Snow peas: the surest cure for buck fever may be found in the cockpit of a military fighter jet.
Sound familiar? Maybe a little like bowhunting?
Initially, you might think it's a stretch to compare tactical flying and trophy hunting, but I am here to tell you that getting shot off the front of a ship in a jet at night is closer to drawing on a buck than you might think. I have an intense passion for both and want to share it with you. Some of the ideas and philosophies I have taken from my nine years as a U.S. Navy F/A- 18 pilot and incorporated into my own hunting practices have helped me overcome buck fever--and should help you do the same.
At age 12, Michigan's minimum age for big game hunting, I drew my bow and took aim at a deer for the first time. Oddly enough, I don't remember being nervous. In fact, I may have been more calm on that first opportunity than on any hunts since. Through my teenage years, I became increasingly familiar with the symptoms of buck fever, and then, before I really had much success on big game, my focus was sidetracked by college and nine years in the Navy--much missed hunting time.
Now I have been out of the Navy for six years, and my time in the woods and opportunities on game have risen steadily. You might think that with the layoff, my shakes from buck fever would have worsened, but I am surprised and encouraged to find that my fever has subsided to the point of being controllable. Don't get me wrong--any time a deer or other big game animal comes within bow range, my heart still cranks up and I fear that every animal within a quarter of a mile will hear my breathing. But as the final moments tick by before the shot, I settle down nicely and get the job done.
I attribute that to my Navy training and experience. Specifically, principles used by the aviation community to ensure the well-being of pilots and airplanes have been helpful. In aviation lingo, six principles can help anyone improve performance under stress:
1. Train like you fight. Practice in the most realistic way possible, to include simulation of the environment and frame of mind.
2. Establish rules of engagement. Know what you can and will shoot before you get in your stand.
3. Brief the flight, fly the brief. Make a plan and stick to it.
4. Ask yourself what if ...? Think about, and have a response for, every situation you can think of.
5. Focus on execution. Have confidence in your preparation and have a singular focus on the task at hand.
6. Capture lessons learned. Get smarter every time you go out, so you never make the same mistake twice.
All of these principles are geared toward one goal: To ensure that the basic cognitive functions and body mechanics required to execute a good shot will still work when a buck approaches and your brain dwindles to the size of a snow pea. My success in the woods over the past couple of years verifies that these principles apply whether I'm flying a combat sortie or drawing my bow on a Pope and Young animal. To bring these ideas closer to your own blind or treestand, let's explore each in more detail.
Train Like You Fight
Preparation, routine, and repetition build confidence. You don't land a fighter jet flying 170 miles per hour on a ship at night without first making hundreds of approaches in a simulator or at a practice field. Likewise, don't try to draw on a buck in the murky light of opening morning without having run that scenario a hundred times in your best hunting simulator. A lot of us practice on 3-D targets in our backyards. While this makes good simulation, it is not good enough. Do you also practice from your treestand in full gear, to include your hat, face net, three layers of clothes, and your safety harness? Do you practice in low light? For a spot-and-stalk hunt, do you practice on your knees? Do you set your 3-D in the brush where you have to pick out a hole? Is your first shot your best shot? It must be! Take your practice to the extreme and get creative.
Use this practice time to work on what's going on between your ears. The mechanics of a good shot are one thing, but you must exercise your thought processes as well. Use creative practice sessions to get in the hunting frame of mind. I often set out two or three targets before climbing into my elevated practice stand. Then I sit up there for five or ten minutes, thinking about putting a bead on the real thing. I think back to previous encounters and mentally replay a couple of real-life incidents. I think about the opportunities presented, the distance estimation, about picking an aiming point. Then I shoot my practice shots, one per target. Such physical and mental preparation gives you the confidence to settle down for the money shot.
Establish Rules Of Engagement
Making smart decisions well in advance of your shot opportunity means less to think about when your snow pea must focus on picking a spot and aiming. Before entering the woods, answer the simple question, "What am I willing to shoot?" That answer can alleviate a lot of anxiety on the stand.
On today's hunting videos, you often hear guy's say, "There's a shooter." Prepare yourself to say that same thing without hesitation. Whether your threshold is a whitetail doe or a 370-inch elk doesn't matter. You still must make that call, and the earlier you can make it in the encounter, the more attention you can place on other critical details--like making the shot.
Other aspects of engagement are shot distance and angle. What is your maximum range on a stationary, broadside animal? What about on an animal quartering away? Will you shoot at an animal directly beneath your stand, and if so, where will you aim? Answers to these and other shooting questions comprise your rules of engagement. Establishing those rules before you take to the stand will free your mind and tame your fever.
Brief The Flight, Fly The Brief
A well-thought-out brief (plan) will reduce the clutter in your brain, especially during the idle time you spend waiting for your quarry to show up--a time when doubts and second-guessing often rear their ugly heads. A good brief consists of many elements: Equipment choices, stand location, approach to the stand, scent use, calling and rattling. The bottom line is that you want to hunt with supreme confidence, knowing you are simply executing your plan.
After you have climbed into your stand and nocked an arrow, never second-guess yourself. You've made decisions based on the best information available. Trust yourself.
This isn't to imply that your plan should be inflexible. You must anticipate contingencies. For example, if the wind changes to an unfavorable direction, get out of there. My dad took one of his largest bucks ever from a location that had very little tolerance for changing wind. Early one morning, when the wind betrayed him, he immediately left the area. Two hours later, when the wind became steadier, he returned to the stand and killed a double drop-tine whitetail. It was all part of the plan.
Ask Yourself, "What if ...?"
The more situations you can dream up and run through your brain ahead of time, the less likely you are to get caught off guard during unpredictable scenarios in the field. Think of all possible contingencies, and mentally devise ways to deal with them. For example:
What if ... that massive buck I've been glassing stays on the high trail rather than coming down the low trail by my stand? I'll hit the grunt tube a couple of times, but nothing too crazy.
What if ... in my excitement, I hook my peep sight alignment tube on a branch and break it? I am going to make my normal draw and see if my peep is aligned. If it isn't, I will use the offset aiming technique I practiced all summer, confident that I am still lethal inside 30 yards.
What if ... I draw on a broadside buck and he suddenly turns quartering away? I will adjust my aiming point from a spot just behind the front leg to the back of the rib cage.
Tap into the experiences of others, as well. Story telling is a refined art among most hunters, and "what ifs" can be great ways to share information and experiences. Use that fact to your advantage. Pick the brains of your hunting partners for details of encounters and shot opportunities. Make their experiences your own. Then, with all the data you can collect, pick a scenario, start asking, "What if ...?" and carry the scene to an acceptable conclusion.
Focus On Execution
After you declare "shooter" every thought, action, movement, and breath should be focused on picking an aiming point and letting your rote mechanics deliver the arrow. As an animal comes within shooting range, your mind and body must go on autopilot. I firmly believe that over-thinking this aspect of an encounter is where most folks run into trouble. It's just a shot, but keeping that perspective in the heat of battle is difficult.
Simplify the execution phase by boiling it down to the same fundamentals you have been practicing. It is all about placing an arrow through the vitals; don't make it out to be anything more than that. It doesn't matter whether it is the buck of a lifetime or the last day of the season. The flood of adrenaline and emotion will come; just hold them off until you've finished the business at hand.
A technique that works for me--after I have decided "shooter!"--is to visualize nothing but vitals. No more admiring or looking at antlers. That animal is just a pair of lungs moving through the woods. This may sound crude or extreme, but you will have plenty of time to reflect on the magic of the hunt later. As an animal approaches, you must focus on a target, period. For those last few seconds, do whatever it takes to transform yourself into a lethal, methodical machine. Taking an animal is a powerful and emotional event, and feeling a reverence for nature and giving respect to the game are integral to all hunts, lust save those thoughts and emotions until you've released the bowstring.
Capture Lessons Learned
Strive to get smarter every time you enter the woods. You can gather and tuck away tittle tidbits of information for future reference any time you pick up your archery tackle or step into the woods. Don't miss the value of an encounter, regardless of the outcome, or you're doomed to repeat mistakes--over and over. The pursuit of continuous improvement should flow back through and feed all of the other principles. After a season's worth of lessons learned, you most likely will need to tweak your training program, modify your equipment, or adjust your rules of engagement.
The principles for keeping your brains and guts from turning to mush when you are under pressure are the same whether you are hunting bad guys with the best aircraft on the planet or hunting your favorite big game animals with bow and arrow. It's all about training, knowing your rules, planning, anticipating scenarios, executing with tunnel vision, and capturing every lesson that you learn along the way. Even when your brain shrivels to the size of a snow pea, your performance will shine.
The author is a retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot. He currently resides in Glastonbury, Connecticut.
FEVER ON THE DECK
Landing a jet aircraft on the deck of a ship, especially at night, can bring on the same complex state of mind as getting an opportunity to take an animal with a bow. The emotions, adrenaline, and fear of failure are all building in the final seconds of the approach. The best pilots are the ones who can feed off the energy and anxiety of the situation and achieve enhanced performance in the face of it.
To land on a ship, you must focus on three things: speed of the aircraft; alignment with the centerline of the landing area; and glide slope, or the height above the deck. In the last few seconds, you have done about all you can do with the first two parameters, so you narrow your focus to an optical glide-slope device on the left side of the ship and make throttle adjustments to keep yourself as perfectly centered on the glide slope as you can. The wheels hitting the deck should always be a surprise, and you go to full power at touch down in case you miss all the arresting wires and have to take off flying again.
The adrenaline you have been holding at bay during the approach comes crashing through as the wire jerks you from 170 mph to zero in three seconds. It is during the taxi to your parking space that you have opportunity to think about your approach and execution--and that your knees start shaking. Mission accomplished!
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|Title Annotation:||Beating Buck Fever|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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