I can’t speak for you, but buck fever is one of the reasons I go deer hunting. Of course, the main reason we go is to bring home nourishing food for our families. But we also like the thrill of seeing — and shooting — big bucks. It’s part of the experience. And the adrenaline always kicks into overdrive when a big-racked buck steps into view.
For most hunters, the emotions that rise up and boil over prove enough to shake them to their core — which is good — but as ethical hunters, we must be able to control those emotions in order to make an effective, lethal shot on deer.
I’d never encourage anyone to “cure” buck fever. If you lose that adrenaline rush, the core has been stripped from this sacred, adventurous way of life. Instead, I do encourage you to follow these eight steps to help you temporarily desensitize yourself during the moment of truth. It’s okay to get rattled. Just learn how to shake the shakes prior to settling the pin or crosshairs on that big buck’s vitals.
1. Use a Practice Regimen
It’s important to practice in a manner that will prepare you for the real deal. Once you have your weapon of choice, and it’s sighted in, practice real-life scenarios. Hang a treestand in woods and place a 3-D deer target to mimic hunting situations. Practice short- and long-range scenarios as well as quartering and broadside angles. This manner won’t fully replicate a real situation in the deer woods. But it will help you to practice the routine and allow your muscle memory to take over when a real deer is standing broadside in front of you.
2. Breathe Properly
Proper breathing techniques are important for any shooter, not just those who hunt. You won’t be as accurate as you can be if you don’t breathe properly. And you definitely won’t overcome buck fever if you’re breathing irregularly and uncontrollably when a buck steps out.
Make a conscious effort to inhale deeply and exhale slowly. Continue this process over and over from the time you see the deer until just prior to the shot. This will help your muscles to relax and brain to focus.
One helpful way I’ve found to practice this is to watch videos of deer hunts. As soon as the buck is shown on screen, begin your deep breathing routine. This practice goes along with the muscle memory previously mentioned. Everything needs to be second nature and done subconsciously when you’re in a real hunting situation.
3. Distract Yourself
Sometimes you just have to distract yourself from the situation at hand. Ever had to watch a deer for several minutes before shooting? Maybe the deer bedded down in front of you? Regardless of the specifics, having to watch a deer for a lengthy period before taking a shot can be tough.
I had one such encounter on October 13, 2016. A big 4½- to 5 ½-year-old 8-point slowly eased through the brush toward me. It walked out, feeding on browse as it went. It finally closed within bow range but stopped at 20 yards with its chest facing straight toward me. I wasn’t going to take that shot, and the buck didn’t budge for another 7 minutes (the photo below is a screenshot from a self-filmed video recorded as this was happening). Needless to say, I was worked up, and adrenaline was coursing through my veins. The buck finally turned broadside and started to walk off. I drew back and made a good shot just behind the shoulder.
Altogether, I had to watch that deer for 10 minutes before finally getting the shot. That was plenty of time for buck fever to get the best of me. However, I closed my eyes and took deep breaths. Only when I was calmed down — and not thinking about the huge-bodied buck — did I open them. When I did, I didn’t look at the deer’s antlers again. Instead, I focused my attention on the crease running along the backside of the shoulder, focused on making a clean shot, and didn’t peel my eyes from that spot until after I’d released the arrow. Doing this kept my attention diverted from the buck’s big rack and helped me focus on executing a clean, ethical shot.
4. Hunt Small Game
Small game is a great way to hone skills. Whether you’re a gun enthusiast or bowhunter, small game is both challenging and worthy of your skills. Bagging a few squirrels — with gun or bow — will increase your skills and boost your confidence. I love to keep myself “in shape” on those pesky bushytails. And even those little critters find a way to make my heartbeat a little faster.
5. Imagine a Well-Placed Shot
Bowhunting, gun hunting, and just hunting in general are all mental. In fact, I’d venture to say they are 90 percent mental. Because of that, we must envision a good shot before we ever take it. Envision yourself making a good shot on a deer while you’re waiting in the stand, as the deer is walking in, and just prior to the shot. You might think that sounds silly, but trust me, it’s important. If you think you’ll fail, you will. If you see yourself succeeding, odds of doing so dramatically increase.
6. Follow a Shot Regimen
It might sound goofy, but I run through a mental checklist before releasing an arrow. It doesn’t matter if I’m on the range or in front of a live animal. I follow this shot regimen religiously.
First, I draw the bow back and find my anchor points. I quickly run through each one and ensure I’m properly anchored. Second, I pick out a hair — aim small miss small — on the crease behind the shoulder. Next, I check to make sure my bow is level and that I’m bent at the waist (not in the arms). Only then do I begin to settle the pin. I quickly envision myself making a good shot one last time. And when the pin (or crosshair) covers up the spot I’ve picked out, I touch off the shot. Complete the shot regimen with a good follow-through, and don’t drop the bow until after the arrow hits the deer.
7. Let the Shot Surprise You
Once you’ve settled the pin or crosshairs, it’s important to let the shot surprise you. Don’t jerk the trigger. Slowly continue applying pressure until the shot breaks. This well help ensure a clean shot.
8. Acquire Experience
At the end of the day, there is no alternative to experience. Spend more time in the woods and you’ll find yourself gradually getting more proficient at combating buck fever.
It took me years to learn how to beat buck fever . . . and I’m still learning. It still gets the best of me sometimes. And that’s perfectly okay. The day you don’t get excited is the day you need to hang up your boots and take up table tennis. Deer hunting is fun. It’s exhilarating. And that’s the way it should be.