Show me a hunter who claims to not get buck fever, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t enjoy what they’re doing (or they’re a liar). It happens to nearly all hunters, and its effects don’t do us any favors during the moment of truth.
But what is buck fever exactly? What causes a competent marksman to miss a 200-pound deer at 50 yards, but have no issues killing the bullseye on a paper target at four times that distance? The answer is adrenaline, and a lot of it.
When you lay eyes on an animal that you desperately want to put your tag on, your fight-or-flight response kicks in. This, according to Harvard Health Publishing, is when your amygdala perceives a threat and lets your hypothalamus know that it’s go time. From there, a whole litany of biological reactions occur at once, the most significant being that your adrenal gland dumps a serious dose of epinephrine into your blood. This natural stimulant affects us in different ways, but will reliably amp up your blood pressure and increase your heart rate. In severe cases this adrenaline dump can induce breathing issues, excessive sweating, shaking and full-body tremors.
To amplify things, this specific kind of adrenaline is very difficult to replicate outside of an actual hunting situation. You can shoot 3D and paper targets all offseason, but nothing compares to when a live animal is standing in front of you. There is hope, though.
Tom Miranda, host of “Territories Wild” and a Super Slam holder, says that his major goal with practice is to gain confidence. If he can do it a thousand times over at the range, then it should come easily in the field.
“When you’re on a high-risk, high-reward hunt, you’re going to either be a hero or a zero,” Miranda said. “It’s a lot of pressure, and that can get to you, so I try to practice for the hunt. I shoot at odd distances, take plenty of wonky shot angles and try to stretch out my shot distance. Through my range time I’m trying to get comfortable with as many uncomfortable shots as possible so that when I choose to shoot at an animal, I don’t have to think about it.”
Miranda’s tactic of practicing to reach autopilot mode is shared by many accomplished bowhunters, but few can boast the tournament and in-field accolades that Randy Ulmer can. He says the first step in dealing with buck fever is to admit that you’re afflicted.
“I’ve suffered from buck fever from the beginning,” Ulmer said. “Unless you have no emotions, you probably get at least some anxiety during the shot.
“In my early years of bowhunting, I read all of the articles on how to beat buck fever and they all said the same thing—go to some deep inner place and find peace. You were supposed to master your mind and imagine yourself floating on a white cloud. I tried it all, but the problem was that my body would always call BS on my mind.”
Rather than seeking that moment of Zen to eliminate buck fever, Ulmer just worked on managing it. To do so, he leaned on repetitions to make every shot feel the same.
“It wasn’t until I started shooting competitively that I realized there might be a way to get more comfortable with the physiological effects of buck fever. The nervousness of toeing the line in a national tournament was the closest I ever felt to buck fever when I wasn’t hunting. I also realized then that I was terrified to screw up, and the only way to be less scared was to become extremely confident in my form and let things progress the way they should, and would, after thousands of practice shots.”
While both Miranda and Ulmer are at a stage in their bowhunting careers that scarcely resembles that of the average hunter, their collective lesson on shooting confidence is one that all of us can benefit from. If your form is dialed in and confidence level elevated, you’ll perform better when your mental faculties slip as a result of an uncontrollable adrenaline dump.
To further the point, Ulmer also offered up this advice: “Think about it this way. If you’ve shot 5,000 times this summer and have checked the bubble level on your sight every time, you have probably held your bow level during the execution of every shot. If you’re on a mountainside or in a treestand, you might forget to check your level in the heat of the moment but your muscle memory will probably do the work for you. That’s key.”
Ulmer also went on to say that as he’s had more encounters with mature animals, he’s found himself to be more patient. Patience can be hard to find when your target animal is within range, and forced shots often result.
I believe this is the reason why it’s so easy to lose your mechanics during a buck fever breakdown. Not only are you dealing with the physical effects of fight-or-flight, but there’s also the mental panic that the encounter can end at any second.
With most shot opportunities on unaware animals, you often have much more time than you think. As Ulmer has learned over the years, there’s usually enough time to settle your pin and touch off a relaxed shot. If you can remind yourself of that as you draw your bow, and the rest of the motion comes automatically, then you should be able to execute.
With that understanding and plenty of practice, you can suppress the effects of buck fever to be something that won’t rob you of an animal. Most hunters won’t be able to rid themselves of the ailment completely, but that’s OK. Those heart-throbbing moments are exclusive to humans that bring home wild meat, and serve as a brief reminder of why we do it.
Feature image via Captured Creative.