Here’s a made-up statistic: 90% of all hunters admit to missing a key shot, and the remaining 10% are liars! While this statistic is fictitious, it holds at least a kernel of merit. Most hunters (including myself) know all too well what it feels like to watch an arrow sail inches over a buck’s back, or worse yet, injure a deer with a non-lethal shot. These experiences can leave haunting images in our minds. In this article, I share some tips and techniques to help you rebound from missed opportunities. These suggestions just might make the difference between an isolated misfortune and a series of unfortunate events.
In February of ’07, I was giving a talk at the Eastern Outdoor Sports Show on mental aspects of deer hunting. After my presentation, a well-seasoned hunter approached, and we engaged in some small talk. This man informed me that he had harvested more than 100 whitetails during his life. Awestruck, I became slightly confused as his demeanor changed from pride to shame. He eventually informed me that on the final day of the 2006 hunting season, he missed a buck standing less than 15 yards away. He added that the image was engrained in his mind; he said he couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Did you get that? This man had more than 100 successful hunts stored in his memory, but there was one that was stuck in his mind, and it was the numerous successes on record book bucks. It was the most recent miss!
This hunter is not alone; most hunters empathize with his experience. The question that we’re left with is, “What do we do now?” Stated differently, what are the most effective strategies to rebound from missed opportunities? If we do nothing, we’ll likely end up ruminating over negative thoughts that can spoil our next shooting opportunity. In fact, this happens all the time in Major League Baseball. If you have ever heard of a ‘slump’, then you know what I’m talking about. It happens to hunters too.
Before proceeding, a disclaimer: I believe in doing everything you can to prevent poor shots. I strongly encourage every hunter to prepare physically and mentally for challenges in the field. However, it’s called ‘hunting’ for a reason — there are no guarantees. So, should you miss next season (or if you missed last year), here are some suggestions.
First and foremost, ready yourself for another shot. If you miss, immediately reload and be prepared; now is not the time to beat yourself up or get emotional. I once missed a nice Pennsylvania 8-point at a distance of no more than 10 yards. The buck spooked, but had no idea what happened. He ran about 20 yards, but to the other side of my tree, which meant he was still within 10 yards. He wasn’t offering a shot opportunity, and I couldn’t calm myself to prepare for the next chance. I ended up spooking this alert buck, and I never saw him again.
Contrast that with a 130-class buck I harvested in Ohio more recently. Less than 10 minutes before a clean, double-lung pass through, I sailed an arrow over a comparable buck after misjudging the distance. It was the height of the rut, and everything was happening so fast that I just used the wrong sight pin. Fortunately, I learned from my earlier mistake. I reloaded, stayed calm, and knowing anything could happen in an instant, readied myself for the next opportunity. As luck would have it, I scoped a doe at 400 yards being chased by a monster buck. I let out a few bleat calls, and they both darted my direction. Within minutes, I was taking pictures of a trophy buck that fell to my arrow My point is this: if you miss and then react by yelling or getting so frustrated that you forget to reload, you might miss your chance to wipe that shot off the books.
Other times, deer run out of range. When this happens, scan the woods with a keen eye, and after you know for certain that there are no deer in site, try the following:
- Put your hunt in perspective. You need to have perspective. Otherwise, you will fool yourself into believing that your missed shot is the most important event that occurred in the entire world. As soon as you are certain that a deer is no longer in site, remind yourself that you’re lucky to be hunting. It’s okay to look back at the event and laugh! Look around at the beauty of the wild. Think of your loved ones. Gaining perspective will help you gain mastery over your emotions.
- Process what happened. Once your initial reactions subside and you are calm and relaxed, process the experience. It is very important to study the experience so you can learn from it. Reenact the event in your mind so you can discover what went wrong. Did you use the wrong site pin? Was the deer out of range? Were you distracted? By processing the event, you will learn what you need to improve on (through future practice). Further, replaying the event in your mind when you are calm will actually help you forget it later on. This might seem counterintuitive, but if you initially avoid thinking about it, you will find that it creeps back into your mind (again and again). If you don’t believe me, then don’t think of a chocolate bar — I bet one just popped into your mind’s eye. When you choose to process a missed shot, you exert control over your own thoughts, instead of letting them control you.
- Think Positively. Now that you’re calm and you have actively processed the event, it’s time to rebuild your confidence. Start thinking about all the things you do right. If you’ve harvested a buck before, replay that memory in your mind. Remind yourself that you are a good shot and that you have what it takes to harvest a buck. You’ll need this confidence to endure the wait until your next opportunity.
- Personally, I have one specific memory that I always replay when I need to boost my confidence. I was 14 years old, and it was the opening day of rifle season in Pennsylvania. I was hunting alongside my father, who harvested his buck in archery season that year. We were hunting on a rolling hill that overlooked a field of young Christmas trees, when we saw a shooter trotting about 300 yards away. Knowing one of us might need to make a long shot from this stand, we practiced shooting in this field during the summer months. I knew right where to aim the sites of my Remington Model 7 at this distance. Result: lung shot and a trophy for the wall (not to mention lots of jumping up and down with my dad)! Recalling this event after a missed opportunity helps me rebuild my confidence. I start reminding myself, “I can pull off a tough shot – I can do this. I am here for a reason and I belong here.”
- Practice as soon as you can. Mental imagery is a very powerful tool, but it only takes us so far…and it does nothing if your equipment is malfunctioning. You have to convince yourself (body and mind), that your equipment is sited properly and that you are shooting properly. Do this as soon as possible. Sometimes I turn on my outdoor lights and take a few shots in my yard at dark just to remind myself instantly that things are working properly. Practice shooting your bow in a contrived hunting situation. If you hunt from a tree stand, shoot from a tree stand. The idea here is to make sure you are shooting properly from the same vantage in which you hunt. Doing this will permit you to make any adjustments and to build some confidence. You can then visualize these recent shots to replace the images of your missed opportunity.
Let’s face it, I hope you never have to use the techniques just described. I wish each an every reader nothing but the best of hunting successes. That’s why I recommend treating the aforementioned tips as tools for your toolbox. You can stash them away, and maybe you’ll never have to use them. But, should you need them, you’ll know where to find them…and you’ll know how to use them.