We were posted up on a hillside during what seemed like a lull in the morning, glassing and wondering where that big buck we saw at first light had wandered. I turned to Katie Hill, asking some extraneous question to occupy my agitated thoughts when suddenly she yanked the hood of my jacket towards the ground and whisper-yelled at me.
“Get down. They’re right behind you.”
Anxiety as an Adult-Onset Hunter I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how killing my first big game animal would go. I’m a chronic over-thinker with an intense imagination. The night before a hunt (or even a simple fishing trip), I’ll oscillate between dreaming about far-fetched versions of reality and worrying wide awake with crystal clear images of worst-possible scenarios in my head. But I’ve learned to use this mental burden as a tool for planning. It’s a brain game of “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.”
Coming into hunting season this year, I would repeatedly torment myself with a few specific situations. But instead of wallowing in fear and what-ifs, I decided to take action and attempt a more meditative approach to addressing it. Many meditation styles urge you to simply focus on the present moment. Well, if you go into a hunt thinking that you can merely be present in the moment and everything will work out, you’re sorely mistaken and will find yourself severely ill-prepared. Instead, I established a set of mantras to counteract these worries that would creep into my mind, whether I was lying awake at night or in the field with my heart beating out of my chest.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of “mantra” is “a mystical formulation of invocation.” You could also call it a meaningful phrase to repeat. I think when you’re fighting against yourself it’s alright to rely on something a bit out of the ordinary. To be clear, I’m not chanting these out loud or making any sort of witchy ritual about it. It’s just something I can repeat in my head to clear out negative thoughts. This apprehension I’ve dealt with may seem trivial to you, but it has occupied my mind for months and it’s taken acknowledgement and thought to develop these simple tools (some of which may seem glaringly obvious) to battle a worried mind.
What if I Make a Lousy Shot? What if I shoot the deer in the ass and it runs off and I can’t find it? What if all I do is ruin this animal’s life (or give it a slow miserable death), and I don’t even get to eat it?
This was a straightforward concern. While there are a ton of outside factors that play into hunting, I understand that the best you can do is control the variables. So I spent some time educating myself. There’s a pile of information available online about shooting, and I started by watching Janis’ videos on sighting in a rifle and reading Steve’s tips on marksmanship.
Then, it was just a matter of spending enough time on the range to know at what distance and in what positions I was most relaxed shooting. It turns out that sitting with a backpack between my legs provides my most comfortable rifle rest.
Mantra: “I’ll only shoot if I’m comfortable taking the shot.”
What if I Misread a Map and Unintentionally End up Trespassing? Also, what if I misunderstand the regulations and completely embarrass myself?
OnX is such a cool mapping tool. It didn’t take many trips out walking my dog, phone in hand with onX open, to get familiar with its many features. The ability to switch between the app and FWP regulations allowed me to double, triple, even quadruple-check that where I was going was legal to hunt with ease. Before I knew it, I was walking around sections of public land with binos strapped to my chest and a rifle slung over my shoulder. It felt like walking my dog but with more intention (and with my hair occasionally raising up on the back of my neck).
Walking with intention and a weapon—that’s pretty much hunting, I suppose.
As Sam Lungren previously pointed out, you don’t actually need a hunting mentor. And as a fiercely independent person whose most common fishing partner is her dog, I can confirm this. The time I spent alone just figuring out basic skills for myself was invaluable. Despite actually killing my first deer in the company of Sam and Katie, I’m glad I spent some time leaning into it alone first.
Mantra: “I’ll only shoot if I’m absolutely confident it’s a legal shot.”
“What are You Going to do if You Actually Shoot One?” My roommate asked me the same question every time I left to go hunting. Believe me, it was on my mind too.
“You just need to go kill one and deal with it,” my dad said after we finished up at the shooting range one day this fall. It's echoed in my head ever since.
But what if I can’t deal with it? What if I’m too weak to cut through the sternum? What if I cry? What if I puke? What if I can’t handle any of it at all and I’m just a giant imposter and have to go into some sort of shame-induced vegan hiding?
I kept telling myself that field dressing is something you just can’t be fully prepared for, no matter how many times you watched Steve’s video on how to field dress a deer. It seemed like it’d be so much more difficult than he led on.
At first I tried reassuring myself that gutting a buck wouldn’t be much more complicated than cleaning a bird or a fish. But then one day when I was out hunting by myself, I got a few lyrics to the Tyler Childers’ tune “Born Again,” stuck in my head:
All the while I'd gorge my gut Come the time when I would rut Runnin' high and low to find my prehistoric queen
To keep me warm till spring When I'd go out with my friends Graze the land and wonder when I'd see your face again
'Til the day I met my doom I took one in the boiler room To put food on the table of a dying breed of man
Childers called this tune a “redneck perspective on reincarnation.” Somewhat coincidentally, I think this article is a “redneck perspective on meditation.”
Those lyrics eased my mind and stuck with me for the rest of the season. It made me feel like I was in the right place and doing the right thing, in touch with a practice ingrained in our species since its dawn. The imposter syndrome faded away and I realized how much I was overthinking things. I just needed to relax.
Mantra: "Born Again," Tyler Childers.
Remember to Breathe A solid foundation of breath control accompanies any good meditative practice. There are two breaths I use most frequently. One is a box or square breath. You breathe in for four counts, hold the breath for four, breathe out for four, hold for four, and repeat. Imagining the shape of my breath and mindfully counting immediately calms me down and redirects my thoughts. But if I’m just trying to control heavy breathing after a steep ascent or in a moment of peak adrenaline, I revert to the ol’ reliable drill of slow, deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth.
So, I focused my breath and focused my scope on the forky buck 60 yards away. Then I pulled the trigger with more conviction than I ever knew I was capable of.
Calm Thoughts While “adult-onset hunter” might sound like a disease, it doesn’t need to be a debilitating condition. In fact, the side effects can include increased self-confidence, a renewed sense of empowerment, endless cool stories to share, and a free membership to a community of folks who are out there doing the same awesome stuff.
Though you don’t need a hunting mentor to get out, the company I kept certainly had a way of quieting down that nagging voice in my head and offering an unspoken assurance. Also, it’s pretty damn fun to have good folks around to celebrate your first kill, and I was very thankful for extra hands for gutting and guidance.
That night, my mind kept replaying the image of the mule deer, nose down, chasing does through sagebrush and juniper. Exhausted, I lay mulling the sensations of pulling off his hide and quartering his carcass. Easing into a blissful, deep, dark sleep, I felt awe for the primal instinctiveness I sensed that day.
Feature image via Katie Hill.