Unlike the virus and fever we are currently concerned with, there’s an ailment that specifically targets hunters and can strike at any time: buck fever. I don’t hear that expression as much as I used to, but I know the malady is still alive and thriving, especially in deer season.
The dictionaries define buck fever as “a nervousness felt by a young hunter when they first sight game.” I guess that’s a safe definition, but most hunters know there is more to it.
First, the phenomenon is not exclusive to young hunters. Even highly experienced old timers are not immune, and most of us are afflicted more than once in our hunting careers. Symptoms can be numerous and can include uncontrollable shaking, irregular breathing, problems speaking, “freezing up” and more. Most of this is caused by a big shot of adrenaline and has long been recognized as a real problem, the phrase being commonly used back in the 1840s.
In spite of the name, the problem doesn’t always pertain to bucks, or even deer in general. It’s true that a young hunter spends a lot of time anticipating and talking about that first buck, and there is no doubt real anxiety when the deer is finally sighted. I’ll be the first to admit, however, that deer are not the only game animals that can cause this condition.
One of my most embarrassing moments in hunting occurred while hunting with my dad. We were in the Marshburg area, and had just headed into a spot that we thought might produce a turkey for us. We also scouted for deer sign while we were there. We had only gone 80 or 100 yards into the woods and were still discussing how to proceed, when Dad pointed straight ahead, saying, “Rog, look.”
Right in front of us within easy shotgun range, was a long line of turkeys walking almost perfectly single-file from our left to right. I know it was expected that I should shoot, especially since Dad was still pointing and saying “shoot!” I had the bead of my shotgun on a hen trotting between trees, but got distracted by a big gobbler who ran past the bird I had aimed at. Then they kept coming, at least a dozen, and I kept aiming but not shooting. I was completely flustered by all those “easy” targets at once. I wasn’t a kid when that happened and I fancied myself an accomplished hunter with lots of experience with game, including turkeys and deer. Dad looked at me and simply said, “Couldn’t get a clear shot, huh?” Right, Dad.
Buck fever is often viewed as part of the hunting experience that can later be referred to with good-natured joking about the bug-eyed guy staring with open mouth, frozen, while the trophy maybe stares back before darting off, gone forever. The opposite reaction to the fever can often be seen, as well. Instead of being temporarily paralyzed, the otherwise level-headed, calm hunter throws his gun up and yanks ferociously on the trigger, probably forgetting to take off the safety. He finally gets the gun to fire, missing by only three or four feet.
Looking back on several decades of hunting, I can remember a few classic examples I witnessed. One incident happened in New York state, back when we had to use shotguns with slugs for deer. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a barrage of shots being fired in the general direction of one or more deer until the pump guns and/or autoloaders went empty. Throw in a little buck fever and things could get pretty hectic (and profitable for the ammo companies).
On one occasion, I was sitting peacefully on a stump, having a snack. A shot was fired nearby; close enough to make me spin in that direction just in time to hear a whole series of shots from the same gun, fired with unusually impressive speed. One slug was apparently chasing another out of that barrel. After the shooting stopped, I carefully worked my way in that direction to see the results. I soon spotted the shooter, stuffing more shells into his Ithaca pump. Not seeing any deer lying around, I asked if he might have hit one and if he needed any help. As he fumbled to get the last new shells into his gun, he explained that there had been a “whole bunch of deer” but he didn’t hit any. He then commented that by next year, he would buy an automatic instead of his old pump gun. I silently hoped I wouldn’t be around for those fireworks.
I don’t want to give the impression that this chaos only happens in firearms season, but I’ll save a few archery stories for another time.
We can make efforts to control some of the effects of this pesky problem. According to a study done at Texas A&M University, they suggest taking deep breaths when you get excited and put in lots of practice with your weapon and train until your use of all your equipment becomes natural behavior, like riding a bike or driving your car to work.
On the other hand, what fun would hunting be without the excitement and adrenaline rush? Like one old-timer told me long ago, “If I ever get so that I’m not excited when I see a deer, I’ll quit hunting.”
(Roger Sager, an Era outdoor columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)