The early morning stillness was suddenly broken; the thud of hooves and crunch of frosted leaves clearly heard in the still, early morning air. The commotion came from the near vertical hillside to my left, but scattered beech leaves and hemlock boughs blocked my sight. Though my hearing is nothing to brag about I was able to distinguish one set of hoofbeats was made by a deer much larger than the others, the heavy thud of its hooves clearly discernible.
The racket stopped just out of sight and the waiting game began. After several minutes the crunch of leaves was heard again and a doe and two fawns emerged from the orange and brown beech leaves like wraiths. The doe lifted her ever so sensitive nose and tested the air, but I was 100 yards above them and the wind in my favor.
After five minutes they slowly moved off and disappeared. I had been tempted to shoot one, but this was the first day of the gun season — why disturb the area for a doe? But a more compelling reason not to fire was the thought of those heavier hoof beats. What had made those?
I continued to stare in the direction the doe and fawns had come from, but nothing moved.
I glanced at my watch: 8 a.m. Red squirrels chirred above me and the sun rose higher, touching the treetops with gold, breathtakingly beautiful against the crisp, blue sky. Fifteen minutes passed, then 30, then 35. Suddenly, the leaves crunched again, the thud of heavy hoofs sounded and out of the brush appeared a magnificent buck!
My heart almost jumped out of my chest at the sight. All I could see was a huge body and a mass of white ivory above its head. Gasping, I slipped off the safety and determinedly refused to look at the antlers. I was shaken enough, the trick now was to get the deer and look at the antlers later.
I put the trembling crosshairs behind the shoulder and repeated in my mind, “Squeeze the trigger, squeeze the trigger, squeeze the trigger.”
I refused to let any other thought enter my racing mind. The rifle blast split the silent morning air, surprising me.
The buck might have flinched, but I didn’t see it. He bounded away, disappearing from sight. I was really shaking down, my breath coming in gulps, hands quivering, the sight of those big horns etched in my memory.
I reviewed the shot in my mind. Though the crosshairs were far from steady, they had come straight back when the rifle went off. I had managed to control myself enough to manage a decent trigger squeeze. If that was true the buck should be no further than 100 yards off. But, what if I hit a twig? Doubt nagged at me, but I had squeezed that trigger.
I missed the blood trail at first through over-excitement, finally found it and at its end found my huge 8-point, scoring over 150. The relief and joy I felt are indescribable. No one in the world was richer than I at that moment. The elation was incredible.
Bagging that buck was due to scouting, a good stand location, lots of luck and when it came down to “crunch time,” most importantly, squeezing the trigger. More deer are missed, wounded or lost due to poor trigger control than any other reason. Let’s look at this challenge.
First, when the animal you’re hunting appears your body naturally, instinctively, receives an instantaneous shot of adrenalin. Your breathing increases, your body tenses, ready for fight or flight. Heart rate shoots up to increase blood flow to your muscles and your nervous system literally quivers, ready to react instantly.
This is fine for basketball, football, boxing or any other exertion. Your body naturally prepares itself to react quickly and with violence if necessary to protect itself or achieve the goal. However, all this is exactly what you don’t need if you’re a hunter. We don’t need brawn, speed or strength. Shooting your bow, crossbow, muzzleloader or rifle accurately requires the exact opposite. You need to be calm and steady.
Well, as you can see, we have two opposites warring in our bodies and the thrill of the hunt must be balanced against the need to make an accurate shot. Buck fever is waiting to pounce, disaster hovering.
Your muscles normally work together in groups. Lifting your leg uses not only leg muscles, but a host of others throughout your body. Your fingers work together, rarely a single digit. As a result a quick muscle motion naturally triggers other muscles to fire. Under stress, they fire hard.
The point of the above explanation is this: if you jerk the trigger many other muscles fire in your body. Your arm may drop or push up, your head raise, your legs twitch, your body tense, twist or contract and all this causes your shot to fly far off the mark. Any experienced hunter has lived this phenomenon, missing a target or quarry. It’s part of the learning process and the only cure is the all-important trigger squeeze.
Making a free throw in practice is one thing, making it with the game on the line, another. The same pressure of the moment occurs in hunting. The only cure, I repeat, is trigger squeeze.
First, you should have some type of rest in your stand to steady your rifle or crossbow. Bowhunters need to draw and steady themselves as best as possible. The less motion your sights have, the easier it is to concentrate on the squeeze. With the sights aligned take one or two deep breaths and let the last half out. You now have enough oxygen stored to last about 5 seconds in your excited state.
Concentrating and steadying your sights, you steadily, smoothly pull the trigger back, maintaining that constant pressure rearward. Your only thought is to squeeze and you must focus on that thought despite the pressure you feel building up inside. Since your other fingers on the stock or release can’t move your trigger finger may feel frozen. Ignore that impression, increasing the pressure delicately. You have fiv seconds to get this done before your body demands you take another breath.
When the trigger or release fires you must be surprised, you can’t know the exact instant it lets go, otherwise other muscles will move despite your best efforts and you’ll miss or wound. If you punch the trigger, panic at the last instant, bad things happen, always. You may have to stop, take several breaths and start over. Just don’t panic; be in control.
You need to practice shooting in five seconds. When you can accomplish that consistently, set your weapon down, run or walk quickly 30 yards out and back. Then, being extremely safety conscious, practice firing in five seconds. This will give you experience shooting with your heart rate up and your body demanding oxygen. It’s not as easy as it seems.
Control over your emotions in times of stress is necessary to be successful. When the buck of a lifetime comes along, you’ll be glad you practiced squeezing that trigger when emotions are running high and your body’s natural reactions your biggest enemy.
(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)