Most hunters have been there...you’ve put in the time and put on the miles. You’ve glassed until your eyes bled. You’ve tried stalk after stalk, or maybe called in every way you can think of, and still, you come home empty-handed. Hunting is never a guarantee, and many rewards come from just being out in the field that we try to reflect on and console ourselves with. But, what if you still haven’t notched a tag after a few hunts? Or even a few seasons? What if the freezer hasn’t had wild game meat in it for years? You have to finally accept the reality that you’re in a hunting slump.
No one likes to talk about it, especially not publicly. But, in hopes of reducing the shame all of us slump-prone hunters may feel, let me start the honesty train rolling: I’m just coming out of a slump that lasted over three years! And it’s not that life was busy or I just didn’t put in the time. During those three years, I put in dozens of days in the field, hundreds of miles on my boots, and more cold nights sleeping in the dirt than I can count. I chased mule deer, elk, bear, and javelina. I went solo. I went with more experienced hunters. I brought my bow. I brought my rifle. I went out of state. I saw animals. I had close calls. But in three years I just couldn’t get the stars to align and finally wrap my tag around another animal.
Okay, so at least some of you are feeling the “oh, thank God...it’s not just me.” But, what can you do when it seems like you’re already doing everything you can think of and it’s still not working? Practically speaking, how do you break out of a slump?
Here are three things I did to break my own hunting slump...
1) Try Something Different
As the old quote goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
If you're hunting the same spot with the same method at the same time, try something new. Go over the next hill, try a different ambush point, or hunt a different species. Yes, practice makes perfect, but sometimes putting yourself in a different situation forces you to think, act, and perform differently. This can be especially hard if you’re seeing animals where you are, but perhaps you’re seeing them in a spot that’s particularly difficult to hunt because of terrain, thermals, or some other variable that’s putting everything in the animal’s favor. It could be worth checking to see if there are critters in the next drainage that might be in a much more huntable scenario.
To break out of my slump, I completely shifted my tactics. I had glassed up a group of bucks one evening, made a big loop to move in on them, and when I arrived at the tail-end of shooting light, they had already bailed. I decided to come back early the next evening and just sit in an ambush point by where I saw them the night before. I tucked myself into some brush downwind of the game trail and just waited and hoped. Yes, it felt boring at times. Yes, I almost talked myself into trying to stalk in on a different lone buck I spotted some 500 yards away, but I made myself stick to my commitment to try something new. Sure enough, with moments of shooting light left, this great buck I had seen the night before came walking out and I was able to put an arrow where it needed to go inside of 30 yards. So, if what you’re doing just isn’t working, mix it up and see what happens...you won’t know if you don’t try.
2) Don’t Let Impatience Drive You
If I had a dollar for every time I got within 100 yards of a group of animals and messed it up, I'd have a butt-load of dollars! I've screwed up so many hunts and stalks by simply not slowing down, by not trusting the process, and by trying to MAKE something happen rather than evaluating the situation and trying to LET something happen. And the longer your slump drags on, the easier it is to let the pressure start to get to you. This drives you to push too hard or rush a situation simply because you want to get back on the board. And that rarely works out.
If you’re feeling the pressure of a slump, let me offer you some advice that comes from probably the least likely source on a hunting site...my old golf coach. Wait, before you click away, I know that golfers and hunters typically find themselves at odds with each other, but I grew up golfing and got into hunting later in life, so I have both camps rattling around in my brain. I’ve taken one key principle from the ol’ golfing days that has helped my hunting game: Treat every stalk like it’s the only stalk of your life. (Okay, in golf they’d replace the word “stalk” with “shot,” but the principle still works.) It’s easy in a round of golf to have a couple of bad shots, and then you get stuck in your head and it can torpedo the whole rest of the round because you’re not just focused on the shot in front of you. Instead, you’re thinking about all the other shots that have already happened and the score on the card that isn’t finalized yet.
The same thing is true in hunting. A couple of bad days, a few unsuccessful hunts in a row, and suddenly when you’re making a play on that buck, you’re not just thinking about THIS stalk and THIS deer...you’re thinking about ALL the stalks and ALL the deer. This is a recipe for blowing it. So, put every past hunt and every future stalk out of your mind, and ALL that matters at that moment is the particular animal you’re making a play on. Give the present moment your full attention with zero pressure built up from previous failures. Believe that you’re going to get this one, and your odds of success will go way up.
3) Give Yourself Every Possible Moment
All hunters have heard that, “you can’t kill ‘em from the couch.” The more you're out there, the more chances you'll have, and the more you'll learn. Every chance you have to be in the field is another opportunity to not only potentially harvest an animal, but to learn just one more thing about the hunting game. Depending on where you live and where you hunt, it can be tempting to leave viable hunting hours on the table. Whether that’s packing up and leaving a day early because you’re tired and frustrated, or not going at all just because you don’t have the time to get deep in the backcountry and stay for multiple days. I’m a regular guy with a full-time job, a wife, and three kids. I have the same scheduling struggles that most hunters do. But, if I can steal an evening hunt after work or a quick day and a half in the backcountry, I’ll always take it. Yes, I’d prefer a full week in the middle of nowhere with nothing but time on my side, but there’s still a chance to harvest an animal with a few hours spent glassing a drainage a half a mile from the truck. Some hunting is always better than no hunting.
Once you find some time to hunt, now you need to maximize the moments you have available to you. Put simply, don’t waste valuable minutes of hunting time. This could mean leaving the trailhead an hour earlier to make sure you’re settled in at your glassing point at the very first glimmer of light, or it could be sticking it out at the end of the day until the glow has left your pins. I get cold and hungry like anybody else, but I also regret every time I’ve left my spot with shooting light left just because I was longing for my dehydrated dinner and a campfire. You’ve already put in the time and effort to get out there, so squeeze every possible moment of hunting out of it while you’re there.
And Always Embrace the Grind
At the end of the day, hunting is often a difficult pursuit. We’ve all seen the success stats, and while we want to be those few legends who seem to never leave the woods without an animal seemingly jumping into the back of their truck for them, few of us are. Hunting can be a grind, and that grind can be more mental than physical when your efforts aren’t yielding the results you want to see. But, at the end of the day, the beyond-cliche encouragement is still true: it only takes one.
The only thing that will keep you from eventually breaking the slump and notching another tag is if you give up. Ignore the voice in your head that says it won’t ever happen. Ignore your non-hunting friends who just don’t understand and look at you with pity and confusion when you say you didn’t get anything on your last trip. Ignore the self-imposed pressure that tries to take the fun out of the process and makes it all about results. Keep getting out, keep putting miles on your boots and time in your glass, and eventually, it’ll all come together and the slump will end.
Eric Voris is a passionate adult-onset hunter, the author of How to Hunt: A Total Beginner's Guide to Hunting Big Game, and the creator behind Late to the Game Outdoors. He is an accomplished writer, filmmaker, and content creator in the outdoors space, and spends his time chasing animals across the West. Eric lives in Arizona with his wife and three kids, dodging rattlesnakes and hunting together whenever possible.