Hunting is a fickle pastime and the very definition of type 2 fun. Unlike planning a trip to Six Flags or a weekend at the shore, the only guaranteed joy of a hunt is the pursuit itself. Game animals have minds of their own, and particularly if you’re out after a trophy, there is always a chance your quarry will not cooperate. Deer do sometimes sleep in, bed down early, or even leave areas entirely for no perceptible reason. All that said, however, there are some things you can do to up your chances of success. Read on for three of the best hunting tips.

1. Know Your Ground

Of prime importance is knowing the area and animals you plan on hunting. Instead of spending your whole summer wetting lines and skipping stones at the nearby watering hole, get out there and burn some boot leather in the backcountry. Find bedding sites, feeding areas, and migration corridors to start, and the closer you get to fall, look for any specimens you can find stomping around in velvet. Will much of this pattern change when the rut sets in? Of course. Does that mean scouting is useless? Of course not! Having a general idea about deer activity is far superior to none at all.

As a corollary to this, if you’re hunting out of state and cannot spare the time necessary to properly scout your hunting area beforehand, there is absolutely nothing wrong with hiring a local guide. Many will hem and haw about the purity of DIY hunting, and they are correct, in a sense. There is nothing quite so rewarding as doing the entire process yourself. What they fail to recognize, however, is that knowing your ground is an integral part of the process. If you skip it, you should really hire someone who hasn’t, otherwise, you’re simply blundering around the woods with a gun, looking for a sign. If you choose to ignore this advice, or simply cannot afford to take it (let’s be honest here, guides are not cheap) at the very least use an app like onX to digitally “pre-scout” your location, to find promising locales. This will greatly up your odds of happening upon a game-rich area.

2. Know Your Gun (or Bow)

The internet is aflame these days with admonitions to not simply buy a gun, but to train with it too. Thing is, that advice is in vogue because it’s dead-on accurate–there is not much more important than having an intimate knowledge of the weapon you’re carrying. As hunters, however, we need to take this advice a step further.

Benchresters shoot from benches, concealed-carry practitioners fire from a draw, and bullseye competitors shoot bladed, but hunters shoot from … well, just about everywhere. Can you hit out to 1000 yards off a bench? Great. But can you hit 400 yards standing? How about 600 seated, or off your knees? These are the kind of shots you’re going to have to make out there, all the while taking into account the effects of wind, elevation, and the invisible timer that buzzes as soon as your target buck disappears behind a tree. If you can’t make these shots on a flat range, I guarantee you have no chance of doing so in the field, so make sure to not just train your wind holds and trigger squeeze, but your different shooting positions too. 

Find out how to get the most stability in every position (it will generally be when you have the majority of your weight supported by bones, bags, and bi/tripod legs, rather than muscles), and practice dropping into these positions in a hurry. The best part? You can do this in your basement as a dry-fire drill. Disclaimer: Be sure to check that your chamber is empty before doing so. Put a small thumbtack in the wall as an aiming point, and see how quickly you can stabilize enough to execute a comfortable “shot” on that target. You’ll thank me when a distant deer’s vitals are in your reticle. 

3. Know Yourself

Okay, I know that subhead is a little out of left field, but I wanted to keep to my theme and it sounded cool, so hear me out. When I say know yourself, what I mean specifically is to know your own mind. Why are you out there? What are your motivations for hunting? How far do you plan on pushing it to find success? As with everything worth doing, hunting contains a vast mental aspect that most people overlook. Ever notice how much heavier that trigger seems when you’re on an animal, as opposed to when you’re banging steel at the range? I guarantee your trigger didn’t just happen to gain 5 pounds overnight (unlike myself coming back from the Golden Corral). What’s changed is your situation: your brain knows that’s a target you likely only have one clean shot at, and it is petrified of missing. This could be due to the shame seemingly imparted by a miss, the fear of wounding and losing the animal, or a myriad of other factors personal to that particular hunter.

If you know what I’m talking about, I have news for you. We all miss. I’ve missed, you’ve missed, your dad missed, even your dead-eye grandpa missed (though he might never have admitted it, we both know that jackalope got away back in ‘48). Instead of getting caught up in the emotion of the shot and the possibility of a poor outcome, analyze it logically. Are your crosshairs wandering outside of the vitals? If so, don’t pull the trigger, that’s a poor shot. If they aren’t, for God’s sake don’t try to squeeze every last inch of wobble out by flexing, and definitely don’t attempt to time your shot for the moment the sights rest over the top of the middle of the center of the deer’s main aortic valve–you’ll jerk the trigger and send your shot into orbit. If you’re confident in your wind hold and elevation, and your sight picture is solid enough, there’s nothing more to think about. Squeeze that trigger, and worry about where your impact is after the bullet has left the barrel.

While I think this is its most important aspect, the mental game goes much further. There is no such thing as too cold, too far, or too wet if you’ve got the right equipment, paired with the right mindset. On the other hand, you could be decked out in the best gear imaginable, but you’ll turn around at the first sign of adversity if that adversity is what you choose to focus on. Get your mind right before you hit the field, you won’t regret it.

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