If I could give only one piece of advice to novice hunters, it would be this: Prepare for failure. This is not the most uplifting way to start an article, I know. No one likes to fail. Indeed, most hunting articles, including those I write, focus on how to be successful. But coming home empty handed is inevitable in the pursuit of wild game. Keeping your spirits up through the process of trial an error is a vital, though often unspoken aspect of learning to hunt.
I’m no stranger to failure. As a new hunter, I know the early stages can be trying. But even the most experienced hunters can fail and end up staring at an empty freezer at the end of the season. We all have hunts that don’t go our way. How can you cope with hunting failure? Below I outline four of my favorite strategies.
Set Realistic Expectations
Hunting websites or social media can sometimes make it seem like everyone is harvesting animals all the time. Especially during the fall — the busiest “big game” season in North America — the internet is full of hunters posting about their recent successes and showing them off via delicious wild game recipes. But what you don’t often see highlighted are the excursions that didn’t end in a kill. Those go unnoticed, but I guarantee they are the majority.
If you haven’t already done so, check harvest statistics for your area. Many state fish and game websites publish data on the percent of hunters (out of the total number of hunters issued tags) who had a successful harvest in each zone or unit. A search such as “California deer harvest statistics” or “Colorado elk harvest report” should lead you to the stats if they are available. For example, the image below shows a sample from the 2015 Colorado rifle elk season. Only 23% of rifle elk tags were punched that year. Rifle deer hunters in Colorado did a bit better, with a success rate of 52% last year. These statistics tell an important story: hunting failure is common.
As a new hunter, it’s also easy to believe that skill and effort correspond directly to success. You might think to yourself, “I failed, so that must mean I’m a lousy hunter.” While it’s true that beginners make mistakes more often, even highly experienced hunters come home empty handed. Mark from Sole Adventure summarizes this point well in his post An Empty Freezer & A Full Heart:
“Did I think that I would come home empty-handed? Of course not! But I didn’t ‘deserve’ success just because I prepared well and hunted hard. That’s the thing about hunting – you can do everything ‘right’ and still not get what you’re after. On the other hand, sometimes you stumble into luck, even though you messed up somehow.”
It can be reassuring to watch and read about seasoned hunters who fail. When Steven Rinella or Randy Newberg post television episodes where they botch a stalk, miss a shot, or otherwise fail to kill the animal they’re after, I remember that even these guys — professional hunters — are not perfect1. Keep in mind that hard times are not exclusively happening to you, and they are not exclusively happening to beginners. Hunting failure is normal. And the fact that hunting is challenging and highly unpredictable is part of what makes it so thrilling.
Enjoy Time in the Field
Why do you hunt? Sure, we all want to put meat in the freezer, but I’m willing to bet that’s not the only reason that drives you. Hunting can be an incredibly rich and complex endeavor. I think it is important to shape your hunting trip so that it can be fulfilling even when you come home empty handed. Figure out how to enjoy your time in the field as much as possible, without undermining your chances of success (e.g., leave the boom box at home). Ask yourself: what other aspects of hunting do you love? What about the hunt do you look forward to?
Personally, I love sleeping under the stars. Pink sunrises over the stark desert mountains comprise some of my warmest hunting memories. I look forward to the clarity, peacefulness, and silence that the wilderness provides — no people, no phone reception, and no obvious signs of human interference. I’m also genuinely delighted to spot any wild animal, whether it be a jackrabbit, fox, or deer. These are the parts of hunting that keep my spirits up when my wild game pursuits are not going well. Knowing how much these characteristics matter, I purposefully design my hunting trips to include them.
The things that you look forward to about hunting might be completely different than mine. There is no right or wrong answer here. What is most important is knowing yourself. For example, I’ve heard some hunters say that they just love being out in the field with their dog. For them, getting a bird or two is just icing on the cake. For others it might be the comfortable familiarity of their favorite patch of woods, or the exhilaration of exploring new terrain. Perhaps a side hobby, like photography or foraging, can make even the most uneventful hunting trip satisfying. Or maybe sitting around the fire with dear friends is your favorite part of the hunting process. Whatever it is, prioritize it as best you can. When hunting becomes more than just a means to an end, “success” and “failure” are somewhat redefined.
Keep up Momentum
Direct experience is a fabulous teacher. Regular time out in the field is one of the best ways to grow as a hunter. Unfortunately, trial and error is an unavoidable part of learning. You will make mistakes, and for a novice hunter those mistakes can be particularly disheartening. Regular trips to the field keeps me focused on the present and excited about the future, allowing past misfortune to slip away.
One strategy for keeping up momentum is to plan hunting trips that are local, accessible, and small scale. The pressure to succeed is amplified when we put all of our eggs in one basket. Not every hunt has to be a grand, brag-worthy excursion. Seek out animals you can hunt near home. Are there small game opportunities you may have overlooked, like rabbit or squirrel? What about giving shed hunting2 a try? Coming home empty handed is easier to manage when you have another outing just around the corner. Keeping up momentum with small scale trips will provide more chances to build skills in a lower-stakes environment.
Learn from Mistakes and Mishaps
Knowing the reason behind a failed hunt can be very helpful. But as a beginner it can be hard to know what mistakes, if any, you might have made. When Nick and I went for months without seeing a single mule deer in our first season, we were befuddled. But with a little analysis and a lot of time, we figured out where we went wrong. Trial and error is unavoidable, but you can try to be systematic in your problem solving.
As a first step, try to brainstorm all the factors that could have influenced your hunt. For example, if you spent the weekend in the woods but never saw a single deer, it could be that you chose an unproductive patch of land. It also could be that you spooked the animals in the area. And if you spooked them, it could have been that they saw you, heard you, or smelled you. Another alternative could be that deer were around, but you couldn’t spot them. This could be due to an inefficient search strategy or poor quality optics. Once you have a list, try to test out these hypotheses one at a time.
If you know other hunters, talk to them about your experience, too. They might have ideas that you haven’t thought of. Browse hunting websites or books. Keep an eye out for new perspectives and information.
Ultimately, hunting wild animals is full of ups and downs. When tough times hit, remember that hunting failure is normal. And sometimes you can do everything right and still come home with nothing. If you’re prepared for failure, it won’t catch you off guard.
Try to keep your expectations balanced. Prioritize what you love about the hunting process and keep momentum up with smaller trips. Use a problem solving approach when you can, and be ready to try something new.
Are there other things that help you cope with hunting failure? Let us know in the comments below!
- For example, in this episode of Fresh Tracks, Randy Newberg misses twice and comes home empty-handed. And in this episode of On Your Own Adventures, Randy makes an errant archery shot on an elk and is not able to recover the animal until the next morning. The feelings of regret and emotional turmoil are palpable. I’m thankful to be able to watch these honest accounts. ↩
- “Shed hunting” refers to the activity of looking for antlers that animals like deer and elk shed each spring before they regrow a new set. Many hunters enjoy shed hunting in the off-season as a way to get outdoors and scout the land. Finding a beautiful antler on the ground is a pretty nice souvenir, too. ↩