The Art of Assessment

By Earl Taylor

Fred Remington, the famous cowboy artist from the late 1800’s, once wrote describing a grueling 51-mile canoe trip down the Oswegatchie River in New York, “The zest of the whole thing lies in not knowing the difficulties beforehand.” For Remington, a big bend in the river did not bother him; he found it exhilarating; the unknown became a driving force that kept him paddling.

The unseen and the unknown can trip up a hunter. Timbers and hunting ground evolve throughout the season. One day there is standing corn, the next day there is black dirt; the food source is plowed under. Much of what makes a successful hunter is his ability to adjust strategy in the process of the season. The skill to assess is invaluable when in the field.

A dictionary definition of assessing include words like evaluate, discern, and gauge; often as a hunter, we rely on our memories to determine what might work this year in the field rather that processing the current situation. With deer hunting, no two years are exactly alike. Topography seldom changes. Ridges stay ridges, and valleys stay valleys. However, crops, habitat, and hunting pressure change regularly. CRP ground switches to row crop. The neighbor leases his hunting property to an aggressive rookie hunter. The farmer clear-cuts a weedy, brushy draw and begin to pasture your once favorite bedding area.

I discovered a honey hole of a funnel a few years ago while hunting mule deer in South Dakota. On a recent trip back to Missouri breaks, I set up my blind along my favorite trails that led from a nearby food plot into the head of a cedar-filled ravine. I had been dreaming of this spot since killing a Pope and Young muley from my blind the year before. However, when I saw that the food plot was head grain rather than corn, I knew my chances were slim. I was right; I did fill my doe tag from the blind, but I needed to find a more palatable food source for a September buck. I found it when I found an unpicked beanfield.

Companies who do not assess and adjust go out of business; their business stalls and they become stuck in a survival mode. Think of Kodak. The hunter who does not adjust and change can become less successful and will eventually die sitting in the same tree stand as he did in the 90’s.

Assessment is using all history and looking at the familiar with a pair of fresh eyes. We usually do our best assessment when we get a new piece of hunting ground. We study topography, the food, the habitat, and we hypersee what could become of this new hunting property.

Hyperseeing is best described when Gustave Borglum’s housekeeper asked him, “Mr. Borglum, how did you know that Abe Lincoln’s face was in that rock. Borglum was capable of hyperseeing all four presidents as he created Mt. Rushmore. You too need that same ability when you assess your hunting ground.

In my head, I have a hunting strategy all laid out way in advance. If the wind is from the southeast, I know I want to spend my morning sitting in a blind along the beanfield. If the wind is from the northwest, I know I will sit in a locust tree stand on an outside timber corner. If it is from the southwest, I will walk the half mile into Bob’s stand, near a timbered ridge.

However, if my plan does not produce action or sightings, I change my ways A.S.A.P. A good strategy is only good if it produces results. I approach my hunting technique much the same way I approach my work; I am always pushing, evaluating, revising and tweaking. The staff who works with me have gotten used to being moved and prodded and adjusted. The organization I have led for over 30 years has grown because of my constant attention to details and changes in guest’s taste and interests. Organizations who settle into routine, dry up and become insignificant.

Insignificant hunters eat their tags rather than deer loin. Lackadaisical, complacent hunters, have more stories about deer sightings across the field, rather than heart pumping stories of up-and-personal encounters with a love-sick buck. Give me a buck at 15 yards any day over a buck sighting at 600 yards.

The investment firms always state, “Future returns are not dependent on past performance.” They want to make sure investors understand that the future could be different than the past. This ideology works for financial savvy investors, and it works for the savvy hunter who is always looking to find the edge over the instincts and alertness of a mature buck. Looking forward always produces more positive results rather than looking backward; forward thinking hunters innovate.

In 1985, I shot a Pope and Young buck on November 15th. In 1986, I returned to the same tree on the same day and hit another trophy buck. I was on to something. November 15th and this particular tree seemed to go together. Two years of success began to develop a pattern. I hunted that tree for many years and continued to have success. There was always corn or beans within reach of my stand. When a housing development began to spring up nearby, my most favorite ridge dried up – I moved on.

Ran Charan writes in his book, The Attacker’s Advantage: Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities, “What I have found is that those who are best prepared to lead now and in the future in this era of big bends in the road have the following skills and abilities”:

1. “Perceptual acuity is your human radar for seeing through the fog of uncertainty so you can act before others do.” It works in business, and it works in the field – the ability to see what others don’t see and see it before others do. My friend, Dave Thomas could see the unseen. Consistently, he would arrive with his out-of-state license in his pocket, and after just a day of scouting, he would place his stands in places I would never consider having a stand. Year after year, he harvested a mature buck because he was capable of reading signs beyond the norm. He had perceptual acuity.

2. “A mind-set to see opportunity in uncertainty.” Coffee shop talk usually ends up in grumbling and complaining about all of the obstacles hunters are experiencing. The rut is not hot. The farmer plows the cornfield. Cows are moved into the picked beanfield. Hunters who find windows of opportunities in uncertainty are problem solvers. Problem solvers create certainty out of uncertainty; they adjust, adapt, and change their ways.

3. “The ability to see a new path forward and commit to it.” Winston Churchill said, “Never, never give up,” as he spoke to students during World War II. Churchill committed himself to victory, and so must the hunter. Adjust, and then adjust some more until you have the right set up. And once you become set, be willing to reset, because next week will not be like last week.

4. “Adeptness in managing the transition to the new path.” There are days when you are not shooting well. There will be days when you have switched out broadheads or changed the weight of your bullets. Becoming a better hunter does not happen just because you changed your stand site or adjusted your equipment. Becoming a successful, consistent hunter is about continually changing style and technique along with improving shooting proficiency and sign reading. Tag-filling hunters are learners.

5. “Skill in making the organization steerable and agile.” When a hunter is steerable and agile, his mind is open to trying new things. Donny Morris, a friend of mine kept seeing a good buck near a fence line, but there was not a big enough tree to place a stand; instead of complaining, he grabbed a shovel and dug a pit to sit in. He collected on his archery buck the first night sitting in his hole at 15 yards.

Charan is correct. Those who anticipate what is up around the bend and adjust ahead of others, wins. Those who approach hunting with timidity and reserve, usually end up settling for something less than they desired. It works with deer, with turkeys, and with elk.

Much of life is full of uncertainties – bends in the road that need anticipated and prepared for by each of us. Farms sell, cities encroach, developments flourish, food sources change, and hunting pressure increases or decreases yearly- it will be the nimble hunter who changes and adapts his hunting strategy to fit into tomorrow’s challenges.