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It's Okay if the Deer Wins

Shortly after daylight on opening day of archery season, I glimpsed an antler moving through the brush behind me. The buck was on me quicker than expected. By the time he reached my shooting lane, I was still in the process of turning in my stand so I could draw. In an instant, I found myself in that dreaded stare down with the buck of a lifetime.

He won, of course. Bucks don’t get that big without being cautious. When he put his head down, I thought I could get away with turning my torso those last couple of inches so I could clear the tree with my elbow and draw my bow. I was wrong, and that buck went bounding away and out of my life forever.

The rest of the season, I spent many days on stand rehashing that encounter in my mind. Who’d have thought that it all could have been over within the first 15 minutes of the season? More depressing in my mind, though, was hunting the rest of the season without a second chance at that deer, or any deer for that matter. Last day came and went, and so did my chances of harvesting that buck. Tag soup, anyone?

Accepting Failure

It happens. Despite boat loads of effort, endless scouting, and accumulating thousands of trail camera photos, it’s still possible for even the most prepared hunter to fail. Despite the technology available to us today in the form of trail cameras, camouflage, and scent elimination systems, mature whitetails don’t always do what we expect them to do. They show up behind us. They approach from downwind. They catch our silhouette or motion in the treestand. Heck, I’ve had bucks spook for no good reason other than something just didn’t make them want to take that last crucial step into the open.

Game over. You failed. Now what?

When you’re new to hunting, it’s a lot easier to accept failure and chock it up to a learning experience. You can’t expect to be Fred Bear your first season, after all. There’s a learning curve involved, and the only way to improve your skills is to learn from your mistakes. But here’s the catch: in hunting (and life), you never stop learning because you never stop making mistakes.

As crazy as it sounds, some of my most enjoyable seasons were also my most frustrating. Rather than feeling bitter about failing, I viewed every mishap as an opportunity to learn. Every failure was just one more step on my way to becoming a better hunter.

From that first-day big buck encounter years ago, I learned to pay more attention to stand placement as well as the types of trees I hung stands in. I now choose trees that aren’t in the wide open and can be camouflaged with foliage. I also choose trees that have other trees and foliage nearby to break up my silhouette. These are important lessons learned the hard way, but for years afterward, they contributed to many successful hunts.

Whatever It Takes

Unfortunately, we often judge ourselves based on our failures rather than our successes. As other hunters brag about how many bucks they’re seeing, the monster they or their buddy (or their buddy’s buddy) killed, or the quality of the property they’re hunting, sometimes I find myself feeling incredibly self-conscious if I haven’t tagged a buck yet. Like I’m doing something wrong.

Viewing social media only confirms it that much more. Everyone else is posting photos of big buck kills and here I am barely seeing any deer. It must be true. I must be a bad hunter.

Times like these, it’s easy to adopt the “whatever it takes” mentality to kill a buck. Our desire to be accepted and praised by other hunters outweighs our commitment to any ethical standard. And so we take shots that we shouldn’t take, bait in areas where baiting is illegal, or push the limits of what is legal or ethical in order to give ourselves the edge.

Seems like every year some celebrity hunter makes the news for breaking the law in order to be successful. I get it. For them, hunting is more than a pastime. It’s their job, and as with most jobs, there’s pressure to produce. Nobody wants to watch a television show about a failed hunt, and companies are hesitant to sponsor shows that don’t use their products successfully. Ask these celebrity hunters, though, if breaking the law was worth sacrificing their reputations. Everything they do afterwards may be on the up-and-up, but you can bet they’ll always be remembered for cheating.

In the end, where does it get us? A few photos to post online and a handful of “congrats” aren’t enough to offset the disappointment you’ll feel in yourself because you had to compromise your integrity to “get it done.” That’s the best-case scenario. Worst case scenario is that we’ve wounded a deer because of a risky shot, or lost our license because we got caught doing something illegal, or, worse yet, lost the respect of our peers.

Keeping it in Perspective

In truth, everybody fails. There’s a reason why hunter success rates aren’t 100% every year. In fact, even in major whitetail states like Iowa, the overall hunter success rate is only about 30% according to Iowa DNR survey results, which includes bucks and does. The harvest rate on mature bucks is much, much lower.

My home state of Pennsylvania sees similar percentages. According to harvest data, of an estimated 333,254 whitetails harvested in Pennsylvania in 2017, 149,460 of them were antlered deer. Of those antlered deer, 56% were estimated to be 2.5 years of age or older. Considering that there were roughly 900,000 hunting licenses sold that year, you can see that a lot of hunters ended the season with an unused tag, let alone killed a big buck.

My point is, not every hunter is successful, and some of those who fail are highly skilled, accomplished woodsmen. The posts of successful hunters on social media represent only a small percentage of the overall hunting population.

Goals and Expectations

One of the downfalls of having so much technology at our disposal is that expectations can get out of hand. We think that just because we get trail camera pictures of a big buck in a certain location at a certain time of day that we should be able to kill that buck. Well, not necessarily.

Remember, that buck got big for a reason. Chances are, it has survived multiple seasons and knows a few tricks of its own about how to avoid hunters. It can be a great goal to try to harvest that animal, but it shouldn’t be an expectation.

Sometimes bad luck plays a role in failure, too, and the stars just don’t align. I’ve had entire seasons when it felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I’ve also had seasons when it seemed I could do nothing wrong. Over the years, I’ve learned there are three things that are totally out of my control while hunting: the weather, deer movement, and other hunters.

All I can really control is myself and my own actions. My goal is always to do everything to the best of my ability and fully commit myself to the pursuit. If I do that, and still fail, then accepting that failure is much easier. I’m not willing to sacrifice my self-respect or how I’m viewed by others just so I can say I “got it done.” Sometimes the deer have to win, too.

-- By Ralph Scherder


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