It made me sick. I didn't have a temperature. I didn't have a rash. I didn't toss my breakfast. But I was sick. I was 12 and I had just missed my first buck.
I don't remember much about the buck, except that he was smallish, probably a 4-point. I do remember that my legs began quivering and I was breathing hard. I also remember that if I had stayed calm, I could have taken another shot. Instead, I was marinating in adrenaline and could barely stand on my rubbery legs. I never even thought about a second shot.
We all act differently when "buck fever" strikes. I've heard of hunters ejecting every shell from the gun before shooting, then wondering why the rifle didn't fire. I've heard of hunters firing, the deer going down and the hunter shooting until the rifle was empty. I've heard of hunters who couldn't find the safety. I've even heard of hunters taking careful aim and then saying, "Bang!"
Buck fever is real and every hunter gets a touch of it. You get the fever when your adrenal glands respond to stress by injecting that "fight or flight" hormone into your bloodstream. You're not used to that, because until the moment of truth those glands sit innocently atop your kidneys waiting to leap into action.
Buck fever is generally defined something like this: "Nervous excitement felt by a novice hunter at the first sight of game." But it's more than that. It's a syndrome, a complex of symptoms, and though it prepares the athlete, it can destroy the hunter's preparation.
Adrenaline gets an athlete ready for a contest by increasing his heartbeat and elevating his respiration. It gives a person in danger or attempting to rescue someone else from danger an increased blood supply to the muscles. In extreme cases it can give almost superhuman strength.
When adrenaline can cause that kind of rush, it's easy to see why it can be such a problem for a hunter trying to calmly ready himself to fire an accurate shot.
At the target range, he can usually remain calm. Every shot is predictable. Nothing more than a possible friendly wager is riding on any shot. In the field, it's another matter. Shots are often unpredictable and a missed shot can alter the way you approach the rest of the day or the season. Wounding a deer could spoil the hunt not just for you, but for your companions, too.
So, what do we do about it? Everyone is different, but I've noticed that bowhunters don't struggle as much with buck fever. I'm not saying they never get it. In fact, they might be more subject to it because they're some of the most passionate hunters. What's their secret to defeating buck fever?
For many, the secret is this - bowhunters tend to practice shooting much more than gun hunters do, because much more goes into shooting a bow than shooting a rifle. Practice can accomplish more than accuracy.
1. Whether you're shooting a gun or a bow, practicing makes shooting automatic by developing muscle memory and by focusing your mind. When you take that shot at a live deer, it shouldn't be one of only a few shots you take during the year. Make it one of hundreds, even thousands. Shoot a lot. Shoot until you don't have to think about the shot.
2. While on your stand, visualize the deer approaching in as many ways as you can imagine. From the left, the right, behind you, slowly, quickly. Visualize him at various angles. The more deer your mind's eye sees under shooting conditions, the readier you'll be to shoot when the real one finally shows up.
3. The more you practice, the more you begin to think about the conditions around the shot and not the animal itself. How far is it? Is the wind blowing? Where do I want to hit the deer?
Fortunately, you can overcome buck fever with practice. Even practicing without ammunition can help make you ready when the moment of truth arrives. Practice is the best inoculation a hunter can get to counter the debilitating effects of that jolt of get-excited juice called adrenaline - the primary cause of buck fever.
When "The Everyday Hunter" isn't hunting, he's thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell him exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com.
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