At some point, most hunters will make a real mistake out in the field. I’m not talking about forgetting your rain gear or spooking a critter, but serious lapses in judgement.
It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when excitement gets the best of us. No hunter is perfect, and eventually we all slip up. It’s how we learn from those mistakes that will make us a better, safer hunter in the future. I know there are few times I’ve learned some lasting lessons from my mistakes.
The Rushed Shot
I was a new, twelve-year old hunter when my friend invited me on a rabbit hunt with his older brother and father. First thing in the morning, my friend’s father explained the basics of hunting cottontails over a hound.
Then I was left at the edge of a brushy field. Soon, the beagle began baying as he ran the first rabbit of the day in a circle towards me. Before too long, I caught a glimpse of the rabbit as it sprinted into a thick clump of brush and stopped out of sight. I waited for several minutes with my shotgun ready, excited for a shot opportunity. Eventually, the rabbit abandoned its hiding spot at high speed. I had already slid the safety to “off,” and proceeded to rush the shot. The shocking detonation of the gunshot caught me off guard.
The sound of the dog surprised me even more. It yelped loudly, in obvious pain.
My friend’s father gathered me up as I cried and the dog whined. I wanted to quit hunting and go home, but the old man didn’t give me the easy way out. After a stern but calmly delivered safety speech, eventually I calmed down. He then explained Bob had fortunately just been grazed by a pellet in the scruff of the neck and was only whining because he wanted to get back after that rabbit. I got lucky, and I knew it.
I took the safety off long before I was ready to shoot. Next, my finger was already on the trigger, and I shot early as I was swinging the gun. I also failed to notice the dog moving into my area.
A basic hunter safety rule is to keep the safety on until you are sure of your target and ready to shoot. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. Be aware of your surroundings, know your target, and know what lies beyond your target. All hunters, but especially rookies, need to understand the grave importance of these safety protocols.
The Frontal Shot
A few years later, I was on an early morning archery whitetail hunt in the woods across the road from my house. In the dark, I crept back to where several deer trails converged and leaned against a large oak tree. Just after dawn, a small forkhorn buck appeared at forty yards, walking slowly towards me. The buck kept coming closer without any indication of stopping.
At ten yards the buck paused, looked straight through me, and then continued on his collision course. At something like ten feet, I drew my recurve and quickly released the arrow. It was a frontal shot and the arrow buried itself just a few inches into the buck’s chest. The impact sounded like a dead branch snapping. As the deer spun and bounded off, I could see a couple feet of arrow shaft sticking out of his chest.
Frontal archery shots were something my father had advised against when I began bowhunting. But more importantly, the whole thing had never felt right, despite the close range and the deer’s apparent lack of awareness. I waited, feeling sick and angry and stupid. A while later, I found some overturned leaves, tracks, and a few very small drops of dark blood which led me to the edge of a thorny, tangled jungle of multifloral rose.
I circled the acre-wide patch of thorn bushes several times, hoping to find some sign indicating that the buck had exited the other side. Then, with no other choice, I pushed in on hands and knees. Only ten feet in, face and hands already bloodied, I heard the buck thrashing his way out of the briar patch. I never found the deer.
I took a rushed shot I knew to be questionable, especially with the archery equipment I was using.
If you’re not comfortable and confident, and if you lack the certainty that your shot will result in a fatal hit, then you should not pull the trigger or release the arrow. Otherwise you’re bound to wound animals that you’ll never find, and no ethical hunter should take that risk. Also, give a wounded animal plenty of time to expire and gather a search party if possible.
The Close Call
During the winter break of my sophomore year in college, I headed home for Pennsylvania’s short rifle doe season. The conditions were ideal; a cold, snowy, weekday with fewer hunters meant the deer should be moving on their own. As I was still hunting towards the back of the neighbor’s property, I noticed several hunters gathering around some parked vehicles on the other side of the dirt road a few hundred yards away.
I could see they were setting up a deer drive through a nearby field of goldenrod and thick brush, so I decided to take advantage of the situation. I stayed out of sight, moved closer, and set up to see if any deer slipped between the posters and the drivers and crossed the dirt road towards my position. The drive got started and before too long, that was exactly what happened.
A loud gunshot is a common enough sound during deer season in rural Pennsylvania. The unusually quiet, wasp-like sound of a bullet buzzing past your head is much more menacing. At least ten more shots followed that first one, bullets whining by and breaking twigs. I crouched behind a tree, trying to will myself into the ground. Two does bounded past, silently kicking up clumps of snow as they fled the barrage. When the shooting finally stopped, I slipped out of the line of fire.
Early the next morning, I killed a doe during a snowstorm. While I was dragging her out of the woods, I came across a dead, mostly frozen deer that had been shot up pretty badly- a victim of the previous day’s illegal volley across the county road. I stared at that wasted doe for a time, knowing I’d put myself in a bad position the day before.
Don’t take safety for granted while in the woods.
Don’t trust hunters you don’t know or who aren’t aware of your presence to do the right thing. These days I avoid other hunters if at all possible, or make them aware of my position if I can’t avoid them. And, if you shoot at animal, it’s always your responsibility to search for signs of a hit.
Many years later, each of these memories is still painful to relive. But, in each case, I learned some pretty hard lessons that have stuck with me. You owe it to yourself, other hunters, and the animals you pursue to make good decisions out in the field. Thomas McGuane said it best in “The Heart of the Game”:
“This is goddamned serious and you had better always remember that.”