Buck fever is a common problem for many hunters, whether they’ll admit it or not. Here’s how to significantly reduce its effect.

by John M. Buol Jr.

Tales of buck fever pervade hunting literature. We’ve all heard the stories about hunters mounting their rifles and experiencing a “hundred pound trigger” because the safety was forgotten or about some poor schmuck running ammunition through the action, never firing a shot, left wondering how he could miss with an entire magazine. Even more common are handling foibles, such as raising an optically sighted firearm only to get “lost in the scope” and scan the landscape frantically. Of course, there is also plenty of just plain lousy shooting and missing at ridiculously-close animals and other “shoulda been easy” shots.

Buck-Fever-01

Most hunters have the ability to hit the vitals on big game but still miss reasonable shots in the field. Buck fever is a typical culprit. Avoiding the benchrest in favor of more realistic shooting usable in the field is a great way to eliminate buck fever.

In hindsight it always seems that obvious and simple mistakes are the culprit, even though the situation was thoroughly perplexing to the victim at the time. It is easy to chuckle at the downtrodden hunter’s fate and it is just as easy to convince ourselves that we would never mess up like that while in the calm of the gun shop, our den at home, when perched at the bench rest, or just shooting for fun without scored results or consequences for the shooting. However, buck fever victims likely felt the same way before it happened to them so wise hunter-shooters will acknowledge that buck fever does indeed exist, realize that nobody is completely immune and will do something about it before it happens to them. So, what is this “something” that we can do? What is buck fever and how can we beat it?

Buck Fever Defined

Buck fever is the hunter’s term for an extreme case of nerves. The hunt may have been planned months in advance and could be costing thousands of dollars. Even a hunt in your home state on local or personally-owned property will still have been anticipated since the end of last year’s season. Upon finally making it out into the field the hunter plays another waiting game that can go on for hours or days on end. Finding an elusive, suitable, or even trophy animal, much less harvesting one, is never a certainty.

After long last, our intrepid hunter locates his mark. Days of eager anticipation will be decided by the actions taken in the next handful of seconds. There is no “do over” in hunting, just one chance and a limited amount of time to make it all happen. Failure means going home empty handed to start the cycle of waiting all over again. It’s do or die, “I have to make this shot!”

Buck-Fever-02

Any form of competition shooting, even against bullseyes, helps inure you against stress and reduces buck fever when hunting. Failing that, basic position shooting practice is more realistic than any bench rest shooting. For the hunter, shoot your hunting rifle in clothes you hunt in and add a simple mat or pad for comfort as needed.

If you have a hard time understanding why the forgoing might excite someone you probably have never been hunting. Many hunters have stated this thrill of the experience is a primary reason why they continue to venture afield. However, the factors that make this experience exhilarating can become overwhelming. Learning how to deal with this excitement consistently is the challenge.

So how can a hunter prepare? One offered solution is earning raw experience, that is, to overcome buck fever the hunter should just go hunting more. That’s like telling the new parachutist to just keep jumping until they get it right. True, some of the negative effects of anxiety will eventually be lessened with experience but making a mistake can prove more costly than the value of the experience gained.

Buck-Fever-03

Learning to shoot around obstacles is a part of field shooting and doing so on the range helps avoid buck fever.

Big game hunting opportunities are becoming more expensive and harder to come by. The only way most of us can extend the days of hunting we’re allowed in our home state is to travel abroad. Even hunting in a neighboring state can increase costs exponentially. Purchasing a license in a state you don’t reside can be three to ten times more expensive than a resident license. In addition to the increased purchase cost, obtaining this license may also require taking and passing a hunter safety class in person or online, costing additional money and time. And the license will likely be the least expensive part after we add additional travel and lodging expenses. This added expense and trouble will only exacerbate the anxiety. Hard-won experience should be earned before the hunt begins and the hunter should be checked out before taking the field, especially on a once-in-a-lifetime hunt.

To properly prepare, we need to break buck fever down into its component parts and address each one separately. There are three areas that need to be addressed: The ability to perform consistently on demand, learning to work within a short period of time, and developing sufficient field shooting skill. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Performing On Demand

Performing on demand means being able to execute at the same skill level under almost any condition, time after time. The operative word is consistency. Effective field marksmanship doesn’t mean having to shoot like an Olympian or other top competitive shooter. It is much more important for hunters to accurately determine their personal skill level, whatever that may be. Mediocre marksmen can be excellent hunters simply by knowing what they can, and can not, do. A hunter will save himself a lot of grief by having the knowledge and discipline of passing up a shot that he knows is low percentage for him.

Buck-Fever-04

Becoming comfortable in using natural rests like a tree is also helpful in developing sufficient field shooting skill.

Properly using a few relevant, intelligently-designed field marksmanship exercises, a hunter can evaluate skill in a variety of scenarios in a few range sessions shooting about a box of ammo each time. This won’t necessarily improve skill, just measure it. What counts is skill that can be repeated on demand, not the occasional spectacular hit. A rifle hunter not participating regularly in organized field shooting events and whose only practice consists of plinking, bench rest shooting, and the annual sight-in, probably has a maximum effective range of about 100 yards under the best field conditions (deer standing broadside and well defined, solid field position, sufficient time) and 50 yards if the conditions are less than perfect. Cut these distances in half for shotgun-fired slugs or muzzleloaders, and quarter them for handguns.

“Effective range” means a distance that proper hits on a big game target can be achieved ninety percent of the time or better under field conditions, which includes shooting under time pressure from improvised positions at a big game target set at various angles with a poorly defined aim point, just like in the field. Until you actually test your skills against relevant, realistic field marksmanship exercises, don’t assume you are the exception, unless you enjoy wounding wild game.

Time Pressure

A hunted animal will never make things convenient. The hunter is an occasional visitor on the prey’s home turf. Mature big game animals have learned to avoid predators or they wouldn’t have lived long enough to grow up. What’s more, the animal doesn’t even have to actively avoid you. The simple act of deciding to graze elsewhere can eliminate a shoot opportunity. The hunter has to be prepared to shoot in a relatively short period of time and still make an effective hit.

Buck-Fever-05

Buck fever can strike when an unprepared hunter realizes his field shot isn’t as stable as a bench rest. This wobble platform simulates movement like a swaying tree stand.

Working within a short period of time is arguably the single biggest factor of buck fever. Many hunters possess the inherent skill to make vitals-sized hits under calm conditions on the range when not rushed but add the pressure of a ticking clock and the results fall off dramatically. It has been estimated that nearly three out of every four shots taken afield fail to connect with the vital zone. This lackluster record isn’t because the hunter-equipment combination isn’t capable of sufficient accuracy but because of the perceived time limit. When put on the clock at formal field shooting competitions I’ve seen hunters capable of honest sub-MOA groups from the bench fail to keep all their shots within the 11×13 inch V-ring of the old HunterShooter target as close as 30 yards while using the same firearm and ammunition. The time factor made all the difference.

This is not an encouragement to shoot fast and any field shooting event should provide provision for participants to decline the opportunity, however, the simple reality is all hunting scenarios provide a limited amount of time to make a decision and followthrough. Field shooting is reaction shooting and the time limit is determined by the target. Eventually, the animal will leave. It’s just a question of when.

The solution is to shoot timed exercises on the range. “Timed” does not have to mean shooting fast or within an arbitrary limit. Ideally, the exercise should time your effort, allowing you to take as much time as you want, but reducing your result the more that you take. The challenge becomes accurately determining your personal limit on how little time it can take you to still make solid, confident hits. Gain confidence by working against the clock and learn your personal speed while making clean hits on a realistic target. When you can go five for five and still make your chosen time, reduce the time limit or move the target further away and start again.

Buck-Fever-06

Becoming proficient by shooting at a realistic target positioned like a real animal helps eliminate buck fever.

Sufficient Skill

The hunter must possess a rudimentary level of ability. At the moment of truth the only thing that can make the hunt a success is the ability to anchor the animal. That means possessing enough raw marksmanship skill to direct projectiles accurately. Field marksmanship doesn’t require the same level of precision and inhuman consistency needed to win national tournaments of the conventional sort, but it does require some.

Hitting vital-sized targets at typical hunting ranges isn’t too tough. Doing so under typical hunting conditions is what proves to be challenging. Developing sufficient field marksmanship skill means learning to accept a different way of thinking about accuracy and performance. The ability to shoot a six minute group from the sitting position on a big game silhouette lacking a defined aim point, partially obscured behind a light screen of brush and set at a quartering angle is much more valuable than the ability to shoot a one minute group from the bench on a well-defined bullseye or sight-in target.

Buck-Fever-07

A roving range, requiring competitors to find game hidden along a trail, simulates another aspect of hunting and buck fever.

The hunter has to practice specifically what he wants to accomplish. Even more important, this practice must provide a realistic appraisal of current marksmanship levels. Developing sufficient skill means admitting what you can’t do. Knowing what shot to take and what to pass up is Lesson One and every missed and wounded game animal is the result of a hunter failing to learn this.

If the results of this lesson disappoint, you’ll either have to learn to accept your reality or make the effort to improve until the appropriate skills meet or exceed your goals. Such practice can only be conducted on the range in an organized format before each and every hunt to determine the maximum distance consistent vital-zone hits can be made in hunting scenarios. The practice must also include shooting at targets that look like big game. If you want to test your hand at shooting deer, shoot at something that looks like a deer. More specifically, shoot at something that takes target angle into account. Measure elapsed times, enforce realistic time limits to push yourself, and test your skills on demand, such as formal or informal competition, and you’ll quickly master your hunting arms.

Conclusion

Buck fever inflicts hunters who can’t perform consistently, aren’t capable of shooting under time pressure, don’t possess sufficient skill, or some combination of the three. Any tale of buck fever will reveal one or more of these faults. The skilled hunter will address these issues before seeking out living targets. Anything less is disrespectful to the animal and to other hunters.

Following these tips will provide the hunter a high degree of self-control. Is it possible to completely control buck fever? I don’t think so. That’s like expecting experienced soldiers to have no concerns when entering a combat situation. Target shots with decades of experience still have “match nerves.” This is natural and positive. If the situation isn’t compelling enough to demand our attention we might not perform to our full potential and it would strip any sense of accomplishment when we do well. After all, if pursuing a prime buck doesn’t excite you, what value is the trophy? Venison tastes best when it can be served with an exciting tale of the chase.