Battling Murphy’s Law in the Whitetail Woods

When whitetail pursuits take a turn for the worse, thick skin and perseverance are adversity’s best medicines.

Battling Murphy’s Law in the Whitetail Woods

Shortly after dawn, I heard it: audible clues that a mature buck was hounding a doe nearby. I spotted her first. She was jetting in and out of a thick sumac patch. Grunting continued, and I soon glimpsed tall tines through the branches some 100 yards away. All the carousing was concentrated to that sumac patch, so I surmised that the buck was going to breed her in there.

The big-bodied 8-pointer would easily make 140-145 inches, but that mattered little to me. He was mature, and that sold me. I pulled my grunt and snort-wheeze combination call from my pocket and grunted loudly to hopefully incite an aggressive response. But, the buck ignored me, so I snort-wheezed. When his head jerked in my direction, I knew I’d gotten his goat. His hair raised up, and his stiff-legged walk was bring him toward my sharp broadhead.

“Come down here so I can kill you,” I confidently whispered under my breath.

But, as the buck approached, the situation’s intensity chipped away at my confidence, and doubt moved in like an all-consuming raincloud. When I grunt-stopped him at 23 yards, I was sure I couldn’t botch it. But, I did. My cold, numb thumb missed the trigger, and as I tried to regroup and settle the bowsight pin once again, the shot went off unexpectedly. My arrow drove harmlessly into the dirt underneath the buck.

Name-calling followed. “You idiot!” I said. “How could you mess that up? You’re so stupid!” After more than two weeks of toughing out poor Kansas rutting activity, I’d earned my shot, but had fallen apart and blown it. Yep, things had certainly gone differently than planned. Sound familiar?


Murphy’s Law

In the wonderful world of whitetail hunting, thick skin is a great attribute to have. Without it, you’ll continually get bent out of shape, because adversity will happen. Always assume that Murphy’s Law can ring true at any moment.

Then, you must predetermine ways to cope with misfortune, or you’ll continually beat yourself up. We’re human beings and prone to making mistakes. If you understand that concept, you can instead identify what went wrong, dust off your shoulders and move on with a positive attitude. You simply can’t let it become a mind game, or your enthusiasm and confidence will drain.

A miss can sap your confidence, but only if you let it. Yes, it sucks, but dust off your shoulders and move on. (Photo by John Hafner)
A miss can sap your confidence, but only if you let it. Yes, it sucks, but dust off your shoulders and move on. (Photo by John Hafner)

This Happened to Me

In addition to the miss I already shared, I missed an even larger buck while muzzleloader hunting for the first time on public land in Nebraska. My brother was walking and glassing atop a ridge, and I was walking at the bottom of it. A buck squirted out of the canyon and ran right toward me, stopping 100 yards away and facing me. Excited, I rushed the shot and flinched. The 150-plus-inch bruiser fled unscathed, and I felt sick.

On another occasion, I booked a hunt with a South Dakota cattle ranch that used to sell deer hunts. When I arrived with my hunting partner, the ranch owner informed us that we’d have to pay a higher rate than what we’d agreed upon. My heart sank. We weren’t going to pay it. However, we’d already paid a deposit, so we hunted for two days on that deposit money, then left the ranch.

We could’ve driven home, but we formulated another plan. We obtained a public land map and visited with a few local folks in town. A hardware store clerk pointed out a public hunting area, and we soon drove to it for a scouting mission. We found great sign, hung stands and then backed out.

The following morning, we climbed into our treestands bright and early. We both spotted mule deer and whitetails from our stand, including a couple of dandies. Around noon we were heading out for lunch when I spotted a big 3x3 mule deer. Two hours later, I was standing over the prize. God ultimately orchestrated the success, but my will to persevere amidst sour circumstances also played a part in the outcome. No, I didn’t get a whitetail, but neither did I return home with tag soup.

One of my earliest memories of misfortune was when I’d settled into a treestand bordering a Wisconsin swamp. Moments later, my peripheral vision caught orange movement — the vest of a small game hunter. Just when I was about to shout, “Hunter here!” his shotgun sent pellets raining all around me. I retorted something I won’t repeat here; the event really startled me.

I could’ve climbed down and walked home, but I remained in my stand. Shortly before dark, I rattled in a decent-sized buck. He snort-wheezed, followed a doe-in-heat scent trail I’d placed on the ground and then put on a show. It proves that perseverance is the key to overcoming adversity.

Another time I was accessing a public hunting area in South Dakota when I buried my tires in mud and became stuck. I wanted to panic because I was miles from town, but I remained objective. I utilized resources, obtaining many sticks and getting them under the tires to promote traction, and though it took a painstaking hour of hard work, I got the vehicle unstuck and was even able to get in a quick evening deer hunt.

While hunting a prime Kansas stand that historically produces mega-giant whitetail sightings, a posse of pheasant hunters encompassed the area. Several walked by 40 yards away, and despite my talking out loud to them and waving my arms, they didn’t see me. You can imagine how frustrated I was. In this case, I did climb down and call it a morning, but I killed a buck two mornings later from another stand.

From my comprehensive list of whitetail hunting misfortunes, I want to call out one more. Several years ago, I attended a writer camp in Ohio. I was the only one out of seven hunters to not kill my buck. In fact, I didn’t even see a shooter while the other hunters enjoyed multiple sightings and shot opportunities. You can’t make this stuff up.

The events I mentioned above are all just examples of the realities deer hunters face. And if you hunt on private land, you’re not exempt. I’ve had trespassers walk up on me while hunting on private land. Again, you must expect Murphy’s Law. You must also know that the way your react to adversity can depict your hunt’s outcome.

After hunting for six tough days on public land in South Dakota several seasons ago, the author finally was rewarded on day seven with this respectable buck. When the shot presented itself, he made it count. (Photo by Brad McDougal)
After hunting for six tough days on public land in South Dakota several seasons ago, the author finally was rewarded on day seven with this respectable buck. When the shot presented itself, he made it count. (Photo by Brad McDougal)

Have a Support System

Now that we’ve discussed several mishaps that can unfold in the whitetail woods, let’s discuss a couple ways to handle them.   

First and foremost, I have a few friends I know I can call (see sidebar: Phone a Friend) who’ll listen and offer suggestions if I find myself at wit’s end. I always find that they help clear my thoughts and level out my attitude so I proceed correctly.

When I botched the shot referenced at the beginning of the article, I called my friend and fellow outdoor writer Jace Bauserman. He shared that he’d recently dealt with a bout of target panic that had cost him several animals, and he shared how he regained his confidence, which helped me understand that my problem needed a permanent solution, not a temporary bandage.

Bottom line: Have a systematic plan for how to overcome hardships and have people to lean on.


Keep Your Glass Half-Full

A positive attitude goes miles in the world of whitetail hunting. In fact, it supersedes a multitude of mistakes/mishaps. One reason I’ve been quite successful during the past 17 seasons is because I’m optimistic. Sure, when things don’t go as planned, I get discouraged for the time being, but I soon recover my optimism and move on. You must believe that your next big opportunity is out there waiting for you. Then, you must be willing to go after it.

Let me also add that every minute spent bowhunting is better than an hour spent at work; at least that’s how I see it. You must value the time you’re fortunate enough to spend in the woods, and then you’ll see things more positively, regardless of what trials and tribulations you encounter. And, you’ll probably find that you’re more successful with that type of attitude.

Sidebar: Phone a Friend

During an Oklahoma bowhunt several seasons ago, I encountered hunters and treestands all over the public parcel I’d chosen to hunt. I became quite discouraged, thinking all the pressure would have bucks moving nocturnally. But, I hadn’t driven 16 hours through the night to become discouraged this quickly. So, I found a draw with some acorns and hung a treestand.

The following morning, I climbed into my stand only to realize that another hunter was in a climbing stand about 12 yards behind me. I whispered, “Didn’t you see my stand?” He replied he hadn’t. Because it was public land, and he was there first to hunt that morning, the respectful thing to do would’ve been to leave the area. However, it was dead calm, and the leaves were crunchy, so I told him that I’d stay to avoid commotion.

After the morning hunt, we climbed down and exchanged notes. He said that he’d be heading home, and that I wouldn’t bump into him again. Then, his friend came over the hill. He also had been bowhunting a short distance away. With three different hunters in one area, I knew the place had to be fouled up enough to keep big bucks from moving through. Still, I had no option but to push deeper to the back of the property to scout for another spot.

I located a funnel that connected prairie and river-bottom, hung a stand and backed out. I still had my doubts. Regardless, I was going to hunt that stand the following morning.

That evening while exchanging notes with fellow outdoor writer Bernie Barringer, he assured me that, given the rutting activity, terrain features were the place to be. After sharing the details of the area, he said, “It sounds like your stand is in the right spot.”

The following morning, I killed a 150-incher as it trailed a doe right through the funnel. A quick phone call to a friend helped reassure me and keep my head in the game.    

The only way to regain confidence after a miss is to succeed. Shoot a doe under low-pressure circumstances, and if you make a perfect shot, it will make you more confident for your next buck opportunity. (Photo by Darron McDougal)
The only way to regain confidence after a miss is to succeed. Shoot a doe under low-pressure circumstances, and if you make a perfect shot, it will make you more confident for your next buck opportunity. (Photo by Darron McDougal)

Sidebar: Shake Off a Miss

For me, missing a mature buck is the lowlight of any deer hunt. I worked hard. I got close. The opportunity came. And I blew it.

This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I analyze and replay everything over in my head to the point of exhaustion. However, I always find my senses and shake it off. Sure, it still stings, but I know that I’ll miss even worse if I let my confidence drain because of a negative event such as a miss.

Thus, positive reinforcement is the doctor’s order after a miss. This means I shoot a doe under low-pressure situations, or I pound my deer target from all sorts of distances and let that success rebuild my confidence. Positive reinforcement is the only way to get back to the top.

You also must understand that even the pros miss. I bet every hunting “celebrity” has missed before and will miss again. We’re human beings and prone to fail at times. But, that need not determine for our confidence.


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