Trevon Stoltzfus, Outback Outdoors
I am sure you know someone who, every year, seems to connect on a trophy animal, while others eat a lot of “tag soup.” It has been said that 10% of bowhunters kill 90% of the game, and I call these guys and gals the ten percenters. Is it just that these successful archery hunters are blessed with an inordinate amount of luck, or is there something more? As I continue to grow as an archer and a bowhunter, I have been fortunate to meet many great bowhunters who I look up to and try to emulate. In these mentors I have consistently seen common threads that appear in what they do and how they think which helps to give these “killers” that edge. Identifying and adopting these traits has helped me to be much more successful in the field.
For years athletes have been practicing visualization as a way to prepare for competition and Dave Beronio of Outback Outdoors (www.outbackoutdoors.net), a good friend and hardcore bowhunter from Nevada, states it this way, “Growing up ski racing, I was fortunate to make it to an elite level. I was a physically fit and talented athlete, and the mental aspect was something I always enjoyed working on. I would take a seat quietly at the top of the start area and prep for my run. Multiple times I would visualize myself in the start gate looking down the course, and with movement of my body and eyes closed, I would start the course in my head. Because I knew the course setting and terrain, I could see myself making every turn and feel every movement of my body. I would visualize the fastest line I needed to take to win. By visualizing this over and over before my run, I could get on the course and then during my run it would feel like muscle memory would take over. The course would take on a "second nature effect". Even though it would be my first run physically on the course, it would feel as though I’d been down it a dozen times already.”
For Dave bowhunting is no different. He goes on to explain, “Visualization is something I often do while sitting on the couch with my eyes closed, or before I fall asleep at night. In my head I play the scene over and over through to the final seconds of a hunt. In my mind, I see the animal standing there in front of me. I visualize the flight of my arrow, picturing a clean shot and follow through. I can still picture my pin on the animal even after the arrow hits its mark.” By visualizing these exciting moments, where most bowhunters allow their nerves to get the best of them, a successful bowhunter can react calmly as if he has already been there, if only in his mind.
I have found that visualization can play an important role in keeping me sharp while in the field. If I am in a treestand or a ground blind I visualize a good buck walking into my ambush within easy bow range. In this exercise I expect to see that trophy, and work smoothly through the steps it will take to harvest that animal. My every motion is already thought out and planned in my mind; from grabbing my bow and attaching my release to the string all the way through settling the pin on the vitals and releasing a perfect arrow. Be forewarned that there is a fine line between solid visualization practices and hypnotic daydreaming. The former keeps you sharp and alert the latter just makes you sleepy and inattentive.
A common trait that these elite archery hunters share is preparedness. Preparedness screams success in bowhunting. But being prepared starts way before opening day. While visualization can be an important part of preparedness, there is so much more to this characteristic found in all of the “ten percenters” I interviewed.
Ray Howell, one of the most accomplished bowhunters I have ever met, explains his philosophy, “My passion for hunting and being in God’s creation has driven me to be a perfectionist in accuracy and knowing that each piece of my equipment won’t fail in order for me to make a humane harvest. I have three anchor points to make sure of my accuracy. I practice using the equipment I hunt with. I never change the poundage of my bow for different animals or league shooting. I use paper tuning to tune my arrows to the bow and use visual tuning with bright fletching to set up my broad heads. I practice long distance shots out to 100 yards, which makes me a good short-range shooter. My confident hunting shots are normally 40 yards or less which becomes a “chip shot” after practicing long distance. I use bright colored fletching so I know exactly where the arrow hit the animal and that will determine when I can start tracking.”
Mark Kayser, accomplished outdoor writer and Television host, poses his theory on being prepared in this way, “Bowhunting isn’t an exact science and that’s mostly due to the variety of personalities bowhunters bring to the field. Aggressive, passive and off-the-wall hunting styles all combine to bring diversity to the hunt. Although I miss shots, flub stalks and move in the treestand from time to time spooking mature whitetails, I still find consistent success. This is due to following a loose series of rules with the most important being my ability to operate on autopilot. You’d think this would come from hours of shooting arrows. While I do practice nonstop, particularly in the months leading up to bow season, I follow a rule I learned from professional archer and successful bowhunter Randy Ulmer. It goes something like this, ‘Practice is great, but not if you’re polishing your accuracy. Instead of trying to shoot as many arrows as possible, shoot each arrow as if it is the only arrow you get to shoot.’ It makes sense. You generally only get one shot during an encounter so you have to make it your best shot. I practice in all different shooting positions, angles and ranges, but I don’t shoot hundreds of arrows. This routine prepares me to go on autopilot when things are happening fast and over the years I’ve discovered my best shots have been when I have the least time to think about what’s happening.”
As I continued to interview many successful archery hunters, a theme of “always being prepared” continued to surface. Marc Smith, an accomplished western backcountry bowhunter states confidently, “I prepare mentally for the hunt by understanding what elements I will be up against. I pack clothing, food and equipment accordingly. I also shoot my bow so much that my shot is automatic. I then inspect every inch of every piece of my bow rig. Confidence in my bow set up is paramount. I plan for the worst and pack extra parts that are field replaceable. I have spent countless hours in bow shops learning to be a bow technician. Knowing how to repair anything that may go wrong and having a portable bow press back at camp allows me the confidence to go as hard as I need to and as far as I can in order to be successful.”
The editor for Bowhunt America, Jace Bauserman, is a “spot and stalk” genius and always seems to get the job done in the field. He shared with me his thoughts on being prepared. “The most important tip I can give when it comes to being successful in the woods is having a balanced off-season routine. It's one thing to blow smoke and regurgitate the common, ‘There is no such thing as the off-season’ phrase, but it's quite another to actually live that lifestyle. During the off-season be sure and implement a solid physical training routine, a good diet and shoot your bow as often as possible.”
Jerod Fink, a ten percenter from the Midwest who has fallen in love with the challenges of western bowhunting, reveals his secrets that, “Always being prepared steps a bit beyond just the physical aspects of a particular hunt. Being prepared means that you always try to keep an edge throughout the year, then when an opportunity pops up you are ready to take full advantage of it. I'll never miss an opportunity to go hunt something in June because I haven't shot my bow for two months. Shooting and working out year round enables us to keep that edge and be ready for any opportunity that comes our way. I'm reminded of a last minute business trip I took to Texas in July a couple years ago. I was asked to attend a trade show only days before it started, and agreed. The first thing I did was find a hog hunting operation close to where I was staying, brought my bow along, and had a great hunt (after my work was done of course). If I looked at hunting preparation as a September to November phenomenon, this would not have been possible.”
Bill Winke, popular outdoor writer and host of Midwest Whitetails (www.midwestwhitetails.com) sums it up with, “The best hunters are very thorough. They eliminate all the variables. Randy Ulmer comes to mind immediately as a bowhunter who is very thorough in his preparation both mentally and physically. If there is an aspect of the hunt he can control, no matter how seemingly minor, he controls it and masters it.”
“Keep up with your equipment, not just shooting daily but checking every little detail. One oops can cost you a lifetime of work,” shares Chris Parrish 5 time world champion turkey caller and accomplished big game hunter. He goes on to stress, “Always be prepared for the big encounter. For example, I always expect to shoot a Boone and Crockett deer every time I put my foot in a stand or a 350 plus bull every time I head to the high country. I do this to prepare my mind for the monster encounter; this way a trophy animal suddenly appearing will not surprise me. Along with this, I go through shot scenarios in my mind constantly while set up. This way no matter what happens I am mentally prepared.”
This section wouldn’t be complete without getting some words of wisdom from the master himself, and what he shared with somewhat surprising. Randy Ulmer admits that he in fact “gets nervous” when it comes down to crunch time. He also had an interesting take on the theory of a bowhunter going into autopilot mode at the time of the shot and said this, “In my mind I don’t want to go on autopilot when making the shot. To use that metaphor of flying, the lethal shot on a game animal is like the landing of an airplane, and if you are on autopilot you will crash. In my opinion you have to be aware of everything and still make the shot. It is okay to be scared and nervous and it is what you do at that point with that is what I call ‘Courage under fire.’ One thing that helps me is I admit that I am scared and yet do the best that I can, and just understanding that fact really helps to calm me down.” Randy continues to explain, “For me being prepared comes from the mistakes I have made in the past and learning from them. I try and leave no stone unturned especially my equipment.”
As we were wrapping up our conversation, Randy paused and said, “I feel like I need to share one more thing.” Randy had my full attention as I leaned in as if I was about to receive the Holy Grail of archery. He continued, “When it comes to being prepared, one of the most important things in consistently harvesting animals is accuracy. A lot of bowhunters take it for granted, but it is in my mind one of the most important things.” Driving home the point, Randy cleared his throat and went on to emphasize, “There are a lot better hunters and archers out there than me, but the difference is at 40 yards I hit what I shoot at!” He went on to clarify, “I am not try to be a braggart or ego centric but the importance of a lethal shot over missing or wounding an animal is huge. You have to be able to shoot accurately to consistently kill trophy animals.”
Persistence was another common factor that was spoken eagerly by almost everyone of the distinguished panel of bowhunters. Jace Bauserman states it this way, “I have found that persistence covers a multitude of errors. Understand, I'm not saying to take the "savvy" out of your bowhunting, but everybody messes up. It is the guys who keep going, keep trying, and never quit who bag their game on a consistent basis.”
As I continued to compare the notes and comments from the successful bowhunters I interviewed, I was surprised how much they talked about failure. It was even to the point where they seemed like they expected it. Randy Ulmer discussed his thoughts on failure by saying this, “Bowhunting is a sport that you fail the vast majority of the time, and you have to realize that somewhere between 1 in 5 to 1 in 10 stalks will actually be successful. If you can live with those odds and still enjoy bowhunting then you will be more successful.”
Understanding and accepting that failure is a part of bowhunting and persevering through that is vital to your success. Dan Staton, an accomplished archery hunter and fitness guru, succinctly shares his philosophy on persistence saying, “Resiliency is the key, you only fail when you do not get up!”
Another key factor that runs commonly through elite bowhunters is a competitive tenacity. I noticed that the majority of them hate to lose at anything. This trait comes in handy when the going gets tough. Kirk Edgerton, a hardcore bowhunter from northern California states confidently, “You have to never give up. You've got to have a 'do or die' attitude on the mountain. Don't accept failure as the final result, but rather make things happen. Use the entire day to hunt, glass, and study animals. Ask yourself what you're doing to find and harvest your target animal every minute of the day.”
Chad Baart, another successful archery hunter from Idaho and founder of Hunters Journey Magazine puts it this way, “Just when you think that its time to head back to the comfort of your easy chair, that is the time that you need to focus the hardest. Weather patterns and moon phases alter favorable conditions that one may be used to, but even then that bull elk or buck of a lifetime may be just around the next bend. Pushing through difficult times to make it happen yields a satisfaction that is second to none when it all comes together.”
One point that was brought up by Jerod Fink was the issue of time. I had never really looked at time in the field as a factor in tipping the scales in the favor of a successful bowhunter. Jerod made a great point in saying, “In the context of bowhunting, time means structuring your life to maximize the time you can spend in the field. Having a job or career that takes 90 hours a week of work from August to December is not something conducive to hunting success. Work and life schedules need to be structured to maximize your amount of time in the field when seasons are open.” Time is important as persistence is born out of time and a resilient attitude.
I have also come to understand that when these future bowhunting “hall of famers” say that they will never quit, it is said with a grain of salt. Randy Ulmer said it best when he told me, “There actually is a time to quit, and there is a time to back off. Weather, safety issues, and understanding that you as a bowhunter may have a very low percentage chance of taking that buck or bull on a particular stalk, might be the exact time to quit. You might need to back out and try again on another day or regroup and use another technique. Quitting, under some circumstances, can actually help you be more successful on another day.”
One of the most fascinating portions of my interviews was when the panel of archery hunters, who I respect as the cream of the crop, spoke of fighting to stay motivated. I was a little surprised to hear that even these guys have to work to stay sharp in the field and excited to hear how they do it.
Kirk Edgerton shared some secrets he uses in the field. “One of the main things I focus on is past success. When things are tough and critters sparse, I think about past hunts that ended in success. You've got to stay positive and avoid the 'funk'. I'll even flip through my camera looking at old photos, this always keep me mentally in the game and motivated.” Kirk shared and went on to explain, “I also think about what I've called the '6 second rule.' In six seconds I can shoot the trophy of a lifetime, am I ready? This keeps me looking, scanning, and eagerly awaiting what's around the next hill, canyon or around the corner. It's takes a brief second to spot an animal, a second to range him, then a few seconds to anchor and release. 6 seconds is all I need, it sounds odd, but on tough days, it keeps me going.”
Competitiveness again rings true in a bowhunter staying motivated, Kirk finishes his thoughts about staying motivated in the backcountry by sharing, “Even seeing other hunters inspires me. When I see other hunters on the mountain, I get competitive and think about where they won't go and what they won't do. I know I can out hunt, out think, and out climb them, then I think about a new strategy. More often than not, it gets me fired up and exploring a new locale or changing up my tactics.”
Chad Baart, explains his philosophy, “The contest for me is not shooting the animal of a lifetime, getting bigger horns than the next guy, or even bragging rights. The contest for me is within my environment and myself. I have often enjoyed warm campfires, comfortable beds and microwaves, but the hunts that have meant the most were those waking in a cold camp with several inches of snow on my tarp wondering "why am I here?" To me its proving to myself that persistency and perseverance pays off.” To Chad the competitive struggle within is a huge motivating factor.
Dan Staton states plainly that a bowhunter has to, “Believe they will succeed,” and goes on to quote Viktor Frankl, “Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue." Dan also believes that his bowhunting success comes from seeking the edge, which in his words is, “The ability to take more out of yourself than you've got.”
Another interesting tactic that most of these “ten percenter’s” shared with me was that most of them looked up to someone who in their opinion was, “better than them.” I continually heard stories of the importance of emulation and in Dan Staton’s words, “There's always someone better than you - learn from them!”
In this last characteristic I found a quality in common that I did not expect. To be honest, I would have “bet the farm” that consistent hunting tactics would have been what has paid off so big for these bowhunters over the years. The opposite was true and many of the bowhunters I interviewed attributed much of their success to their aggressive adaptability.
Mark Kayser explains, “I tend to toss tradition out the window. Instead of following what books, magazines and TV shows tout as the best tactic, I’ll break the rules. I love going on the ground for whitetails, especially during the ruckus of the rut. If the elk aren’t cooperating and coming to a call it’s a no brainer for me. I go to them and try to sneak in as close as possible. I also enjoy deceiving animals with calls and decoys and oftentimes not in the manner described in the instruction manuals. I once decoyed a whitetail from the ground by sitting in standing corn, rattling, grunting, thrashing corn and moving the decoy. A buck saw the commotion out in the picked portion of the field and ran straight to the edge giving me a 20-yard shot.”
JT Harden, co-host of the popular Hardcore Hunting TV show, attributes a lot of his success to his adaptability and says, “Your reaction to the animal and the situation is critical. You have to have the ability to change your tactics quickly no matter what happens.”
Over the years I have seen many unsuccessful hunters that sit the same treestand or sit over the same elk wallow because 6 years ago they took a buck or a bull from that position. By being flexible, reading the animal and making the necessary adjustments in your calling, hunting strategies, or hunting area, a hunter can be more of a predator, than simply a creature of habit that leans heavily on luck.
This journey of understanding the mind of a successful bowhunter has been a voyage of over 10 years. No one can deny that there is a drastic difference in the bowhunter that consistently takes trophy animals, and the ones that don’t. With the traits and characteristics I have shared in this article, I hope to bring each one of us closer to understanding what it is and what it takes to be a “ten percenter.”
Article first ran in July 2010 issue of Bowhunt America.