Over the years I have never met a serious hunter who has not dreamed of being a great hunter. Of those I have spoken with about this topic, the idea of what a great hunter is has varied widely. Most can name those that they think are great hunters, but most have not defined why they consider those great (at least not beyond the fact that they shoot big animals), what has made them great, and what is stopping themselves from being great.
Most of the hunters I know are serious about their hunting. They really do want to be successful in hunting. They may define successful differently, live in different parts of the world, and hunt different game, but they all have the desire to excel in their game. Most of these men and women have planned, prepared, have good equipment, and want to win. Their zeal, passion, and desire are there, but most when pinned down do not consider themselves a great hunter.
The move from good to great is a move that we must understand. First, we must decide what a great hunter is and what one is not. Second, we must define what factors are in place that will take us to that goal and what factors will take us away from that goal. Lastly, we have to apply what we learn and discover.
The immediate answer to what makes a great hunter almost always comes down to shooting big animals. Whether you are a gun hunter or bow hunter, a whitetail hunter or mule deer hunter, a poor hunter or wealthy hunter, young or old, it all seems to come back to what big animals have you killed. Although harvesting large animals or record book animals can be an indicator of being a great hunter it is not always an accurate indicator, nor is it the only indicator.
Let me explain what I mean. I have met some hunters who have shot some great animals, but I would not classify them as great hunters. They have been able to spend copious amounts of money to hunt places where they have been able to shoot record book animals without very much effort on their own. I am not faulting them for this, however, if you can afford to hunt ranches and property with huge game and a good outfitter/guide takes you to the animal and has done the work for you, it might only mean you are a good shot. The flipside of our current philosophy is equally out of balance. There is the new move in our industry that the only truly great hunters are those who hunt public land and do it by themselves.
In my book, it is those who year in and year out are consistently able to harvest effectively their chosen game whether they are hunting with outfitters or hunting alone that are great hunters. They may be shooting does, they may be shooting small bucks, or they may be shooting record book animals, but the key is they are shooting the game that they sought out to hunt. For some of these great hunters they are even shooting the specific animal that they have set their sights on for a very long time.
I believe there are three factors that will move one from being a good hunter to being a great hunter. Those three factors are being where the game is, being ready to effectively hunt that game, and most importantly time afield. Let’s look at these factors one by one.
Being where the game is: If you have set out to hunt a trophy book whitetail and you spend all your time where there are no trophy book whitetail, you will not be successful. If you want to hunt a cow elk but there are no elk where you are hunting, you will not be a great cow hunter. I know this sounds trivial, but I cannot tell you how many times I hear hunters speak of greatness, they tell me their goals, and then they spend all their time hunting in places where it is nearly impossible for them to attain their goal. In order to be great as we have defined it, one needs to accomplish their goal no matter what that goal is. That means you have to be in a place where you actually can accomplish the desired results. This is the most simple of the three factors of greatness we are discussing, but it is broken all the time. This is especially a problem for guys who seek to shoot book animals, yet don’t hunt where book animals are frequently found. You cannot ever shoot what is not there and you cannot be great by harvesting what you sought out to shot if it does not exist where you are hunting. Once you have put yourself in a physical position to be hunting where your desired animal lives you have opened the door to greatness.
I live in the west where mule deer and elk are plentiful. I have several friends who love to hunt and want to hunt the west that come out each year to spend time with me and hunt the surrounding land. They come out wanting to prove or verify that they are great hunters, but here is often how it goes down. “I want to shoot a bull elk”. No size requirement is given. They just want to be one of the 12-15% of successful bull hunters in our state for bull elk and that would be them accomplishing what they set out to do and, therefore, if repeated over and over again over time we would define them as a great hunter.
So they show up at my house. They are out of shape, they have shot their gun one time since they were here last, and they haven’t read about or watched any hunting on their chosen quarry. Yet with all these factors being true they really believe they are going to be part of that elite group of hunters who consistently harvest their given game. Day one of the hunt begins and the elk are visible, but they are 2 miles away and one would have to drop 2000 feet in elevation and then climb 3000 feet to get to the elk and they opt out of such a journey. Better yet is that they have hunted the same area for several years and know that elk are regularly in the particular area that they are hunting and they sit there for one full day and when they see no elk they move to other spots only to come back to the original spot and see fresh elk tracks that occurred while they were ping ponging around the countryside. Their lack of persistence makes them a statistic, but not the statistic they were desiring.
Now in my oft repeated example, these hunters actually are where the game is located, but other factors have prevented them from the harvest. That is the second point: being ready to effectively hunt that game. In my example these hunters are in the right place to accomplish their goal, but they are not ready to do so. You can be in the right place to accomplish your goal and still not do so because you have not taken the step necessary to be successful at what you set out to do.
I call this group dream hunter or vicarious hunters. They dream of hunting successfully and have clearly defined what that success is for themselves, but they may as well keep dreaming about it because they neither have the discipline to get to their goal or the drive to make it happen. Therefore they must settle for living vicariously off of some other hunter who is hunting what they want to hunt and actually accomplishing it.
In my elk hunting example that I mentioned, there were some simple factors that needed attention to bring about success. Any time that I know a flat lander is coming out west to hunt at altitude I give them some advice that will help them be successful, but also may save their lives. If you are going to come out west and hunt elk and be regularly successful at it then you are going to have to be in shape. You can be out of shape and end up, one time, shooting a bull that happens to cross your path. But if you are going to be great and regularly experience success, then you will need to be in shape. This means training at home for months to increase your cardio. You are going to have to increase you cardio because just the factor of coming from sea level to 8000+ feet is going to cause you some issues. This is more than just being in shape to be successful in a hunt, it can become a life and death scenario with Acute Mountain Sickness or High Altitude Sickness. Being in shape is very important if you are hunting public land in the west. I always suggest that anyone coming from low altitude and planning on hunting at high altitude go to www.wildernessathlete.com and buy Altitude Advantage and Hydrate and Recover. These products don’t replace hard work and conditioning, but will help alongside of it.
Not only do you need to physically be in shape, but you need to prepare practically through equipment preparation and training. If you are going into the back country with a 60lb pack, then you need to train with that pack. If you are planning at shooting at 700 yards, then you need to have a gun set up that is capable of doing so and you need to practice excessively. If your plan is to shoot off of a shooting stick, then you need to practice that way. I know this sounds simple, but I cannot tell you how often I encounter the exact opposite. People who have the best equipment in the world, but are not trained in its use or are not efficient with it.
The most important training has to be the mental side. To be mentally ready for any hunt I read all I can on the type of hunting I am about to do. I watch videos, I read, I talk to others who have done the hunt I am pursuing. The information gathered and the confidence gained helps my mental resolve about the hunt. Some hunts are easy and some are incredibly tough. Either way my resolve comes from being properly informed and educated then is driven by my passion or zeal for the gate I am pursuing. I believe that most hunters that don’t meet their goals fail more often because of lacking mental fortitude even above lacking physically. The mind will fail often before the body does. I train my mind diligently so that my body will carry me on to completion.
That leads me to the last point and what I believe is the bottom line most important factor that separates the good from great hunters. Time Afield. Although this factor cannot always be controlled due to other priorities like work, those who spend the most days afield win most often. The reason that we often view TV hunters as great hunters is because they shoot so many great animals. One of the major factors that makes them successful is that they spend the entire fall and sometimes the year in the field.
I have lived in the west for 7 years now and have been able to shoot 7 elk. Not by any means have these all been record book bulls, but everyone has been a trophy because I set out to accomplish a goal and did so. Because of my schedule, up to this past year when I took a new job, I was able to spend about 25 days on average out of a 30 day archery season in the woods. My time spent did not make me successful at doing what I set out to do, but it multiplied by opportunity to be successful because it was accompanied by being where the game I was chasing lived and by being properly prepared.
If I was just in the field all those days without having taken the first two steps I still would not have accomplished my goals. But when I am in the right place, and by the right place I mean where my game lives, and if I have properly trained both physically and mentally for the pursuit I am on, then and only then will I have repeated success.
The truth is that many hunters possess the skill and have the resources to be a great hunter. Most of those many do not ever become a great hunter though because they are not driven enough to do their homework which will put them where their game lives, they won’t work hard enough to be properly prepared mentally, physically, and with their equipment, and they won’t sacrifice all that is necessary to be in the woods long enough to get it done. If you want to become a great hunter who accomplishes what you set out to accomplish, then it is time to put these three simple steps into practice.