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The Shot Not Taken

November 12, 2013

The shot not taken is the one to:

  1. Regret
  2. Be thankful for
  3. Revisit in your dreams for years to come
  4. All of the above

As someone who has made a career out of designing and developing training courses, I’ve always hated multiple choice questions that end with, “All of the above.”  I dislike them nearly as much as, “None of the above.”

It just seems lazy.

But that’s neither here nor there, I guess.  The correct answer to the question is, “Depends.”

Doesn’t it?  There are any number of reasons to hold your fire, resist that pulse in your index finger, and let it walk.  Some reasons are better than others, and some seem foolish to anyone except the person who made the call.

It’s nearly dark.  The clock on my cell phone tells me that I have about four minutes of shooting time left.  25 yards away, in a spot I call “the Murder Hole”, a nice-sized doe is silhouetted against the rocky, white ground.  It’s so dark, and so quiet, she doesn’t notice when I stand up on the platform and raise my bow.

The pins barely glow in the fading light.  I can’t really see the crease behind her shoulder, but I draw and center the 20 yard pin right at the top of where I think it should be.  The doe continues to feed, head down, as my finger inches toward the trigger of the release.  With a touch, in less than a quarter of a second a razor-tipped shaft could slice deep into her chest.

Instead, with all the strength I can muster, I let off and slowly lower the bow.  The doe, oblivious, browses for a few minutes and then wanders off into the cedars.

I’m about 95% certain I could have killed that deer.  If my shooting had been better earlier in the season, my confidence would have been even higher.  But it didn’t matter.  I never loosed the arrow.

I know that, under those conditions it was easy to make the choice I did on ethical grounds.  I couldn’t really see, and was aiming where I thought the vitals were.  I would not have been able to see the arrow’s flight or impact, or the deer’s reaction to the hit (if it was hit at all) so I wouldn’t really be sure of whether it was a clean killing shot, or something less ideal.  And on a purely selfish level, I really didn’t feel like spending my night bloodtrailing a deer.  I know some people would have taken the shot, and I don’t think I’d fault them for it.  But for me, at that moment, it wasn’t right.

It’s not always as clear-cut, though.

It’s 09:00 on a beautiful Saturday morning.  I’ve been in the stand since 05:30, and haven’t really seen anything since legal shooting light.  I’d be discouraged, except it’s just such a nice day I don’t mind lazing in the branches of this oak tree.

Behind me, from the edge of the horse pasture, I hear the sound of rolling rocks and tentative footsteps.  I know without looking that it’s a deer, and I also know that it’s going to walk directly under my stand.  I freeze, resisting the urge to snatch up the bow.  And I wait.

He appears in the edge of my peripheral vision, a young buck with two long spikes that curve inward, almost like an antelope.  He’s a regular on these trails, and shows up frequently on my cameras… sometimes alone, and sometimes with a little bachelor group.  I strain my ears as he walks by, listening intently for signs that the other bucks are with him.  He’s alone.

The buck passes under my stand and enters my shooting lanes.  He’ll crawl under the fence at the corner of the pasture like they all do, and when he stands back up he’ll be exactly 20 yards away.  He idles along, but eventually comes to the corner and follows the script.  He kneels to pass under the slick wire, and then stands and looks around carefully.  He’s in a textbook position, broadside at a slight angle, and he has no inkling of the predator perched overhead.

I ease the bow up, and when he turns to look out over the pasture, I come to full draw.  The sight pin drops into the center of the peep and hovers over the deer’s beating heart.

But I don’t shoot.

Maybe I just wasn’t hungry enough.  Maybe I’ve gone soft.  I don’t know.

All I know is that I let him walk, and then passed on him again the next day in a similarly ideal setup.  It was about as easy as any shot in archery can be, and I had the whole day to trail, recover, and process him.  But I didn’t.

There’s an awful, powerful sense of finality in the decision to take the shot.  I think a lot of us have a level of something, reluctance maybe, that delays that trigger squeeze sometimes… makes us hesitate a half-beat before calling up death.  In its most powerful form, I think it even causes us to pull a shot and miss the easy target (or maybe that’s just me making excuses).    For me it’s always been there, although I think I feel it more as I’ve gotten a little older.

There have been a lot of shots I didn’t take for which I later kicked myself.  I’ve passed shots at big bucks and boar hogs, and then replayed the images over and over in my mind with the solid conviction that I could have made a clean, quick kill.  But sometimes that’s just hindsight playing tricks… or that’s what I tell myself so I can finally go to sleep.

I’ve hunted with a lot of people over the years, and I’ve been right beside many of them when the time came to make the shot or pass.  Without fail, it seems, there’s that moment of doubt.  Some people are openly vocal about it, doubting their abilities or the capability of their weapon, second-guessing the range estimation or the angle.  Others internalize, but I can see it working in their minds and their fingers as the mental battle rages.

I’ve had clients apologize to me after not taking a shot.  Usually, there’s a reasonable justification, but sometimes they can’t get past the argument that, “it just didn’t feel right.”

So there it is…

I believe it is never wrong to pass a shot, no matter the reason.  As the person with the finger on the trigger (or release), it is the hunter’s responsibility not only to kill cleanly, but to do so with a clean conscience.  If your doubts are too strong, then don’t shoot.  If you just don’t feel the need to kill an animal, at that moment, then let it walk.

Taking a life should never be a thoughtless act.

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