For deer hunters, optimism abounds at the opening of deer season, and for good reason. We’ve waited months for the next opportunity to match wits with the wily whitetail. Our minds naturally envision the best possible scenarios, recalling positive experiences from the past: the most beautiful autumn scenes, thrilling encounters, and the deep satisfaction of a successful hunt. Why wouldn’t we be eager?
There is a danger in being that excited, though. You’re bound to come down from the high at some point, especially if your season doesn’t live up to what you pictured from the onset. Unfortunately, I’ve been there numerous times.
I’ve anticipated chasing home-grown monster bucks and going on out-of-state trophy archery hunts, only to end those seasons empty-handed for one reason or another. I’ve taken poor shots, set impossible expectations, met trespassers and poachers face to face, suffered through awful weather, and one time I even drove over my own bow!
However, the pinnacle of failure came in 2019 with the demise of a landowner Cooperative some friends and I created about 15 years ago (for you longtime members, I’ve written about it many times). Misery set in when folks no longer got along, and the long-term collaboration fell apart. I still hunt there, and everyone still practices some form of QDM, but it was such a big letdown to me personally that my only option was to fundamentally change my outlook on deer hunting.
I had no choice, because not enjoying hunting was not something I was willing to accept. We all encounter adversity in deer hunting that can challenge even the most cheerful personality in camp. So, to help you avoid the deer depression trap, I offer seven tips I find useful. They will help you keep your perspective fresh and fun as you kick off your 2023 season.
Although finding solitude from the incessant buzz of everyday life is one of the many benefits of being in the woods every fall, pure joy in deer hunting is always found when we share the activity with others. That’s why “to be with family or friends” constantly ranks as one of the primary motivations to hunt, along with “for the meat” and “for the sport and recreation.”
Pair or pack hunting was an integral part of how we evolved as a species, and it’s likely foundational to how we formed early human cultures. So, a sure fire way to make sure your season is a blast is to be part of a bigger like-minded community.
I can tell you from experience, my absolute best memories surrounding deer hunting all involve people I care about, even if it was a part of a post-solo hunt recovery effort and celebration. Today, I still make time for hunts that involve others rather than being out there alone. My core squad includes my two daughters, my college buddy Andy, and my best longtime QDM friends. I always have room for more, but I purposely stay away from anyone who doesn’t share my ideologies.
Be sure to share the experience with the people who introduced you to hunting, who support your passion, or those who are looking for a qualified mentor to show them the ropes. Better yet, do all three. You won’t regret it.
Developing a few baseline hunting expectations before the season is good practice and the process is an important part of measuring deer management success. But, something we teach in our Deer Steward courses is that it’s even more important to have that “man in the mirror” chat and be realistic when developing them, otherwise you’re setting yourself up to be disappointed before you even go afield.
Naturally, hunting goals can be set on the number and quality of deer you hope to see and possibly kill in a single season. They can also be established on the total hours or number of hunts you expect to get out, the method or style of hunt, the consistency of your successes, and more. Whatever you choose to set as your target, it may be helpful to aim a bit lower than you would normally, all in the name of prioritizing fun over anything else. Don’t be doomed to failure because you set the bar too high!
Today, my annual goals mostly involve getting friends and mentees opportunities before myself, involving my children in the process, taking deer with archery or traditional firearms, killing a deer on my 7 acres, and helping my farmer friends and family remove does. I still hold out for mature bucks, but my expectation to kill them on a consistent basis at home went out the door with the Cooperative bathwater in 2019, and my willingness to travel to chase them has waned, as I enjoy too much being near loved ones during the season.
Of course, there’s no excuse for not being prepared when it comes to being legal, taking all safety precautions seriously and practicing enough to assure proficiency with the implement that you choose to hunt with. However, there is something to say about going hunting not quite fully prepared for the experience. (I can’t believe I’m writing this, I’m an Eagle Scout for goodness’ sake!)
For you seasoned hunters, think of that first hunt of the season, before you get all the kinks worked out. We typically give ourselves permission to not have it all together, right? Well, what if every hunt was like that? Or, for newer hunters, lack of success is typically attributed to a steep learning curve early on, and if you’re prone to a feisty stick-to-itiveness, you somehow convince yourself it’s ok and part of the process.
My advice: go ahead and make the decision right now that you can’t possibly be prepared for every situation that arises. I’m sure we’ve all heard the famous Boby Unser quote “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” For this season, maybe let’s try “Fun is where perspective and attitude meet.”
This one is easy and something that every single person reading this can relate to. Mistakes happen, and you should go into the season expecting that you are going to mess up at some point! Accept it!
You will bump deer walking to your stand or blind. You’ll forget something at the house or in your vehicle. You will miss shot(s) and most assuredly pick the wrong location to hunt in. But guess what? Whether you buy it or not, no mobile app exists that will tell you exactly where to go, when to hunt or how to solve all the world’s hunting mistakes before they occur. Human error is just that, to be human, and acceptance is your path to being at peace.
The author Richard Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder® in 2005 as a way to describe the costs associated with the alarming national trend of humans distancing ourselves from the outdoors. You don’t need me to tell how true that is, as you’re likely reading this on your phone or tablet.
Thus, one solid tip that I have enjoyed is intentionally reducing my use of technology compared to the past. I’ve done everything from minimizing my time spent on social media, to bringing less gear or gadgets with me afield, choosing more challenging or primitive equipment, and I have almost kicked my past trail-camera addiction (almost).
Sometimes it just helps to turn off the damn phone, listen to the woods, meditate, soak in nature, do some “forest bathing” as the mental health people call it. Do your best to rely on actual woodsmanship skills through trial-and-error and maybe not so many blogs or YouTube videos.
Don’t Just Enjoy “The Moment”
We’re told to be present and enjoy every moment of our lives, which is a philosophical way of telling ourselves to gain some perspective and not get lost in the details. To be grateful for both the little and big things – certainly, a task that gets easier with age.
This is generally very good advice for any aspect of enlisting in the “living and breathing” club, but admittedly hard to do unless you work at it. Set aside devoted time to mentally address the joys that inherently accompany deer hunting. Make it part of your hunting routine as you participate and revel in the fact that we even get the opportunity to chase our dreams, whether you do so a lot over a long season or only get out on opening day! Don’t wait to reflect on the season after it has passed you by.
Then, equally important, suppress feeling pressure to perform at everyday life, which is the priority, and living up to something that you’ve fabricated in your mind as it pertains to being a deer hunter.
Don’t Take Any of it Too Seriously!
Repeat after me: “I am not defined by my hunting success.” You don’t need a truck bed full of deer carcasses, a barn wall full of shoulder mounts, or be able to hit a target at insanely long distances to be someone. These things shouldn’t be used as a measure of who we are. Yet we crave that attention, that affirmation, in some form or another.
Listen, I know it’s ingrained in our being to be a provider, to attract and keep a mate (and do so by impressing potential partners), and to compete with fellow humans through posturing. Those feelings cannot be denied. But you don’t have to be the most dominant predator in the room, and if you listen to those intuitions too much, you are bound to feel like you’re coming up short.
Give yourself a break. It’s 2023 and time to dilute the ego, folks. Don’t be so serious about your hunting prowess, I can assure you it is negatively influencing how you feel.
“Hunting should be an escape from the everyday hustle and bustle of life”, wrote my colleague Brian Grossman in a recent blog. “It should be an activity that rejuvenates us and makes us happy. It should never turn into a competition to outdo someone else or a quest for 15 minutes of social media fame.”
It is only deer hunting, after all.