Beating Buck Fever (Craig Boddington)

What we call “buck fever” is a strange malady that can do the most amazing things to people. In its minor stages, it causes shortness of breath and acceleration of pulse. This can quickly progress to ague-like shakes that would do a malaria sufferer proud. In its most advanced state almost anything is possible, but classic cases range from being physically unable to manipulate a trigger to ejecting an entire magazine of live cartridges onto the ground without ever firing—and being totally unaware of doing so.

Whitetail Deer Hunt
The closer I got to this buck the bigger he looked! That’s perfect; he came out about 200 yards down a cutline in Georgia pines and there wasn’t much time. I immediately saw he was a “shooter,” so I ignored the antlers and concentrated on the shot. I knew he was good—but he was a lot bigger than I realized!

 

Obviously. buck fever is not conducive to hunting success, especially in its more virulent forms. That said, and this is important: Buck fever can be a good thing! It manifests itself when you are in the presence of a magnificent game animal; it’s simply an extension of excitement, and you might even say that its presence denotes respect for that animal. As hunters, we’re supposed to be excited in the presence of game. If we are not, and are able to take a fine animal’s life with total dispassion, then I suggest it’s time to hang up the guns and bows and take up golf or tennis.

So the key isn’t that you avoid getting excited. Getting excited isn’t just okay; it’s a good thing. What’s important, and truly critical to success, is that you find ways to manage that excitement and hold it at bay long enough to do what you need to do. Naturally, this gets better and easier with experience, but field experience in the actual taking of game is hard-won and can take many years. Also, some of us are more excitable than others. I can’t compare my “excitability quotient” with anyone else’s, but after decades of doing this stuff I’m generally able to control the most serious manifestations of buck fever until the shooting is done—and then the shakes begin.

Achievement Unlocked: Alberta Wolf Hunt

One early sub-zero morning a couple of years ago, Alberta outfitter Trent Packham dropped me off at a ground blind overlooking a frozen moose carcass on a frozen river. His final admonition was “If they come in, keep shooting.” There is no limit and no individual tags on wolves in Alberta, but at this stage I’d been trying hard to get a North American wolf. I’d have preferred a big black one, but any wolf would have been just fine!

A cold dawn came and went, but at about 9:30, three wolves trotted down the river toward the bait. The light was odd and I couldn’t see color—it’s probably just as well that I didn’t realize the first one was my dream wolf, a monstrous black “alpha male.” The bait was 200 yards below me. I got on the leader, obviously the largest, held in the bottom third, and saw it go down hard to the shot. The other two started to run, but reflexes kicked in and I was shooting a fast straight-pull Blaser. I got ahead of the second one, also dark, and it flipped over. The third one was just luck, now more than 300 yards out but running almost straight away. At that point I got my most advanced case of buck fever in many a year. My hands were shaking much too hard to reload the rifle, and it was a long time before I could manage the buttons on my cell phone to call Trent.

Alberta Wolf Hunt
This big, black monster was the first of three wolves I shot from a ground blind in Alberta. After shooting my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t reload, but it’s okay to let buck fever run its course after the shot!

Using Visualization to Beat Buck Fever

Okay, that bit of shooting was way over my head. I’ve missed wolves before, and most northern outfitters will tell you that more wolves are missed than hit. So I got lucky. But, aside from major buck fever afterwards, the success of my Alberta hunt is a good example because it demonstrates the effectiveness of a sports-psychology technique called visualization. Many (perhaps most) professional athletes practice some form of this: Simplified, batters visualize hitting the ball out of the park; receivers visualize catching passes; golfers visualize drives and putts, etc. As a hunter, it does you no good to dream of missing an animal, does it? Instead, imagine your “most likely” shot scenarios. Visualize taking a rest, getting steady, acquiring a perfect sight picture…and making the shot.

This scenario with the wolves was easy because I’d been there a year earlier, sitting on the same bluff. The frozen road-killed moose Trent had dragged into place was not the same, but it was in much the same place. No wolves appeared the previous year, but there were plenty of tracks so I could envision exactly how things might transpire. This can be a little difficult if you’re going into a totally unfamiliar situation, but you can always visualize the animal and mentally practice getting steady and executing perfect shot placement. And since many of us hunt from familiar deer stands year after year, many of our shots are somewhat similar to shots we’ve seen before. Visualizing how to set up shot placement them shouldn’t require too much juggling of mental blocks in these familiar settings.

Hunting Stand
Like many of us, I do a lot of deer hunting from the “same old stands” on my Kansas farm. The most likely shots are familiar, so I mentally practice them while I’m sitting. On unfamiliar stands I rehearse needed movements when I first get into place.

Train and Rehearse Your Technique

Training is a major key to success, and part of your training should include rehearsal. So, when you get to your deer stand, do you spend a couple of minutes rehearsing getting into position for various shots? Remember, the idea is to hold the beast of buck fever at bay. He’s ready to bite when a big buck appears!

Performing an act that you’ve rehearsed and are familiar with may help. It helped me with those wolves! When I got into the blind I realized that the likeliest shot would be steeply downhill, a weird angle in a ground blind. I set my shooting sticks by the window and adjusted the chair, but to get the rifle out I would need to cut the mesh screening over the window. I opened my knife, put it in the snow at my feet, and before it was light enough to see I rehearsed the whole thing: See the wolves, grab the knife, cut the mesh, drop the knife into soft snow, bring rifle slowly into position on sticks, shoot wolf. That was a lot to think about, but establishing that sequence and then going through it real-time helped keep me calm enough to shoot.

Ground Hunting Blind
This ground blind in Alberta looked down on a bait on a frozen river. Getting the rifle out and into place was complicated, so I rehearsed the actions before it got light. I really wanted a wolf, so I’m sure that rehearsal helped keep buck fever at bay…I knew what I had to do.

 

Back to training: Experience can only come with time, but practice can be constant and really helps! The more familiar, comfortable, and confident you are with your equipment, the less uncertainty you will feel when an opportunity arises. Practice as smart as you possibly can on the range and replicate shooting positions you might use in the field. When the shot comes, you can then concentrate on doing what you already know how to do—and what you know you know how to do.

Three-legged shooting sticks are almost universal in Africa…so I practice with them frequently on the range. Buck fever is a lot more likely when you must use an unfamiliar shooting position…or a rifle that you aren’t accustomed to.

Patience Pays Off

In my experience, a quick shot is easiest—you just do it. The worst scenario for me is to have a great animal in range and have to wait. Maybe it needs to clear obstructions or, worse, it’s bedded and you must wait until it gets up. This is a difficult situation, but I’ve been through it numerous times (which is a huge advantage). I continue to visualize, imagining the animal standing and offering good shot placement, and I work myself mentally through the basics of breathing, sight alignment, and trigger squeeze.

Usually when the animal finally gets up, things aren’t exactly as you imagined them, but there’s no sense worrying yourself into a froth—if you do, you will surely miss. When all else fails and the cold fingers of panic are reaching for you, focus on breathing deeply and regularly, and say to yourself, “I know how to do this.” Believe it, and you will.

The shot on my first desert sheep was a tough one: The ram was bedded on a shelf above me at 330 yards, so I had to wait forever for him to get up. Much was riding on the shot, and as I waited in this position my neck was killing me. I focused on breathing, imagining the hold…and when he got up I made the shot.

Hunting Desert Sheep

 

Ignore the “Extras” and Stay Focused

One final piece of advice: Once the decision to shoot is made, ignore the antlers or horns. They won’t get bigger, and if you miss you’ll never know exactly how big they were. Focus instead on the vital zone that you need to hit! I know some guys prefer them, but I’m not into head and neck shots unless I’m very close and extremely steady; the target is small and there’s too much room for error. I focus on the shoulder and, based on the angle, I visualize (there’s that word again!) where the heart and lungs lie.

This buffalo has great horns, but if you’re going to take the shot you must ignore them! He’s quartering-to, so focus on the front of that big black shoulder, about a third up into the chest. Concentrate on the shot…there will be time for butterflies later!

It’s always critical to focus on shot placement, and by doing so there’s much less space in your brain for the worms of buck fever! As you go through your training and rehearsals for your upcoming hunts, remember the techniques above to help you control (and ideally shake off) buck fever in the field.


Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world. 

For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.