I came to the realization in the fall of 2021 that I managed to make deer hunting not fun.
“I’d lost sight of what makes hunting fun," I wrote last summer about this epiphany. "I’d gotten too goal-oriented, too strung out, too stressed, too worried about what other people think, and too busy for others. And I hated it…When the season ended, I took stock of what had happened and what I could learn from it, and then dedicated myself to changing things in 2022.”
So, now that we’re here in 2023, the obvious question begs an answer. Was I able to flip the script last season and make deer hunting fun again?
The answer is a resounding yes, and this is how I did it.
During the 2021 season and many before, I’d approached deer hunting like a military operation. Achieving the objective (killing a specific buck, mature buck, or whatever it was at the time) was of paramount importance. If I didn’t give 110% of my effort, I failed.
So every day I could possibly hunt, I did. Every hour I could hunt, I did. Every miserable ounce of effort I could squeeze out in that pursuit, I did.
“Somewhere along the way, hunting shifted from something I simply loved to do to a mission I felt obligated to pursue at all costs, at all times,” I wrote last year. “Twenty-one days in a row? Thirteen hours in a tree? Nine different states? Too much was never enough.”
There’s obviously nothing wrong with working hard, but going into 2022, I recognized this as a core issue getting in the way of my fun. As they say, too much of a good thing is not so good. So in 2022, I decided to take a deep breath and try, as best as my manic brain could allow, to relax just a little.
I cut back on my out-of-state trips from eight to three. I gave myself permission to not always have to do all-day sits during the rut and instead come in for lunches with friends or my family. I hunted when the conditions were right and when I was pumped to do it. If things weren’t right or I genuinely wasn’t excited to go, I let go of the guilt. And, lo and behold, it was fun.
When I was 21 years old, I decided to shift my hunting goals from killing any deer to instead trying to kill a mature buck. Since that day, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve approached hunting with an obsessive focus on that goal or some version of it. It was “big buck or bust” as I threw myself into each and every season in a wide-eyed fury.
“This is not inherently bad,” I wrote about my goal-focused approach. “But when your happiness, satisfaction, and identity are tied to whether or not you kill a deer (something that’s often not actually in your control), it can be a recipe for disaster. All of this led to a whole pile of stress, worry, and self-pity when things weren’t going well in the whitetail woods.”
So I decided to switch things up. Rather than a lofty set of goals related to the number, age, or size of deer killed, I set my sights on only two things: make good shots and have fun. I set myself free of any other cares or worries and simply let myself enjoy my hunts.
Going into the season, I felt a palpable lightness while making my hunting plans, and as my early hunts got underway, I repeatedly reminded myself to let go of what I didn’t have control over and just enjoy the process. Whenever I found myself slipping back into the stress or getting frustrated with a hunt, I’d think back on my original expectations, and in some strange tangible way, it released the tension. I didn’t need to get that buck. I didn’t need to fill that tag. I just had to milk everything I could out of the experience. I just had to have fun. And sure enough, I did.
Scroll through your social media feed in early November you’d swear that everyone but you is killing giant bucks. Pick up a hunting magazine or flip on a hunting show, and you’ll see huge deer at every turn. Big deer are currency within the hunting community. And if you can’t get yours, you are (supposedly) not a good or worthy hunter.
This is the not-so-subtle message that’s slowly pervading the hunting community. It’s a lie, of course, but it’s hard to avoid. In this new age of social media and pervasive trophy hunting culture, outside pressures and opinions can quickly suck the fun out of your hunting experience. I know this first-hand.
Last season, I made a promise to myself to shut down these outside voices. I was going to hunt my own hunt, critics and cultural pressures be damned. Whether I shot a small buck or a big buck or no buck at all, whether it was private land or public, with a bow or a gun—I was going to make these decisions for myself without regard for what other people would think. The opinions of my buddies or coworkers or followers about my hunts, strategies, or success were no longer relevant. I was going to hunt for no one other than myself.
With this in mind, I chose hunts and hunting destinations based on what I’d actually enjoy, rather than what might get me the best chance at a big giant buck. If I shared stories or photos from my hunts online, I made a point to ignore social media comments. When making decisions about whether or not to shoot a buck, I pushed aside any thought of what other people might think of my choice. Would it be fun for me? This was the question that drove my season. And guess what? I had a whole lot of fun because of it.
An obsession with being successful, worries about what other people might think of my hunting success, and a non-stop drive to kill big deer led to another unfortunate side effect. I spent less time in the outdoors with people I care about.
“When hunting became all about success, meeting obligations, and impressing others, all of a sudden, it became hard to make time for others,” I recounted last year. “Meet the crew for breakfast? Spend three days at the family deer camp where there are few deer? Head in at midday to celebrate with a buddy who just shot a buck? Nope, nope, and nope.”
In pursuit of some idolized outside idea of hunting success, I’d lost my community.
Last year I made a point to change that and instead prioritized sharing time outdoors with others. I went out four different days to help mentor new hunters, I took my four-year-old son out hunting with me seven times, and I budgeted more time than I have in years to get up to my family hunting camp. And, no surprise, these ended up being some of the very most memorable and satisfying parts of my year.
The 2022 deer hunting season was quite possibly the most enjoyable hunting season of my entire life.
I stepped away from hunting like it was a mission to accomplish and instead gave myself permission to enjoy whatever might come. I made an active point to shift my goals away from being outcome focused and instead focused on enjoying the process itself. I turned down the noise from the outside and hunted my own hunt for my own reasons.
And, finally, I took the time to get outside with others. I told stories late into the night with my dad at deer camp, high-fived a new hunter after recovering his first buck, and watched tears of joy stream down my young son’s face after spotting his first deer of the season.
I made deer hunting fun again by actively choosing to let it be what it’s supposed to be and what it always has been. Fun.