On a crisp October morning of opening day, the first rays of sunlight just starting to poke through the canopy of the woods. Birds start to chirp, and squirrels begin to stir, the woods are waking up. It is in this moment that you can clearly see that the monster buck you thought you saw when it was still dusk is only a conspicuous looking branch, and that body of a deer just 20 yards out is only a fallen log well hidden behind a couple of well placed standing trees. As squirrels and other critters start to take their morning strolls through the forest floor, your ears are on full alert, and your heart skips a beat at every break of a twig. As you start to think the morning will be a bust, you slowly turn your head to make another scan, and there he is, the monster buck you had on your trail camera this past summer. Your heart begins to race, palms sweat, hands shake as you try to slowly and quietly ready your bow. You draw, trying to control your breathing and praying he does not hear your heartbeat. As he steps out from behind the last tree and into your lane, you take one last breath, trying to steady your sight. In a blink of an eye, it is all over. A moment that was maybe only a couple of minutes, felt like it took hours. Your heart begins to slow down, the breath starts to come back to you. Now, its time to retrieve.
As you may have gathered from the above narrative, I want to talk today about buck fever. More specifically, trying to explain how the body reacts to this event. Stedman and Heberlein (1) separated buck fever into three responses; orienting, arousal, and stress. Orienting is defined as once seeing or hearing the deer, senses are heightened, brain activity is increased, and the cardiac system prepares to act. The arousal portion of buck fever is when the sympathetic nervous system is excited. Emotion also plays a role in the arousal. Where arousal is the unconditional innate response to a stimulus, emotion requires that a stimulus be labeled in such a way to bring about a particular response. For hunters, seeing game is marked with a positive association of happiness or achievement. The final part, stress, brings about similar increases in sympathetic activity along with increased levels of epinephrine, the hormone responsible for the flight or fight response.
Stedman and Heberlein took 10 participants and examined their heart rate response to either not seeing game, see game but not attempting to harvest, attempting to harvest unsuccessfully, and a successful harvest. They found that most of the hunters had an average of 5-10 beats per minute (bpm) increase in heart rate which was significant in this study. Interestingly they found that when they accounted for the type of game being hunted, deer and geese produced the largest increase in heart rate (20 bpm) when compared to other waterfowl and upland birds. The pair of researchers also attempted to see if these changes were observed in a simulated hunt. They were unable to reproduce the same effects and concluded that the act of hunting is an important variable. A more recent study (2) found that buck fever can even result in arrhythmias of the heart as well as heart rate increases.
What does this mean for all the hunters hitting the woods this fall? These two studies show that the physiological response known as buck fever, although typically short, can increase demands on the heart. Hunting has an emotional tie to it, which could explain the reason simulated hunts typically do not produce the same effects as a real hunt. These effects on the heart highlight the role heart health can have on hunting, even when no physical exertion is present. Another important reason to take care of your heart through diet and exercise.
Let me know if you have ever had buck fever! Does this response sound accurate? What is the best buck fever story you have?
1. Stedman, R. C., & Heberlein, T. A. (1997). Hunting and the heart: physiological response to seeing, shooting, and bagging game. Human Dimensions of Wildlife: An International Journal, 2(2), 21–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/10871209709359092
2. Verba, S. D., Jensen, B. T., & Lynn, J. S. (2016). Electrocardiographic Responses to Deer Hunting in Men and Women. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 27(3), 364–370. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wem.2016.03.005