Volume: 16 | Back to issueSubscribe Now
column By: Terry Wieland | July, 18
The shot was one of those a hunter dreams about, but which never happens in reality: A white-tailed buck, standing broadside on a point of rock, perfectly still and silhouetted against the sky. You’re lying prone 250 yards away with a rock-solid hold, the crosshair motionless behind the deer’s shoulder, and one glittering instant in which to make the shot. Miss it, and you’ll be kicking yourself for the rest of your days.
There’s much more to this story, of course, like how I had been hunting whitetails around this particular northern lake for 27 years – literally since boyhood – without getting a deer. But we’ll skip all that. This was my chance.
I squeezed the trigger, the rifle bucked and the deer disappeared. It took the better part of 20 minutes to cover that 250 yards since I had to circle a bay, climb a rock face and fight my way down to that rocky point through brush. When I got there, there was no deer, no blood, no tawny hair clipped from its hide by the bullet – no sign whatever that the buck had ever been there, or that I had been doing anything except dreaming. I searched around a bit. Nothing. Fortunately, when I took that shot I was not a kid.
I had hunted in Africa, Alaska, British Columbia, Quebec and Texas, and I had killed a fair number of big-game animals, some cleanly, some not so cleanly. I sat down on a rock and reviewed the shot in my head, reliving every instant. I’d called the shot, and the crosshair was where it should have been when the rifle went off. I was also using a 4x scope with a wide field of view, so in spite of the
.30-06’s recoil, I caught one glimpse of the animal in the milliseconds after I shot. Replaying it, I distinctly recalled that it dropped its head – almost a sure sign of a solid hit.
Aha, thought I, and stood where the deer had stood, faced where it had been facing and then strode into the brush following the line of least resistance. There it was, dead, wedged between two rocks with its legs folded under, invisible from any angle except right where I was standing.t
The key to this was that I saw the buck drop its head, and that indicated the deer had been well hit. Had I not thought that through, I might have searched around a bit more, found nothing and would have been kicking myself for the rest of my days. Instead, I finally had a white-tailed buck from the area where I first started hunting them 27 years before.
When it comes to judging if and how well an animal is hit, there is no substitute for experience. Book authors try to explain everything, and if you’re lucky an old hunter may give some pointers, but learning not only to call your shot, but to catch what happens after, comes only with a lot of time in the field.
One thing a hunter learns is that when they are hit in the heart, not all animals dash off in a straight line. I have had two that leapt straight up in the air like an outfielder trying for a baseball going over the fence. One of those deer then dropped on the spot, the other dashed 50 yards down a wooded slope.
The current rage for so-called “bang-flop” kills is something I don’t understand. Unless the animal is hit with a bullet that is so overpowered that it physically destroys its ability to run, it’s unlikely to happen. Exceptions include hitting an animal in the brain or the neck, or occasionally a shot that breaks both shoulders. Any of these is either risky or undesirable. Aiming for the brain damages the trophy if you do hit it, and if you don’t, you run the risk of only smashing the jaw, condemning the animal to lingering agony. Breaking both shoulders may be ideal with dangerous game, but it destroys a lot of meat. The safest, most dependable, and in every way most desirable shot on an animal like an elk or a deer is the heart-lung area behind the shoulder. Period.
Even overpowered rifles don’t always produce an instant kill, right then and there. One time I was hunting in the elephant country of northern Botswana. We needed meat so I shot a grey duiker with a .458 Lott as it faced me. The bullet went in through the chest and practically tore off one leg at the shoulder. According to books, the 500-grain bullet should have reduced that duiker to a pot roast. Instead it whirled and disappeared into the bush. It was found stone dead about 40 yards in. To give an idea of its size, four of us devoured the meat in two sittings.
One disadvantage of overpowered rifles and high-powered scopes is that recoil prevents the shooter from seeing what happens afterward. If a muzzle brake is used to reduce recoil, chances are it will kick up a cloud of dust, and while a 12x scope may allow for more precise shot placement, the animal “disappears” from the narrow field of view.
In the case of the buck mentioned above, if I’d had a 3-9x or a 2-7x on my .30-06, I would probably not have had it set at 4x and might well have missed seeing the deer drop its head. Instead of having the buck’s modest 8-point rack hanging above my loading bench, I would still be gritting my teeth in disgust 30 years later. That was a fortuitous circumstance rather than shrewd judgement, but it was a valuable lesson.
Some long-range hunters take a hunting partner with them to call the shots, and that may help, but I wouldn’t depend on it. Even a professional guide’s observations and judgement are no substitute for your own. No one can see where the crosshair was, and only the hunter can rely on instinct. Also, there are guides, and then there are guides. In most of North America, a guy can call himself a guide with no real training, and you may find yourself out with a kid who has really had little experience.
The key thing, I believe, is to listen for the unmistakable sound of the bullet striking the animal. At anything beyond 150 yards, there is a distinct hollow thunk. Then there is the reaction. Generally, I have never found that animals spook merely at the sound of a shot. Quite often they have no idea where it came from, like a crack of thunder. Unless the bullet hits something close to them, they may lift their heads and look around but otherwise stay where they are. If the animal immediately dashes off, then chances are it was hit, and hit well.
Conversely, if the deer drops on the spot as if a rug was pulled out from under it, there is a very good chance that you have just brushed the spine, and after a few seconds of temporary paralysis it may be on its feet and making tracks. This happened to me once with a pronghorn in Montana. I was walking up to it, congratulating myself on a superb display of marksmanship, when the buck shook its head, jumped to its feet and headed for the distant hills. I just stood there – with an empty rifle. I spotted it again a half hour later, peacefully chewing on sage. It was a valuable lesson.