By Aaron Farley

The spring 2013 turkey season is the first hunting season in quite some time that I have come up empty handed. Not filling one turkey tag this year, and coming up with a big fat goose egg on the Man vs Animals scoreboard, is a little hard on the ego. Add to that, I am a self-competitive kind of guy. If I am hitting the skeet course, even by myself, I will keep score and try to improve every time. If I am shooting practice arrows in the yard, I will track mistakes to improve my consistency. I am constantly competing with myself. This competitive nature of mine drives me to constantly analyze, looking for ways to improve or lessons to learn.

Why couldn’t I close the deal this year? What factors prevented it? How much control over those factors did I have, and what factors were purely external? Should I have sacrificed more to make it happen? As I think back on the recent season, it is easy to find excuses. The hard thing is to take those excuses, own them, and change what I can to improve. That said, I generally try to spend some time after each season doing this.

I once read an old Confucius quote (he’s an ancient Chinese philosopher) talking about how to be a better hunter:

           “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and Third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Ok, so maybe Confucius wasn’t actually talking about hunting in this quote. Nonetheless, I think applying this logic in my approach to hunting can provide me wisdom as a hunter. Now that the turkey vest is hung, the calls are stored away, and the field tips are back on the arrows, I’m taking some time to reflect on the season. What things should I imitate next time, and what should I do differently? How can I take the “bitter” experience of an empty bag for the season, and turn it into wisdom? Here are some examples from my own reflection back on this turkey season, and maybe they can help you evaluate your own future hunting seasons as you challenge yourself to always be improving. With deer hunting seasons fast approaching, this is a great process to begin practicing!

REFLECTION – What Happened

As I reflect on the season, I want to get all the details and info together so that the rest of the evaluation process is correct. What were the limiting factors? What stats should I gather? What was unique about this season apart from previous ones?

Weather – This year the weather was an adversary. Like many guys, I look at hunting season through the lens of the weekends. Working a full-time job, and taking care of a growing family, generally means that my hunting will be on Saturdays and Sunday afternoons. Therefore, a nine week season essentially becomes an 18 day season. Of my nine weekends, five or six were full on storming weather. In aggravation with the issue, and desperation for an opportunity, I actually sat out in the pouring rain for several hours one day until my hands were so numb I could hardly grasp my keys from my pocket. I was able to take one day off work to turkey hunt, and combined with three nice weekends, I had four days of turkey hunting in good weather this year. Of those four days, I saw turkey on three of them, I located gobblers on two, and encountered Toms one time, but couldn’t get close enough.

Access – All of my turkey hunting this year was done on public land. Opening weekend I was prepared to hunt a spot where we scouted, found good turkey sign and heard gobbling before the season opened. As I arrived at the location, the little trailhead where I planned to enter was packed with trucks. Apparently it was not such a secret. I circled around the south side of the area hoping the extra hunting pressure would push the birds down towards me, but to no avail. Access to land and birds was more of an issue this year than in previous years. Last year I hunted this same area all season and only saw one other hunter. This year I saw four in two weekends. Last year, I encountered birds several times on this public tract, and saw an abundance of turkey sign. This year, I saw a lot of boot prints, and very few turkey tracks and dust bowls.

Time – This is the great killer of all men’s goals, a lack of time. The company I work for is extremely busy right now and therefore getting off work to hunt has been difficult. At home, I have a wife and three young boys; leaving them to enjoy myself can feel selfish. Thankfully, they are supportive and enjoy being part of the hunting process with me – I am blessed. I also volunteer with an organization that helps single parent youth, and serve at my church every Sunday. Add to that helping with the chickens, the garden, house/auto maintenance, etc., and hunting time can easily be whittled away.

IMITATION – What Worked

Now that the situation is framed in my head, I think about what worked and what did not. What will I do again next year, and what will I change?

Weather – As much as the weather is out of my control, my preparedness for inclement weather is not. My layering system for rain did not work. I was prepared for a light intermittent shower, but not for sitting in the rain. I have a friend who killed a turkey the afternoon after the pouring rain that sent me packing. If I could have toughed it out another hour or two, I may have left with a new hunting story to exaggerate. I will be changing up my layering and waterproofing system for next year.

Access – I made a mistake this year only scouting in one area. I had a few different locations, but they were all accessed through the same trailhead into some public land. The next time I arrive to find the entrance looking like a parking lot, I will have a more informed fall-back plan. Scrambling to figure out a new approach 30 minutes before daylight is not an experience I want to repeat. Next year I will try to have multiple locations scouted, and hopefully a private one somewhere. All in all, this kind of difficulty will keep me coming back. It’s the challenge of finding the birds, especially when there are so many factors against you that makes it hunting.

Time – There is not much I can change here. Most of my time constraints are out of my control as well, and I’m okay with that. At the end of the day, I’m a hunter. If I can hunt more next year, I will try to make that happen. If this season of my life means a little less time in the woods for now, that’s okay too. I want to be out there and would hunt everyday if I was able. Hopefully next year I can plan ahead and force some more free time into my busy schedule.

EXPERIENCE – What Mattered

Not all bad experiences have to be bitter teachers. If I can learn from what happened, and repeat what worked, then even the mistakes will matter. As I look towards the upcoming seasons, what really matters from what I’ve learned?

Challenges – From bad weather, to competing for access, to limited time, there are a lot of challenges that come with hunting. Gear can fail, plans can fall apart, and there are any number of things going against the hunter. Somehow, it is the challenge that draws me back. In three seconds I can go from a season with a big fat zero next to it, to the season where I killed the biggest gobbler of my life. So much is unsure about the whole process that we have to experience it to find out how it ends. If not for the challenge, I would not enjoy it. So rather than complain about the challenges, I want to embrace them and own them as part of the process.

Appreciation – It is easy to dilute seasons and hunts down to numbers. I killed X number of deer last year, or we hunted X number of days. Instead, I want to appreciate the experience. If something I love and enjoy as much as hunting can ever be tagged with “success” or “fail,” then I’m missing it. The success is getting out there, learning from nature, and finding an outlet for the adventure in my soul. The only fail I can have is not to go in the first place. I appreciate the hunt, and even with an empty bag at the end of the season – I would do it all again. I appreciate the experience.

Perspective – There is a certain level of humility that comes from striking out. If every season ended with big trophies and numbers, the hunt may become about something different. Being forced to face the empty season has helped me remember what matters most. My faith, family and purpose in this life are what matters. If I sacrifice those things for some feathers or antlers, I’m missing the point. In the proper perspective, my success in the woods is not always measured by what I bring home in the bed of my truck, but in the depths of my heart.

The season did not end the way I wanted. Now I have an opportunity. I can either wallow in my hurt ego and self-pity, or I can learn from this and walk away with something that may be more valuable than a bagged bird – character. Times of defeat and failure cost us the most, and therefore present the greatest opportunity to improve.

How do you determine success after a hunting season? Do you make it a priority to reflect back on past seasons and learn from them?

– Aaron Farley,