We all have hunting superheroes we look up to. Whether they’re big names on the Sportsman’s Channel, YouTube hunting sensations, or authors of the best hunting books, there are men and women we look to for advice, inspiration, and just plain old fashioned “how to hunt” info. What do these hunters know that the average Joe doesn’t know? What do they do differently that gives them such consistent success in the field?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one answer that covers all of that. This article (or any article) can’t offer the magic “just do this and you’ll never leave a tag unfilled again” solution. But, if you’ve ever found yourself in a hunting slump (guilty), or found yourself sitting tired and discouraged out in the field yelling to no one in particular “why am I not killing deer?!” (also guilty), then hopefully something in the following paragraphs will help point you in the right direction. There’s actually a complex combination of ingredients that make the pros the hunting legends we love so much, and I’m going to attempt to unpack a few of those in the areas of mindset, tactics, and dealing with success and failure. Take and apply what’s helpful this year...filter out the rest.
All the top-level hunters that I know or pay attention to address the mindset of the hunter. The reason this section is at the top is that without the right mindset, all the other tactics and practical tips won’t do much for increasing your success. Get your mind right, and you’ll start to see the results you’re looking for.
It only takes one.
I don’t know which hunter coined this phrase (because I’ve heard it from a few), but this needs to be our mantra while out in the field. Maybe it’s been a grueling day (or week...or season). Maybe you’ve had close call after close call, but couldn’t seal the deal. Maybe it’s been one of those absolutely dead days where you haven’t even seen an animal and it’s 30 minutes until dark. Just keep reminding yourself that it only takes one. One animal, in the right spot, at the right time...all the puzzle pieces can suddenly come together in a matter of moments. The only time this stops being true is when you pull yourself out of the field, when you call it a day (or a hunt) early out of discouragement. Head over the next ridge or climb into a different blind and say to yourself, “it only takes one.”
Make killing a habit.
This one comes from the good guys over at Born and Raised Outdoors (https://bornandraisedoutdoors.com/). They get asked regularly about the secret to their incredible success rates on archery elk, and one of the answers I’ve heard them give again and again is that killing becomes a habit. That may not sound helpful if you’re currently in a slump or still looking for your first successful harvest, but it’s all about the mindset this puts you in. When you walk into the field convinced (not hoping, not wishing) that you are going to kill an animal, it changes how you hunt. This belief motivates you to keep going, it helps you steady your nerves as the animal is coming in, and it helps switch your brain into that primal, predator mode we all have buried deep within. Now, simply believing this won’t give you 100% success, but it will definitely increase your chances because you’ll hunt more confidently when success isn’t some lofty wish but simply a habit.
There are more tactics and tips out there than you could ever compile in a single list. And once you think you’ve heard or know every last method or trick, someone will surprise you with something they tried that worked like a charm. That being said, here are a couple specific tactics I’ve encountered that virtually anyone can try this season.
Have more backup plans than you have time to use them
Every successful hunter I know is a good planner. They use off-season time to scout (both digitally and on the ground), and they are constantly taking notes, adding waypoints, crossing bad areas off their list, and updating their plans. By the time opening day rolls around, they walk into the field excited to embark on their Plan-A. But, I’ve never seen a pro hunter stubbornly put all their eggs into that one basket. If they get there and the area isn’t what they were expecting, the sign isn’t there, or the hunting pressure is just too great, they don’t sulk back to the truck and start pouring over maps trying to figure out where to go. No, they’re backup plan is clear as day...they have the waypoint, they know the access points, and they can pull the trigger on Plan-B instantaneously. If that second spot proves unfruitful...same thing. Back to the truck, Plan-C is already locked and loaded, and they’re back in the field without missing a beat. The point is this: don’t spend all your scouting time learning every nook and cranny of just one spot. So many things can happen to disrupt the animals’ patterns and make that spot less ideal, so make sure you’ve put in adequate time already mapping out your Plans B, C, D, etc. Don’t waste valuable hunting days trying to scramble and figure out where to go; just pull the ejection seat and methodically move to the next well-thought-out plan you’ve already made. It’ll pay off handsomely in unwasted time and potential success.
While they’re on the move
This is a tactic I learned from one of the most consistently successful archery Coues deer hunters I know, Josh Kirchner [http://dialedinhunter.com/]. Nearly every year Josh tags-out on a Coues buck with his bow in the wide open deserts of Arizona. If you’ve ever done any research on this particular whitetail subspecies, you know this is an incredible feat to pull off once, much less consistently year after year. I asked him one day how he does it, and what he told me flies in the face of everything I had ever read or seen about spot and stalk hunting. Traditional wisdom says to glass up a buck early in the morning and watch him all the way into his bed. In some cases, keep watching him and see if he relocates to a second bed. Then and only then, make your stalk. Josh told me in nearly every situation, once he’s glassed a buck he wants to chase, he begins his stalk while they’re still feeding their way into their bed. His reasoning is that they’re more distracted, they’re making their own noise as they walk along and chew, and it’s a more forgiving stalk than a bedded deer who is doing nothing but looking and smelling around for predators. It’s a pretty big departure from the standard strategy, but Josh’s results speak for themselves. If you find yourself consistently getting busted by bedded deer before you can get within range, maybe try chasing them while they’re on the move.
SUCCESS & FAILURE
Every hunter (even a pro) deals with both of these elements on a regular basis. Some of us taste a lot more failure than success, but both of them need to be properly managed in our mental game. Don’t let failure get you so discouraged that it hinders your hunt, and don’t let success go to your head and inadvertently start to breed failure (deep, I know).
Never get complacent
Success can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, what hunter doesn’t want to succeed? It’s why we’re out there in the first place. On the other hand, once you’ve been doing this for a while and finding some consistent success, complacency can be right around the corner. You would think that the top-level guys in this industry have learned everything there is to learn, right? They’ve more than mastered their weapons. They have a list of honey-holes a mile long. They can just sit around all year eating elk jerky and binging Netflix, then grab their bows on opening morning and get out there and slay it. Wrong. Or, if it’s right, you wouldn’t know it by the way they prepare all year. Every top-level guy I’ve spoken with works diligently all year long to keep their skills sharp, to keep learning, and to keep preparing for the next adventure. These guys can shoot lights out beyond 100 yards, and they still shoot their bows nearly every day (obviously, it’s the fact that they still shoot their bows every day that allows them to be so accurate). They still spend time scouting out new terrain, attempting new species in new places, and keeping their fitness dialed in. These guys and gals - the best of the best - are preparing for hunting season in one way or another nearly every single day of the year. If they can’t afford to leave their bow in the closet until the day before heading to deer camp, neither can we. Don’t let success or experience lull you into a false sense of security; stay sharp and never get complacent.
Persistence kills the buck
I’ve heard some version of this from a number of different pros, but Cameron Hanes comes to mind as the poster-child of this line of thinking. Cam and his catchphrase, “keep hammering” have reminded more than a few hunters who aren’t sure they can (or want to) keep going to just grit their teeth and stick it out. Hunting is a long series of failures marked by occasional moments of success. It’s the incredible levels of elation that comes from that success that keeps us out there grinding through days, weeks, and years of failure and frustration. At the end of the day, it isn’t the gear, the sponsorships, the camera crew, or some inborn skill of the professional hunter that gives them their prowess...it’s their persistence in getting out there season after season that fills their walls with trophies. When you feel like cashing it in on day-7 of the hunt after missing three bucks and not seeing anything the last two days, persistence will kill the buck that’s just 30 minutes from coming in. When the last four seasons have netted precisely zero kills, it’s the persistence to get out there opening day of season five that will put that buck of a lifetime on the ground. You don’t need to buy a new bow, you don’t need to hire a guide, and you certainly don’t need to quit and take up golf...just keep hammering...persistence kills the buck.
JUST GET AFTER IT
We all owe these legends of hunting a debt of gratitude for the hard-earned lessons they share with the rest of us. Many a new hunter (myself definitely included) has learned so much and cut our learning curves short by standing on the shoulders of these men and women. And while we should all continually seek out information that will make us better hunters, experience is still one of the best teachers. Learn what you can from the couch, but at the end of the day, just getting out there season after season will teach you invaluable lessons. Don’t wait until you know everything or feel like you’re an expert; grab your gear, get into the field, and start learning.