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The mental side of hunting

Checking trail cameras

All photo credits: Josh Kirchner

Hunting can be described as a chess match. We've all heard this in various forms through the media that we consume. It is a game of forethought, patience and mental fortitude. A battle of the mind if you will. Humans have been playing this chess match for ages and, yet, we still do not have this hunting game mastered. Hard to believe, right? Even though we have come leaps and bounds from where our ancestors started, that goes to show us how hard this act of hunting really is. The ability to outsmart our quarry is one that we have chased and continue to chase. Our need for sustenance and, nowadays, adventure continues to fuel us. We are not in total control and are bound by what Mother Nature throws at us. Unfortunately, what is thrown at us is sometimes the catalyst for us giving up and heading home. The mental game of hunting is a game that is often not easily won.


Looking for elk sign

I am a big fan of going with the flow out in the field; however, I do believe that you should have some semblance of a plan for the day. This plan is a direct reflection of what you find through your pre-season scouting on top of what you have experienced so far. When something doesn't work out, don't just write it off as a failure. Use that to your advantage for next time. What did you learn from that experience? There is a reason that it didn't work out. Was it the wind? How about your setup? Maybe you moved when you shouldn't have? Did the animal come from a direction you weren't expecting? If they did, why do you think that is? These pieces of intel are going to be the tools you use in order to try to stay two steps ahead of your quarry. Remember: this is a chess match, so treat it as such. The more data that you can collect on an area, the bigger advantage you will have. We are stepping into their house and they know it better than you ever will. Spending the time to do the work beforehand is going to pay off big time come opening day.

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Glassing the terrain

This was the number one word that ran through my mind as a child in the field. My dad always told me that I had to have patience on a hunt. Through that, I got to experience some pretty cool encounters as a youngster and I still do. Patience is somewhat of a lost art today. Our lives are completely based on convenience. We get mad when our internet isn't running as fast as it should be. Black Friday now takes place on Thursday. Stores are opening before our Thanksgiving dinners are even on the table—and for what? So we don't have to wait as long? To me, that's just silly talk. Exercise your patience in the field and I promise you that more animals are going to be wandering around in your binoculars. Still, to this day, I will make myself sit on a hillside until a certain time has passed, whether that is for two hours or 12 hours. I try to not forget what those early lessons in patience taught me as a kid. The mountains have a song to play, but it is at a much slower tempo than we are used to. All you need to do is open your ears and sing along.

Mental fortitude

Walking through Arizona's backcountry

Mental fortitude, or mental toughness, is a big topic these days in the hunting world, particularly in the backpack hunting one. The sheer ability to grind things out will prove its weight in gold time and time again. I said earlier that what Mother Nature throws at us is sometimes the catalyst for us giving up and heading home. That is a real truth and one that I have fallen victim to in the past. It might be weather, lack of animals or just being homesick. The truth is that when things get hard, we get soft. Why should we have to deal with this stuff, right? Wrong. You waited all year for this. You planned and practiced. Denying yourself the experience that you've been waiting for is to deny yourself resolve. When you are sitting there in the middle of a thunderstorm, thinking about your warm bed, remember something: You asked to be here. I guarantee that if you go home, you will regret it.

Building mental toughness

The only way to build mental toughness is to put yourself into situations that you don't really want to be in. From there, you have to see them through. An example might be the thunderstorm scenario above. Don't go home; grind it out. You are going to want to be out there looking when that rain passes because that's when that big bear is going to appear. Sacrifice reward. Being uncomfortable here and there is a good thing. It builds character. Another time might be when you don't want to go to the gym. This is the time that you need to go. Just because you are tired and sore means squat. Stay the course and remain disciplined. That trait right there is going to help you out when your hunt gets tough. Going home is easy.

In closing

Hunting elk

The mind is a powerful tool. It's why you are sitting here and able to read this article. Had our ancient ancestors not figured out how to hunt, who knows if any of us would be here. Through struggle and problem-solving, they learned how to be successful hunters. They didn't have the fancy gear or gadgets that we possess today. All they had were some makeshift weaponry and their know how. Phrases like "mental toughness" probably were nonexistent. Things were just done and dealt with because they had to be. It was how life was and, ultimately, what shaped us into the species that we are today. There wasn't a whole lot of options on the table except for one. Survive. And survive they did. How? Determination and intellect: the foundation for the mental game of hunting.



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Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 10-17-2018 06:37:38 pm

@Bendrix B.

Great advice Bendrix! There is no way that you can prepare yourself for everything that you will face out there. You need to be able to take things as they come and stay calm. Thanks for chiming in! That goat hunt sounds as gnarly as ever!

Josh K. - posted 1 year ago on 10-17-2018 06:31:08 pm

@Steve S.

You can say that again Steve! A weak mind will crumble out there in no time. Spot on bud! Thanks for reading and good luck to you out there!

Bendrix B. - posted 1 year ago on 10-09-2018 07:04:35 pm
Rochester, MA

So yeah, I'm mentally tough. Not going to lay it out here, but I'll put it out there that my life is proof. However, there is a limit to how much stress a mind can deal with continuously. There are things you can't anticipate and things you've never prepared for cause you just don't know how its going to go.

For example, that goat hunt in BC. Long days on horses. Yeah, that romantic string of pack horses ambling on those beautiful mountain trails through stunning scenery, rocking gently in the saddle while the friendly beast eats up the miles for you. At least that's what those great photos I'd seen led me to expect.

The reality? A huge giant strong creature with a mind of its own that knows you don't know anything about how to control him and is damn sure when he wants a drink, its time to just hang out in the middle of a roaring brook on slippery stones, or when he wants to eat, now is the time to hold up the string so that other huge strong creatures pile up around you and bite your legs.

The reality? Those mountain trails traverse snow slides littered with huge mangled trees, sharp broken branches sticking out like spikes in a bad dream of Vlad the Impaler, and the horse winding his way on an ill defined path you probably could not travel on foot, while underfoot the slipper, slanted rocks encourage the heavy beast to fall on you. Just to spice things up, when you start to feel like you might not die, the horse in front of you falls abruptly on his side having slipped on a rock and you see how your leg would have been broken in several places had it been you, and not baggage on his back.

When you break out of the gnarled forest of blow downs onto loose shale, the narrow (18") trail and this beast with a mind of his own present a new danger. You want to stay as close to the uphill side as possible, he on the other hand does not like to be crowded, so places each foot as close to the outer edge as possible, occasionally slipping and catching himself, you imagining how if he fails to catch himself will wind up under a rolling mass accelerating downhill.

Sometimes the climb is so steep you have to get off and walk, most times you think you should get off and walk cause the saddle is at such an angle you can hardly stay on, but you can't get off cause you'd never keep up with the string.

Sometimes horses blow up and just throw everything in 50 directions, and whatever causes it is contagious, so you're always watching, waiting, trying to figure out where you'll jump without committing hari kari.

And this goes on for hours, and miles, and it hurts too.

Go ahead and laugh. Have you done it? Fear, stress, physical pain from unaccustomed positions and you're not looking at the scenery either. These things add up over time, accumulating in brain chemicals and in the muscles and that is the kind of unanticipated activity that can create stress that will erode your mental toughness.

So I learned to do more research and talk to more folks who had been on the exact same trip. Had I done so, I'd have gotten some serious time on horses beforehand. A little experience and confidence would have gone a long way. By the end of the trip the reality and risks horses were just part of the overall riskiness of a mountain hunt. Like stalking a goat on a 70 degree slope with no rope protection... Something I could steel myself for, anticipate and deal with.

Mental toughness isn't just a 'thing' that allows you to deal with no matter what is thrown at you. Unprepared for a stress inducing experience you may be thrown into rougher water than you can handle. Just like a callus on your bow finger, mental toughness is aided by experience with the stressor you'll face.

Just sayin... I'm tough, but I'm taking some horseback riding lessons before the next trip, and I'll be learning a bit about fall arresting too. Maybe I'll actually see some of that scenery next time.

Steve S. - posted 1 year ago on 10-09-2018 04:59:22 pm
Aurora, CO

Mental toughness is the most important tool you can carry into the woods and life. If as the saying goes, your head is on right, your will hear, smell and see more then the average hunter. You can embrace the suck when you need to and still be in the moment. Back up your mental toughness with good planning and physical prep and you will be well ahead of the curve moving towards fillling your tag.

Steve S. - posted 1 year ago on 10-09-2018 06:55:41 am
Aurora, CO

Mental toughness is the most important tool you can carry into the woods and life. If as the saying goes, your head is on right, your will hear, smell and see more then the average hunter. You can embrace the suck when you need to and still be in the moment. Back up your mental toughness with good planning and physical prep and you will be well ahead of the curve moving towards fillling your tag.