By Tayler Michels
Success in hunting typically favors those that put forth the most effort. To have success, you must first have opportunity. The second factor is simply capitalizing on opportunities. Practice and preparation are often a deciding factor in being successful or not. This is the perfect time of year to figure out how to become better for the next go ‘round. As a guide and hunter, I so often see people falling short of their potential. Each offseason is a time to reflect.
The reality is that as hunters, we will make mistakes and we won’t be perfect but as we reflect, it becomes easy to find aspects of our own preparation we can better prepare. For myself, I focus on three categories that if improved upon, will create more opportunities and equal more success. These three categories represent the areas I see myself and other hunters so often coming up short.
In the grand scheme, we are often more successful if we are comfortable with our weapon. The harsh reality is that the best shooters will be the best hunters. If I had to pick between being a great shooter and a great hunter, I would rather be a dead eye shooter. When hunting and guiding the Missouri River Breaks Country of Montana, I spend time with diverse groups of hunters with all types of shooting experiences and backgrounds. The hunters who take care of their weapons and practice throughout the year are almost always more successful. Having consistent accuracy as well as a longer effective shooting range is important.
For a rifle hunter, if you measure the lifespan of a box of bullets in “years,” you are less dangerous to a deer or elk than your neighbor who is scheduling monthly visits to the range. Carving out the time is easier said than done for most people. If there is something you can do to increase your game dramatically, consider a premier shooting school. The feedback and lessons you can receive at a shooting school or long-range course are often invaluable. Money very well spent where you can acquire a lot of shooting knowledge in a short amount of time. This can be a much faster learning curve approach than simply going to a range. There are great educational shooting courses around the Country. In Minnesota, one of the best is Brian Walsh of PointBlank Gun Training in Crow Wing County, Minnesota. This course offers a long-range shooting school that helps develop shooting skills and confidence from beginners up to the most experienced shooters. Most classes only take a day. A shooting school teaches the correct processes and forms while identifying bad habits with your own rifle. When I attended Brian’s class last summer, I increased my shooting confidence tremendously and successfully increased my effective shooting range by at least a hundred yards.
Archery hunting also requires practice and a comfort level. Practicing more is great but practicing with a purpose is even better. Challenge yourself each shooting session. Practice farther shots. This will increase your effective range over time as well as make your bread and butter shots seem like chip shots at closer ranges. Simply increasing your effective shooting range by ten yards for most bow hunters will compound shot opportunities greatly. This process is most effective when challenging yourself, shooting targets at distances outside your comfort zone, and losing arrows in the process. Lessons are better learned by losing a few arrows at the range than paying tuition with a wounded buck of a lifetime because you didn’t prioritize shooting practice or neglected maintenance on your bow. Try to recreate actual hunting situations like shooting out of breath or shooting from a kneeling position if you plan to elk hunt for example. Embrace opportunities to further learn your equipment by shooting when there is wind or practice shooting while wearing a lot of clothing if you plan on hunting late season.
Mind over Matter
Mental and physical fitness often go hand in hand. In my opinion, hunting is often much more of a mental game than a physical battle. The lows can be very low while the highs can be off the charts. What I find however is that my mind works better when my body works better. The reality for most people is that day to day life can make us all soft. Most people don’t have jobs where they need walk several miles to work for example. Simple decisions through the course of an off season like taking the stairs instead of an elevator become a mentality that helps in crunch time. I want to feel confident when I hunt and not let the situation feel too big. When I work hard to stay in shape, not only can I capitalize on opportunities, but my mind is sharper as well. Adversity is very real in the realm of hunting. There are days when nothing goes right or according to plan. We ultimately need to deal with elements like rain, wind, snow, excessive heat, a flat tire or broken equipment. Commit to becoming a more physically and mentally resilient hunter in the offseason. Over time, you’ll become the individual that is willing to sit longer in cold weather. You will hike farther and faster into areas without being intimidated. You will handle the lows that occur when you aren’t seeing game. A resilient hunter is a much more successful hunter.
Test and Upgrade Gear
Choosing the right gear is last on purpose. Getting in shape and getting comfortable as a shooter is the most important aspect of any off season. Some hunters truthfully try to compensate for a lack of effort or the lack of crucial preparations by buying the latest gear. There are always new technological advancements however that we can incorporate into our hunting. With so many clothing options, gadgets and accessories in the market today, deciding what is necessary can be challenging. I want to help you prioritize your wish list, placing the items at the top that are going to effectively make you more dangerous to the animals you intend to pursue. GPS technology can be a huge advantage for example if you plan to hunt big game out west. New mapping takes the guess work out of recognizing public land tracts and how to access those tracts. Map chips enable hunters to find land owner information for attempting to get permission on private land. If you are from Minnesota for example, a big game hunt on public land in Wyoming can be intimidating. Truthfully if there is one piece of equipment that can make this adventure more successful, GPS mapping is something hard to live without. Invest in some form of GPS technology right away.
Clothing also keeps improving and the choices are endless. Willing to bet that a deer or an elk could care less what camo pattern you are wearing and probably don’t care how much you spent on your clothes. What does matter however is how comfortable you are. If you are covered in sweat and then shivering cold an hour later or soaked and wet, you will not be as resilient. In my career, I’ve sampled just about every major brand of clothing for hunting out west. This past season, I hunted exclusively with the Scheels exclusive Big Game Collection and I couldn’t be happier with both performance and price. High quality layering systems enable you to hunt harder for longer periods of time.
None of this matters, however if you don’t take good care of your feet. For many big game hunts, your feet enable you to hunt. Most of the better hiking boots like Kenetrek and Crispi require a break in period. Break your boots in during the off season. Simply wear your boots whenever you can. Could be mowing the grass or doing work around the yard. Many boots have a break in period that can be several miles but simply spending time in the boots will help mold the boots to your feet. This boot time also enables you to experiment with different socks. Wear your boots and pack whenever possible when you hike as this will not only break in your gear but also get your shoulders and feet accustomed to your equipment.
Besides your confidence with your rifle and bow and the physical element of being in shape while wearing clothing and footwear that can support your ambition, something else to look at during the off season is good optics. If you plan on hunting out west, simply buy the very best optics you can. Good optics like spotting scopes, binos and scopes can make or break your hunt. You can buy something to save money today, but the reality is that you are better off waiting and saving to buy something good or you just end up buying that item twice. There isn’t a great market for used entry level optics when you decide to sell your old spotting scope. Good optics reduce eye strain and give you an extra half hour of light in the mornings and evenings. These two advantages simply allow you to find what you are looking for. The greatest challenge to hunting out west is simply trying to find an animal you want to target. Truthfully with optics, you generally get what you pay for but we can also tell you that if you are just looking for a really good spotter or set of binos that will do everything you need, the Styrka S9 Series is a good platform that offers a bargain on quality glass for the money.
Make sure you’re spending your budget on gear that creates actual opportunities and not on stuff that just fills your closet. Compared to even fifteen years ago, we have many choices. Too many choices for any reasonable person to know everything about. Make it a hobby to get your hands on gear this offseason and ask a lot of questions.
When the offseason rolls around we need to look back on the past season to reminisce about the high points but also remember the close calls and moments we wish we could do over again. These are the moments that will show us what we need to work on before next season. Now is the time to look ahead to next season and set new goals. Focus on becoming a better version of ourselves than we were yesterday. There should be nothing to hold us back but ourselves. This past 2018 hunting season had many personal achievements but ultimately, the more I hunt the more mistakes I make along the way. Lessons have been learned and now it is time for reflection and improvement.