This is a very difficult subject for many people because of the lack of information as well as the myriad of misinformation among hunters, both young and old! I will now explode some of the deep-rooted myths that are very common in hunter lore and enlighten you with some facts that will assist you in making your shot count.
First and foremost, you must make an effective shot. Do I need to say this again? I most certainly do; it is human nature to try and make the shot under difficult conditions. Inexperienced hunters can rush a shot if they feel pressured by the situation, their peers or circumstances beyond their capabilities. In all cases before shooting, take the few seconds you need to evaluate the likelihood of success. The decision not to shoot when there is a possibility of wounding or of non-retrieval is not only the honorable choice, but the ethical one as well.
Practice with your firearm or bow is the only way to become proficient and to learn your effective range. Anyone who brags about their shooting prowess and does not shoot on a regular basis is only deluding themselves and not impressing me or anyone else with their words. A couple of arrows or slugs fired downrange the day before the hunt is not practice; consistency and repetition is the only way to establish accuracy. When you do practice, use the equipment that you would use in the field when hunting; wear your hunting coat, hat and boots so you will know what to expect when you shoulder your gun or draw your bow.
A common practice or myth among hunters is that a gun once sighted in will shoot all ammunition the same or close enough for hunting– wrong. Shooting and sighting in your firearm with inexpensive ammo to save money is counterproductive. Cheap ammo will not perform the same nor will it have the same point of impact; often the difference can be measured in feet, not inches. All your practice has been wasted because you do not know how your gun performs, where to aim at different distances or what to expect for recoil. Save your money and do it right the first time, become adept with the equipment and ammunition that will work the best for the game you are seeking.
Now that you have practiced and are confident and out in the field ready to take a shot at big game, there are some other misconceptions to be aware of. A well-entrenched myth is the ‘Head Shot’ and this particular fallacy frustrates and angers me more than any other. Head and neck shots are low percentage shots promoted wholly by egotists who are completely ignorant of big game anatomy. I call them ‘headshot heroes’ and these uneducated braggarts should be stripped of their hunting license and forced to take the hunting course again! Head and neck shots are more likely to wound the animal and cause unnecessary suffering or a lingering death.
During a past deer season my hunting partners and I witnessed an adult buck in a field with no bottom jaw, likely wounded by a ‘headshot hero’. Being both angered and saddened by this pitiful scene we quickly decided that we could not walk away and took the only ethical action. It took us two full days to secure permission for the property and some serious and determined hunting to find that animal and end its suffering. Please make the ethical decision and make an effective shot that gives the animal the respect it deserves. If you pass on the low percentage shots or those that you are not completely confident with, you will get another chance, I guarantee it. For the record, an ‘effective shot’ means targeting the lungs and waiting for the lead leg to move forward so the vitals are exposed. If you have a broadside profile or the animal is quartering away from you, this is your ideal target zone. There are certainly other trajectories from which you could make an effective shot, but they are for the practiced shooter with the experience needed to accurately assess their likelihood of success.
Shooting at running game with a rifle or slug-gun is for the most experienced hunters and one of the hardest skills to practice and master. Grunt or bleat to try and stop a moving deer, bark like a dog to stop a running coyote, and a deep cow bleat may turn that bull moose around. With a bow a running shot is out of the question for all of us except the archery gods, so just wait for the standing shots please. Many of us hunt with rifles and dogs for deer and I can tell you with certainty that the ‘spray and pray’ method is not going to put venison in the freezer. Shooting through bush or vegetation is one of the most ineffective exercises for killing big game, as any brush even a twig or grass can deflect the bullet and create a miss or even worse, wound the animal.
Pick your shooting position carefully where you have a clear and unobstructed view within your effective range. A spot where the animal must hesitate, like a stream crossing or a fallen tree or turn in the trail, is always preferred to a large open area where it can run flat out. If you are on a stand with dogs running game or during a deer drive, plan for every possible shot. Look for the openings where the deer will appear and use the open shooting lanes with no vegetation or trees to deflect or block your shot. Try and stop the deer with a bleat or grunt; if it won’t stop and is moving slowly enough hold on the front of the vitals swing with the deer and remember to follow through. Tree stands are very effective when still hunting but position them with care and forethought; make sure you can shoot safely, that your shooting lanes are clear and within your effective range. You should always practice shooting from your tree stand with bows or firearms; shooting from a sitting position or a small platform 15 feet off the ground is not easy. Remember that you must aim higher on the animal to hit the vitals when shooting from above. Most importantly, use a safety harness when hunting from tree stands!
Another pet peeve of mine is buckshot; it should not be used on big game, period. Ontario is one of the last jurisdictions in North America where buckshot is still legal for big game; this should tell you something, shouldn’t it? The real effective range of buckshot is about 25 yards and if you can’t hit a deer with a slug at 25 yards I suggest you quit hunting and take up badminton. Why would you fill an animal with 9 to 35 lead pellets that have minimal penetrating power (your butcher will have an opinion on this, I am sure) and take the chance of losing it or wounding it when you can kill it cleanly with a slug? I hear some uneducated hunters brag that every deer they have killed with buckshot has gone right down… My answer is that those deer are the only ones that they have ever found and undoubtedly from one lucky pellet that struck a vital area by chance! What about the other animals that they shot at, that ran away wounded and were not retrieved due to that hunter’s ignorance? Do you suppose they had on bulletproof vests or that they lived to a ripe old age after surgery performed by the magical elf triage team?
Another myth propagated by the uninformed is that a perfect shot in the vitals will put an animal right down or down quickly and that there will be blood or some other sign if an animal is hit. These are both blatantly wrong and have caused the loss of many animals by uninformed hunters. I know of some veteran hunters who have convinced others they have missed big game animals and cause them to cease searching for the animal by conveying this negligent notion. I have gone in with the shooter after the fact and helped them find the animal on several occasions in my career and this simply should not happen. The truth is most animals do not go down at the shot and many go a lot farther than you would expect before expiring. Not only do they act like they have not been hit and run away, but more often than not there is a minimal or non-existent blood trail to follow.
“Wait a minute,” you are saying to yourself, “how could there be little or no blood if I just made a perfect shot through the vitals?” Think about this: if you hit the lungs with a slug or a bullet they will cease to function; can you breathe after a blow to the chest? And the same thing applies to the heart whereas any violent shock or damage close by will interrupt the electrical impulses necessary for it to pump. So if the lungs and the heart are not working there is no blood pressure or breathing. The only way the blood can exit the animal is through the entrance and exit hole. But the skin and musculature are separate and can move along with all the membranes inside and around the various vital organs. As soon as the animal is hit and takes a step, the holes through these various membranes will no longer line up and therefore little or no blood can escape from the body cavity. Most of the blood from the animal is actually trapped inside the animal and very little will drip from the wound unless a major artery is damaged or if the heart remains beating. It also takes time for any blood to travel from the mid section down the hide and hit the ground.
Now that we have abolished that myth, what should we do to help put that animal down quickly? A well-shot animal hit in a vital area is much easier to retrieve. So first and foremost you must finish your shot; what I mean is to follow through and shoot again if it is necessary. If the animal is on its feet, finish what you started shoot it again; if it falls and gets up, shoot it again. If it runs and it is safe to shoot then do that and keep shooting it until it is no longer safe, out of range or you have no effective shot available.
Which brings me to another pet peeve of mine that is the ‘shot admirer’: the hunter who takes just one shot and then watches to see what the animal does. Often they believe they have made a good shot and are waiting for it to fall, or they succumb to ‘Buck Fever’ and forget to shoot again. Focus on the shot and then the surrounding details, watch where the animal is when you shoot first and where it was when you last saw it. Listen for the sound of the animal falling– it will be loud, as a deer running and expiring will crash to the ground violently. Advance carefully and see to your own safety as you unload your firearm and climb from your tree stand, blind or shooting position.
Hopefully you have enjoyed this post and come to understand the Truths and Myths that I have over the years. The reward of a well placed shot and successful harvest of your big game animal is an experience you will never forget. But as I have previously indicated sometimes that reward can only be realized by your determination and tracking skills. I hope you will take the time to read my next post entitled ‘Tracking Big Game’.