Make The Shot: Bag That Buck Of A Lifetime

You've got a dream buck in your sights, but your heart's pounding, it's hard to catch your breath -- and you just know Mr. Murphy is lurking nearby.

If you corner anyone who's hunted deer for more than a few years and ply them with sufficient quantities of adult beverages, chances are you can get them to admit they've missed shots at a nice buck or two sometime in their hunting careers.

If they were lucky, it was a clean miss -- no muss, no fuss and nothing to lose sleep over. Right?

Perhaps!

But misses of the not-so-clean variety are a different matter. They can haunt your dreams. It's happened to many deer hunters at one time or another. In my case, the only time I lost a wounded deer happened over a decade ago, when I allowed fatigue and a pushy guide to override my common sense.

We'd hunted hard all day in the typically broiling temperatures of the central coast during the "A Zone" deer opener. Deer sightings were few in the heat, and my first opportunity didn't come until nearly last legal shooting light. Despite the fact that the buck looked like an ant in the scope -- at what turned out to be a paced-off 500 yards -- my brain took a back seat to the screamed instructions of the guide, who shall remain nameless.

"Shoot!" he implored. "Shoot! He's gonna get away!"

I applied what looked like the proper amount of holdover, from a seated position, with no rest, and sent one off -- an "airmail special" from my .270. It connected, but not where I wanted it to. I had allowed for proper elevation, but had neglected the crosswind blowing halfway across the canyon between me and the buck.

We compounded the error by following up the wounded buck immediately, only to have him crash away into the brush in the dark, never to be seen again -- despite two days of heartsick searching on my part.

It was a lesson learned the hard way, and one I've never forgotten. If you want to avoid such nightmarish outcomes, here are 10 simple rules that can help you stay on target and sleep easier this fall.

KNOW YOUR RIFLE

This sounds obvious. But you'd be amazed how many hunters go afield without having put so much as a single box of shells through their rifle.

Some hunters even have others sight-in their scopes. That's a recipe for disaster. Because of differences in facial structure and the way we look through sights, the only person who can accurately sight-in a rifle is the person who's going to hunt with it.

There's an element of truth in the expression, "Beware the man with one gun," because gun familiarity is arguably the most critical factor in hunting success.

You're on your way to understanding your firearm, when you can . . .

Operate the safety without conscious effort,

Snap the rifle to your shoulder and have the cross hairs instantly align on target,

Know with certainty where your gun will hit at 300 yards, versus 100 yards, and

Know exactly when the trigger will break under precisely applied finger pressure.

KNOW YOUR AMMO

All ammunition is not created equal. The bullet you choose for deer hunting should be different than the bullet you choose for elk hunting. At the other end of the spectrum are the bullets you choose for varmint hunting.

Know what you want your bullet to do, and then do your homework. Pick a bullet that hits with sufficient energy, expands reliably at the ranges you expect to be shooting at, and penetrates deeply enough while retaining sufficient weight to do the job cleanly.

In years past, this was trickier than you might imagine. Some superbly accurate bullets didn't perform all that reliably on game, while some of the old faithful deer-killers left much to be desired in the accuracy department.

Today's premium bullets largely solve this problem. It's hard to go wrong with the likes of the Barnes Triple Shock, Winchester XP3, Nosler Accubond or Federal Fusion, to name a few. The deer hasn't been born that can survive a hit in the boiler room from these bullets in adequate calibers at normal ranges.

As important as your choice of ammo is, it's even more vital that you understand its flight path so that when necessary you can compensate for elevation and windage.

Here's a trick that can greatly simplify your life.

Many old timers sight-in their rifles to hit 3 inches high at 100 yards. With most high-powered centerfire rifles, a gun thus zeroed will place its bullet not much lower than 3 to 5 inches at 300 yards. This allows you to hold dead-on from the muzzle out to 300 yards, with little concern. All but a very few hunters have little business shooting at an animal at any distance greater than that.

Windage can be trickier, because it's difficult to accurately judge wind speed. You can memorize wind drift tables, but that won't help if you can't gauge wind speed.

Assuming you're not shooting at a deer at 500 yards in a hurricane, here's another trick that can save your bacon. Always "hold on hair" for the first shot. Holding well off the animal requires an act of faith, lots of experience and an accurate computation of the ballistics involved. When in doubt, hold on the edge of an animal's chest and let the wind drift the bullet into the vital zone.

KNOW THE RANGE

This is easier today than ever before. Laser rangefinders are now small, cheap and reliable enough that anyone who expects to shoot at game beyond 100 yards should pack one. The good ones weigh practically nothing and are superbly accurate.

Combined with newer riflescopes with reticles that have calibrated hold points for different distances, the average hunter can now make long shots with confidence. For example, my .300 Winchester Short Mag wears a Burris Fullfield II 3x9 scope with a Ballistic Plex reticle. Zeroed at 100 yards with a 180-grain bullet, the calibrated aim points match up at 200, 300, 400 and 500 yards, give or take a couple of inches at each stop. Similarly, my .257 Weatherby Mag sports a Leupold Vari-X II 3x9 scope with the LR (long range) Duplex reticle. Zeroed 3 inches high at 100 yards with 120-grain bullets, the calibrated aim points correspond to 400, 500 and 600 yards.

For the aim points to correspond accurately, the scope has to be dialed up to maximum or near-maximum magnification

for each shot. You also need to practice with the ammunition you plan to hunt with to verify where the bullets strike at given ranges, relative to the aim points. There can be an inch or 3 of variation with different ammunition, but once you have things dialed in, these newer scopes are remarkably accurate.

MASTER THE FUNDAMENTALS

I have an allergic reaction to people who tell you to squeeze the trigger gently so that you don't know when it's going to go off. That may be great advice for a novice learning to punch holes in paper targets, but it's poor guidance for field shooting.

In the opinions of the best hunters I know, a prerequisite for accurate field shooting is knowing exactly when your trigger is going to go off. You can't do that with a lousy trigger, so either buy a rifle with good adjustable trigger or install a premium aftermarket trigger, such as a Timney.

The next trick is setting the trigger let-off where you need it for hunting. Setting it at 2 1/2 pounds is about right for me. On a big-game hunting rifle, anything less can be dangerous. Anything more can be a hindrance.

Once you have the trigger set where you like it, get lots of practice -- including a good amount of dry firing. Your goal is simple: to train your eyes, brain and trigger finger to make the gun fire at the precise moment when the cross hairs are where they should be. Dry firing can also help you overcome flinching.

Speaking of fundamentals, few things are more fundamental than breathing. I don't know about you, but if I've just sprinted up a mountain, I can't hit a proverbial bull in his posterior with a baseball bat. Always try to get your breathing under control before taking a shot. If you're winded and think you may be close to having to shoot, slow down and take several deep breaths -- hyperventilate, essentially -- to calm down before you reach the shoot/don't-shoot decision point.

At the range, and in dry firing, practice proper breathing technique with each shot until it becomes second nature. Once you've acquired a sight picture, take a deep breath, slowly let part of it out, and hold the rest to take the shot. Don't hold it too long, or muscle tremors will ruin your hold. Better to start over than push things from bad to worse.

Practice until proper breathing happens subconsciously.

PRACTICE LIKE YOU HUNT

Unless you tote a shooting bench along on your hunts, practice shooting from standing, kneeling, sitting and prone positions, just as you may have to do in the field. Practice shooting with a sling for greater stability.

Not every opportunity results from a classic spot-and-stalk, set-up-the-shooting-sticks scenario. In the misnamed tactic called "still-hunting" -- in which we theoretically slink invisibly through the cover like Daniel Boone's ghost -- shots often happen quickly, close and unexpectedly.

Although it was a wild boar and not a deer, the last big-game animal I shot -- just days before filing this story -- provides a handy illustration. I jumped the bedded hog unexpectedly while working a brushy canyon. As the hog attempted to exit stage right, I had only a couple of seconds to decide and shoot, offhand, at the quartering-away animal before it disappeared for good.

What would you do? In this case, I had no time to take a rest, no time to kneel -- no time to do anything but click off the safety, swing and shoot. I did precisely that, and anchored the hog with a textbook quartering-away shot.

I was successful for several reasons. First, I practice offhand shooting. Second, I had cranked my scope down to its lowest setting in anticipation of a close shot.

And finally, I do a lot of wingshooting in the course of a year, which can do wonders for your ability to hit moving game with a rifle.

Having made the case for knowing how to shoot "unassisted," so to speak, you should never do so unless you absolutely have to, which leads to our next important point.

ALWAYS TAKE A REST

Always!

With the advent of modern shooting sticks, which update an old idea with newer, lighter materials, there's no excuse for not having a steady shooting platform for all but a few shooting situations, such as the one described above. There are even three-legged shooting sticks that function as an effective tripod, one of the best supporting platforms around.

Even when carrying shooting sticks, I'll use a more stable rest when possible. If the vegetation isn't too tall, that translates into shooting from a prone position and resting the gun over a daypack. I'll also happily shoot from a seated position by resting the gun on a log or rock. Just be sure to insulate the gun with small pack, a hat -- even your hand will do -- and take care to support the stock, rather than the barrel, which could cause a change in the point of impact.

CHECK YOUR ZERO

Few things can ruin your day faster than drawing down on the buck of your dreams, only to miss because your scope got knocked around while you were traveling to the hunt. Whether it was your fault or the fault of the gorillas hired to handle luggage for the airlines, take no chances.

If you suspect that your scope or sights may have been knocked out of alignment, find a safe spot to shoot, pace off 100 yards or measure the distance with a rangefinder, and test-fire the gun to make sure it's still hitting where it's supposed to. Frequent trips to the range help maintain your zero and afford you the added benefit of extra practice.

COPING WITH BUCK FEVER

The best way to handle buck fever is to not think about it. Easier said than done? Yes, it can be, just as your degree of susceptibility to buck fever can vary with each shooting opportunity, depending on myriad factors.

The best way I know to combat these little demons that distract us or make us nervous is to focus, intensely and completely, on the basic mechanics of what I'm doing. I think of it as following the "Three Cs," as follows:

Clear your scope. (Make sure nothing's obstructing your view.)

Clear the barrel. (Make certain no stems, twigs or blades of grass will deflect your bullet.)

And clear your head. Simply "will" that bullet to go with laser-like intensity where the cross hair is pointed. Commit yourself to mentally following through on the shot.

GET IN SHAPE

You'll get there quicker -- and in better shape to make the shot when you arrive -- if you've spent time working on your physical condition. It's amazing how much easier everything seems when you're clicking on all cylinders. The same goes for your mental condition, which leads to our final point.

DEVELOP YOUR CONFIDENCE

In some cultures, it's long been accepted that in order to hunt something successfully, you must first dream about it. I wouldn't list that as a hard requirement, but there's a lot to be said

for visualization. Simply putting your imagination to work well in advance to visualize all the possible moment-of-truth scenarios you may face on a given hunt -- and doing the mental gymnastics to decide how you would handle each situation -- can do wonders for your preparation and your confidence. Think of it as constructive daydreaming.

For those who suffer from an imagination deficit, here's one final trick that can put you in the proper frame of mind to make the shot on a trophy buck. Go out and buy a DVD or video that has lots of footage of monster bucks. Grab your hunting rifle, make sure it's unloaded, and have a seat on your living room floor.

That's right: I want you to practice shooting deer on your television!

You might not want do this when family members are around, lest they consider putting you on some serious medication. But this simple act, repeated over and over, can condition your brain to accept the shooting of monster bucks as routine.

We both know that's not true, but brain and body tend to function best under such situations when they're on practiced autopilot.

Remember, there'll be plenty of time later for reality to set in and celebrations to begin -- after you've made the shot.

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