Beating “Buck Fever”
Buck Fever – we who have a love and passion for hunting have all felt this at one time and often still do when seeing or getting ready for a shot at an animal. We call it buck fever, but it can really happen for any kind of animal, or not even an animal at all. Merriam-Webster falsely defines the term as “nervous excitement of an inexperienced hunter at the sight of game.” I call this a false definition because of the term inexperienced. I have been hunting for many years and have set my sights on a vast variety of game, and to this day I still get the feeling. That being said, I know there are many others out there that struggle with the issue when making a shot on an animal. Heck, if I didn’t still get the buck fever feeling before or after shooting, the shear enjoyment would be gone from hunting and other than providing meat for my family and friends, what would be the point? BUT the big question is, how can this be managed during the shot to ensure an ethical kill? In the next few paragraphs, I will be walking through the techniques I implement while practicing (whether that be the bow, rifle, or muzzleloader) and the strategies I use in the field in the seconds before I take the shot.
Practice Makes Perfect
My first experience in dealing with nerves came from competitive shooting. I started competing in archery events at the age of 11 after my dad bought me my first bow and took me to a local shop to practice and get myself prepared to begin archery hunting when I turned 12. It didn’t take long before I began competing in state and then national events. Noticing that I always shot very high scores in the local league I was in at my bow shop but always somehow screwing up at big events, I knew I was letting my nerves get to me. With no doubt, this would impact me out in the field while hunting as well if I didn’t find a solution to overcome it.
Focus. That’s what my long-time archery coach always pushed to instill in me. How do you learn to focus on hitting your mark consistently? The answer is practice! This answer seems simple but can also be complicated, however. Practicing for the sake of it won’t get you very far, and that is what so many people I’ve worked with were doing wrong. Understanding your weakness and tuning in on it while you practice is what will ultimately help you improve. Whether if it’s with a bow or a rifle, instilling the right technique into your subconscious will go a long way. Before one can get into the techniques used to increase focus, learning the proper shooting techniques and being able to consistently and repetitively implement them is the first step to success. We won’t get into that this time, so we will just skip ahead and assume proper shooting technique has been achieved.
In shooting sports as well as hunting, focus comes down to one thing: telling your mind to hit a specific target (this is why having technique burned into your subconscious is so important in that you are not thinking of what you need to do in order to get the shot off). The phrase “aim small miss small” always comes to mind when I think of this. The phrase essentially means that the margin in which you will miss is directly proportional to the size of the target. For example, picture aiming at a penny from 100 yards away. Now picture aiming at a paper plate at the same distance. It is much easier for the mind to depict the center of the penny over the center of the paper plate and therefore (for the most part) the bullet will always land closer to the center when aiming at the smaller object. So, my first piece of advice when aiming at an animal would be to find a small specific spot on that animal to aim at and just focus on that. Let everything else in your mind disappear and just stare at that spot until the trigger is pulled. This can be practiced by setting up a large target and putting something very small in the center of it. Let your body do the work on its own and put your minds responsibilities solely on making sure the crosshair or pin is in the middle of the aiming spot. This may take some time to perfect, but eventually you will get to the point where you don’t even notice your body going through the motions of pulling the trigger and even in some instances you don’t even notice the crosshairs or pins as you aim at the target. Let this process become so natural from practicing that it’s like breathing and just becomes automatic when you pick up the bow or rifle.
Another way to improve focus is to defeat distractions. This could be anything out in the field. Maybe the distraction is the bucks giant rack, a squirrel making all kinds of noise while you’re aiming, or “buck fever” itself. Whatever it may be, it can be an issue that effects the shot. One way that I found to overcome this is to make distractions while practicing. I have done many different things to accomplish this and you can get as creative as you like. I have had friends stand behind me and poke me constantly, yell at me, jump up and down in my field of view, and even blow an air horn at random times while I shot. By doing this, I learned to ignore things like discomfort, random noises and movements, and again just focus on aiming at my target. After doing this for years, now when my bow gets pulled back or my gun reaches my shoulder, there is not much that can grab my attention or take my eye off my target.
Sealing the Deal
Practicing the above techniques is important to instill focus and get rid of distractions to alleviate nerves, but it is still a different story when the situation becomes real out in the field. To this day, I still shake like a leaf in the moments before getting ready for a shot. Even though practicing can instill confidence and focus, it is nearly impossible to replicate the hunting scenario. One way to get close is to compete in tournaments or have friendly bets at the range with friends. Although it may not be as severe, the pressure of a competition or possibility of losing some pocket money in a bet can somewhat replicate the feelings of buck fever. By doing this over and over, the pressure becomes more manageable.
Out in the field however when it is just you and the animal, focusing on the goal of an ethical shot can still be troublesome. One thing that I do to get my mind right is to briefly close my eyes, take a deep breath, and picture that small spot I need to focus on when looking at the animal. When I open my eyes, I find that spot and never let my eyes leave it. Once I get to that point, all my nerves disappear, and the rest is just staying focused on that point and letting my subconscious go through the motions of making the shot. You may never get rid of buck fever completely, and I actually hope you never do. I do hope however you can use these techniques and tips to temporarily numb those feelings during the shot and have all the time in the world to be excited and trembling when you see that giant buck hit the ground!
To see more of what the author has going on you can follow his Instagram account @bhalchak