My hunting mentor once said to me: Dylan, you miss more deer than most guys will see in a lifetime. I used to think that was something to be proud of: I was capable of creating the opportunity to see lots of deer. I sometimes tell a story about missing four deer in one morning. I missed the fourth deer at 6 yards away with the first shot, when he was 15 yards away I got him. There are many ways to miss deer and I think that it is something we should talk more about as hunters and something we should try to do a better job of avoiding.
Within our hunting culture we more often boast of amazing shots that have resulted in a kill shot. Recently there seems to be an increase in articles and videos that celebrate long-range shooting, showcasing miraculous shots at great distances. We seldom tell the stories of when we miss. This article is about something that I’m particularly expert at— all the ways to miss a deer. It is not much fun to tell these stories, but I missed deer on three consecutive days on my whitetail hunt this year, and I felt an obligation to share the story as my penance for poor decision making and to hopefully pass on some valuable lessons to hunters.
Hits and Misses
I missed my first deer when I was 13 years old. I chose a spot on a trail with a few fresh whitetail deer scrapes and waited. After a while, a young buck wandered down the trail and stopped about 8 feet away and looked straight at me. As a new hunter, I was trying to figure out if he was a mule deer or whitetail. We stared at each other for a couple minutes and then the deer wised up, turned and ran back up the trail. I could see his rump as he trotted off and I was certain that he was a whitetail. He stopped about 80 yards away and looked back at me. I was excited. I found the deer in my scope and shot. I missed.
For the last decade I seem to have really improved my success rate without any missed animals, until this past season. I missed three whitetail deer on this last trip. I’m fairly certain that I missed two of the deer entirely. The third one I shot and he went down for a long time, then got up and walked away. I couldn’t find him. It was devastating.
While on a recent mule deer hunt in a popular hunting area, I came across came across two bucks that had presumably been shot before. Both of them had significant limps and from my observation would succumb to predation or winterkill.
The consequences of missing an animal are so much more than the lack of meat in the freezer. In some cases when you wound a deer it will go die peacefully somewhere that you were unable to find them, and worst-case scenario they will hobble around wounded and in pain until they starve or a wolf will put them out of their misery. To hunt successfully and ethically we should do what we can to minimize any of these cases.
More often than not missing an animal is a result of poor decision-making. I have spent days, months and years going over the scenario of a missed animal and wishing that I had made a different decision.
Part of reflecting on this and writing this article, is to remind myself of the gravity of the responsibility that I take every time I pull the trigger, and to reinforce the things I’ve learned over a lifetime of being a hunter that have improved my shooting success and reduced misses.
Why We Miss Deer
I interviewed a few of my hunting mentors on the subject of missing deer. Some common factors that contribute to missing deer emerged from our conversations. To summarize the mentors agree that you have a higher probability of a successful shot if the target is close to you (less than 100 yards away), with an un-obscured view of the target, you are shooting from a well-supported shooting position, and the shooter remains calm. This sounds simple but so often we forget one or more of these important factors.
Don’t Shoot at a Moving Target
Deer are often moving when you see first see them. If you are lucky and the deer has not taken notice of you, then you can observe them as they are feeding or walking along a trail, and you can wait for the deer to stop before taking aim. Many of my hunting partners hunt from tree stands and blinds so the majority of the time when they see deer they have the advantage and can patiently watch and wait for the perfect shot.
If you are a still hunter and you are slowly hunting your way through the forest, then the majority of the deer that you see will be on the run away from you. You should never shoot at a running animal. However, deer will often run about 80 yards away after being disturbed and then they will stop and look back to see what disturbed them. When I jump a deer (disturb a deer from its bed or feeding zone), I will run toward the deer until I get to a tree that I can use as camouflage and a rest. When the deer stops and looks back in my direction, I will have time to look at the deer in the binoculars and perhaps get a clear shot at the deer. In some cases, especially with Whitetail deer, the deer will not stop and look back. They will often run for 300 meters and then stop and go back to feeding and hanging out. If I know the lay of the land and I can anticipate where the deer may be holding up, then I will spend the while trying to hunt up on the deer again. Either scenario will have a higher probability of successfully harvesting a deer then shooting at a running deer.
Getting Close for a Shot
I have only shot one deer at over 200 yards. The deer was a tremendous whitetail that I had watched at 300+ yards for a while before he disappeared. An hour later he reappeared at 250 yards. I made a split-second decision and shot. I was aiming for his heart and I hit him low in the neck about 12” from the point of aim. I rushed the shot because I was worried he would disappear again. I got lucky, as I could have missed him 12” the other way and hit him in the guts and he would have had a long painful death. Thankfully most of the deer I see are usually less than 100 years away, with over half being less than 50 yards away. If I see a deer that is far away, then I try to get closer. I use the terrain and wind to my advantage to sneak in closer for a more reliable shot.
You must practice shooting at the range you intend to hunt. I rarely get to practice shooting at 300 yards at the range, so I don’t shoot animal at that range in the field. Under perfect range conditions I can shoot 2” groups at 100 meters from a bench. That means that I am no more than 2” from the point of aim when shooting from 100 meters distance. That same shot would be 4” from the target at 200 meters, and 8” off target at 300 yards. A shot that is 8” can easily miss a deer completely, or hit the deer in a non-fatal spot. Under hunting conditions in the field without a stable bench rest and factoring human excitement the inaccuracy will be exacerbated. While in the field using a tree or my pack as a rest in a best-case scenario I can shoot a 4” group at 100 yards, then I would be missing at close to 16” at 300 yards. This isn’t a shot worth taking.
The other important factor to help reduce missing is to take the time to find a rest before you shoot. We rarely practice shooting from a standing position, so why do we expect to hit deer when we are shooting offhand (standing position). I have trained myself to always stop next to a tree when I am sill hunting. The tree makes excellent camouflage and acts as a stable rest. I have also taken to hunting with a walking stick which can serve as a shooting stick if an opportunity presents itself. If I hunt from a ground blind then I find a stick that I can use as a shooting stick.
Get closer and find a good rest!
A Clear Path for the Bullet
What about all those deer that I have missed at less than 50 yards? I have missed several deer where I have been close and had a good rest. I am in state of disbelief when I shoot and then the deer doesn’t react and just slowly walks away. The most like scenario is that there was some brush along the bullet path. Grass, leaves, twigs and branches will all deflect the bullet significantly. The bullet is traveling at 3000 ft/sec and anything in the way will cause significant deviation to the bullet path. It can be difficult to see the brush along the bullet path because you will be focused on the target. I often first see deer with my binoculars, and I will focus in on the deer to see if it is a legal animal. Once I decide to shoot I transfer to my gun and look through the scope. In this situation, because I am looking though optics, I may not see branch or brush between the deer and me. In some cases I have spotted the deer standing, and then moved to a supported shooting position, not noticing a branch that is in the bullet path. The first deer that I missed when I was 13 years old, I could see the silhouette of a small buck behind some brush. I could see its chest but I guessed at where the heart would be and I pulled the trigger. Fortunately I missed completely. At the time, I thought the bullet would easily pass through the brush unaffected and into the deer. I was wrong.
A common way to miss deer is to raise your scope to shoot at a legal animal, only to find that your scope is completely obscured by snow or fog. Effective scope caps can mitigate this problem, but it is common for moisture to work it way on to the glass causing fogging. In this event it’s important to have some tissue on hand to wipe the scope free and clear of all the moisture or snow so that you can see your target.
Aiming for a Lethal Shot
One of the more obvious differences between shooting at a target and shooting at a deer is that there’s no bullseye on the body of the deer. It’s much easier for your brain to focus on a dot on a piece of paper to line up the crosshairs and squeeze the trigger. This can be a little bit more complicated when trying to aim at the chest of a deer. It’s important that you pick a hair on the deer and aim at that specific spot. For many years, I would aim at the center of mass of the chest, knowing that the lower two thirds of the chest would likely be a kill shot. The problem with this is I was not focusing on a specific spot. Imagine trying to shoot at the center of an 8” x 11” sheet of paper. You could probably hit the sheet of paper but you would have a great deal of difficulty producing consistent results. The same principle applies when you are shooting at the chest of the deer. My hunting mentor pointed this technique out to me the day after I missed four deer in one morning. After I started focusing on one point of aim on the chest of the deer my next 20 shots were lethal.
Also, shooting on a steep downhill can cause difficulties. I’ve missed a couple of animals shooting downhill. The distance between me and a deer is actually much further than the distance that the bullet travels over. The result is to overcompensate for the perceived distance. You may want to test how your gun shoots in an extreme uphill or downhill setup. It could be difficult to replicate the situation, but it’s a worthwhile exercise and you may see that your gun shoots low or high depending on the distance and conditions.
Making Poor Decisions About When to Shoot (Buck Fever)
All hunters get excited when a deer presents itself for a possible shot. The fact is that when an animal presents itself for a shot, adrenaline kicks in and it is difficult to settle your nerves and focus on making good decisions around when to shoot. Inevitably with the excitement we make one or several of the above mistakes.
A new hunter will have worked very hard for the moment when a deer finally presents itself. In this moment the new hunter will have an overwhelming surge of excitement, and this can lead to an uncontrollable urge to immediately shoot at the animal often resulting in a miss (often a combination of the above mistakes). Experienced hunters feel this same excitement, but over the years will have the confidence to know that by being patient and making a sound decision to pull the trigger it will result in a successful harvest.
By working on your shooting skills and getting out to see game in the wild it will help build your confidence as a shooter and help calm your nerves when you are ready to pull the trigger.