The first time you line up to take a shot on an animal is a tough vision to forget. For many of us who have suffered (or still do) from shot anxiety, we never see the animal drop because we never even pull the trigger.
I’m one of those hunters who hesitated—and consequently missed my opportunity—on my first archery elk. The first animal to come into bow range was a small calf. My dad was behind me, calling, and it came bounding out only about 10 yards away, making a ruckus. It stood broadside for a full 30 seconds before it ran off. It would have been an easy shot. My dad thought I passed on the shot due to the animal’s size, but the truth was I froze up. I’d never had to respond under pressure before. I’d never had an elk come that close before. As much as I wanted to take that calf as my first archery kill, I didn’t even raise my bow.
I wish I could tell you the next opportunity I got was a winner, but on that one I only had the confidence to draw, not shoot. Hunting with my dad I have had numerous opportunities for shots—some really good ones. Close, broadside, not spooky. He can call elk in like none other. My second opportunity was a huge bull who came in slowly and bellowing. I saw the whites of his eyes while he was standing broadside 20 yards away. I still kick myself for that one: I never figured out why I didn’t shoot. I just always seemed to find something wrong with the opportunity. There was a branch in the way. It was still walking. It was so big I froze up.
I’ve talked to many other hunters who have experienced shot anxiety. It’s by no means rare or unusual. For everyone who has had this experience or continues to struggle with it, I have one bit of advice, though it might sound cliché: Just do it. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, just mentally commit to taking the shot, then let your instincts take over. I often think of the famous Wayne Gretzky quotation, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
And if you don’t do it—if you get hung up and miss your moment—don’t get frustrated. Every experience you have with an animal in range will build your confidence until it inevitably leads to that first shot. Sometimes overcoming shot anxiety is just a matter of developing familiarity with those high-adrenaline moments and leaning on your experience.
When I took my first archery bull (after those false starts I mentioned), I had streamlined my thought process. It came into range. I saw it was a legal bull, lined up, thought “wait until…no, no more waiting,” and let it fly. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I still get emotional when I relive that moment in my head. Just like you won’t forget your first missed opportunity, you definitely won’t forget your first successful shot.
Hunting gets your heart pounding. That’s one of the many reasons we love the sport. Whatever you decide to hunt, and whatever method of take you decide to use, caution is a good thing to have. Just keep in mind that too much of it can hold you back. Every experience you have with an animal in range, whether you resolve to pull the trigger or not, is an experience you can build upon. Trust yourself! Give yourself some credit; you know what’s good. It is time to prove it.