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Developing a Predator State of Mind

Drawing a parallel between hunting and fishing, and what it takes to succeed

December 2, 2020
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A hunter sits by a campfire at night.
Hunting and fishing share many similarities. John Fallon

This was it. I had spotted and stalked over 30 animals in the past three days, and this was the best opportunity I had by far. I needed to take it. In a single motion, I leaned around the corner and drew all 65 pounds of the custom recurve in my hands and prepared to let it fly. She never saw me. It was impossible for her to wind me, but for some reason known only to God Almighty, she decided to stand up at that very instant. She stood, turned, and began to walk downhill to my right, toward the creek. She still hadn’t seen me, but my shot was only going to get worse. I had to act now. I slowly knelt to reposition, held in half a breath, drew and fired. The arrow sailed toward my prey, and I let out the second half of my breath. The mist momentarily clouded my vision. As it cleared, I could see my quarry crashing downhill, leaving a bloody trail in the frozen snow. As I began to make my way to where she stood just seconds before, my mind raced to catch up with what had just transpired—what the predator in me had done.

The night before this hunt you would have found me in the backseat of my truck, bundled up in a sleeping bag doing my homework. It was minus 20 degrees outside. As I was struggling to get comfortable and warm, my mind was once again going over all the maps of the area and other research I had done. I checked the weather on my phone so I could adjust my plans to work with the wind that was coming. This was my first time hunting in Salmon, Idaho, and I knew doing my homework was going to make or break this hunt.

I had selected a primary hunting area and a good route to take based on the weather, snowpack and geography—places where I was sure animals would be. I had secondary and tertiary areas and routes lined up based on my research as well. You can never know too much or have too many backup plans when ­hunting a new area.

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Selecting routes and areas comes ­naturally now, but that wasn’t always the case. I have made more than my fair share of mistakes in the past, and I continue to do so every year, every hunt, every day. Learning from past failures is what separates apex predators from everything else, and no hunt or outing on the water goes exactly as planned. Our state of mind in situations of distress—when our plan starts falling apart—is what ­determines the outcome.

A bowhunter draws back on a bow and peers through the targeting sight.
Hunters must think in the moment and never second-guess themselves. John Fallon

In the famous words of former American boxing heavyweight Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” But what happens after you get punched? That is what really matters.

Fishing and hunting are two parallel worlds that are not mutually exclusive. One of the most important things you can do to keep your predator state of mind is use it. There is always something to ­pursue. Everyone has a favorite, but you, as a hunter, don’t have an offseason.

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I am fortunate and blessed to live in the beautiful, bountiful and mighty Pacific Northwest. I catch salmon and steelhead trout in winter; hunt bear and turkey, fish for halibut and more salmon in spring. In summer, tuna, sturgeon, salmon and lingcod; and fall is full of fish, elk and deer. I never have an offseason because I don’t want one. A true predator doesn’t have the luxury of an offseason. So, how do you become a predator?

Watch: Learn to rig a swimming Spanish mackerel here.

I was able to interview three notable big-game outdoorsmen: Andy Moyes, Dan Braman and Tim Maddock. We unanimously agree that we are always hunting something. I am certainly not going to claim that I am the best angler or the most successful hunter, but I do push myself to be better at what I love, and that is what matters. It is not about catching the biggest or the most fish; it’s about feeding the predator inside you. Hunt brook trout, hunt pheasant, hunt tuna, salmon and marlin. Hunt whatever you need to in order to maintain your edge. Maintaining your edge is how you become the best predator you can be.

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A hunter kneels behind a dropped antelope in an open field.
Trial and error helps to develop situational instinct, which is built by repetitive exposure to predatory situations. courtesy Andy Moyes

Mentality and Mindset

Your mentality has less to do with what you hunt or fish for, but more with how you’re doing it. Mindset is extremely ­crucial to the level of success you have. Active hunters and fishermen are the most successful. Why? You’ll hear lots of folks say it’s because they prepare; they do their homework. But it goes beyond that.

“I believe the mindset of hunting and fishing is identical,” says longtime hunter and fisherman Tim Maddock. “Although there are different techniques, it all leads back to preparation. There may be different specifics, but you still must prepare for everything in your control, so it’s that apex-predator mindset that goes across both sports.”

It’s a fundamental, internal drive that pushes us to do the homework and spend time practicing, a primal urge to take our prey. Even when fishing, I consider myself a hunter.

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Predators don’t just throw bait in the water and hope something comes along and eats it, or wander aimlessly in the woods hoping to find a deer. A true ­predator will do everything in its power to achieve success. A predator doesn’t think in the moment, worry about the next move or even ­second-guess ­themselves. A predator takes calm, instinctual action. The key word here is “instinctual,” and your mentality doesn’t get you far ­without instinct.

A big blue marlin leaps out of the water on a leader.
Anglers need a predatory mindset when targeting big blue marlin like this one. © Scott Kerrigan/AquaPaparazzi.com

Instinct Development

Your instincts are comprised of at least two parts. The first is knowing what your prey is going to do. This is what tells you the fish you just hooked is going to jump or that the buck you just partially spooked is going to circle around behind you. How do you build instincts? There is no simple answer, but one thing that all sportsmen will tell you is that instinct can’t be learned in a book or a seminar. It takes repetitive encounters to build situational instinct. It is harder for some than others, but putting yourself in a predator situation helps you to build those instincts. Whether you are fly-fishing in Washington or hunting antelope in South Dakota, every time you make a cast on a clear, secluded pool or stalk an animal in open grassland, you are building instinct.

Situations like these help you to ­understand how prey acts, and ultimately reacts—how to anticipate their ­movements. Having a good idea about what your prey is going to do in certain situations will drastically increase your success. The only way to anticipate their actions is by studying your quarry and relating the current situation to past experiences.

A hunter kneels beside a dropped elk.
On focus: “I might get only one chance at this animal in this lifetime; there will be plenty of time for theatrics after the shot is made.” ­—Dan Braman Courtesy Dan Braman

Transfer is a psychological concept that allows us to extrapolate those past experiences to something ­meaningful in our current situation. Simply put, it is what allows us to relate bass fishing in Wisconsin to turkey hunting in Florida—to learn new things. For most, transfer is subconscious, or ­reflexive, because our human brains work so incredibly fast. This is known as low-road ­transfer. However, some choose to build the connections from their own ­experiences through deliberate and conscious analysis of past situations. This is called high-road transfer. While we don’t have too much control over LRT, putting forth effort to create HRT does help us become better fishermen and hunters.

Read Next: We take you behind the lens to see how the pros capture those great photos in Marlin.

The second part of instinct development is achieved when you “just know” what you need to do in critical moments of a hunt or battle—similar to fear, which is a basic natural instinct. This is the part that tells you where to go when the bull you have been pressing smells something funky. This is how you keep moving forward after getting the proverbial punch in the mouth, like when the sharks show up and you have a tournament winner on the line, or when a third buck shows up and all hell is about to break loose. We can read about tactics such as when to keep your rod tip up, when to let a fish take line, and when to work uphill on a bull or when to stay put. However, the actions don’t get committed to your subconscious tactics until you execute them in the heat of the moment. Making the determination and conscious decision to change the way you do something before being in that situation is the first and most important step to building your instincts.

A group of people stand beside a marlin that's been pulled into the shallow waters.
“I think out strategies that will make me successful; stay calm and think fast.” —Andy Moyes Courtesy Andy Moyes

Execution

When it comes to game time, remain calm and let your instincts kick in. “You’ve done all the preparation; just do what you know how to do,” Maddock says. “I could tell 20 hours of stories in just a few pictures. Some good, some bad, some happy, some sad. Freezing-cold weather, bloody arrows, walking 12 miles by noon just to try to kill a turkey in the hills of Nebraska. Being a killer doesn’t always mean killing an animal or putting food on the table,” he adds. “We used our killer mindset the day we caught 40 sailfish in the Keys this past April, only to back it up by hunting as hard as we could to release 64 the next day.” By keeping your composure and relying on instinct, Maddock believes an outing is more successful—catch or kill.

“You’re either a killer or you’re not,” says fisherman and lure-maker Andy Moyes. It’s a profound statement. As I pondered this simple response to one of my many questions, I realized that it comes down to more than just the act of killing.

“So many fishermen want to have that killer instinct, but it must come naturally,” Moyes says, “to really get after it when the moment of truth comes, such as when a big fish presents itself for a gaff shot. You can’t hesitate.” Moyes also believes that you must be in the game mentally as well as physically. “Hunting is no different than fishing. You have to be one step ahead of your prey, always. It’s not necessarily about the kill—although that is the end result—but the hours of thought and preparation that get you to that point. That is what the hunt is all about: being able to overcome any adversity, and ultimately complete what you set out to do.”

A hunter kneels beside a dropped turkey.
“By keeping your composure, you are able to make the decisions that produce a successful outing.” —Tim Maddock Courtesy Tim Maddock

You can do your homework, have the mentality and mindset, and be working toward building your instincts, but if you don’t execute in the moment, none of that matters. Hesitation is a great thief: It will steal your trophy fish, and it will steal animals from your sights.

You must be able to execute. If you are going to set the hook, come tight already. If you want to take a particular animal, pull the trigger at the first clean shot. You can’t freeze up, and you sure as heck can’t expect anything better to come along. You might get a better shot later, but all that you can control is the now. Predators don’t hesitate; they can’t afford to or they won’t survive. As a predator, you need to know your boundaries and capabilities—and don’t let an opportunity pass you by.

A man aims a scoped rifle while next to a lake.
Corpus believes that failure is part of the learning process; sometimes we must fail to ultimately overcome. Courtesy Andre Corpus


In Failure Is Success

Defeat helps us learn, and how we ­process failed experiences will define our ­successes. In all aspects of life, ­especially this one, we will fail—often, and ­sometimes miserably. Failure is a normal process of learning. For example, in ­baseball, getting on base is arguably the most difficult thing to do in the game.

Fox Sports reports that Major League Baseball’s highest batting average for the 2019 season was .335. That means that this professional player—who gets paid for his skill in the sport—was the absolute best at getting on base last year but failed to execute 66.5 percent of the time. He had 498 at-bats, and about 330 times he walked back to the dugout. It’s crazy to think that this professional player failed more than he succeeded, and yet, he was the best in the league.

While hunting and fishing is quite different from baseball, it does give us perspective. One of my favorite tournaments to fish has been the perfect example of failing miserably: a three-day event that I’ve fished for seven years. In those 21 fishing days, I have never gotten a single bite—trolling around for weeks at a time and not even seeing one in the spread. Success is measured by more than fish caught, game bagged or ­statistics. You are going to fail. It’s part of the learning process, and it’s a struggle. Accept it, but accept it graciously.

A silhouette of a bowhunter against a dark blue sky at night.
A successful hunt results from an open and prepared hunter. Tetra Images/Alamy

When I ask Dan Braman what he would say to someone who is having trouble bringing the endgame, he eloquently says: “My advice to anyone in any field is always, and without question, remain humble and always be kind. There is no place for egos or arrogance in this life.”

Killing anything comes with responsibility—a certain appreciation for the fish you tricked into eating, or the animal that didn’t pick up on your presence. And it’s at the end of the day, when you’re packing out, that you get to really see it in all its glory. Everything you had to traverse, all the trials and tribulations you fought through to get your target has come together, and its beauty is burned into your memory forever. It is an unparalleled satisfaction that brings the massive smiles, back slaps and a sense of pride for everyone involved.

This is how we win—in the field and in life. True success is earned by pressing forward, regardless of circumstance.

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