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A few years back, I was guiding in New Zealand. The clients showed up, and just like every week, we asked them to get out their rifles and head to the range. This was as much us checking their shooting ability as it was making sure the air travel did not mess up the rifles’ zeroes.
One of the hunters pulled out their new rifle, a Tracking Point firearm. I was the only person in camp that had ever heard of such a thing at that point as it was new to the market. Essentially, the rifle was equipped with a scope that integrated an F-14 jet weapons system lock-on to accurately account for all the ballistics calculations. You paint the target with a dot seen in the digital scope and the accompanying iPad that an observer can hold, then just depress the trigger... When everything lines up, the gun goes off. Drop compensation, speed of a moving target, corealis effect, cant of the rifle, temperature, altitude, pressure, it is all accounted for. A computerized sniper right out of the box and at the time a hefty price tag of around $22,000 for this model.
We went to the range and after hearing about the gun all the guides and clients were curious to see what the fancy .338 Lapua could do. Everyone gathered around the iPad watching as the owner lined up on the targets downrange, proned-out on a bipod with the rifle. After a few shots at some targets, a feral magpie landed in the field a few hundred yards away. One of the guides suggested he shoot the magpie. As we watched from the iPad, the guy painted the target, locked on the center of the bird, held down the trigger, and when it all lined up the electric pulse set the rifle off.
While you would think the magpie would have been rendered to mist… the bullet struck low, hitting below the bird, sending the bird flying off to land on a branch near our 300-yard targets. While everyone scratched their heads and looked at each other confused, I grabbed my guide rifle. A gun I had worn the finish off by carrying it day-in and day-out for years and shot nearly every day. I put a round in like I had a thousand times before, leaned up against the side of the barn where we were all standing, squeezed the trigger, and took the head off the bird.
The entire group burst into laughter. It was a John Henry moment. Man had beat machine. Amidst the laughter, the confused $22,000 weapons-system-rifle owner exclaimed “well, I guess there is no replacing experience” as he combed through the iPad to see why he missed. Turns out the tolerance to the rifle was set at 3 MOA… a good excuse, but it was over, the machine had lost. Of course, I was happy I beat the machine, but I just played it cool. No ribbing the guy, no bragging, just unloaded the spent cartridge, slipped it into my pocket as a memento. I rested the emptied rifle on the barn and went back to helping the hunters shoot their guns.
Over the years I have noticed that it seems like new technology is always trying to replace a skill to make success easier to come by. Everyone is looking for a hack or shortcut to success. While I have nothing against this and embrace many of those technologies myself. I am a firm believer that there is no shortcut or technology to make you consistently successful or at your core, a more competent hunter. There are many things that I believe technology should not replace, and they fall into the basic skillsets that will make you a better hunter. Sometimes it is better to learn to hunt hack-free and then incorporate the bonus technology to add as tools to your repertoire.
I have really taken this to heart over the past couple of years just to personally get in touch with the skills I remember needing. As bows have gotten faster and more cumbersome, I still try to pick up my longbow or recurve for a hunt or two every season. As I rely more on long-range shooting, ballistics apps, and calculations, I find myself now going open sights when I can. I also picked up a traditional muzzleloader. Sure, there are now 1000-yard scoped supergun muzzleloaders, but in many ways, these defeat the purpose. It is good to get back to the basics, hunt, and test your skills over your use of technology. The path is longer, but the reward is greater on the other side.
To be a better hunter, let’s think about all the things we regularly take on hunts now and what skills they are trying to replace, then let’s dissect that skill and figure out how to improve.
Distance, Drop, and Making the Shot
You know the saying, “Excuses are like A-holes… everyone has got one.” One of my favorite excuses to use for a miss to blame it on the rangefinder. I have done it many times and have legitimately missed many shots by mis-ranging or mis-guessing the range after the animal has moved in crunch time–not to mention those times when the option was range or draw, and there was only time for one of the two. I started to feel so reliant on that piece of equipment that I felt if the batteries went out, my bow was inoperable.
Then I had to think back to a short time ago when men were men and known yardages were for golfers in funny hats. Guessing yardage is an art that takes as much or more time to learn than shooting. The fear of missing always made me want to practice knowing my yardage but this, in turn, made me more reliant on technology. There are two hard ways to overcome this: practice range estimation or get closer. I will break down the art of both.
Practice, practice, and practice some more at unknown yardages. I have found the best and most fun way to do this is to head out with my bow in hand and a quiver full of arrows with rubber blunt-style tips, then rove.
Roving is where you walk and find different things to shoot at varying distances. Everything from pinecones to dirt clumps. Draw back, estimate, and shoot. This is an art I was taught long ago but I think it is lost and essential now. It is especially fun with a traditional bow, but I think it is a necessary skill with a compound and even a rifle as well.
Our brains are supercomputers and whether we know it or not, they are constantly accounting for things. This kind of practice lets your brain compute the distance in the background. Over time, you will get remarkably good at it. This will translate to more success when that range finder won’t range, something moves, or you just do not have the time.
Here is how you make it work: Go into hunting-type scenarios, walk around and find targets with a good backdrop where you are unlikely to break or lose an arrow, then, shoot them. If you miss, don’t range, just re-estimate and shoot again. What you are trying to do is get your brain to correlate how far things are, unaided.
Think of it like this: A friend is across the room and says, “Hey, toss me an orange.” Do you get out your rangefinder or even think about his distance? Now, you have probably tossed things to people for a long time. You really do not think about it. If that same friend is really close, you will still toss the orange. Your brain calculates the distance.
If every time in your life you went to toss something, you first paced it off, you would be adding an unnecessary step and probably not toss oranges very well without help. You need to learn to compute naturally and associate where to hold with the drop and the distance. This will make it instantaneous for those times when you can’t just rely on a device.
I do this as well with my rifle, obviously making sure that I am shooting at safe things with no fire danger and a good backdrop. I pick a rock or another object and shoot. This helps me understand not only range estimation but my ballistics as well. It works for anything you shoot.
Another great way to build this skill on the cheap is to take a .22 out into the field in winter or spring and shoot stuff. Open sights are great; it does not matter. pick targets that let you see where you hit and shoot. You might be surprised at how well you can do even out at long distances. These may seem like things you did as a kid, but they are necessary skills for building that muscle memory.
You will be surprised at how well you can understand drop compensation and range estimation and how it becomes automatic. Through repetition, your brain will teach you to compensate without thinking and you will be more effective in situations where you need to act and you don’t have time to rely on a rangefinder, ballistics app, or some other technology that has replaced this age-old hunting skill. Of course, if you have the time to range, adjust, and use a known yardage, by all means, take that route. I know I do, but it is nice to have the skills that earlier generations had to put in the time to get. So, in crunch time, you can find success when those that may have let that skill go to the wayside would have failed.
Now, let’s say you have an opportunity but you are not sure the range, your drop, or where to hold. Option two… get closer. Back before so much technology, hunters got so close that they knew they could not miss. What this means is that they had to understand how to move quietly, plan a good stalk, use the wind, and sneak in. I have been guilty time and time again of getting to my maximum effective range, then saying, “Ok. That is close enough.” Often, something uncontrollable would happen; the animal would jump the string, step at the shot, etc. and it would be a miss or bad shot.
I realized this and completely changed my hunting philosophy. Instead of shooting farther, I made a conscious effort to say, “I will get so close there is no way I could mess up.” Once I enacted this philosophy, I became much better at stalking, reading animals, and understanding the wind. I was more successful and not to mention a much better overall hunter, in turn finding consistent success. Now while I still practice and know my capabilities for farther shots, never saying “that is close enough” has produced more success.
I am much more impressed with the hunter that takes something with a rifle at 50 yards than one at 800 yards. Now, do not get me wrong, over the years I have taken some far shots with my drop compensation, custom rifles, and adequate range time, sniped my target from over half a mile away, and not regretted the decision. I also realize that when I choose to sneak in and get close is when I really feel like I am hunting. Choosing to get close means that things can go wrong along the way, but you can minimize those things by making the right moves and getting back to the basics of your hunting skills.
Know the wind
If you go on a stalk with me or even just a walk, the first thing you may notice is that I check the wind nearly every other second. I pull the tops off grasses, drop dirt, flick a lighter, hit a wind detector puff bottle. Why? Because it is one of the most important factors to successfully getting close. Understanding what the wind is doing and where it is doing it helps me build a picture to predict wind currents as well as plan a stalk accordingly.
The more you do this, the less likely you will be to get busted. I like to tell people that I never get winded, but sometimes the people I am with do. While that is meant as a joke, I do not get winded very often, because I am constantly checking, adjusting, never trusting, and never assuming that I can cheat it a little. I put wind as a priority and because of that, I take the route that is likely to lead to success.
Getting close involves planning, forethought, and accounting for where things can go awry. The more you think three moves ahead the more likely you are to make a perfect stalk. One of the most important factors is to plan to a place where you can shoot from, not just a place where the animal is; having the foresight to think of the topography and terrain where you are going, possible places the animal will move where you can’t see when over there, and once again what the wind will be doing in that spot. The best way to plan a stalk is to create a checklist that includes all those factors. Once those things are accounted for, you are well on your way to closing the distance.
Getting close means there is a necessary element of stealth. If you have watched any of my videos where I am hunting, you may notice that I tend to take off my shoes an obscene amount. That is because in order to trick the ears, you must be quiet. I love my stiff-soled boots for a lot of terrain, but I know that if I want to be so close that I cannot mess up and will go completely undetected, I need to be silent.
Effective stalking is as much silence as observance. If I were to name one factor over the years that has ruined more opportunities than any other thing, it would be people walking with their heads down. Many people, while stalking in, are looking at things right in front of them that might make noise and then make a move, not noticing they are in view of the animal and end up busted. You can tell an expert hunter from a novice within seven steps. The expert will be constantly looking up, scanning, letting their feet feel the ground and eyes look for all cautions. Learning this one simple trick will simultaneously make you quieter and get you closer.
While hunting today vs. hunting when our grandparents started is undoubtedly much more efficient due to the advancement of technology, gear, and information, some skills should still be practiced. I like to use all the latest and greatest, but taking a few things into practice like estimating range for quick decisions and consistently being able to get closer will, in the long run, make you a more successful hunter. Add all the fun gadgets on top of those basic hunting skills and you will have a reliable, winning combination for success time and time again.