By Joe Bell
The terrain was gnarly for a caribou hunt — 50-degree inclines, shale slopes, rocky cliffs, and huge crevasses that all needed careful navigation in order to reach prominent ridgetops. This is where these surefooted caribou escaped the misery of black flies, which were so prevalent in the willow-thick valleys below.
For several days in a row, and dozens of hard-walking miles later, my guide and I hadn’t seen much more than a dozen or so of these tall-racked nomads — with zero shooting opportunities. For many reasons, I felt like I was on a Dall sheep adventure, not a caribou hunt.
So, when one nice bull suddenly materialized out of nowhere — nearly a mile away — I knew this was the one. After all, I hadn’t flown 2,500 miles across the continent only to come home empty-handed.
An hour or so later, I broke off from my guide and climbed into the snow-covered bowl, eager to see the tops of big, fuzzy antlers. I inched along until reaching a cliff’s edge, and then, like a dream, there he was, standing sharply below me at around 35 yards.
Immediately, my heart raced as I assessed the shot. The wind was squirrely, whipping away from the bull just enough to keep my scent at bay, at least for the time being. This worried me, and I knew the clock was ticking. The bull’s body position kept changing, too, as he stepped from side to side while feeding and shaking his head to combat the flies. Due to the angle and changing shot position, his bez points would sometimes obscure his vitals. At first take, the shot appeared risky.
Bad shot, I was thinking, but as the bull continued to swivel around, things suddenly changed. That red light in my gut began blinking yellow and then green. That’s when a burst of confidence came over me. I knew now was the time to shoot.
I made a slight step backward, drew my bow level with the ground, and then tiptoed to the edge of the cliff’s wall, slowly twisting at the waist to set my sight. The arrow suddenly flashed and then drove deep into the bull’s chest. He turned and then stormed off, only to falter less than 75 yards away. I was completely stunned and thankful.
Navigating Tricky Shots
Every bowhunter must strive for ethical, lethal shots in the field. The standard rule is to take broadside or slightly quartering-away shots only, at relaxed animals at distances that are clearly within the archer’s effective range. This effective range is demonstrated through weeks of shooting at 3-D targets using broadhead-tipped arrows.
However, perfect textbook-like shots don’t always materialize in the deer or elk woods. In fact, on a weeklong hunt, you may get only one “good” shot — not a “perfect” one. That’s it. And as long as it’s ethical and within your personal capabilities, then you should take it. Being timid and thoughtful is important when sizing up shots, but if you waffle too long, you’ll possibly miss a legitimate opportunity to fill your tag.
Dealing With Obstacles
A good shot is one that is highly ethical in nature. However, there can be certain factors that make it unusual or difficult. This could be a branch sticking out across the animal’s chest, or maybe the wind is blowing quite hard, causing your sight pin to bounce. Or, it could be that the buck or bull is alert and staring at you. So now what? Maybe the shot is nearly perfect, but it’s five or 10 yards beyond your maximum effective range. Perhaps the animal is about to intersect your shooting lane and a great shot is imminent, only a rain shower is beginning to develop. Do you still shoot?
There are so many variables with shooting at game that it’s impossible to cover them all. The bottom line is that unusual shots are prevalent, and we need to know which opportunities are ethical, and which are not. How we do this boils down to having an intimate knowledge of our skill level, and whether or not our inner compass tells us we should shoot, or wait for a better opportunity.
The Green Light
In the face of a shot, an experienced bowhunter will quickly pick up on a multitude of details, run them through the mind’s supercomputer, and quickly decipher whether the shot is legitimately ethical. If not, the inner light will flash yellow or completely red, not green, which is essential. The archer must trust his or her inner instinct and wait for a better opportunity. The more someone hunts and the more encounters they have with game, the better this situational awareness becomes, and the more refined his or her gut will be at properly deciphering the shot.
Shots That Are Clearly Bad
There isn’t space here to discuss the myriad shooting scenarios that can occur, and how a bowhunter should react. However, there are clearly some situations that should be avoided. Here are three that are highly iffy, and often end with poor results.
Game On The Move: A slow-walking deer is an achievable target, and one that you might consider taking, given you’ve practiced this scenario before by shooting at a swinging or rolling target. This shot will require a sustained lead for appropriate arrow placement. However, a deer that is running through the woods, regardless of the shooting distance, spells complete disaster.
I once shot a bull elk in New Mexico that charged up a hill to my guide’s calling setup but then spotted my outline. It lunged away as it knew something was up, and I swung my top pin ever so slightly ahead of the aiming spot and released. The shot was only 12 yards away, and he was running, quartering away. The arrow hit perfectly, only the broadhead was quickly diverted to the liver and paunch area as the animal’s body moved with incredible dynamic force. It took nearly a day to recover this bull, and I was astonished by the outcome. Running shots at game are truly unethical. Please, do not shoot!
Shots In The Wind: If you hunt out west, you know shooting in the wind is necessary. After all, in some places it never stops blowing.
But, shooting in heavy wind (over 25 mph) is ultra-risky and unethical. Unless you carry a pocket windmeter, you won’t know the exact wind speed, which causes additional problems. A simple method to determine if the wind is blowing too hard is to simply pick out an imaginary target, draw your bow and aim, and then examine how your sight pin moves. If it bounces uncontrollably, forget about shooting under these conditions. Be patient, and wait for a lull in the wind. Or choose a different day to hunt altogether.
Long Shots: Every archer’s skill level is different. Some can drill the target at 50 yards better than others can at 30. So, who’s to say that long shots for some are unethical? Well, let me put it this way: No matter how good you are, you can’t control the time it takes the arrow to travel downrange. It can take the arrow a split-second longer to reach its intended target, and a lot can happen in that amount of time — spelling disaster.
Taking long shots on game is a sign of bowhunting immaturity…don’t do it. Be deliberate and smart in your shooting attempts. Select only high-percentage shots, and give animals the respect they deserve. Save long shots for follow-up attempts, when the goal is entirely different: To recover the animal by every legal means possible.
There’s a lot to consider when shooting at game, and the excitement of the moment can really foul your judgement. However, resist that urge to let your emotions control things. Do your best to think through each shooting situation, so you can ethically size up good shots from bad ones. Bottom line: Trust your inner gut. It is seldom wrong.