By Joe Hogan, MTI Contributor
Western hunting is hard! At least it would appear to be if you’d have followed me on any of my attempts to notch a tag west of the Missouri River. If we had time I could recount the seemingly endless miles I’ve covered or the handful of times I’ve managed to put myself within range of my quarry only to misread their next move and botch the opportunity. Maybe I could share the time my hunting partner and I called a bugling bull elk to within mere yards in dark timber but froze with indecision and never laid eyes on him. My career as a mountain man is a dismal failure, so far.
Recently I was staring blankly at the complex regulations for a Western state antelope hunt and asked myself why I’m even bothering. I have lived the majority of my life in the Midwest where truly remarkable whitetail deer and eastern wild turkey hunting opportunities abound and I’ve gotten pretty good at those hunts. I’m also past the stage where my hunting is driven by other people’s expectations or my own ego. I don’t have to spend the time, money or calories out West but something continues to compel me to do so.
It is not just the call to go west that grips me. In the last two years I’ve tried spear fishing in Central America, waterfowl hunting in the planes and trapping behind my house. I’m not good at any of them, yet I’m still drawn. Obviously wanderlust plays a part. I’ve always been curious, but there is something more than tourism going on here. The inability to succeed has awakened something in me that I’d lost.
I don’t mean to inflate my status as a whitetail or turkey hunter. I’m not particularly patient, an expert marksman or archer, and I have not unlocked unknown secrets to animal behavior. I’ve simply managed to apply a handful of basic outdoor skills over time, in a place where these animals flourish and have been observant. These observations helped me to recognize patterns and learn how to capitalize on them. Today I consider myself to be a competent and consistently successful Midwestern deer and turkey hunter. While I’m not a competitive trophy hunter I’ve even managed to kill a small handful of remarkable whitetail bucks. There was a time, however, when even occasional success was beyond me.
I was fifteen on my first deer hunt. We did not own land and I did not have someone to mentor me. In fact, I didn’t even own a legal deer hunting weapon. Fortunately, we had friends who were kind enough to allow me onto their small Iowa farm and even loaned me an old shotgun. My mother agreed to drop me off in our rusty compact car each morning before sunrise and pick me up after dark. I had taken the proper safety courses and had an intense love for the outdoors but absolutely no knowledge of how to hunt whitetails. I spent each day slowly wondering circles through the creeks, fencerows, timber patches and fields without any understanding of where deer might appear or what they might do. I spent every minute of daylight out there, refusing to even come in for lunch when invited.
I encountered a lone doe on my second day. I held a buck tag but the excitement was enough that I begged my mother to call me out of school on Monday. Late that next morning, as I was easing along a thorny hillside above the farm pond, I had my first big buck encounter. I heard the snap of a branch to my right and swung to see a burly ten point buck lumbering from the neighboring woodlot where other hunters had bumped him out of cover. He was unaware of me but was moving too fast for a clean shot. Could I stop him? Should I lead him and shoot? Where is he going? I simply froze and watched him bound past me and into the dense brush below the pond dam. It was all such a surprise. I had not anticipated any of it and had no idea how I should have reacted, but in that moment the code to becoming a successful hunter had been revealed to me.
I was no longer ignorant to the point of paralysis. I suddenly understood that I would have to first learn to predict where and when game would appear. I could then begin to observe them and understand their behavior. In doing so, I could slowly tip the odds of success in my favor. As I said, even as a teenager I was in love with the outdoors, but my time there became more purposeful. I was no longer a mere observer but a student, albeit not a particularly gifted one. Over the next decade relationships with mentors and landowners developed. I added turkey hunting in the spring and archery hunting deer in the fall. I set money aside for gear and time aside for hunting seasons. I read every article on the topics I could find and I never missed the opportunity to seek out these animals and study them. Most importantly I was restless enough to cover many miles in search of them and resilient enough to eat tag soup far more often than wild game meat. In a nutshell, I still sucked at hunting but I was slowly improving.
Little by little I began to anticipate game in certain locations and I slowly learned how to approach those places undetected. I learned to read terrain and predict how animals might move over it in search of food, shelter or sex. Turkey hunting forced me to move unseen and unheard. Archery hunting forced me to understand wind and scent. Hours of observing animals that were just out of range taught me to read them. . I learned how a deer’s tail or ears can indicate their intent. I learned to distinguish a turkey’s putt from a cluck and how I should best respond to each. And perhaps most importantly, I took chances and learned what I could and could not get away with. Over many years I developed an ability to read ground, find game and call, move and shoot at the right time.
Of course I still failed more often than not. I hadn’t tapped into anything close to a sure thing. I had just developed a way to take some of the mystery out of what I was doing and applied basic principals repeatedly until I connected. Then, as time wore on, I saw that specific points on the map produced repeatedly under specific conditions. I was becoming more efficient and more successful. I was also becoming lazy and arrogant.
There was a period in my life where the stars simply aligned in my favor. Deer and turkey populations across the region were at record highs, I had exclusive access to some outstanding land and I’d carved out a lifestyle that allowed me to hunt a great deal. Rather than dreaming of success, I expected it, which is a terrible state of mind for a hunter. Rather than being restless and willing to take risks, I began to rely on the patterns that had brought me success in the past. I became inflexible and even joyless at times.
All success is fleeting, particularly in something as fickle as hunting. Land ownership changes hands. Animal populations suffer disease or winter die off. Family and career responsibilities interfere with free time. Habitat changes and game movement shifts. Suddenly a hunter finds themselves empty handed more often and that is what began to happen for me. This is not why I started branching out though. It’s just a happy coincidence that I retired from full time work around this time and began to explore new outdoor pursuits in my free time.
My first elk hunt almost broke me. Not in a physical sense. In fact, I was quite proud of my fitness level and camp craft. It was the absolute inability to come anywhere close to an elk and the crushing loneliness that hit me but I refused to give up. My next hunt was with an experienced elk hunter. It was less lonely but it did teach me that my fitness level was not as good as I thought. In any event, that was fruitless too. I’ve gone back twice more as well as other adventures mentioned above. I don’t cover enough ground. I struggle to read the terrain. I misread the animals when I find them. I suffer low morale.
I chased a variety of animals last year over a many, many miles. As in the past, the more distant the hunt, the more humbling the outcome. I ate some expensive tag soup but the majority of my hunting still took place within a few miles of my home, on land that I’ve hunted for decades. One might think after chasing elk in the Rocky Mountains that Midwestern hunting would be easy. It is not. I struggled to find turkeys early in the spring and missed a nice gobbler when I finally caught up to some. In October I ambushed a stud buck from a stand that had been producing for twenty years, only to send an arrow a few inches over his back. On the opening morning of gun season I was watching a herd of deer slip through a heavily worn escape route when I realized a heavy antlered buck had broken the pattern and stopped 40 yards from me. He had me pegged and I whiffed yet again as he bolted. All failures were followed by long droughts were animals seemed non-existent, but it did not hurt me the way you might think. I’d been reacquainted with this feeling and remembered how to face it.
My response was to cut loose from the patterns that had brought me this far, not because I had lost faith in them, but because I have remembered how much fun it is to do new things. I began to avoid my traditional spots and movement patterns. I began taking my stove and food and staying out all day. I began covering ground in search of sign and pivoting off of it. Stands of timber, grasslands and field edges that I’d long known became new again, and so did the animals I was hunting. I followed a flock of turkeys for a mile before putting down a tom off my belly. I arrowed a beautiful young buck from a hasty ground setup. And in the final seconds of the gun season I dropped a buck of a lifetime in a corn field that I’d previously ignored. The approach I had developed in my youth had been revived in the Wasatch Range and the San Hills of Nebraska and was again putting meat in the freezer right in my backyard.
I realize that I may not have the time left in life to develop a pattern of consistent success in my new outdoor endeavors. I’m okay with that. After all, no matter how familiar one is with an animal or it’s home range, our targets always hold an advantage. I am convinced they possess secrets that we cannot know and they understand us far better than we realize. The slightest eddy in wind current or sudden chatter of a jay favor them. Our plans and execution are fallible, no matter how well rehearsed. It is good to be reminded of this. It is good to suffer in pursuit of a goal and fall short. It forces self reflection and rebirth. Failure sharpens edges that have grown rusty. Failure forces adaptation and adaptation makes one a better and more fulfilled outdoorsman. I’d grown to far apart from the awkward kid with a borrowed shotgun. I’m glad I’ve channeled his energy again.
Joe Hogan is a retired Fire Captain and accomplished naturalist in the Midwest.
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