sorts. However, the space between each of these “tracks” might be a half mile or more. If you can expand your mind’s eye to see the big picture, and you’ve hit this kind of scouting really hard during the summer months, you are actually building the framework of where to hunt or seek a good buck track in the upcoming season. But more to my original point, you’re keeping your tracking mind exercised. In a quiet way, you’re working the mental game magic. You’re tracking on a large acreage scale. But your mind and brain will take the same skills it’s learned from being on actual buck tracks in snow and it will apply it on this larger scale.
I find it’s important to have a map of the area when doing this connect the dots scouting (or still hunting). If I can look at where I am on the map, where I’ve been, and then mark the areas of heavy sign, I’m able to get a real good picture for an area. Lots of guys do this with their GPS units and incorporate scouting cameras, etc. into the mix. I know fellow BWB Team Member Jeff Doyle does this kind of e-scouting and the monster bucks on his wall are a testament of how effective his summer scouting methods are. I’m a bit old fashioned in that I like a paper map, and mark it up with a pen. (I’ve had a few GPS units fail so I’ve learned to always have a paper map anyway. I also never use scouting cameras, as I want the final moment of walking up to the downed buck to be a bit of a surprise – to see what God has granted me.) My hunting partner Bob Dunbar has an old map that’s tattered and torn but contains all the spots deer have fallen to his 270 pump in the Adirondacks. He has connected the dots with some fantastic success in his favorite area. I have bunches of these maps at home for several areas I now hunt. All of this reconnaissance builds the confidence and sixth sense I described at the beginning of this article – you’re exercising your tracker’s mind! If the next season has little or no snow to track on, you now will have your marked-up map, and more importantly your memory, to guide you to those honey holes, one dot – or one track - at a time. Remember, these dots (areas with heavy sign) are tracks! You’re staying mentally fresh, motivated, in shape, and more knowledgeable. Most of all you’re using your mind like a tracker, just on a larger scale!
When the Body and Mind Connect on the Track
A few years back, I tracked three bucks over a span of three days in the middle of the rut on some really good snow. I had prepared my tracking mind pre-season by the techniques I just explained above, and I was definitely in the zone. By the end of the third day, I was in a real rhythm, and I bumped a beautiful wide racked buck a few times. I never got a shot off because near dark when I was close again, he swam across a deep portion of a river, and he got away. But, more importantly was what happened while I was on the chase. In my pursuit I had grown incredibly tired because of the previous two days of chasing bucks. Those three days together were literally like I was in a triathlon. I was wore out. The buck was a beautiful Adirondack specimen though, and the image of him jumping through the hemlock swamp the first time I bumped him was enough to keep me determined to keep going. He took me over a series of parallel ridges. Up and down we went. At one point I got another quick look at him, but just as I was getting the front sight on him he went over the next hummock. Now the miles had begun to stack up.
Near the end of that day I bumped him one last time on the side of a large mountain, and he went straight up and over it at a run. I thought, “damn it, they always go the tough way.” I went up that mountain reluctantly, my legs lame and sore and lungs burning. But I shut down that part of my mind that was being negative about the situation, and just forged forward on a mission to close the gap before it got dark. Then something wonderful happened and frankly it’s a bit hard to explain because the change in my body was so dramatic. Just like that, my legs stopped burning, and it felt like I had an unlimited amount of energy. I can remember thinking how good I felt. To be honest it was a bit weird at first. This wasn’t “a second wind.” This was the zone, and I was definitely in it. This was where months of working out, coupled with summer “tracking” converged inside my mind and body – they connected. People talk about a mind-body connection. I now get what that is. I felt like I could have tracked that buck literally forever. That is what Larry was describing in that chapter when he said your legs and arms feel like iron, and nothing is more important than getting that mountain buck. Well, I was there, I was living that experience. But I do not believe that convergence of mind, determination, confidence and body could have happened without the miles and energy I put in during the off season. If my tracking mind was not already sharpened by the months of preparation and scouting, there is no way I would have gotten far enough on that track to break through to that convergent experience. It was an amazing hunt that day, with all cylinders firing.
I’ve since realized that tracking brings that quality of experience out in me more than any other activity I conduct in my life, because it’s a passion that I prepare for. And in that preparation, if you too scout in the summer months, climb some mountains off season, and mentally memorize those maps of honey holes, I guarantee it will pay dividends later on. Just how powerful is this mental preparation? Well, when I got my buck this past year, I went into some totally new terrain with no real idea of where I was going. But I felt the mind and body connection that morning – I knew it was going to be a good day. I knew it because I had kept my tracker’s mind fresh and my body prepared, and most importantly, I didn’t have a worry to my name. I was a tracker that day, and I plan to be a tracker every day I set my foot in the woods, whether its deer season – or not.
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