Michael Pearce: Buck fever is real — and maybe treatable

11/23/2013 4:58 PM

11/23/2013 4:59 PM

The first arrow passed just over the buck’s back, a result of my bad range estimation in the Cowley County canyon. I have no clue into what county, or even area code, I fired the second, third or fourth arrows.

Though decades ago, I remember being totally rattled. My entire body was shaking. Normally-stable arms had turned to jello.

Several times, my tugging and twisting pulled the arrow off the bow’s rest. My skills were gone and I simply fired the bow wildly as soon as I hit full-draw.

Five minutes after my Waterloo in 40 years of bowhunting, I was still quivering so badly I couldn’t climb from the tree to try and collect my arrows.

At least when it comes to buck fever, I’m far from alone.

My friend Ed Schulte, one of the few hunters who will share their embarrassing stories, tells of emptying his dad’s .30/30 when some does passed during his first season. Unfortunately,, Ed kept forgetting to pull the trigger and simply levered every round from the rifle without firing a shot.

Ten years ago in Clark County, comedian Jeff Foxworthy found himself looking at the biggest whitetail he’d seen. On a small buck, and about 27 inches wide, the antlers looked like they belonged on a bull moose. Eventually getting a green light from a cameraman, his first shot kicked up dirt several yards from the bewildered buck.

He later said he had forgotten to look through the rifle’s scope when he pulled the trigger. Unlike my bowhunting debacle, Jeff’s second shot was perfect.

As old as mankind

As a bowhunter of 36 seasons, John Simmering knows the feelings of buck fever. With a doctorate in psychology, he also understands its cause. He said it’s far from just a modern malady.

“It’s part of our hunter/gatherer history, a stress response,” said Simmering, of Hesston. “Over 95 percent of our history as Homo sapiens we were hunters, but also prey when we were dealing with lions and tigers and bears. It’s our brain getting our body ready to run like heck and jump on something and kill it, or run like heck to keep from being eaten.”

Even with the ease of getting food today, and the rarity of being eaten by another animal, Simmering said this stress response — also called the fight or flight response — is largely a subconscious reaction. It comes, he said, from some the deepest, most primative parts of the human brain that developed long before the days of stone pointed spears, bows and arrows, gun powder, grocery stores and drive-through fast food.

“It’s just part of who we are,” Simmering said.

Though buck fever often seems to hit at once, Simmering said it’s part of an ongoing progression. While hunting, the brain is thinking of possible action to come, and when the action gets hot it often floods the body’s muscles with hormones to get peak amounts of strength and/or speed. He said the jolt of energy reacting to the stress of possibly performing, or succumbing to, predation pulls energy from other functions not needed at the time, such as appetite and digestion.

Historically, the surge of hormones led to someone maybe jabbing a flint-tipped spear into a giant cave bear with a little extra power and speed. The latter of the two could certainly be handy if the hunter needed to out-run the understandably infuriated bear.

Occasionally such adrenalin charges still save some human lives, like when fighting in a combat situation or escaping a potentially deadly situation — such as kicking the door off a burning car with super-human strength.

But for the modern hunter, too often that energy is left with nowhere to go. Simmering said that’s when too much arousal can occur and the body ends up with the shakes and/or fast breathing.

A variety of reactions

One of the fascinating things about buck fever is that it can be so wonderfully inconsistent. The season prior to my Cowley County meltdown, by far my worst to date, I’d drawn my bow on four animals and made great hits on them all.

Some of my biggest reactions have been made after a good shot, and I guess it’s caused by the bottled-up energy needing to bust loose. Almost every post-shot reaction has been centered in one limb, my left leg.

I have no clue why, but my leg starts shaking, bobbing and swaying like an Elvis Presley gyration. Sometimes it shakes my entire body like a jackhammer and I can do nothing to stop it.

Lefty has gotten so out of control, all I can do is sit there, laugh at myself and enjoy the ride until it stops. Sometimes that’s five seconds. Sometimes it’s five minutes. Bugling elk and hard-gobbling turkeys can be as unnerving.

Though not as intense, I can feel my pulse quicken on a firearms hunt for does and even when sneaking on a squirrel in a hickory tree. I’ve had buck fever when a whitetail doe is within bow range, and even had it a few times watching an approaching deer that I had no desire to shoot.

Sometimes, it doesn’t happen at all.

Two weeks ago, I put my archery permit on a heavy-horned mule deer in western Kansas after a nice stalk. I shot the buck with relative calmness. Maybe it was because I burned any added energy during the stalk, or because I had several minutes to prepare myself as I waited for the buck to eventually stand.

Also, for some reason, from the second I saw the buck bedded in the distance to the split-second when I released the bow’s string, I always had confidence and calmness the deer was mine. It wouldn’t have hurt my feelings if my left leg would have been gyrating so much I had to wait a few minutes to go to the downed buck.

Simmering said buck fever can be somewhat controlled. He recommends deep breathing, taking air in through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth.

“That floods oxygen into your brain and your circulatory system,” he said. “That helps regulate what’s building up in your muscles.”

And some, he said, are just genetically predisposed to not be impacted by the chemical surges. To them, shooting an arrow or a bullet at an animal is as unemotional as selecting a package of steaks at the store.

I hunt for many reasons — the challenges, the gathering of my own meat, the healthiness of that meat, the satisfaction of self-sufficient, the time I get to spend outdoors and the excitement. For me, the added energy towards the end of a hunt seems to makes every element more enjoyable.

The act of hunting and shooting a wild animal has been a big deal for mankind for hundreds of centuries, and I think it should feel that way.

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