It’s nearly midnight in Sparky’s “Jokers Wild” bear camp in Idaho. Sunset was at 9:10; I was “legal” until 9:40. At exactly 9:23 a nice, chocolate-colored black bear stepped out of the woods. I watched this bear until shooting light ended, but never reached for my rifle.
Right now, with “midnight quarterbacking” in effect, I figure I had rocks in my head. But I am me, and you are you, and we each have reasons for taking (or passing) a shot. That was a very acceptable black bear. I was there in the hopes of killing a nice black bear, and here was the perfect chance right in front of me.
Reasons not to shoot: I’ve taken several black bears. More importantly, thanks to trail camera magic, I knew this bear.This chocolate bear with tan muzzle and prominent white chest marking was probably a big, mature sow. Absent cubs and a nice bear, there was no compelling reason not to shoot except the trail camera suggested she was being pursued by two good boars, one which was much bigger.
Knowing all this, I passed the shot. I was passing a shot at a good animal that I was hunting with no assurance that it would be a good call. You roll the dice, but an opportunity passed is unlikely to come again.
I see this a lot on my Kansas farm. It’s common for our hunters to pass bucks in the first couple of days of our five-day hunts. I call it “stockpiling,” with the corollary that you can’t stockpile whitetails. Or, for that matter, hardly any game animals anywhere. Reality: A nice animal seen is an animal that may not be seen again. This is especially true in our southeast Kansas woods and also true over a bait barrel in Idaho. Sure, it can happen. The same buck might show up again, and I might see that chocolate bear again. But my experience is that you pass a shot at your peril, with the understanding you had an opportunity that may not come back around.
On any given hunt we all set standards. Hopefully, they’re realistic. If you’re serious about the biggest and best, your path is clear. You will pass all else and understand the odds are against you. Most of us are happy with a nice animal representative of the area. This is the path I usually follow—and recommend—but the first goal should be to have a good experience. Few of us like to “fill out” early in a hunt—the experience definitely suffers—but there’s no predicting when a chance might come along. If success (in terms of filled tags) really matters to you, don’t pass an animal on the first day that you’d be happy with on the last day.
Aggressive or Conservative?
I don’t always follow this policy. I don’t want a hunt to end quickly, and I’m also curious to see what might happen. When that “moment of truth” comes along some of us are conservative, almost reticent, in taking the shot. I will admit that I am aggressive. I usually don’t fuss around trying to get things perfect. In the Marines we often said, “A 90 percent solution now may beat a 100 percent solution tomorrow.” This is not to say one should ever rush or take a shot beyond one’s capability. No shot should be taken unless you are certain you can place it well.
However, the heart/lung area of a big-game animal is not a small target. I have mental range limits, and a sighting beyond those limits is not an opportunity. Within my self-imposed limits, if I can get steady, I’ll usually take the shot. You won’t catch me blustering that I never miss, nor do I go into camp saying, “Show him to me and I’ll hit him.” That’s asking for trouble. I’ve messed up, and I will again. Fortunately, it hasn’t happened often, so my instinct is to take the shot. And if the animal is what I’m looking for, I usually shoot as quickly as I can.
Ones That Haunt Me
I’m bothered by misses. I’m bothered much more by wounded-and-lost animals. Fortunately, there have been only a few of the latter. It’s essential to understand what went wrong and do better. I’m also haunted by shots I failed to take. The bear I just passed won’t haunt me because I weighed the odds and made a decision.
A Dall ram I passed last year also doesn’t bother me. On the third day of a backpack hunt we had a nice ram at 600 yards and were out of options. Such distance is not my thing, but I’d practiced hard and my rifle was set up. Unfortunately, we were in a bowl and I couldn’t read the wind on the far side, so we walked away. Days later, we shot the same ram at 120 yards. If we hadn’t, it wouldn’t have bothered me; I didn’t have a shot.
Years ago, in one of Montana’s “unlimited” sheep areas, Jack Atcheson Jr. and I got onto a nice ram bedded in a boulder field 250 yards away. I had the crosshairs on him, but I dithered to check the horns one last time. In a flash the ram was up and gone. That was the end of that—except in my nightmares.
I’ve hunted Alberta a half-dozen times looking for an extra-large whitetail. It’s true that I’ve never fired a shot, but it’s not true that I’ve never had a chance. I was on a little ridge, looking across a snowy flat at a frozen slough. Two very big bucks appeared and walked slowly along the edge. This was before rangefinders, so I didn’t know the exact distance, but it was less than 300 yards. My 7mm Magnum could handle the shot, and I was lying over my pack, so I could have handled it, too. I couldn’t tell which buck was bigger, but I’m sure both were larger than any whitetails I’ve taken. I did nothing except keep them in my crosshairs as they slowly walked away. I can still see them so clearly. To this day I don’t understand why I lay frozen doing nothing.
Just last year, in the first hour of the first day on Anticosti Island, a very nice buck jumped out in front of me and floated down a snowy road, three jumps and around a corner. I hate the Texas heart shot, so I failed to shoot. But it was close, and I had enough gun and enough bullet. And after a long, cold week, that was the only decent buck I saw. I suspect I’ll see him in my dreams for a long time.
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