By Nick Simonson
It happens with the flash of approaching large, grey-brown antlers in the adjacent trail or the sudden appearance of a ghost buck hanging up on the edge of cover just outside of shooting range triggers a physical rush. Knees weaken, the heart rate increases, and shudders run from a goosebump-covered neck down to the heels of feet planted so firmly on stand that it feels like the ladder will fall out from underneath due to the shaking. Holding a bow or a gun and remembering how it works can feel like running in slow motion from an approaching tornado in a nightmare as the brain is overridden by what many have experienced and know simply this time of year as “buck fever.” This natural occurrence, however, is quite normal and there are ways to prepare for it and overcome it when the moment arrives, resulting in more successful hunts and less questions as to why the deer is still upright after a shot and where exactly that arrow went to.
“The adrenaline rush that you get – the fight or flight response – it’s our body’s natural way of preparing us for an intense situation, so if you were a mountain lion and you saw a big buck, your body needs a heck of a lot of energy, really, really fast to go chase down that animal,” explained Marie Schaaf Gallagher, PhD, a Neuropsychologist with Sanford Bismarck, “but when you’re hunting, you don’t have to go run after it, you have to slow everything down and so you’re trying to work opposite of your natural fight-or-flight response,” she continued, adding that the same response is what kicks in when deer sense they’re being hunted and suddenly flee.
The effects of adrenaline produced in the moment can linger for a while, and while few situations in everyday life can exactly replicate the sensation, there are ways to get ready for it. Through tactics in the moment and preparation before the hunt and the season, which Schaaf Gallagher recommends professionally to prepare for and deal with stressful life situations, or when the fight-or-flight response is misfiring in relation to anxiety disorders, people can reduce these detrimental physical manifestations.
“Our breathing system is connected to that fight-or-flight system, and it helps to calm things or slow things down a little bit; so you can practice taking a big, deep breath all the way to get to the bottom of the lungs…and slowly releasing that,” she relates, “doing that for a couple minutes can actually help slow things down…so that you can take the shot, steady yourself and feel more in control,” she advises.
The chemicals released when experiencing the fight-or-flight response can take a while to run their course, and their effects such as elevated heart rate, shivering, and other involuntary reactions which complicate matters can linger as well. Having an established plan and a good deal of practice with the bow or a firearm before the hunt not only makes for a better shot, but provides a solid anchor point mentally, when a deer suddenly appears and sets off these biological systems in the body.
“Obviously, you don’t want to sit and wait 10 or 15 minutes if you’ve got an animal right in your sights and you’re ready to shoot,” Schaaf Gallagher relates, noting that when the thinking, problem-solving part of the brain temporarily shuts down during the rush, leaning on a well-practiced routine is key to remembering what to do, “the more you practice strategies ahead of time…setting yourself up or pulling the bow back, those physical motion memories will stick with you and having that practice of habit behind you can be helpful; then you don’t have to think as much,” she recommends.
Recreating the situation as best as possible – utilizing life-like targets, shooting from elevation, or matching conditions of the hunt – are also good ways to get as close of a practice experience as possible, to reduce the unfamiliarity when buck fever hits. Utilizing breathing strategies in these moments of shooting practice can also help establish a pattern that will transfer over to the field. Physically, staying well-hydrated and nourished with a good meal ahead of an outdoor adventure, and getting a good night’s sleep before the hunt while avoiding stimulants like caffeine, will also help the body deal with the rush of adrenaline and reduce its effects. Paying attention to these signals not only on stand, but also in everyday life can help manage the rush and monitoring those conditions can be important in mitigating their effects in high stress moments outside of the hunt.
“If somebody is having these type of issues and they’re popping up even outside of buck fever, you can always come talk with a behavioral health person,” Schaaf Gallagher advises, “there are some medical conditions that can cause your fight-or-flight system to not work properly, so if you think it’s something more, go see your doctor so they can help you with that too,” she concludes.
With the archery opener approaching and the excitement of fall hunting seasons mounting, being ready for the rush and enjoying it in the moment, without having it take away basic bodily functions by utilizing breathing exercises and continued practice, will help ensure a successful season and provide a way to work beyond buck fever.
Featured Photo: Instant Adrenaline. Buck fever and all its side effects stem from the body’s natural fight-or-flight response that occurs in moments of excitement – such as seeing a large deer while hunting. There are a number of ways to stave of those reactions and still get the shot when the buck of a lifetime walks into range. DEO Photo courtesy of Josh Holm.