- James Swan
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Deer hunters across the US are beginning to check gear, target practice, and plan hunts, just about everywhere, except California where the A-Zone rifle season opens August 14.
There is another type of hunting preparation that not enough hunters do, mental preparation, which is now recognized as crucial to successful performance in all other sports. It's time to get with the program.
I grew up on a cigar-shaped Michigan island that bi-sects the Detroit River as it empties into Lake Erie, the Great Lake the Chippewa say has the spirit of a panther. Fifty feet from the front door of the house there was a canal with rock bass, yellow perch, largemouths, and northern pike, and a boat to go exploring out into the marshes of Lake Erie. On the opposite bank of the canal there was a 50-acre island, Round Island, that was a duck hunting club my father helped found.
One of my earliest memories is going out duck hunting with my father in the marshes along the shores of Round Island. I was four or five. It was a spectacular fall afternoon with a crisp blue sky, cool breezes, and the sun was a glowing golden ball hanging low in the western sky. As the sun set, waves of chocolate brown black ducks with silvery underwings and bright red legs came streaming out of Lake Erie heading into the marsh to feed for the night. When my father brought one down with his Winchester 12-gauge, it was like an act of magic. I was hooked for life.
Also on Round Island there was a 10-acre mature oak-hickory woodlot that covered the south end of the island. My father knew the woods well for the family had owned and farmed Round Island before the Great Depression.
He saw that I liked hunting, so he began to take me on walks in the woods in the evening after work. One night when we got to the woods he told me to stop, close my eyes and listen. In the distance, the leaves rustled. "What animal is that?" he asked me.
It sounded like someone stepping on a pile of leaves, then another, and another.
I can't remember what I guessed, but I was wrong.
"That's a squirrel, feeding on the ground," he said. "They hop and land on all four feet and are noisy when they land. They can get away with being so noisy because they can run up a tree to get away. A rabbit is more quiet when he's feeding, because their legs are longer, their feet are covered with fur and their stride is different; two feet and two feet. If they run, the sounds will be faster than a squirrel.
Deer walk quietly. You don't hear every footstep, but they sometimes break twigs and branches. If you jump one, he runs off making a loud racket as they crash through brush.
The animal that makes the second-most noise walking in the woods is the dog. He gets his food from a dish and has forgotten how to hunt for food. He has learned that noise does not matter, and so every step he takes is noisy. Except, for man, of course, unless he knows better. To be successful as a hunter, you have to have to outsmart the game and walk with no more sound than the wind makes."
Like all sports, hunting success is ultimately a mental game after you get the right gear, and find the right place. My father called the art of how to disappear into natural areas, walk silently, spot animals, get close to game, and harvest it "Woodsmarts."
Today, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner calls the same skills the "Naturalist Intelligence" -- developing sensory awareness, mental mapping, spatial awareness, and perceptual discrimination skills that enrich one's time in nature because you perceive more and understand things. Such skills are not normally taught in our schools, and have not even been recognized as a unique type of intelligence until the last decade, but they are a touchstone of being a true conservationist that arises from enjoying nature and getting close to wildlife.
Teach the skills of the Naturalistic Intelligence to kids, as well as learning them as a hunter will provide more enjoyment of being in the field, whether hunting or just watching wildlife.
Denying one sense makes a person more acutely aware of others to compensate, which is why there are so many good blind musicians. Closing my eyes forced me to use my sense of hearing more, and I began to learn a whole new language of the woods.
A few weeks later we went to the woods after dark. My father told me to close my eyes and walk on the dirt road that ran through the woods, which was a two-rut trail with a grassy raised median in the middle. At first, I kept getting off the road.
"You've got learn to have eyes in the bottom of your feet if you want to walk quietly," he said. "Concentrate on the soles of your feet. Feel the ground. It's bare, there are a few stones, and there is hump in the middle of the road."
I found that I could keep on the road by feeling the slight rise in the middle of the dirt road.
Next, we moved off the road. With my eyes closed, my assignment became to learn to feel the ground underfoot as I put each foot down gently. It quickly became obvious why moccasins make for quiet walking the woods because you can feel everything under foot. After I began to get a little better at moving quietly, my father challenged me to see who could walk more quietly.
I could barely hear him. I sounded like a squirrel.
A few days later, he invented a game he called, "Predator and Prey." At first he had me mimic the sounds of other animals moving through the woods, so I could sound like a squirrel, a rabbit, a deer, and a pheasant scratching for food under leaves.
The person who was "it" became the prey, while the other person became the predator. We turned our backs and separated by about 20 yards. Then both closed our eyes. We both had to keep moving, and it was the goal of the predator to get close enough to the prey to touch them. The prey could not run, unless they could hear the predator approaching. The challenge was how to walk quietly.
The key to moving silently, my father taught me, is to learn that when you take a step, plant the outside of the ball of the lead foot first, carefully testing out the ground before your roll the foot to flat and put your full weight on it.
If you walk on your heels, like people do most of the time, you don't feel out the ground first before putting your weight down and you are much more likely to make noise crunching something like a branch and not be able to avoid doing so.
If you are in rocky terrain, or snow, you will need boots. If not, the best shoes to heighten your stalking ability are moccasins or Vibram Five Fingers shoes, which come in camo patterns. Practicing quiet walking in stocking feet or bare feet is also good.
If you have not experimented with quiet walking, now is the time. Walking this way slows you down, but when you can master it, your movements will become like the stealth of a predatory animal. It also enables you to quickly stop in the stride should you see the animal look up toward you.
As a role model for how you should walk, I nominate the large wading birds: cranes, herons and egrets. Hunters on land and in shallow water, these birds are masters of stealth, patience and execution, just like you should be.
To develop your quiet-walking ability as well as improve conditioning, agility and sense of balance, practicing tai chi can be very helpful. Tai chi is not some "new age" thing. Tai chi is a martial art, as well an ancient exercise system. The movements are based on watching how animals like cranes move. It is estimated that at least 2.3 million Americans practice tai chi.
Tai chi is recommended by many physicians to not only tone muscles and improve balance, but cultivate an attentive, relaxed state of mind, which are very helpful to manage excitement and be a more effective hunter. Classes and DVD's are readily available. It's best to take a class as you can get feedback on your forms from a teacher.
If you want to learn more about tai chi, check the the National Institute of Health website. If you have a medical condition or have not exercised in a while, consult with your health care provider before starting tai chi.
And of course, if you are interested in more rigorous training, other martial arts have many applications to hunting success. Personally, I've studied tai chi, as well as hapkido, judo, aikido and bushido for almost 40 years. I draw from all these forms to create a personal daily workout of 10-15 minutes that I can do anyplace, including a hotel room if I am traveling.
James Swan who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.
A variety of physical and mental exercises will have hunters ready for deer season