Why is mental and physical preparation so seldom mentioned or discussed in the hunting media? The reason is likely because neither is a prerequisite for success where most media personalities hunt. They know going into a season that they will take one or several mature bucks no matter what. It’s rather obvious to any seasoned hunter that it doesn’t take much effort on high- end managed properties to get the job done. Let’s face it, where most media personalities hunt, they don’t have to be concerned with hunting competition.
However, the average Joe who pursues mature bucks on public land or in mediocre areas with heavy consequential hunting pressure — we’ll call it HCHP — must have a positive attitude to endure the stresses of a long and likely unsuccessful season.
The Mind Game
Mental toughness in HCHP areas can’t be bought and is usually what separates successful from less successful hunters.
Mental toughness means not giving up on a goal until almost every possible attempt at achieving it has been fulfilled. Obviously, you don’t have to be fit to have mental toughness, but being fit will let you do physical things your competition cannot or is not willing to do. Hunting in HCHP areas is all about separating yourself from the pack.
Imagine getting up three hours before daybreak to assure you’re in your tree and settled in an hour and a half before first light. Then you cram down some healthy food, drive to your hunting area, slowly follow your tacks to your tree so you don’t perspire, ascend the tree and go through your preparation procedure. Then you sit relatively motionless for six hours or more, walk out, eat lunch, walk back to your stand or another tree, ascend, get ready, sit for another five hours or so, climb down, walk back out, go home and eat dinner, decompress for the evening and, after a brief night, rise and do it again. Now imagine taking vacation during the rut and doing that every day for a week, while throwing in a couple of hour-and-a-half-before-daybreak- until-after-dark all-day hunts.
Further, imagine some of those hunts occurring on public land, where you must access remote areas — places other hunters are too lazy to go — so you have any chance at catching a mature buck moving during daylight. Accessing remote areas always requires extraordinary physical measures such as donning hip boots or waders to cross creeks or traipse through marshes, using a canoe to cross a river or lake or walking long distances through swamps or heavy brush. These are the types of areas where mature deer have been forced by your competitive hunters during pre-season scouting and hunting ventures.
Throw in frequent sleep deprivation, and hunters who actually take on those grueling practices are likely very young or have the mental toughness and desire to stay fit.
Bowhunting at a dedicated level, and in a non-canned hunt situation that involves lots of work, can in some respects be considered an extreme sport that requires some athletic conditioning. Let’s be brutally honest. Out-of-shape hunters simply can’t do things as proficiently and effectively as fit hunters, and in HCHP areas, being fit will make a long-term difference your success rate. We’re not talking Ironman conditioning, but a level of fitness that keeps you healthy and ready for the challenges of a long season.
Most hunters have jobs and families, which consume our time, leaving little time for off-season training. To make ends meet, my wife and I each have full- and part-time jobs, yet my dedication to being in shape for bowhunting and to feel good entice me to make time for a fitness program.
I try to be as fit as possible before the season, yet during the season I still lose about 5 pounds off my already light frame because of muscle loss, walking so much in full gear, not getting enough sleep and not eating properly. Because preseason preparation and in-season hunting consumes so much energy, I quit training a month before the season opener.
You know the property you hunt and how much effort is required for success. If you’re hunting without having any symptoms of illness, your fitness level for that area is fine. If, however, you’re tired, worn out and have to take breaks when scouting, preparing locations, transitioning long distances or dealing with stringent situations, you should consider some fitness training.
When to Start
I begin in January because there isn’t much going on during winter. After several months, if you’re the type of person earlier described, you should feel good enough about what you’ve already accomplished to continue training.
When I was young I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so at garage sales I bought a treadmill, 40-pound curl bar, pull-up bar and a bench with free weights. Each training procedure with this equipment had muscle toning resistance in both directions of the activity. I have since replaced the treadmill with an elliptical stair climber and the curl bar, pull-up bar and free-weights bench with a multi-station gym.
First, this warning: If you have any physical or health issues, consult your physician before start- ing any fitness program or diet.
You don’t want to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator. In fact, bulk bodybuilding at anything close to that level is detrimental to a body’s flexibility. The object is to keep your muscles toned by doing many repetitions with light weights instead of adding muscle bulk by doing few repetitions with heavy weights.
My fitness program has always been specifically designed for bowhunting and is now done in my basement while I watch TV. I alternate six exercises by doing three one evening and three the next. One evening, I’ll do three sets each of sit-ups, curls and bench presses. The next, I’ll do three sets each of elliptical stair climbing, butter- fly presses and pull-downs. With short breaks between sets, an entire workout takes about two Seinfeld episodes.
Purpose of Each Exercise
The elliptical stair climber strengthens legs for the long walks and climbing trees. A treadmill, walking or jogging will also serve this purpose.
Pull-downs build muscle for pulling up your body weight when climbing trees. A pull-up bar will also serve this purpose.
Butterflies build muscles for hugging trees when climbing and preparing locations.
Bench presses build muscles for pulling your upper body toward a tree or to let it easily move away from the tree during climbing and preparation.
Curls build muscle for those few times when you support your weight with an arm at waist level while using your other arm to perform tree preparation.
Sit-ups build abs and core body strength, which are used in awkward positions when climbing and preparing locations.
Because you will be doing a lot of repetitions of each exercise, your heart rate will increase, and you’ll accomplish cardiovascular training as a byproduct of each exercise. Begin any training program with caution in mind. Hunting is grueling, and even though you will be using the same muscles when training, the stress levels on isolated muscle groups during a workout are far more intense. Because you have not worked out for four months — or at all — you will get very sore when starting if you use too much weight or do too many repetitions of any exercise.
Starting criteria on weight used for each exercise will vary depending on your stature and current physical condition. Start by using weights for each exercise that will be so light that you can easily perform three sets of 15 repetitions each without straining at any time. If you’re straining, you are using too much weight or doing too many repetitions. Yes, you should be somewhat sore the next morning but not so much that you can’t continue exercising for a few days because of it.
As time progresses and you gain strength, workouts will seem purposeless. At these points, add a bit more weight to each exercise, or do more repetitions per set. By late spring, you should have increased weight and repetitions several times until you reach a peak plateau. From that point until you stop training just before the season, stop adding weight, and do more repetitions per set.
Here’s an example using my routine. Although I begin the year with less than half my eventual peak workout weights and repetitions, at my peak one evening, I perform three sets each of 60 sit-ups or crunches, 40 curls at 50 pounds each, and 25 bench presses at 145 pounds and then 30 more at 125 pounds. The next evening, I use the elliptical stair climber three times for four minutes, do three sets of 50 butterflies at 40 pounds, and 20 pull-downs at 150 pounds and then 20 more at 120 pounds. To allow each muscle group time to recover, these exercises are staggered. Every fifth day, I rest.
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Your Diet Matters, Too
You can’t have an effective fitness program without making a concerted effort to eat properly. Unless you burn a lot of calories at your daily job, being a fast-food junkie won’t cut it. Combine red meat or poultry with vegetables, fruit and a daily multi-vitamin supplement to ensure you get all of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need.
Diet concerns during hunting season are another matter. During work days, I eat as normal, but it’s almost impossible to keep up a healthy diet when hunting. Spending long hours in the cold requires a calorie spike just to maintain body weight. During the intense portions of the season, I force myself to consume more calories. This means sometimes switching to a high-energy, high-fat diet during the intense portions of the season. Sometimes, I wish I could unzip my belly and just put food in it, because I struggle to find the desire and time to eat.
When hunting, for me there is no time for breakfast. To supplement that I drink a can of Slim Fast and eat a granola bar. As much as I love coffee, I refrain from drinking it because caffeine spurs nature’s call. Coffee also can cause anxiety along with perspiration during long entry walks. For all-day hunts, I take a peanut butter sandwich, a couple of granola bars and apples, and a 20-ounce bottle of water.
Archery: Get in the Groove
For at least the six weeks before the season, shooting your bow should be almost an everyday event. The main goal of these sessions is to get and keep your archery muscles and form in shape — and to become deadly accurate.
It is critical to continue practicing a couple of times a week throughout the bow season. Shoot- ing during pre-season is a form of exercise. During the season, it’s less of an exercise and more of a form- and accuracy-control procedure. By shooting at least a dozen arrows a few times a week, you can be certain your equipment is functioning properly, your muscles are staying tuned, your shooting form remains consistent and you’re confident with your accuracy.
Dealing with Setbacks
In 2008, I slipped on ice while shoveling snow and fell on my right shoulder, tearing several muscles and tendons. When I got up to go in the house I passed out in the garage. After reconstructive surgery, 14 weeks in a sling and 10 weeks of gradual mobility rehab sessions, my doctor let me start some light weight training and shooting a 30-pound draw-weight bow. I had strict orders not to climb trees, and although I hoped otherwise, I was mentally prepared not to hunt that season.
Mathews was very kind and made me a 30- to 40-pound bow, and Carbon Express sent me a dozen Maxima Hunter 150 arrows. By the season, I could comfortably draw 35 pounds, and those arrows, tipped with 11⁄8-inch cut G-5 Strykers, shot like darts. The doctor had also cleared me for carefully climbing trees, if there is such a thing. In December, I took a doe. Then I raised my draw weight to 40 pounds for a trip to Illinois to hunt some public ground.
My reward for that hard work came during blizzard conditions a few days after the Illinois gun season ended, when a huge 12-pointer presented me with a broadside shot.
When you’re in good shape, you will receive compliments and gain confidence. Knowing your body is functioning on all cylinders mentally and physically provides confidence, and confidence plays a much larger role in bowhunting than most folks realize.