As human beings we have a difficult time accepting the fact that are some things we are innately shitty at. We are all blessed with different skills and it can be maddening to watch others master a craft with relative ease. Especially if that same craft is something you struggle with. Throughout the years I have taught and coached a wide variety of sports and activities across a range of ages and skill levels. I’ve come to learn that there is a single facet to all interests that is required in order to be successful. Time.
Regardless of the pursuit, the underlying concept is that no one masters anything overnight. Things take time and time takes patience. There is no substitute for keeping your nose to the grindstone and facing failure over and over. If you want to truly master a craft, failure is something that you are going to have to embrace.
I tend to relate life lessons and human morals to hunting and fishing because that is where my free mind lives. I also think that I make these connections based on the fact that the places I choose to fish and hunt are usually quiet and solitary, which encourages the transient nature of my thoughts.
The first person I ever taught to fly fish was my youngest brother. I had been out with cousins and friends that needed some guidance here and there, but my brother was the first one that was truly starting from scratch. Looking back, it was like I introduced the kid to heroin. He is a through and through fly fisherman now, whatever that means. All I can say is that he loves it and so do I. But trust me…it hasn’t always been that way.
With both hunting and fishing, there were times in my life where I would hear my alarm go off before dawn and lay in bed hoping to hear heavy rain or driving snow, giving me and excuse to go back to sleep. I liked the idea of being a hunter and a fisherman but it’s hard to drag yourself of bed and freeze your ass off at 6 am only to spend most of your morning tying wind knots in your tippet…especially if you were up until 2 drinking. Dreaming about wall hangers is much easier than acquiring them. The slow and steady grind that is required to become a good hunter or a good fisherman is one that most folks likely will never experience…mainly because they don’t have to. Let’s be honest, why would you hike 30 miles to pack an elk off a mountain when the butcher at the grocery store will gladly sell you a pair of T-Bones for dinner.
The typical response to this argument is usually a combination of stoicism laced with a desire to acquire one’s own protein…live of the land…blah blah blah. I’m not bashing it, because there is a huge part of me that truly enjoys filling my freezer with quality meat that I acquired on my own. We all take pride in different things and I don’t think it is wrong to be proud of that. However, it doesn’t change the fact that we are intentionally taking the tougher road.
What I am really getting at, is that the people that choose to wake up before the sun and partake in these activities are typically people that enjoy a challenge. I certainly know that is part of my drive. I like stepping into the river or hitting the trail head knowing that some hours from now I may leave with less than I brought. This idea of failure and not knowing whether you will be successful is mitigated by past successes. It is easy to say to yourself “I’ll get ‘em next time” when you know how it feels to “get ‘em”. But when you are truly green to it all it can be difficult to grasp what success feels like because you simply haven’t experienced it yet.
I remember (as I’m sure most hunters do) my first buck very vividly. I was a senior in college working on my last bit of schooling and I had only been hunting for a couple of years. Most people leave college with a base of knowledge in whatever field they’ve studied, I left with a knowledge of hunting. I’m not diminishing my college education because I did, in fact, graduate and go on to get a job in my corresponding field of study. But, I was also exposed to hunting by a group of friends to which I will be forever indebted. The knowledge they shared with me altered the path of my life forever and for that I will always be grateful.
We used to hunt an area that was primarily surrounded by farm ground with small patches of timber and tall grasses. It was a great place to chase whitetail and grouse and served us well during the time we were there. While the area was conducive to hunting it was also a good place to ride dirt bikes and ATV’s (which are typically not conducive to hunting). The clashing of these two activities usually turns out worse for the hunters than it does for the riders because the constant hum of a 150cc engine isn’t exactly something that attracts game. Anyone that has faced this predicament knows how frustrating it can be to hike in to “your spot” before daybreak, get set up and then hear the distant buzz of a dirt bike closing in on you like a swarm of bees. On this day I would have rather dealt with bees.
I had hunted for several straight days with no success. The heat of the rut had not quite kicked in yet, but given my schedule I was running out of days to get something done. I spent day after day hiking the same loop hoping that persistence would eventually pay off even though I knew that sometimes that simply isn’t enough. I hated the feeling of defeat every day I got back in my car and headed down the road empty handed but I wasn’t interested in giving up…yet.
Every day that I hunted started the same way. I would wake up before dawn, throw some food in my pack, grab my rifle and slug down a half a pot of coffee. I would drive to the trailhead and listen to the “Into the Wild” soundtrack by Eddie Vedder because the only radio stations I could get were a mix of Conway Twitty and some sort of Joel Osteen elevator music. Neither of which were my preference. Once I was at the trailhead, I would examine the other rigs parked there and try to determine who they were and where they went. I knew a few other guys that hunted the area and I usually had a good idea of where they were headed. I would make a general plan and start hiking.
This day was no different than the last few. I would hike to my first glassing point and watch the sun come up hoping to find a buck that was dumb enough to make a mistake. Needless to say, that didn’t happen…and for the record…hope is not a strategy. I spent most of the day running away from the “swarm of bees”. There was a group of kids on dirt bikes that spent the morning crisscrossing their way through the fields and timber that I was trying to hunt and by mid-day I was beyond frustrated.
As a public land hunter in the Western United States, I have been forced to come to grips with the fact that I’m not the only person who enjoys fresh air. Public means public whether we like it or not. That doesn’t change the fact that it pisses me of.
I sat down to eat lunch and tried to regain my composure with a new strategy. The problem was that I really didn’t have enough time to hike to a new location and I was fairly certain that I would run into another hunter on the other side of the valley. I was basically screwed, and so the pouting ensued. I remember feeling bad for myself. I kept thinking that it was all bullshit. I had put it so much time and so much work that I deserved a deer. In all reality that could not have been farther from the truth.
I spent the next hour hiking back to the car feeling sorry for myself like a 13-year-old that just got stood up on his first date. I was making my way back to my car with the intention of heading home, dropping of my gear and walking to the bar. I got to the trailhead and I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. It was a text from one of the guys that had showed me the area and got me into hunting a couple of years prior. It was picture of a buck he had shot earlier that morning in the same area. I wanted to prop my phone on the hillside and hammer a .308 round through the screen. It was salt in the wound and I wasn’t in the mood.
About that time the biker gang had made their way back to the parking lot and were loading up their Yamahas. I still had enough sunlight left to hit one more spot that I had stashed in the back of my mind if I could somehow saddle my pride and hike a few more miles. That’s exactly what I did. At that point in time warm blood sounded better than cold beer.
I headed for an elevated tree line that looked into a small bowl-shaped clearing that I had stumbled upon a few days earlier. It looked like a good spot, but it was somewhat confined. It truly emphasized being in the right place at the right time because your opportunities to take a clear shot would be limited given the trees and topography of the spot. Regardless, there was a lot of sign and this would be the time of day that the animals would most likely be moving in and out of these pockets.
So, I sat and waited. It was all I could do. I told myself that I wasn’t leaving until the sun told me I had to, so I got comfortable and prepared for a couple hours of nothing. At least that’s what I assumed. I knew that I was going to have to “get lucky” if I was going to see a buck before dark but I don’t think luck played a roll. With less than 30 minutes of shooting light left I could hear something moving in the timber a couple hundred yards from my vantage point and that’s when the shakes set in. I could hear the animal getting closer and it sounded like it would soon break the tree line and reveal itself.
At this point I had completely forgotten about all the misfortunes and unsuccessful hunts that preceded this moment and all I could think about was a buck. Then I saw it. A skinny doe stepped out of the trees and stuck her snout in the grass. I could have cried. I also could have put the crosshairs between her eyes and turned out the lights, ending my pursuit of a buck for another year, but I was determined to wait it out.
As the clock ticked, I sat and watched the doe feed in the small valley until she started to act slightly agitated. I figured she finally winded me and was about to bolt, flicking her tail in the air like a giant middle finger. As she meandered to the mouth of the valley, I heard something coming through the trees at a faster clip than the doe had minutes before. Sure enough a small whitetail buck and caught her wind and came to give her the “what for”. Now I was shaking. I couldn’t control myself at that moment. All the work and time that I had put in was 150 yards away trotting in to make his move on a lady. I was finally able to shoulder my rifle, take a breath and squeeze on off. I was shaking so bad that I pulled the shot terribly and watched as the buck hit the ground and then desperately tried to run away. It was absolutely heart breaking.
Anyone that has ever been in this position will tell you that it is sickening. We all strive to dispatch prey in the fastest way possible but sometimes that doesn’t happen, and you have to do your best to rectify the situation immediately. Regardless of what some “non-hunters” might think…most of us don’t find enjoyment in killing animals...that’s just not what its about. But, for the sake of brevity I’ll save that argument for another day. I was able to get another shot down range that finally put an end to the journey. As I put my pack down next to the deer, I couldn’t help but feel guilty, like I had done something wrong. I was in the right place at the right time, but I felt as though I hadn’t prepared myself well enough for the shot. I could have (and certainly should have) taken a better shot, but more often than not, we learn best from failure.
That season and that experience is one that I will never forget because it forced me to understand that Mother Nature owes us nothing and if you think you can convince her otherwise, you are delusional. Let’s just set the record straight. I don’t believe in luck when it comes to hunting and fishing (or anything else for that matter) …I simply believe that all successes and failures are a result of being in the right place at the right time and whether or not you have prepared yourself to succeed.
We can’t get out of bed every day hoping that something good will happen. Hope is not a strategy…remember? We simply have to wake up with a chip on our shoulder and make ourselves better...every single day. If there is something in your life that you want to master the only person standing in the way is you.