The Most Underrated Component To Hunting Success

The Most Underrated Component To Hunting Success

Author Ryan McSparran

When hunters talk about being successful on a big game hunt, we like to talk about things like scouting and finding great new spots, dialing in our weapons with the latest shooting accessories, how to manage our license applications to get the best tags, or the importance of helpful gear like optics, boots and layering systems.

All of those things are important, no doubt. They could all make a difference in the outcome of a hunt. But we’d argue that there’s one overlooked factor that’s every bit as important, perhaps even more important. And that’s a hunter’s attitude. You could have a great tag in your pocket. You may be prepared with solid equipment and a detailed game plan. But without the right attitude, even what should be a great hunt can become a disappointment.

Is it an overstatement to say that your mental game is the most important thing you’ll bring on a big game hunt? We don’t think so.

Anyone Can Do It

The best thing about carrying a tough mental attitude on your hunts is that anyone can do it. You don’t need the ability to carry a 100lb. pack. You don’t need to be an ultra marathoner. You don’t need to be able to shoot 700 yards. One of the most important weapons in your arsenal is your mind.

Having the right mental attitude isn’t so much a skill as it is a choice. Stay focused, stay focused on the right things, and you can make a serious impact on the outcome of any adventure. Here are a few ideas to take with you…

Always Be Ready

It doesn’t take very much hunting experience to learn that a single moment can change everything. An entire hunt can turn around in just a second. Even when we know this is true, it’s amazing how quickly we forget it, and how difficult it is to stay in the game mentally on a tough hunt. But one of the best things you can do to be successful is to stay ready. When an opportunity suddenly presents itself, be ready for it.

Just this past fall I was on a muzzleloader mule deer hunt with several friends in mid-September. We were hunting an area that we’ve hunted many times before with good success. It’s open, brushy country and we typically see lots of deer. This year however, the weather was very hot. It could have been the weather or a number of other factors – but for whatever reason, the hunting was very tough.

On the first day of the hunt, I glassed over a ton of country and I didn’t see a single deer. I couldn’t believe it. The second day was almost the same story. Other than a couple of does, we saw hardly any deer and no bucks at all.

The hunt was nothing like my expectations. Because of that, I let myself begin to check out mentally. Because I hadn’t seen anything for two straight days, I let my guard down. And on the third morning, I walked right up on a buck. Neither of us expected to see the other. If I had been hunting with confidence and paying attention, I probably could have had a shot opportunity. But instead, I was caught un-alert and unready.

After glassing for days without much success, it becomes easy to just glaze over the landscape without really looking. Or hiking with your rifle slung over your shoulder instead of in your hand. Pay attention to the little things. Even when things are tough, stay alert and stay ready. If you can focus on the fifth day like you focused on the first, you will undoubtedly improve your chances at success.

Stay Patient

One of the first things we can lose on very difficult hunts is our patience. That might be patience behind the glass. Or it might be patience in waiting for the right shot opportunity. No matter what the situation is, stay mentally strong in avoiding shortcuts or making poor snap decisions.

A number of years ago I was guiding an archery elk hunter from the Midwest. We hunted hard for several days. Each day we were out well before daylight and we didn’t get back to camp until well after dark – which during September means very long daylight hours. We covered a ton of miles and we’d come close a couple of times. But as so often happens in archery hunting, we couldn’t quite get a shot opportunity. By the end of the fourth day, we were tired. I could tell the hunter was beginning to question the possibility of getting within bow range of a bull elk. 

On the fifth day we got out there again in the dark. That morning, we had a bull respond. Quickly moving into position, we got as close as we could. But the bull was 200 yards above us on a wide-open slope. We were out of cover. So the hunter set up behind a lone pine tree near the edge of the clearing. I dropped back into the timber to call. Soon, the bull responded and began making his way down toward us. Then suddenly he went silent. It seemed like ages. Had the bull changed his mind?

After many miles and so much effort, it would have been easy for the hunter to lose patience and sneak a look around that pine tree. But he showed incredible patience and even during that long silence, he didn’t move a muscle. It’s a good thing. If the hunter had moved, the bull, who was still approaching silently, would have seen him and busted while still out of range. Instead, patience paid off. Several minutes later, the bull rounded the corner presenting a perfect, 20-yard broadside shot. The hunter was ready. And we spent the rest of the day celebrating and packing meat.

When you notice your patience running low, take the time to slow down. Glass that hillside the way you know you should. If you do, you just might turn up that buck you’ve been searching for. Don’t take a marginal shot at an animal, even if you feel like you’re not getting any opportunities. A large part of what will make us strong and ethical hunters is staying cool and staying patient in those difficult situations. 

Focus on the Right Things

One thing that can help us maintain patience is to focus on the right things. Why do you enjoy hunting in the first place? If you can’t be happy going home with an unfilled tag, free-range hunting isn’t for you. Hopefully, we’re out there for much more than that.

It’s easy to see how the pressure for “success” can take over. You may have spent a lot of time or money on a hunt. The pressures of social media certainly don’t help. And it’s just natural that after a lot of effort and planning, we’d love to punch that tag! But if you feel that pressure mounting, it’s worth taking a step back and remembering why you’re there.

One year I was guiding someone on his very first elk hunt. He was from Louisiana and had always dreamed of coming out to the Rockies to hunt elk. He said he was on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan when he made up his mind not to put off the dream any longer. As soon as he got home, he called and booked a September archery elk hunt. It was time to make his dream a reality.

On the very first day of the hunt, we were into elk. We set up at the edge of a narrow clearing and began calling. In no time, a bull emerged from the edge of the timber and let out a bugle. He was at 40 yards and the hunter was already at full draw. He let the arrow fly, but we were stunned when the arrow sailed clean over the bull’s back. The bull spun around and disappeared.

The hunter was obviously shaken. His first day of hunting he’d just had a close encounter with a bull. But he’d missed on the opportunity he had waited so long for. In the excitement, he’d simply used the wrong pin on his sight. I told him to shake it off. It was only the first day. And as it turned out we had several more exciting encounters that week. It was a fun hunt by any measure – except he never got another shot opportunity.

On the last afternoon, we were sitting together on a hillside watching a beautiful sunset over the wilderness. To my surprise, he suddenly said that he was glad he missed that bull on the first day. “If I had killed that bull and gone home, I wouldn’t have seen everything else that we’ve experienced this week.” He said he wouldn’t go back and make that trade. I was impressed at his attitude.

When you’re out there, don’t forget to stop and look up at what’s around you. Watch a fox bouncing around a ground squirrel burrow. Listen to a canyon wren singing. Enjoy the time away with family or friends. Sometimes just shifting your focus can do wonders for your attitude. 

Stay Positive

When you quit believing, you’ll quit trying. On a long, hard hunt it can be a challenge to remain positive. But one of the most important things you can do is to hunt like you really believe it’s going to happen. This helps you stay focused and ready – when that opportunity happens, you won’t have your head down moping. You’ll be ready to capitalize on it!

It’s easy to be positive on the first day of a hunt. What about the third day or the fourth day? Especially if you’re not seeing game or if conditions seem to be against you, it can be difficult to stay positive. If you quit on yourself or begin telling yourself that it probably won’t happen, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll stop paying attention, and you’ll miss out on opportunities.

In 2018 one of my friends had a good archery elk tag. We hunted our tails off for six straight days. We’d come very close but hadn’t quite connected. On the final day of our hunt, we heard a half-hearted bugle right at daylight. We guessed that it came from a stand of timber about a mile below us. But we couldn’t get the bull to respond again to pinpoint his location. There was nothing left to do but proceed with total confidence.

We made a wide semi-circle to get on the downwind side of the timber where we guessed he had been. Even if he was still there, the bull didn’t seem interested in responding to calls. Still, we took the time to get the wind and the situation just right. As soon as we were in position, we started calling.

At first, there was no response to a few soft cow calls. So I let out a lazy bugle. Immediately the bull bugled back – and he was close! One more bugle was enough to make him mad. Before we knew it, there were ivory-tipped tines coming through the undergrowth and he came screaming all the way in. The bull passed by my friend at 20 yards, who was at full draw and waiting. The last day, final effort paid off!

It’s sometimes helpful to remind ourselves that a hunting trip almost never goes as planned. Conditions change. Animals don’t read the script. Whatever the case is, be prepared for the unexpected. Be ready to roll with each unexpected challenge. If you can stay positive and hunt every single day with confidence, you’ll greatly increase your chances at success.

Don’t Let Letdowns Let You Down

One of the most difficult things in hunting is coming back from a letdown like a missed shot or a botched opportunity. Or maybe another hunter just killed an animal in your favorite spot on public land. When you’ve worked your tail off for a single opportunity and then you miss it, it can feel like that was your only shot. 

When that happens, negativity can easily take over. You lose confidence, you quit trying and you won’t be paying attention. Again, this quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

On the other hand, if you can come back from that letdown and begin hunting with confidence again, things could easily turn around. No matter how much you might feel like, “That was my opportunity,” don’t let it be true. Continue to hunt with focus and with confidence and you could make something happen.

In 2016 I was mule deer hunting and missed what should have been a golden opportunity. I had just missed a shot at a good buck and was feeling stupid. It was mid-morning and already getting hot. Plus, I’d fired a shot, so I may have spooked anything else in the area. It felt like I wouldn’t get another opportunity that morning.

Feeling dejected, I climbed up to a high point where I could spend the afternoon glassing. No sooner had I sat down, I spotted a different buck just a few hundred yards away. I quickly and easily closed a bit of the distance and made the shot count. Less than an hour after my miss, I had a buck on the ground. Even better, one of my friends killed a buck the next day in the very same canyon.

So the next time you blow a stalk or miss an opportunity don’t assume that was your only shot. Even if another hunter kills an animal in your honey hole, don’t assume the game has been blown out of the area. Rarely is that true. Big game animals will return to the areas where they feel safe – probably sooner than you think. Don’t think, “It will never happen now.” If that’s your attitude, it probably won’t happen. The best way to find success is to come back from the letdown and continue hunting with positivity and confidence. 

Be Comfortable in Uncomfortable Situations

Finally, mental toughness also comes in the form of being content in uncomfortable situations. Sometimes, the most successful hunters are the ones who simply show up. Again, the great thing about mental toughness is that anyone can have it. You don’t have to be the most skilled hunter, the biggest or strongest. You just need a bit of grit and the willingness to stick it out. That will go a long way toward success.

When it comes to adverse weather conditions, quality gear does of course help. In tough conditions, having the right layering system, good boots, good rain gear and a good tent and sleep system makes a big difference. But assuming you have adequate gear to keep you safe and functioning in the elements, it’s still a mental game. When you’re in your sleeping bag in in sub-freezing temps, it’s really tempting not to get up and make an hour-long hike in the dark to get to that primo glassing spot. Will you do what it takes to put yourself in the best position for success?

In 2014, my friends and I had planned a November mule deer hunt. It was a backcountry hunt, requiring us to backpack in about four miles. As the hunt drew near, the weather forecast looked worse and worse. The high on opening day was projected to be ten degrees. The low that night would be below zero with wind chills as cold as -30.

We may have been crazy. But prepared with adequate gear, we packed in as planned. It wasn’t easy, but it was a memorable adventure! We boiled water and slept with hot water bottles in our sleeping bags – both to keep us warm and to keep our water from freezing. In the evenings we actually had a great time around the campfire. And we all filled our deer tags! Not because we’re very great hunters, but simply because we were the ones who showed up.

When it’s cold and when it’s dark, it can be difficult to pry yourself out of your sleeping bag in the morning. But the more you can get comfortable in those uncomfortable situations, the greater your chances at success. Get out there before daylight. Stay out until dark. Just have the mental toughness to show up, and you’ll be putting yourself ahead of the curve.

Hunting Gear for the Adventure

If you have questions about getting ready for your next hunt, please let us know. The gear we carry here in our store are items that we personally use and trust in the field. We’d be happy to answer your questions and help you find the right items for your next adventure.

Remember that one of your best weapons is your mind! Stay positive, have fun and we hope you have a great hunting season ahead!

By Ryan McSparran


  • Great article. People too often forget it’s called “hunting” because it is unpredictable, otherwise it would be called shopping. I hunt as often as I can but don’t often fill my tags. That’s ok. It’s the memories made that make the hunt.

    - Bryce Marshall
  • This is one of the best articles I have ever read. At 55 years of age I have been hunting for over 40 years and now more than ever discuss this issue of “mental attitude” quite frequently. I will pass this info on to my hunting partners. Thank you Ryan for a great article. Stay safe.

    - George Everett

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