A couple of years ago I was waiting to go on stage at the Minnesota Deer Classic, when over the loudspeakers I heard an announcement for my upcoming seminar. In it, they referred to me as a deer hunting expert. I cringed, and no, I’m not being falsely modest.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a true deer hunting expert. There are localized experts and tactical experts, but even the best of the best can’t transcend every hunting situation to come out on top. Deer hunting is just too variable for there to be a champion, which is something I’ve written about in the past.
Experts on the various parts of deer hunting definitely exist, though. There are food plot experts, for sure. Expert archers, as well. Undoubtedly, there are calling experts, scouting experts, terrain experts, and gear experts. There are also experts at missing deer. For about 20 years of my life, that was the most appropriate expert label you could toss my way.
I’ve missed a lot of deer.
Most of my whiffs came from absolutely losing my mind with buck fever. For much of my career, if a deer walked in that I wanted to kill, my cognition walked out. I’d totally delaminate, and as soon as I got the deer in my sight window, I’d hit the release. This happened on fawns, does, forkies, and 140s. It got so bad that I seriously considered quitting deer hunting several times.
Eventually I got my shit together with a single-pin sight and a new approach to practice shooting. After that, my batting average broke hard in the right direction. I still miss, but not often, and usually not solely due to buck fever. There are other reasons; many of which might sound familiar.
The Obvious Issues While I’m positive that buck fever saves more deer lives than our egos will allow us to acknowledge, there are a few other excuses that come up in stories that share the-one-that-got-away arc. Misjudged distances, using the wrong pin, and hitting an unseen twig all jockey around for the top three spots.
Misjudging distances usually happens when a buck suddenly shows up and we realize it’s now or never. Sometimes they catch you off guard, which causes panic, and panic is no good when you’ve got to settle a little green pin on an alert deer’s side and engage in a surprise release.
Using the wrong pin is another story. You can blame that on buck fever all day. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself how often that happens at the target range. The answer is probably never. But it happens on real deer a lot. Or so we like to say.
The unseen twig excuse can really go either way. It legitimately happens, especially during low-light shot opportunities when you’ve got to be real confident in your shooting lanes and windows. But, because it happens to the best of us, it’s also a nearly airtight, rarely challenged excuse for falling apart and whiffing. This is honestly one that all bowhunters have used, which means we accept it at face value even if it’s just a cover for falling apart in the moment.
The Not-So-Obvious Issues Having tested and shot dozens of broadheads and arrows over the years, I can safely say that more than a few bucks have lived to see another day due to poor arrow flight. In fact, one of the best ways to experience deer wounding and misses is to unscrew field points from your arrows, screw in any type of broadhead, and then go hunting. Where those arrows go, no one knows, but it’s a safe bet that at least one or two in your quiver won’t hit where you think they will.
You can also miss quite easily by shooting at highly alert whitetails. We all know that deer can (and will) jump the string, but what we don’t talk about is how often we give them a better chance to do just that. If you mouth bleat at deer to stop them before the shot, you’re putting them on edge. This is a necessity in some situations and just a good idea in others, but there is no way to look at this without admitting that you’re getting their attention with a potentially alarming noise.
You then follow that up with another potentially alarming noise—the bow going off. If they're jumpy, or standing at 40 yards, this is a great way to miss. Read the situation and learn when you really need to “mrrp” them and when you shouldn’t. This skill leads to filled tags.
Of course, you could almost guarantee a miss if you decide to tinker with your gear right before the season. May or June are great months for installing and testing out new accessories on your bow. September? Not so much. The thought of making any kind of major change to my archery equipment right before or during the season makes me physically anxious.
If you have to, you have to. But understand that archery competence takes time. If you don’t give yourself time with any new accessory, you’re asking for trouble.
The Right Shots There are no sure things in bowhunting whitetails, but you can get damn close. I’m at the point in my hunting life where I only draw when I’m 100% certain I’m going to hit both lungs or the heart. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it tends to work out pretty well most of the time.
This usually means I have relaxed deer well within my comfortable range, from setups where I have confidence taking a shot. That’s all intuitive I suppose, but it has taken me a long time to live by that code instead of just talking about it. It takes discipline and experience, but it’s a wonderful place to be as a deer hunter.
And if I still flame out, I can always just borrow from the list of standard, well-worn excuses and save some face with my hunting buddies.