The less successful a hunter you are, the more practice you're going to get, because failure means you have to go back out there again and again. If you bagged your beast early, then evidently you didn't need any extra practice. Otherwise, consider yourself enrolled in the Loser School of Hunting.
Many factors must come together perfectly in order for a hunt to be successful. First, you have to be where the animals are and find them. And then you have to get a good shot off and find the animal again, unless it dropped straight down. If any one of these factors falls short, you get a chance for more practice.
For me, the hardest part is clearing my mind of distracting thoughts that take me out of the moment. Some factors, like the weather or other hunters, are beyond your control. Another factor, dumb luck, may seem to be out of your control, but it isn't. It's up to the hunter to capitalize upon luck, to hear the animal that just happens to walk toward you, to find it in your scope and make a good shot when it pauses.
When you can consistently create and capitalize on your luck, you'll appear to have the hunting mojo. While the hunting mojo can be a little slippery to define, you know it when you feel it. And you know it when you don't have it, or when you've lost it. Not everyone graduates from the Loser School of Hunting, and the thought of a year with an empty freezer leaves you with an empty feeling in more ways than one.
There are many reasons we hunt. For some, the joy is in the killing, which is kind of disturbing. For others, the joy is in the antlers, which is also weird, though I'm used to hearing about it.
"You can't eat the horns," says my neighbor Wild Bill, and I agree. For me, the joy is in the meat, and in the fact that I worked hard for it. When you're paying pennies, it's too easy to take meat for granted. I pay for my meat with sweat, and even blood. That feels like a more appropriate way to pay for the flesh of another being.
I admit that hunting is rarely cost-effective. When you add up the money spent on a license, gas, gear, bullets, Advil and missed work, you're paying retail prices per pound. The practice of hunting can be tougher than a $2 steak, and the steaks you earn usually cost a lot once you factor in everything. I could have bought a pig and a cow from farmer friends instead of hunting and saved a lot of time.
But then I'd have missed out on the feeling and the flavor, all year long, of my meat stash, the origins of which I can trace back to that exciting moment last autumn, and to that beautiful place where the animal came from. Stalking and waiting in hidden places, you follow elk sign into a bliss like no other.
As the season wears on, if the weather turns cold and practice isn't making perfect, time starts running out and hunting becomes a chore I have to force myself to do. Sometimes I feel like giving up, and I might, if it weren't for the third party in the forest: my ego.
So there I go again, long before dawn, in the twilight of the season, my aching shoulders against the wall. Too much of the rest of my life is being neglected. I want the season to be over. But I'm planning another trip and getting my gear together, going back for another chance to fail.
It's worth it. Hunting has a way of cutting through the layered fibers of your being, like a river revealing the inside of the earth, and exposing what you're made of. As my ego keeps getting handed to me, carved into a million pieces, I'm also aware that I get carved into a better version of myself by being a student in the Loser School of Hunting.
When I'm home, life seems oddly easy, like doing gymnastics in zero gravity. The extra hunting practice might not get me an animal every year, but if it doesn't kill me, it will make me stronger and more humble, and I hope, a better hunter. And if I don't bring any meat home, I can always trade for it throughout the year, or even break down and buy some. I've earned that right.
Ari LeVaux is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in northern New Mexico.