From tales of man-eating lions, told by Capstick, to chasing cattle rustlers with Lamour, my adventure reading was highly diversified in subject matter. One constant was woven throughout the pages of the time worn tomes, the main character seemed to always have nerves of steel.
All of the leading heroes were calm, cool and collected under pressure. Safari hunters never ran when the last shot in their double rifle failed to stop a charging buffalo; the wing shooters never missed difficult shots, and the cowboys knew exactly how to deal with the tough leader of an outlaw gang. I came to the conclusion, merely through vicarious association with these fictitious figures, that I too had the same "grit", and could hold up under any situation with the best of them.
Imagine my surprise when I tried to center the crosshairs on my first deer, and I was shaking so hard that I missed a broadside shot at a mind-boggling 100 yards! Luckily, the deer must have been part cape buffalo and part Kamikaze. He turned towards me, looked at me like "I owed him money" (as Ruark would say) and with a violent shake of his menacing two-point rack started running right at me.
"Ahah!" I thought, "A mettle testing moment, that was the problem with the first shot; not enough pressure."
The buck reached 75 yards and stopped broadside again. I drew down and jerked the trigger. Unscathed, off he raced again, still right at me. At 50 yards I was beginning to get worried, a cape buffalo is one thing but an enraged 150-pound whitetail, bent on destruction is an awe-inspiring terror few ever get to witness.
Banishing the thought of what would happen if I missed with my third and final shot, I drew down again on the running buck and this time squeezed the trigger. Luckily the bullet and the buck met at the same time and place and he hunched at the shot, broke his charge and trotted 10 to 12 steps to the right, where he collapsed from a lung shot.
I would like to be able to tell everyone that I coolly killed my first deer with one shot at a couple of hundred yards, never got flustered or excited but it just wasn't the case. I was suffering so badly from buck fever that I was shaking, but it is only with hindsight that I have realized the symptoms. At the time, I honestly believed my scope was off, and shot the rifle at paper later the same day. As you can probably guess, it was spot on. The only thing that was off was me.
Most people, at one time or another, suffer from varying degrees of buck fever and either don't know it or simply refuse to admit it. Here is how you can recognize the symptoms and what you can do about it.
Everybody reacts to buck fever in a different way. In minor cases, it is just a pounding in the chest and a shortness of breath. In extreme cases, it has been known to induce heart attacks and have hunters do crazy things like stepping off a treestand to run up to a fallen buck. In any case, it affects your shooting. To what degree depends on the individual hunter. When your breathing and heart rate skyrocket, it is not the optimum time to be lining up the cross hairs or settling a pin sight on an animal.
While you can't prepare for every eventuality that happens in the field, there are some things you can do to reduce the amount of stress associated with hunting.
Dealing with it
- Be Prepared- If you are prepared, you'll have fewer things to be worried about. Scout enough to have a good idea of where the bucks will be coming from. It will not always work out like you plan, but when it does, you will have a feeling of control.
- Know your equipment- Spend time with your weapon of choice. Know where it hits at different distances and have confidence in its accuracy. Handle it enough to know every intimacy and idiosyncrasy.
- Gain experience- This one is easier said than done, but it will come with time. At every opportunity, go afield. The more live animal experiences you get under your belt the better. Target practice at the range is important, but real hunting opportunities are invaluable. Spend the off season hunting coyotes, prairie dog shooting or bow fishing for carp.
You may or may not get buck fever in your lifetime; it may be an isolated incident or an every time occurrence. But should you get it, (and I believe there is an eye popper out there that will do it to everyone) here is how to combat it.
It sounds silly, but people do quit breathing under tense situations. Breath deeply (but quietly), it will clear your head and help calm your nerves.
Take your time-
As much as you will want to rush the shot for fear of missing your hard-earned opportunity, force yourself to slow down. Rushing the shot is the main root of a poor hit, a miss or wrongly identified target. Wait, be sure of your shot, and slowly squeeze the trigger. What if the animal leaves before you get a good shot? Don't kick yourself, just remember that no animal, regardless of size, is worth rushing the shot and possibly wounding it or not seeing a possible danger and accidentally shooting the wrong animal or worse yet another hunter.
Recall your training- For years, I had a note laminated to the inside of my upper bow limb. It simply read:
Was I so stupid that I needed a note to remind me what to do? At first I want to say No, but on second thought, I guess I was (and so are most hunters). In the heat of the moment it is so easy to draw back and just punch the trigger. You are so ecstatic, actually being in bow range of a deer, that you forget to pick a spot, look at the range and release the shot like you have practiced all summer.
The note trick helps you remember what to do, but it also forces you to slow down and take your time.
Am I cured?
I have thought about this off and on for the past few years. I haven't botched a shot in a long while due to buck fever. I still get excited, my heart races and seems to leap into my throat and my legs shake, but I can compose myself for the shot. I think it is normal and in fact, I wouldn't want it any other way. The day I no longer get excited by an animal is the day I will hang up my gun and bow. The trick is knowing when to get excited and when to remain calm, cool and collected.