I recently wrote an article for one of my favorite magazines, Traditional Bowhunter. Originally it was going to be published around this time, but due to a snafu on their part, it will not be published, so I thought I'd share it with you.
Journaling and the Traditional Bowhunter
The drizzle was enough to encourage me to stay sheltered under the large Ponderosa pine. It was mid day and lunch had been eaten and the rain hadn’t let up. I didn’t mind, however, and for a reason other than my well traveled tired feet. As I sat tucked up against the trunk and enjoyed being dry I wrote in my journal. I treasure my time in the woods; however, being like most folks with other commitments like family, school or a full time job, it is limited. I have hunted for ways to extend my enjoyment. I am able to return to my outdoor adventures because I keep a journal. The long stretches between hunts, the dog days of summer and the long dark nights of winter are now minor periods in between adventures because I am able to relive my adventures. I have learned, and managed to retain, many lessons because of my journals.
The reasons for keeping a journal are many and rewarding. Beyond being able to recall hunts past, I am able to establish localized, intimate knowledge of the specific animals I hunt. I also extend the journey of the hunt, keeping a log of contacts made, map scouting, tips and tactics I picked up from magazine articles and books, gear lists, and shopping lists. I actively study the animals I hunt in the off season. I read everything book and article on elk, mule deer, turkeys and black bears I can get my hands on. I talk with old timers and long time locals, successful hunters and landowners. I call the area’s game warden and biologists and question them on the local game animals. Despite feeling like I am pestering them, more often than not they are happy to talk with me. My journal and pen are right by side and often I will make notes in my year’s journal.
I manage to extend my hunt but I also enjoy the legacy I am leaving. Just as Fred Bear lives on through his Field Notes, I hope to allow my future generations something they are able to connect with me. It brings me joy to imagine a my son or a grandchild being transported to my hunts, reading my journals under his blanket with a flashlight. Maybe that is wishful thinking on my part since I haven’t been chased up a tree by a snarling grizzly, taken any “trophies” or hunted exotic lands…yet.
Fred Bear’s Field Notes are one famous example of a hunting journal, but they don’t need to be as extensive to be useful to you. Many of the famous traditional bow hunting pioneers kept journals of their time in the woods and with a little digging you can find them in traditional archery vendors, bookstores, or libraries. Gene Wensel, E. Donnall Thomas Jr and David Peterson are some of the more modern legends with published field notes. Wildlife studies obtained from a local university or your state’s fish and game department might also lend some insight into your regional animals. However, I have read reams of reports only to end up wondering what I learned, if anything.
During scouting trips I make careful notes of animals sighted, distinguishing characteristics such as a discolored patch of fur or a drop tine, where they were and at what time of day. I record their demeanor as well as any other factors I might be wise enough to include. Was the trail head log in full? Was the browse or forage plentiful? Do local springs or creeks look drier than in year’s past or are there more potholes of water available? Over time you’ll begin to notice animal movement patterns and how the weather dictates your local animal’s movement patterns. Bedding areas, escape routes and directions, times the animals are active and present. You’ll notice the small things that can impact your hunting in a big way. You may take note of a small spring not labeled on any map or a funnel that’s not obvious. I look forward to the day I take a mature bull elk that I have followed since he was a calf.
In an effort to prevent writer’s block and enable my creative juices to flow, when I start a new journal I skim the previous journal’s notes and transfer anything I might find useful. Tips and lessons picked up but not yet hard wired into my hunting routine, topics to write about or reminders of specific things, such as the draw where the wind always seems to swirl. Contact phone numbers, email addresses and websites. I’ll also jot down the different categories of information that I like to keep track of. Wind direction, weather, cloud cover, moon phase, temperatures, and barometer pressure are all important to game animal movement. Stand or blind locations, GPS coordinates and waypoints, equipment, experiences and thoughts, game sightings, lessons learned. Location hunted, time, what you hunted for, who I was hunting with, sightings of both game and non game animals, shots taken and the thoughts immediately after the shot, harvested animals. Since I rarely make note all of the mentioned categories, I enjoy chronicling the actual stories of the hunts as well. I occasionally make a rubbing of local flora or make a sketch of the lunch break vista or that strange insect. After the hunt I insert photos from the hunt. In the past I have started a new journal every year. I have never filled up a journal, though some years I have come close. I typically keep the front half reserved for elk and mule deer scouting and hunting while using the back half for duck, turkey, coyote and other small game hunts. There are lessons to be learned there as well!
Throughout my years of journal keeping I have tried different types of journals. No two are the same. A simple wire bound-dollar store notebook works well. I have also used nicer hard-bound books, specifically sold as journals, purchased at one of the big book stores. To save weight on my backcountry solo hunts I have ditched the actual journal and kept notes on the back of my maps. There are some spectacular looking leather bound journal covers as well. Another great option are the “write in the rain” series of notebooks, the pages are tear resistant and survive a dunking, to which you can add a zippered cordura cover with pen slots so you will never find yourself somewhere with something to write about and nothing to write with. Take a minute to think about the size of your journal and account for how you will transport it around. I don’t always have it with me, though more and more I find I enjoy spending my mid day hours writing my thoughts and experiences. You might find it more convenient to keep it back at base camp and a larger journal would do just fine. You can also find journals small enough to fit in a cargo pocket and light enough to be hardly noticed.
After this year’s hunts are done and the gear is stored until next spring I plan on doing something I haven’t done before. I am looking forward to recording a fireside chat, recounting my time afield. This should be a fun experiment and going over my notes and memories while still fresh will uncover small gems of knowledge that might otherwise be lost. Again, a Fred Bear idea, and I am far from Fred, but it is fun to think of listening to myself recount my hits and misses when my knees creak too much to enjoy hunting as rugged terrain as I do now.
Like most things in life, the more time, effort and thought you put into your hunting journal, the more you will get out of it. Invest a large effort to make daily entries and you will harvest large rewards. The rain eventually let up and the journal was repacked in my daypack, safe from the wet foliage in a plastic baggie. I continued to hunt the rugged mountain side just below timberline the rest of the day; ghosting along from tree to tree, doing my best to pay attention to the small things, watching for a flicking ear, the smell of bull elk musk and the faint far off sound of a bugle. The day ended without a single elk sighting, but the day was not a complete loss and thanks to my journal it won’t ever be lost either.
Mike Miller is a lifetime Idaho resident, a recovering Marine and a mostly unsuccessful hunter who enjoys the minutiae of his outdoor adventures. When he isn’t dreaming about his next hunting safari he be found fly fishing local rivers which he also journals. This is his first contribution to TBM.