Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bad case of buck fever

It can paralyze you -- but help is available

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As a kid, I remember hearing the hunters in my family talk about buck fever. I also remember rolling my eyes, convinced that this was one very clever excuse for missing that five-pointer in a wide-open field.

Years passed. I too became a hunter. Very early in my hunting career, I was perched in a tree stand on a windless day in early November. Two does walked into a clearing followed by a healthy four-point buck. I sat up a little straighter and just as I was about to bring my binoculars up for a better look, a strange thing happened. A sharp, loud jackhammer of a sound cracked behind my head. Bang. Bang. Bang.

I was terrified, petrified actually. I flinched when I first heard the sound, thinking that something was about to hit me in the noggin. I still wanted to have a look at that buck, but my arms were frozen to my sides. I was convinced I would fall out of that tree.

The next season, with a brand-new muzzleloader in hand, I sat on a stone pile enjoying one of those sunny T-shirt days that October brings. A flash of movement to my left caught my eye. It was a doe, running full out, with a buck on her heels -- the biggest buck I have ever seen. I brought the gun up and tried to click off the safety. But I was unfamiliar with my new gun.

A couple of seconds passed before I figured it out. The deer were still cutting across the field, plenty of time for a redo, except something was wrong. My gun rested on my lap, my arms refusing to move. And there was that familiar jackhammer clanging in my head.

I have stopped rolling my eyes. Buck fever is very real.

According to the experts, buck fever begins in the brain. There's a mass about the size of an almond called the amygdala. Its jobs include decoding emotions, determining possible threats and storing fear memories.

It's what causes the fight-or-flight response to kick in. Somehow (and I can't even begin to understand how the brain works), it seems to be responsible for buck fever.

The symptoms of buck fever differ from hunter to hunter. Shaking hands, nausea, sweating, rapid heart rate and heavy breathing are just the start. I fall victim to the dreaded "dead arms." I simply can't move them; no matter how hard I try.

Veteran hunters seem to have a lot more control over buck fever. They may still feel the symptoms, but they do better than newbies like myself (I've been hunting for less than a decade). Perhaps these tips on getting buck fever under control will help.

 

Shoot, shoot, shoot

How many times do you pull the trigger in a year? For most of us, the answer is not nearly enough. Aside from sighting in a weapon, we may not fire many shots at all in the course of a year. That can make shooting somewhat of a foreign activity. It's important to get comfortable with the action of shooting. That means practice, practice, practice.

 

Watch wildlife

The more time you spend watching wildlife, the more you learn about how they move and what triggers their reactions. You'll also begin to spot the warning signs just before they bolt. It's all valuable information to have at hand when you're making your decisions in the field.

 

Visualization

I know you do it. Sitting out there, staring at the treeline at the edge of the field, you imagine that big buck poking his head out. He takes a few tentative steps, sniffs high in the air, then takes a few more steps. After what seems like an eternity, he finally turns broadside. It's great practice to walk yourself through the scenario that may quickly unfold. You'll be ready when it does. Besides, I believe that willing it to happen just might bring that buck out of the bush.

 

Banish the nerves

This one is most definitely easier said than done. I've had the most success when I haven't had too much time to think about things. I know my weapon well and I know I can make the shot. I get into trouble when I start second-guessing myself. In most situations, I have about 15 seconds before buck fever gets the best of me. If I can't get the job done in that time, I must wait until I calm down again. Sometimes the opportunity is still there and sometimes it isn't. And that's why they call it hunting.

 

Shel Zolkewich writes about the outdoors, travel and food when she's not playing outside, traveling or eating. You can reach her with your comments at shel@shelzolkewich.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2012 C12

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