With so much detailed hunting advice and information at our fingertips these days, paralysis by analysis can be a real concern for anyone new to the sport who takes to the internet looking to read their way to a shortened learning curve. With this article I’d like to take a step back and share some big picture concepts that can be applied to virtually any hunt, in any location, by anyone of any skill set. Add these basic principles to your arsenal of tactics and thought processes for a guaranteed boost in odds for success.
1. Hunt Areas That You Have Confidence In
The positive mental impacts of confidence are profound. Confidence keeps our heads in the game, and when we’re mentally “all-in”, good things tend to happen. To put it simply, hunt area confidence means that we have suspicion to believe that an animal we’d like to shoot lives in the area, and that there is a reasonable chance of laying eyes on him. Of course these things come in a wide range of varying degrees. Seeing a shooter in an area the week prior generates a hell of a lot more confidence than simply recognizing that a spot has good feed, cover, and water. Even when setting out to hunt areas we’ve never been to before, there are plenty of ways to do our confidence-building homework prior to making the commitment. Reading terrain on Google Earth, hearing friends’ reports from prior seasons, or simply comparing a new area to other places we’ve found success in the past are all simple ways to build confidence prior to ever setting foot in a new area. Once there, the confidence will either grow or dwindle. At that point it’s about knowing when to hold ‘em or fold ‘em… but that’s a conversation for another article.
2. Don’t Just Look For Animals
No matter one’s experience, quality of optics, tactics, or any other factor that generally helps lead to success, big game animals are often just flat-out hard to find… especially outside of ‘prime time’ hours, during less than ideal season dates, or tough weather conditions. Because of this, simply not seeing animals isn’t enough to conclude that they aren’t there. To maintain confidence and increase our odds of success, we must be more like detectives than witnesses. Clues of game existence are nearly as good as live sightings. Quantity and size of fresh tracks at various elevations, active game trails, beds, indication of browsing on certain plants, etc. are all clues to constantly look for and read. Over the course of a season or hunt, evaluating sign paints a picture of what elevation, terrain, and vegetation to pay most attention to, as well as areas to rule out. If we’re mule deer hunting and not seeing much game but continually recognize heavy tracks and beds in the sagebrush on south-facing slopes between 8,000 and 9,500 feet, then that’s a major clue as to where we should focus our attention throughout the unit and hunt.
3. Let Your Eyes Do The Walking
With the best glass possible, to make it even more cliche. The bottom line here is that we can’t kill what we can’t or don’t see. Something I’ve noticed over the years in hearing reports from other hunters is something along the lines of “We hiked 7-10 miles per day and still didn’t see very much.” The response in my head is typically like “Well yeah, you spent the whole day hiking instead of glassing.” Sitting there kicked back in a comfortable glassing chair for the better part of a day doesn’t exactly make it feel like you’re working hard to earn an opportunity. Luckily, calories burned in a day of hunting doesn’t usually have a direct correlation with number of animals spotted. On the other hand, the number of hours spent glassing absolutely does. Big, glassable country takes time to pick apart. Don’t be too quick to scamper right through it.
4. Be Comfortable
Both physically and mentally, that is. Consistent success means performing our best throughout the most inconsistent conditions Mother Nature has to offer. Hot and dry… cold and windy… snowy and wet… no matter the weather, the animals we’re pursuing are out there. That’s what they’re designed to live and survive in, and unlike us, they have no other option. Extreme conditions can stack the odds in our favor as hunters, but we have to be comfortable enough to stick it out and take advantage of it. Physical comfort can be attained by selecting the proper clothing, boots, pack, etc. Clothing technology is so advanced these days that with a bit of research, assembling a layering system to match virtually any weather condition is pretty simple.
Mental comfort is a whole different animal than physical. Staying dry on a rainy hunt or warm in the snow doesn’t necessarily translate to being mentally comfortable with the circumstances of a given hunt. Loneliness, the feeling of being ‘in over your head’, uncertainty about an area or how you’re hunting it, traversing dangerous terrain… the list of things that can cause mental fatigue goes on. The better we are at overcoming or blocking out these mind games, the higher our chances are of having a successful hunt. Experience is the best way to build a strong mindset. Maintaining a positive and realistic dialogue with yourself during tough hunts is a great starting point. Constant reminders like “This is fine. I’ve handled worse before. No pain no gain. It’ll all be worth it. Fortune favors the bold…” help me through difficult situations on the mountain, and they’ve pretty much always turned out to be true in the end. The more times these positive mental dialogues come true, the more confidence we build, which eventually leads to powerful mental comfort.
5. Put Forth A Strong Effort And Have Fun
All other things being equal, a stronger effort always increases the odds of success in anything we do. Western hunting is a prime example, especially when competition with other hunters exists. Having the mindset to work as hard and smart as our abilities allow while still enjoying the challenge is key. What’s the point if it isn’t fun? Looking back at my own hunts over the years, the most successful and rewarding ones have also been the most physically and mentally demanding. And the most fun. Not a coincidence. Admittedly, I’ve also had some hunts where reflecting back I can recognize that a little more effort could have gone a long way. It’s a lot easier to stomach the results of a hunt, whether a tag is punched or not, when we gave our best effort. It’s literally the most important thing we can control.
~ Todd Harney