Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you fail. Happens in work. Happens in sports. Certainly happens in hunting. Experts will tell you that after failure, you’re at a crossroads. One way leads to further anguish. Down the opposite path lies greater success.
CONSIDER VERMONT DENTIST EARL OLSON
For years, Earl had been attempting one of the most difficult hunts I know–bowhunting a giant whitetail buck. Over the course of six years Earl spent nearly seven weeks in tree stands near Edmonton, Alberta, trying to arrow one. He’d see them over the seasons but never in shootable positions. Then early one November day in 2003, after years of effort, it looked like it was going to happen. It was the last evening of a six-day hunt. Earl’s tree stand overlooked a logging road at the edge of a woodlot by a grain field where a snowmobiler had just been buzzing around. But Earl remained upbeat and focused.
Around 4 p.m., a full 90 minutes before sunset, a partial eclipse of the sun threw the Alberta countryside into early twilight. Deer began to move. Earl caught movement, pivoted and saw his dream realized: a massive non-typical with five drop tines was approaching on the logging road. It was a mega-buck that had been caught on film and was expected to score better than 230 points on the Boone and Crockett scale.
The deer paused behind brush 23 yards away. Earl drew. The buck walked into his sights at 17 yards. Earl released and hit the deer square in the shoulder bone with an expandable broadhead on a lightly spined arrow, a speed setup with no capacity to break bone. The monster shook the arrow loose in less than 100 yards and soon found a doe to pester.
Earl, understandably, was crushed. He couldn’t believe that after six years of commitment to a dream, he’d failed to see it realized. He simply could not believe it. The pain of his failure was almost nauseating.
The disbelief and grief lasted months. Earl talked about it in phone calls over the winter, describing again and again what had happened. This reaction, it turns out, is characteristic of people who eventually turn failure into success: They feel their screw-up fully and painfully, chewing it over constantly.
“Humans are programmed to move away from pain,” says Shyanne Smith, a Colorado psychologist and life coach. “If they experience something painful enough, they’ll change. It usually starts with retelling the story of their failure, looking for lessons and new meaning in each retelling.”
And that’s what happened. Rather than give up his dream, Earl changed.
He started the process by giving the blown opportunity a new, more positive meaning. About four months after the incident, Earl told me how grateful he was just to have seen a buck like that in the woods.
“If you can’t attach a new, positive meaning to a failure, you’ll never move on toward success,” Smith says. “It’s really the essential step.”
By April, Earl had recommitted to his dream. He would return to Alberta. After rebooking, he did something experts like Smith say is also characteristic of people who turn failures into success: He admitted that he had been ill-prepared and set about preparing anew.
“Call this a retooling phase, where you turn an honest, critical eye toward yourself,” Smith says. “You figure out why you failed and correct it.”
Earl tore his hunting gear and his shooting technique apart, questioning the value of everything. He bought a new bow. He beefed up his arrow weight and switched to a fixed, heavy broadhead. He practiced every day.
By the time he left for Alberta in November, the recommitment, retooling and hours of practice had allowed Earl to reimagine the miss of the big non-typical. The day before he flew to Edmonton he told me he believed he was supposed to miss that buck because there was some other giant out there he was meant to hunt.
Earl got into deer right away, seeing a buck in the 160-class the first morning. Two bucks of equal stature wandered by the second morning but offered no shot. Still, Earl remained positive. After every session in his tree stand, he returned to camp, shot his bow and continued to visualize what to do if presented with the opportunity for a large deer.
At dawn the third morning, a 140-class eight-pointer walked by his stand on the edge of a woodlot. Twenty minutes later, a 14-point, 180-class typical stepped out of a spruce thicket 40 yards inside the woodlot.
Earl took one look through his binocular, then blew softly into his grunt tube. The buck picked up its head and trotted in on a string, slightly quartering to him. The buck then looked up–right at Earl. The hunter froze in place and quickly drew when the buck turned its head and took a step.
Earl held the arrow well back from the shoulder bone, concentrated and released, driving the broadhead down through the buck’s ribcage at less than 15 yards. The deer bounded and disappeared back into the spruce thicket where Earl heard it crash. There would be no regrets this time.
SEAN LAWLOR GOT A SECOND CHANCE ON A BIG BUCK
A hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Montana, Sean is the best hunter I know. As a boy he learned to hunt whitetails from his father in New Hampshire. As a young man, he ran the mile well enough to race at the Melbourne Games in Madison Square Garden, the world’s premier indoor track event.
By the time he was in his late 20s, Sean had incorporated his running skills into an aggressive hunting style that emphasized tracking and moving swiftly through big buck hideouts, jumping deer out of their beds, then hurrying through the woods to make a killing shot. No kidding. He used to do it all the time.
Indeed, if it were not for Sean I would not have killed my biggest whitetail and seen firsthand how doggedness and creativity can turn failure into success.
Back in the early 1990s, northwestern Montana had some of the best public-land whitetail hunting in the country. One Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving, we were driving to our hunting area when two mature 10-pointers crossed in our headlights. Sean’s father, Doc, was in the truck behind us. He said that a third deer had crossed between us. It was the biggest buck Doc had ever seen–a massive, high-racked 6 by 6 he figured would score in the 180s.
The three bucks were headed up a mountain where Sean’s brother David had killed a heavy nine-pointer the day before. The mountain had a knoblike peak where ponderosa pines and tawny grass grew among boulders and ledges. A huge cedar thicket covered the north flank. The bucks had gone in across a flat toward the mountain’s west slope, a 2,000-foot stack of forest benches choked in winterberry and jack pine.
Sean drove another two miles, got out of the truck and climbed steeply and diagonally south, hoping to cut the bucks’ tracks in the snow. Doc flanked below him. I climbed from the north along the edge of the cedar thicket.
An hour after first light, Sean found fresh tracks. He slowed to a creep, heard a crash and halted. A doe flashed through an opening ahead with one of the 10-pointers right behind her in hot pursuit. As he raised his gun, a second doe blew through the opening followed by the monster and the second 10-point, all of them with their tongues hanging out, all of them climbing hard.
Sean rushed uphill, hoping to catch them on the next bench. No sooner had he reached the plateau than he saw the first 10-pointer go through, still on his doe. Sean brought up his gun. The second doe trotted through the opening. Catching movement, Sean put his finger on the trigger. He saw big antlers. The instant the buck’s shoulder came into view, he fired.
The second 10-pointer took two jumps and collapsed. The 12-point leaped over his dead rival and kept on. Sean had killed an excellent deer, but not the one we were after.
“Why would I assume the deer would keep the same exact place in the herd?” Sean kept saying. “I can’t believe I didn’t make sure before I shot.”
Luckily it was not hard to come up with a new, more powerful meaning to the incident: The monster buck was still on that mountain. Even if Sean could not shoot it, he could help hunt it.
We worked the mountain for the next two days, but there were no sightings. On Thanksgiving morning, Sean’s father scouted the peak in fresh snow. That night he described what he’d found: Many of the biggest tracks were heading into the cedar thicket on the mountain’s north flank. A plan was devised. In effect, we retooled.
An hour before first light we dropped Sean several miles southwest of the peak, way down on the flat. He climbed quartering into the wind, while Doc and I came in higher from the north, more directly into the wind.
Around 11 a.m., in a rain and snow squall, we took stands below the knob. Doc watched a large, steep meadow. Several hundred yards away, I stood in the woods on a narrow shelf north of the peak, watching it and the edge of the cedar thicket.
Sean climbed to the top of the knob, urinated, and then wiped his armpits with a paper towel and hung it on a tree.
The cedars were soppy with snow, rain and fog when he entered the thicket with the wind at his back. Bushwhacking his way through the worst of it, he jumped a heavy-racked 11-point with a split brow tine.
There was a smaller eight-point with him. The big buck tried to trot around Sean, who managed to cut the deer off. The eight tried to get by him in the opposite direction, with the 11 following. He cut them off again. The bucks whirled and reluctantly took off downwind out of the thicket. I saw the deer flash through the woods toward Doc.
I waited for a shot. But the bucks winded him and cut uphill trying to circle. Then they hit the urine and body scent Sean had left. The deer turned and bounded downhill, charging straight at me. I shot the 11-point at less than 30 yards away.
We never did find the monster again, but not a single one of us remembers that hunt as a failure. That’s what Smith says is ultimately what turns any loss into a win.
“When you lose, don’t lose the lesson,” Smith says. “The most successful people are quite often the ones who fail the most. But their attitude about failure is different.”
MARK DRURY KNEW FAILURE
Don’t believe it? Talk to whitetail bowhunting expert and call maker Mark Drury. He’ll tell you that he and his brother Terry suffered more than their share of failures.
“Too many stories to tell,” Drury says. “But as we were learning we tried to take any negative and turn it into a positive. We took the approach that if something was working, we did it all the time. If something went wrong, we wouldn’t live in the past and moan about it, we’d try to fix it in the future.”
Consider Drury’s biggest buck ever. For years, he and Terry had been hunting Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. They were successful, but never on the truly huge deer they knew were there.
“We couldn’t figure out why,” Drury recalls. “We were setting up in the areas with the most big-buck sign–down in the creek bottoms and the bottoms of draws. We’d see tracks everywhere in the soft soil and the densest scraping and rubbing activity. But we’d never see the really huge bucks there. More often, they’d peg us looking down from above or wind us and bolt.”
Several years ago, Drury was hunting a bottom where two ridges led to a field. Sign was everywhere. But the 170-inch deer that came off the ridge behind Drury winded him, then spotted him and bolted before he could shoot.
“I had a decent wind–consistent and the right speed–or so I thought,” Drury recalls. “With that hunt I decided that the swirls in bottoms are too unpredictable. Big bucks don’t like them, and I figured neither should I.”
That winter while shed hunting near the ridge behind his old stand, Drury found where the ridge joined a greater ridge, forming something of a T in the woods. The wind was consistent and the slope below led to a food source.
“I put up a stand there solely based on structure,” Drury said. “There was no sign. But I figured that during the rut it had to be a major travel corridor.”
The first time Drury hunted the stand was the morning of November 9.
“Six or seven bucks came through in both directions after dawn,” Drury recalls. “Then the biggest deer of my life came in. He had no idea I was there and walked right in to within five yards.”
Drury’s 10-pointer scored in the 190s. Since then he has made it a hard-and-fast rule to hunt high for big bucks in the Midwest. Result? The brothers have dramatically increased their success.
“The best hunters are the ones who analyze day in and day out, looking for the positive and also willing to admit their failures and learn from them,” Drury says. “Recognizing failure and then changing is the most important thing you can do to succeed.”
THE FORMULA FOR SUCCESS
Attitude counts. The right outlook can turn a devastating misstep into the foundation for tremendous success. Here are the stages in that process.
GNAWING GRIEF So you whiffed on that B&C buck you had pegged at 20 yards and can’t stop thinking about it. Not to worry. Mulling over your screw-up is not only perfectly normal; it also sets the stage for you to learn from your mistake so you do better next time.
GREATER MEANING If you can transition out of your initial depression by finding a positive message in your failure, you’ve just taken a huge step toward moving on to bigger and better things. Olsen did it by saying to himself that he was lucky to see a 230-class deer, even though he didn’t kill it. Lawlor accomplished the same thing by realizing he could help his friends hunt the monster whitetail he messed up on.
REDEDICATION Armed with your newfound positive attitude, rededicate yourself to the cause. Remember the lessons you learned and translate them into action.
RETOOL Methodically examine your equipment, your tactics, your technique and any other aspect of your hunt that contributed to your failure and rebuild it, even if it means starting over from scratch. Not only will you correct concrete problems, but you will also rebuild your confidence in the process.