What Turns A Good Deer Hunter Into A Great Deer Hunter?

Posted on August 18, 2020



It seems as time goes by, people are more and more caught up in an environment of competition. From a purely philosophical standpoint, I personally view this growing trend as undesirable, especially when it overflows into sport hunting and taints what is intended to be a pure and relaxing thing. – Roger Rothhaar, Whitetail Magic



Let’s first recognize the obvious, that deer hunting is not a nationally televised sporting event (although it would be closely allied with America’s pastime). There are no stadiums, just cathedrals of forest and fields. No cheering crowds, just chattering chipmunks, squirrels and squawking jays. No scores to keep, just memories. Nobody to compete against, just the animal that has more of an incentive to win than you or me.

So, if indeed that is true, which I believe it to be, why do hunters, in ever increasing numbers, make attempts to climb a ladder that does not exist, to reach a top rung that has no distinct qualifications, and then have to better the achievement to stay there, year in and year out?

If we were to look at the definition of greatness it would read like this: the quality or state of being great as in size, skill, achievement, or power. Thus, greatness does not lie in what others perception of you is, or how great you think you are. Most, if not nearly all the deer hunters that have sought, bought or stolen a title they think makes them better than all the rest were arrogant, conceited and usually, in some capacity underhanded when it comes to ethical deer hunting.

There are those that greatness has been bestowed upon that have chosen the path of anonymity, reluctant to step into the spotlight. While others, who need their ego flattered find themselves clawing their way into any and all outlets to sell their brand. And then there are the scattered few, who indeed, by anyone’s standard would be considered great, and choose to share with the world all that they have been blessed to have experienced in order to help fellow enthusiasts of the sport become that much better at what they love to do, hunt deer.

“There are several ways to play the game,” writes Lionel Atwill, “and a million variations and combinations of each, all of which will leave you sucking wind. The first is the simplest to explain and the most difficult to execute, so difficult in fact, that a few who have mastered it have become legends in their own time.



The tactic is this: Find a fresh track and stay on it until the gap between deer and hunter is decreased sufficiently to be spanned by a well-placed bullet. It works, but not without effort. Obviously, it works only in snow and only for a hunter in good shape. It works rarely in the first hour, sometimes in the first four, preferably, but not always in the first day.”

And to elevate from good to great, the pursuer of this grand animal – the buck of the whitetail deer – must up his or her game in these six areas.


With patience being a virtue, many a fine buck has escaped unscathed due to the hunter’s lack of this skill. In a society much different than that of our early American hunting predecessors, impatience is probably the most significant obstacle to overcome. Our everyday lives are continuously bombarded with deadlines, schedules, appointments, and any other activity you can squeeze in. Every moment of our time is spoken for and our lifestyle becomes a constant race from one commitment to another. Why, there isn’t enough time to even look at the roses much less smell them.

If you doubt this as a true depiction of the twenty-first century American, jump in your horseless carriage and drive out onto the highway. My guess is, you won’t have to travel far to illicit honking horns, screamed profanities, ill-mannered gestures, dirty looks, and discourteous driving habits, all as a direct result of impatience caused by the self-inflicted time crunch we are under.

Take that same individual and place him in the solitude only a deep woods experience can bring, and you have a giant case of culture shock. Generally, it requires a few days for the hunter to acclimate himself to this unfamiliar, quiet, unnerving environment. I’ve said it for years, the first priority when arriving at deer camp should be the removal of your watch. The only timetable a whitetail is under rises in the morning and sets at dusk.



It is not a race to see how quickly I can catch up to the buck I’m tracking. In fact, there exists no finish line to cross. Yes, I do realize I’ve previously stated time is critical when tracking a buck; don’t confuse the wisest use of that time with running pell-mell through the woods in an attempt to overtake a buck, it doesn’t work. All you will be left with is a waving white tail and a heaving chest.

T.S. Van Dyke offered this pearl of wisdom in his book, The Still-Hunter:

“Examine all the surroundings; see which is the best way to approach. But above all things, positively don’t hurry, for in still-hunting Hurry is the parent of Flurry. There is no occasion for haste.”


If necessity is the mother of invention, persistence is a closely related sibling. If tracking a buck to his demise is in your head, you better not have “quit” in your vocabulary. No matter how far the distance or variance in terrain, following that buck to the end must be your goal until the disappearance of the sun on the western horizon.



There will be areas that require the magic of a magician to penetrate, times when you’re hungry, all kinds of worrisome thoughts, when you’ll ask yourself, “Is this really worth it?” That is when mental toughness becomes critical. Your buddy shot a nice buck just off the two track yesterday that cost him little in exertion. That thought now permeates your brain as you claw your way through this impenetrable jungle. It infuriates you as the rain relentlessly pours down your neck leaving nothing dry in its wake. Countless, fifteen-plus mile tracking sessions with nothing to show for it but your weary tired frame. Doubt begins to cast a giant ominous cloud to your thinking regarding your ability. Still, the easily had buck of your associate haunts your mind. You begin in desperation to ask, “How come, haven’t I worked hard enough?” Anger towards a circumstance you have no control over frustrates you. Yet, unwavering to the very last day, even to the last minute, you continue to track, ever hopeful to the end.

How is it that I can so aptly describe the feelings this man felt? Because the man whom I’ve just described I know better than most. That hunter characterized above is none other than me.

The wand of good fortune doesn’t always wave over us when we think it should. Your metal is being tested under the fiery furnace of trial. That is what separates the tracker from those that merely follow tracks.

This I can guarantee, when success does come, all of the energy, effort and hardships will become a distant memory. Perseverance will become your soulmate born from the experiences you have overcome. In summary, “quitting doesn’t get it done.”


Much like a cougar, coyote or wolf we are predators on the prowl, sneaking, roaming, slinking, tiptoeing and pursuing our prey. If only I could emulate those animals and their movements each and every moment that I’m in pursuit of a buck I’d fair a far shy better. But, unlike them, my next meal is not dependent on a kill.



“Relax not an atom of either vigilance or caution on account of advantages. Mark this well. In still-hunting you have never an advantage to spare. It will do you no harm to retain every one, and you may lose by throwing away a very slight one that you think quite needless” wrote T.S. Van Dyke.

Long about the time you figure all is safe and let down your guard, invariably at that precise moment, the buck you’ve worked so diligently to follow presents himself. Now that you have been caught with your pants down, all effort on your part to gather yourself together is for naught as the fleeting buck is now just a memory.


It’s surprising to me how many things people fail to notice, such as where a deer stopped after passing beneath a blow down, reaching back over his shoulder and munching on mushrooms, or where he paused to glance back over his backtrack. Seeing isn’t the problem, it’s the minute, subtle changes that occur that most folks miss.

The perceptive sportsman is conscious of every little sound being made by the forest inhabitants and, yes, even silence can indicate something amiss. When the annoying chatter of a squirrel ceases, the melodious chirp of the resident birds diminishes, it’s a good bet they are aware of something you and I to this point have not been privy to.

Oh, the magical sights and sounds of the deer woods, filled with fruitful treasure ripe for the taking to those of a discerning spirit. George Mattis knew all too well the importance of perception; “The still-hunter works over the grounds with his eyes. He uses his legs only to carry him over the terrain he has carefully scrutinized. Each time he comes upon a change of grounds he must pause to scan the area about him.”


Any man taking up the track of a whitetail without some semblance of devotion to the sport beyond just another form of recreation will quickly succumb to his whimsical attempt.

I’m sure within the minds of those who know me best, my utter fascination with whitetails borders on obsession. Call it what you will, in my defense I say, despite the large part the whitetail plays in my life, that to include all aspects; hunting, studying, photographing, pleasurable viewing, painting and writing about it does not dominate my entire being.



It would be difficult to fathom going about a daily routine minus some driving stimulation. For some it’s money while for others that fascination is brought about by possessions such as boats, planes, RV’s or any other object that suits them. Sports plays a huge role in our feverous psyche, be it as a participant or an immobilized armchair observer.

Unfortunately, passion is not a subject that can be taught, it must evolve. The deeper your interest level becomes, the greater your depth of enthusiasm becomes.


How sad when a wealth of accumulated knowledge becomes tucked away in the mind’s attic gathering cobwebs, becoming valueless and ultimately irretrievable from one’s choice not to apply it in a practical fashion. Essentially this information becomes nothing more than obscured data.

To become proficient at going from good to great you must practice. Not a single person, regardless of God-given talent, ever rises to expert standing without countless hours of tedious, redundant rehearsal.

With every small victory attained, a price tag of arduous self-commitment had to be paid. As these successes begin to materialize, your confidence builds, and those mundane practice sessions take on a whole new meaning. Your enthusiasm and outlook strive now towards what once seemed a far away, unobtainable goal.

May I interrupt this escalating mounting of accelerated proficiency with a piece of reality? Accompanying those victories will come several doses of ‘the agony of defeat.’ How you handle those interruptions will determine how far and fast your assent to the deer-hunting pinnacle becomes. I offer T.S. Van Dyke’s commentary on the subject:



“Make it your custom whenever you lose a deer to study how you lost him. This may occupy a little time at first, but in the end, it will repay you. Few things are so fatal to ultimate success as an early germination of the idea that you are a pretty smart chap on deer. The teachers you need are disappointment and humiliation. If this cure you of still-hunting, it is well; for it proves you were not born for that, and the sooner you quit the better.

But if there is any of the true spirit in you, defeat will only inspire you. You will learn more from your failures than many do from success, and they will arouse you to double care, double energy, double keenness and double hope. The analysis of error is a far better source of instruction than the analysis of truth. For this reason, you should at first study failures more than success. And this will be rendered all the more easy by the fact that at first you will probably have little besides error to study.”


A great deer hunter, to paraphrase Rothhaar, must be honest and truthful to himself or herself, and the deer they are hunting, constantly assessing one’s own abilities and using that to improve upon.

So, what makes a great deer hunter? I’ll leave the last word for Rothhaar,



“Obviously the answer cannot be based purely upon the numbers or size of the deer taken, for there are too many variables involved. Nor can it depend upon the amount of time or money spent on the endeavor. The answer lies totally in the REASON one is hunting.”


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