I wish I was the best elk hunter I know, but I’m not. Before you turn the page, though, I’ve definitely learned quite a few things I can share with aspiring archery elk hunters that should shorten the learning curve. Most of those lessons I’ve learned on my own, but I’ve also been fortunate to absorb lessons from archery elk hunters who are far better at their craft than I am. Over the next three issues, I’m going to break my earned and learned system into three separate categories. This article will cover the importance of developing a mental management approach. In subsequent issues, we’ll discuss how to find elk and then how to hunt them. Hopefully it won’t be lost on you that I’m starting with the mental management subject for a reason – I believe it is the most important and least talked about topic when it comes to articles of this nature.
There’s been a huge uptick in the popularity of physical training regimens for elk hunting. I’d say for the most part, these “Conquer the Mountain” plans are extremely beneficial for the participant, but I think that the main benefit of physical training in the offseason has more to do with the hunter’s mind than it has to do with their bodies. Barring a serious injury, the reality is that your mind will always quit way before your body will. When my oldest son was training hard to achieve his goal of becoming a state champion wrestler, his workout regimen was insane. I even suggested that he throttle it back a bit. His response is true for all pursuits that get our bodies off the couch and into an uncomfortable state. He simply said, “I feel like working this hard allows me to believe I have earned the right to win every match I wrestle.” He went on to say, “I truly believe I deserve it more than my opponent because I know I’ve outworked him.” As an archery elk hunter, my version of that mindset is that I honestly believe that I deserve to kill an elk with my bow, not just once in a while but every time I head into the field.
Forcing yourself into the gym or onto the mountain and making your body uncomfortable day after day will make it harder to sleep in after a short night in the elk woods. This is because your mind has also been training alongside the body and it’s the factor that actually tells your body to get out of bed and get moving. It reminds you that you’ve worked too hard to miss an opportunity simply because you’re tired. While this may seem obvious, the vast majority of elk hunters this fall will have spent far too much time thinking about their body and not nearly enough time thinking about their mind. Focusing on the benefits that your workout regimen provides for your mind will be a welcome relief from focusing on the 10 extra pounds you are trying to lose. Plus, like I said before, the body will only go as far as your mind forces it to. I’ve seen mentally tough people who are in terrible shape do incredibly tough things, and I’ve seen some mighty fine-looking gym specimens tap out when the going gets tough. If you focus on combining the two, the elk better beware!
BECOME A GREAT SHOT
In spite of my support for a rigorous training regimen, I am living proof that being in mountain shape isn’t enough to kill elk in and of itself. Twenty-five years ago, I was running up and down steep mountains, setting chokers on logging jobs for a living. I was in the best shape of my life, and I was a terrible archery elk hunter. I’d have dozens of close encounters each year that did not turn into backstraps in the freezer. I just couldn’t quite put the final pieces together because I’d typically experience a case of bull fever that nearly incapacitated me. In hindsight, most of that was due to the fact that I wasn’t supremely confident in my shooting ability.
One of the best things I did for my archery elk hunting success was when I accepted a job as the General Manager of Trophy Taker Archery Products with my elk-slaying buddy, Dan Evans. When I first started, we shot bows together almost every day. One day, without even buying me dinner or warning me that he was about to tromp my feelings into the dirt, he looked at me and said, “You’re a pretty good shot with your bow, but you’re never going to become a great shot with the habits that you have.” When I was finally able to swallow my pride, Dan agreed to coach me with a warning that everyone who commits to the true art of archery should heed. He told me, “You’re going to get worse before you get better.”
Wow, what could possibly go wrong after he told me I wasn’t a great shot and that if I wanted to become one, I’d get worse before I’d get better? Turns out, he was right on both counts and I’m grateful to this day for his wisdom, tutelage, and honesty. Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of teaching my wife and kids to shoot a bow, and I’ve been able to share some tidbits with countless friends and acquaintances. What that has taught me is that all of the honesty and coaching in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t be honest with yourself.
As a man, it’s not real popular to talk about the stuff we’re afraid of, but if we don’t learn to do this, we can’t learn to manage it. The reality is that I’m afraid when I camp in grizzly bear country and I’m afraid of missing the target with my bow. It’s called target panic, and 100% of people at full draw have it because it’s also known as performance anxiety. At one end of the spectrum, it becomes so incapacitating that you can’t even aim at the bullseye without freezing or pounding your trigger. At the other end of the spectrum, you find world champion archers, Olympic athletes, and elk-slaying gurus like Randy Ulmer who have developed mental management systems that keep them in the driver’s seat at the moment of truth.
There are books, classes, and countless resources dedicated to mastering the art of archery and mental management systems. I won’t attempt to cover that here. I’ll only tell you the same thing that my archery coach told me. Unless you have already done the hard work of developing a mental management system with your shooting, you need one. Furthermore, you need to seek out every possible stressful situation to shoot your bow in. I’m not talking about from your knees or on a steep sidehill. Yes, those are important too, but I’m talking about at a 3-D archery shoot in front of peers and strangers. I’m talking about shooting against your buddies through a small hole in the branches at the eyeball of a 3-D target when there is $20 on the line. I’m talking about scenarios that get your heart racing as you draw your bow and make you want to slap your trigger when you know that you really need to just settle down, aim, and follow through. In short, work hard to become a great shot because it will give you the same mental edge that your physical workout routine will. At full draw, you’ll be able to say, “I’ve earned this shot, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
MANAGE THE LAST 30 SECONDS
Point blank encounters with bugling bull elk are intense! You’re probably exhausted, hungry, and thirsty when it finally happens. You may even be discouraged and desperate. Just when it seems that you’re never going to notch your tag, the planets align and you’re on a collision course with a rutted up bull elk. If you don’t stay in the driver’s seat, all of the things your mind and body do next are trying to screw it up for you. Thoughts like, “This is my only chance” and “I don’t have enough time to range him” and “I want this bull so bad” come rushing in while adrenaline courses through your body, resulting in involuntary tremors that are going to make it even harder to aim when you hit full draw. I chose every phrase above for a reason because they are the three main reasons I used to fall apart at the moment of truth. With that in mind, I’ll share why they were my three biggest hurdles and my system for managing them.
Every highly successful archery elk hunter I’ve ever chatted with has learned the hard way to deal with the “only chance” myth. If you’ve been in the woods for days, weeks, months, and even years without killing an elk with your bow (and I know people who have), it’s completely natural for your brain to think, “This is it!” However, the consequences of accepting your brain’s ultimatum are disastrous. If you do accept this, the amount of importance that is placed on getting this particular elk goes through the roof. Accordingly, your adrenaline skyrockets to incapacitating proportions and the logical processes your brain needs to rely on to make good decisions are derailed. It sounds simple, and I assure you it’s not, but the number one way I cope with this temptation is that I have a mantra that says, “This is just another elk. They make more every September.” For some reason, this little saying keeps me calm, makes me chuckle, and reminds me that this won’t be my last encounter. Every good archery elk hunter refuses to allow their brain to tell them anything different.
The myth of the “one pin from 0 to 50 yards” is exactly that. If you think that you can get away without ranging an elk, you’re about to have a really bad experience unless you get really lucky. The main reason I say this is because another myth that your brain manufactures is that time is shorter than it really is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in disgust shaking my head as I replayed an encounter in my mind that ended with a bad shot because I didn’t range. Without exception, once the heat of the moment has passed, I always realize that there was more time than I gave it credit for. For this reason, my second mantra I repeat in my head is, “You have more time than you think you do.” This calms me down and inspires me to get that exact range. Also, the act of ranging adds confidence when I do hit full draw and it keeps me in my normal shot sequence, which is extremely important.
Finally, humans are lazy. We want shortcuts. That’s why our minds say things like, “I want this bull so bad.” It allows us to skip all of the steps required to actually put him on the wall, including the most important step of all. If making a great shot is the only way we can ensure that we go out with a heavy pack, isn’t that what your mind should be focusing on? For that reason, I’ve finally replaced my natural tendencies to focus on how badly I want the animal in question with how badly I want to make a good shot. To manage that, I have a third mantra, but this one was stolen from one of my favorite authors on the topic of mental management. In his book With Winning in Mind, Lanny Bassham offered one of his own keys to keeping it together when the stakes were high. He used to repeat, “It’s like me to make a great shot,” when he was competing in the shooting sports. I read his book in 2011 and was able to put that phrase to the test in 2012 as a great Montana bull and I were on a collision course and I could feel way too much adrenaline trying to take over. I still have a crystal clear memory of charging down a muddy draw in pouring rain, repeating over and over, “It is like me to make a great shot.” After a perfect 51-yard shot, the bull died in seconds and I was reminded once again that managing the mind is still the most important factor to consistent success for bowhunters.
If you head into the woods in the best physical condition armed with a bow that you shoot like a pro, two-thirds of the mental variables will take care of themselves. The final third is still up to you when those final 30 seconds have you putting it all on the line. For me, I remind myself repeatedly: