Why Success in the Deer Woods Doesn’t Always Include a Punched Tag

Why Success in the Deer Woods Doesn’t Always Include a Punched Tag

Yes, I know. Hunter success rates depend on filled tags, but I’m not simply reducing success to dead deer. The playing field is anything but level for deer hunters. From weekend warriors on the local WMA to those who have clawed their way into privately managed honey holes, the circumstances are different. Everyone is also at a different point in their hunting career. A one-size-fits-all blueprint for success just doesn’t work.

If this past hunting season served you a big helping of tag soup, you’re in the right place. While no one wants to end deer season with an empty freezer, success might not be as black and white as filling a tag or not. And just because you didn’t shoot your target buck, or any deer for that matter, doesn’t mean your season was a failure. If you’re comparing your hunting season to the highlight reels on Instagram, you’re setting unrealistic standards and putting a damper on your own hunting season. This isn’t some everyone-deserves-a-trophy sentiment (which I’m against), but it is a case for acknowledging the things you got right, so you can get over the hump and have confidence for next year.

The Little Victories

It’s difficult to think of a hunt as successful when you walk out empty-handed in the dark. But what about the other aspects of your hunt? Did you see deer without spooking them? This might not seem significant (though I would argue otherwise) if you’re hunting the same family farm you have for years. But what if this was a spot you found on a new piece of public?

This past season, I scouted my way into a new big woods piece and located an intersection of trails that converged near a creek crossing. After spending half an hour deciding between two trees for my setup, I went with my gut, picked the one that gave me the best cover advantage, and settled in. An hour before the end of legal shooting light, eight does fed through. One of them did so at twenty yards just before I punched the trigger and sailed an arrow right over her back.

I totally whiffed on a layup, and while that part of the hunt was a failure, everything up until that point screamed success. I scouted my way into a new area, interpreted the deer sign correctly, picked the right tree, and didn’t get busted drawing. Other than executing the shot, which I realize is a major part of it, I found the x on the first sit.

Sure, I would have preferred to hit my mark, but given the circumstances, I left that hunt encouraged, knowing I put all the pieces together but one. But, if you’re just looking at the end result and not giving yourself credit for putting yourself in the right situation, you’ll walk away defeated, thinking about all those grip-and-grins plastered on your friends’ social media pages. Think of it this way: even if you can stack arrows inside a dime, that precision won’t do you any good if you can’t find the deer. Count your victories, even the small ones. Then, take an honest inventory of the things that went wrong and fix them.

Competing Against Yourself

I promise I’m not an old man harping on the evils of social media and the inevitable doomsday that technology has expedited. However, it’s hard not to compare our success to others when we see it 24/7. And if you do this with hunting, you’ll never develop the confidence or joy that you need to become a better hunter. Like powerlifting or marathon running, hunting is very much a sport where you’re competing against yourself. Of course, there are other people competing, but you’re trying to crush your fastest time or set a new PR, not everyone else’s.

With hunting, you’re aiming for a bigger buck, your first deer with a bow, or maybe you want to ditch the tree saddle and take one from the ground. Regardless of your goal, no one cares about your outcome except you and the handful in your corner.

On the flip side, just because you fill a tag doesn’t mean you’ve leveled up as a hunter. It’s often through failure that learning occurs. For instance, I was lucky enough to kill a buck this past season because I was in the right place at the right time.

I decided to leave my setup early because the wind didn’t line up with the forecast. I scouted my way out and found a community scrape that was recently worked. While I was standing there, this buck circled downwind of the scrape not fifteen yards from where I stood in the wide open, and I leveled him.

Other than the fact that I’m capable of shooting a deer broadside at a whopping fifteen yards with a rifle, I didn’t learn much from that hunt. I was happy to shoot a buck and add some meat to the freezer, but I didn’t have that rush of executing a hard-earned plan. In fact, I’ve learned way more from hunts where I’ve missed deer or didn’t get a shot, and it’s those hunts that will make you better.

You’ll just have to kill your ego long enough to glean something from your blunders. The best hunters learn from their mistakes and then adapt. Be honest about where you need to improve and give yourself a pat on the back for what you did right—because no one else will.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article