by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, October 13, 2012.)
It made me sick. I didn’t have a temperature. I didn’t have a rash. I
didn’t toss my breakfast. But I was sick. I was 12 and I had just missed my
I don’t remember much about the buck, except that he was smallish,
probably a 4-point. I do remember that my legs began quivering and I was breathing
hard. I also remember that if I had stayed calm, I could have taken another
shot. Instead, I was marinating in adrenaline and could barely stand on my rubbery
legs. I never even thought about a second shot.
Buck fever is real, and
every hunter gets a touch of it.
We all act differently when “buck fever” strikes. I’ve heard of hunters
ejecting every shell from the gun before shooting, then wondering why the rifle
didn’t fire. I’ve heard of hunters firing, the deer going down, and the hunter
shooting until the rifle was empty. I’ve heard of hunters who couldn’t find the
safety. I’ve even heard of hunters taking careful aim and then saying, “Bang!”
Buck fever is real, and every hunter gets a touch of it. You get the
fever when your adrenal glands respond to stress by injecting that “fight or
flight” hormone into your bloodstream. You’re not used to that, because until
the moment of truth those glands sit innocently atop your kidneys waiting to
leap into action.
Buck fever is generally defined something like this: “Nervous excitement
felt by a novice hunter at the first sight of game.” But it’s more than that.
It’s a syndrome, a complex of symptoms, and though it prepares the athlete, it
can destroy the hunter’s preparation.
Adrenaline gets an athlete ready for a contest by increasing his
heartbeat and elevating his respiration. It gives a person in danger or attempting
to rescue someone else from danger an increased blood supply to the muscles. In
extreme cases it can give almost superhuman strength.
When adrenaline can cause that kind of rush, it’s easy to see why it can
be such a problem for a hunter trying to calmly ready himself to fire an
At the target range he can usually remain calm. Every shot is
predictable. Nothing more than a possible friendly wager is riding on any shot.
In the field, it’s another matter. Shots are often unpredictable, and a missed
shot can alter the way you approach the rest of the day or the season. Wounding
a deer could spoil the hunt not just for you, but for your companions, too.
So, what do we do about it? Everyone is different, but I’ve noticed that
bowhunters don’t struggle as much with buck fever. I’m not saying they never
get it. In fact, they might be more subject to it because they’re some of the
most passionate hunters. What’s their secret to defeating buck fever?
For many, the secret is this – bowhunters tend to practice shooting much
more than gun hunters do, because much more goes into shooting a bow than
shooting a rifle. Practice can accomplish more than accuracy.
Whether you’re shooting a gun or a bow, practicing
makes shooting automatic by developing muscle memory and by focusing your mind.
When you take that shot at a live deer, it shouldn’t be one of only a few shots
you take during the year. Make it one of hundreds, even thousands. Shoot a lot.
Shoot until you don’t have to think about the shot.
While on your stand, visualize the deer approaching
in as many ways as you can imagine. From the left, the right, behind you,
slowly, quickly. Visualize him at various angles. The more deer your mind’s eye
sees under shooting conditions, the readier you’ll be to shoot when the real
one finally shows up.
The more you practice, the more you begin to think
about the conditions around the shot and not the animal itself. How far is it? Is
the wind blowing? Where do I want to hit the deer?
Fortunately, you can overcome buck fever with practice. Even practicing
without ammunition can help make you ready when the moment of truth arrives.
Practice is the best inoculation a hunter can get to counter the debilitating effects
of that jolt of get-excited juice called adrenaline – the primary cause of buck