Excitement is part of why we hunt, but to shoot well you must control it.
"Buck fever" can strike even the most experienced hunters. The secret is having a strategy to cope with it so you're able to shoot straight and follow up if necessary.
The buck had been standing on the edge of a forest cut line at 200 yards, initially just his right antler sticking up above a leafy bush. With binoculars I confirmed the right beam was long, with good tines. Then he turned his head slightly to me, staring down the lane toward my stand for just a moment. The left antler matched the right, and I could see good brow tines and an overall impression of mass. That was enough. I put down the binoculars and slowly raised the .264.
A single scraggly bush covered most of the body, but I could see plenty of brown through the thin screen. Just one step, I begged. He took it, and now I had a small window opening low onto his right shoulder.
Every deer stand in the world seems set up for a right-handed shooter. I'd reorganized this one two hours earlier, long before dawn, hoping for a shot just like this. With the rifle in the left side of the opening, I could brace my supporting elbow (left, for me) against the left wall of the blind.
The hold was rock-steady, and it needed to be. I hadn't looked at this deer for very long, but in those few seconds I'd understood that this was a special buck. He was the kind of buck I knew this patch of Georgia pines could produce, so I'd hunted here four of the past five seasons--but this was the first time I'd seen a buck like this.
I'd zeroed the long-barreled .264 with a big, open power line right-of-way in mind; it was high at 100 yards, so at 200 yards I'd be near maximum height of trajectory. If the bullet slipped high I'd be into that bush. Ignoring the incredible antlers, I held nearly at the bottom of the brisket, unconsciously holding my breath while I got the shot off.
In the recoil and blast I neither saw nor heard the bullet hit, but I did see the buck lurch forward into the lane, then turn and bound straight away before exiting left, the same direction he'd come from, long gone before I completed working the bolt.
I sat for a few moments, replaying the shot. Had I cleared that bush? Probably. Could I have held too low? Probably not. But you never really know.
I was still reasonably calm while I unloaded the rifle, climbed out of the stand and walked down the lane. The distance had been correct, about 200 yards. I found the bush the deer had stood behind, and I checked it carefully for fresh bullet scars. Nothing.
Now perspective played tricks. The lane was dead flat and narrow, lined by tall Georgia pines. Had the buck been standing directly behind that offending bush or a few yards back?
There were tracks, but nothing definitive. Four other deer, two lesser bucks and a doe and fawn, had passed this way earlier in the morning, probably others during the night. At this point I hadn't a clue, and the ground gave me none.
Well, for sure he'd run a few yards down the lane, then turned left. I walked a bit farther and saw a well-used deer trail headed the right way. Okay, that was most likely. I followed it for a few yards and there were fresh tracks--but not a drop of blood. Could I have missed him altogether?
The answer is yes--I can, you can, we can all miss. But did I? I replayed the shot, feeling the solid rest, seeing the sight picture when the trigger broke. I took a deep breath, fighting a wave of panic. I couldn't have missed. Not this time.
Retracing my steps to the lane, I went a bit farther. I was focused to the left, looking for a second trail, so I missed the first crimson splashes under my feet. I picked them up on dry leaves on a second trail, 10 yards farther. Then more.
The buck was facing away, down in mid-stride, not quite in sight of the lane. The bullet had entered low on the right shoulder, exiting just behind the left shoulder.
Did the panic dissipate? Not yet. This is a place where we try so carefully to take only older deer or "cull bucks," allowing youngsters with potential to reach their potential and pass along their genes. I'd made a mistake my first time here, so the first sight of the buck lying still on brown grass wasn't nearly enough.
I took another deep breath, then approached for a closer look. Oh, yes, this time I'd done it right. He was heavy throughout, with good points and a couple kickers that I hadn't seen. He was plenty old enough and plenty big enough. The panic was gone, replaced by something very strange. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking uncontrollably--and not from chill.
I dug for my cell phone, saw that I had a text from my friend and host, Zack Aultman. Zack was in a stand nearby and had heard my shot.
"Was that u that shot?" read the message. I dug for my reading glasses, found that one lens had popped out in my pocket. The tiny screw was still there, but my hands were shaking so hard I fumbled it, and it went sailing into the grass.
One-eyed, I tried to text back, but the shakes were so bad I couldn't hit the keys. I gave up, managed to call him instead. "Sorry," I said, "I'm shaking too badly to text. If you don't have anything going on you might want to come look at this buck. You'll like him."
I've often said that nothing gets me going like a really nice buck deer. We all go back to our roots, and for most Americans deer hunting is big game hunting. I'm fortunate in that, for me, the most disruptive, destructive excitement comes after the shot, rarely during.
I often get a bit shaky after a shot, especially on a particularly fine animal. But nothing--not buffalo, bongo, bighorn sheep or anything else--sets my heart racing like a decent buck of any heritage. And I don't recall ever having a worse set of the shakes than when I walked up to that Georgia whitetail.
In part it was because I'd initially missed the line when following up, allowing self-doubt to creep in. Also, this was a really fine buck, my best southern whitetail by far, my best whitetail in a decade.
It's okay to get excited. In fact, it's a good thing. If you don't feel a surge of pure adrenaline when you take the life of a wonderful animal, then you should perhaps consider golf or tennis and shop for your meat in the grocery store. The secret is to find a way to contain that excitement until the shooting is over.
Unfortunately I can't tell you how to unlock that secret. You must find that for yourself, understanding that buck fever is real, and it affects all of us in different ways and at different times.
Knowing that catastrophic panic lurks close at hand, I suppose I handle it by concentrating on the steps that must be taken--judging the animal, picking the shot, getting steady, sight picture and trigger squeeze.
Afterward, when there's no harm to be done, I let it come. I do know that this buck was worth a bout with buck fever, but if I'd been shaking like that when I saw him, I'd have been lucky to get the shot off at all, and God knows where the bullet might have gone.