My cousin Dan loves hunting. The rest of our family brought him into the tradition four years ago and he has never looked back. He is a busy guy though, working a full-time job, figuring out the nuances of a new marriage and trying to break into the city fire fighting scene. So preparation for hunting sometimes takes a back seat for Dan. I’m not going to lie, he plain and simple doesn’t get out as much as I would like to practice with his rifle every year (sadly, I fear, like a large proportion of hunters in this country). He inherited his rifle (a Remington 740 chambered for the venerable .30-06 Springfield) from our grandfather. Dan just does not have the intimate knowledge of his weapon required to make a perfect shot every time he pulls the trigger. A normal year only sees Dan shooting his rifle right before the hunt. He will go to a local shooting range the week before the hunt and sight in the rifle. I don’t believe this is a good philosophy for preparing for a hunt. You are rushed and if you get frustrated, your confidence is sure to be shaken. And in my experience, confidence in yourself and your rig is essential to accurate shooting. This year brought Dan’s first opportunity to chase speed goats up in Wyoming. And although he did fill his doe tag, the hunt served more as an eye opener than anything else.
My dad and I were the first in our group to arrive in camp this year. I would fill my tag only hours after arriving in the area and with the sun setting over the Wyoming prairie, we field dressed my doe and took her back to camp. Back in camp, we chowed down on some chili cheese dogs and started getting the site ready for the others in the group that were still on the road traveling up from Colorado. Among them was my cousin Dan, his wife and a couple that they know, that are interested in hunting and wanted to see what it was all about. One of these newcomers was very new to the “camping thing”, and so we figured that we would get their tent set up so that they weren’t struggling to do it in the wind at midnight. They had given my dad their tent and some other gear to bring up and when I started to open the tent’s packaging, it was apparent that this tent had never been set up. It was one of those Target brand tents and I had my doubts about its structural ability to withstand the stout Wyoming wind. The exhausted foursome showed up in camp around 11PM and we deliberated on hunt plans for the morning before retiring to our sleeping bags. It was decided that I would take Dan and Andy (the newbie) out to get Dan his doe early in the morning and then switch over to guiding my dad once we got Dan his first antelope.
We had decided to wake up around 7AM and cross the river behind camp and look for goats where I had seen them the evening prior. I was awoken around 5:30AM however by a dark figure moving outside the camper. When I had arrived in camp the evening prior, there was a hunter in the adjacent site to us, about 100 yards down the river. He made it a point to come over and ask me, “Are you planning on camping hear?” “Yes”, I replied. He followed up with an almost menacing statement of, “Well we’re probably going to be pretty damn roudy.” I acknowledged him and wondered what he was trying to purvey. Did he want us out of here? Why? Well I decided that we weren’t going to move. We had one day fishing licenses for Sunday and wanted to fish the section of stream directly behind camp. Only time would tell if these guys would turn out to be bad neighbors. So when I was awoken that next morning by a dark figure snooping around in the darkness outside of our camper, I threw on my pants (with my side arm attached) and jumped out into the early morning twilight. To my surprise, the dark figure was my brother in law, who had not been able to find the camp that night after a long drive up from Denver and ended up finding it that morning. He quietly informed me that there was a group of does down the road about a mile, in the unit that my cousin Dan had a tag for. I ran over to Dan’s tent and told him to throw his gear together quickly. He is not really a morning person and was not happy about this early morning change in plans. Once it set in that he was going to get a chance at his first antelope though, the excitement took over and he forgot altogether about that thief of time we call sleep.
Within ten minutes, Dan, Andy and I were heading to the area where my brother in law had seen the antelope on his way into camp. We rounded a bend and I saw them. They were about 400 yards away and were completely preoccupied with each other. There was a mature buck that was running the does around in a fit of passion. We were able to sneak up to a little over 350 yards from them and we set up. Dan was very excited but we were able to get him calmed down as he took aim. I told him the range and he didn’t really know where his rifle would be hitting. I didn’t like the sound of this and started to get hesitant about letting him take the shot. I asked him where he had sighted his rifle in at. He said that he was 2.5 inches high at a hundred yards. I told him where I thought he should hold and you could see that he just wasn’t prepared for this type of shooting. In hindsight, I wish I would have just stopped everything right there. He was not prepared for a shot like this but it is hard to communicate something like that because I didn’t want to offend him.
I was getting ready to say that we should try and close the distance between us and the goats when the rifle went off and the ringing in my ears began. I did not see where the bullet went but it must have been high because the antelope ran in our direction. The closest doe (who was still over 300 yards out) turned broadside and Dan fired again. I immediately knew that the shot had connected but she reacted strangely. I called the shot, “you hit her, but I think it hit forward.” She was running with her front end slouched way down and I couldn’t tell where the bullet had struck until she turned and started running straight at us. What I saw then, really made me regret letting Dan take that shot. The shot had apparently gone through both front legs at the elbow and had mangled them badly. She gave up on running after about 40 yards and bedded down. I sternly told Dan, “she is hit, but not mortally. You are going to need to put one in her vitals.” The problem was that the rest of the herd was now standing in front of her. I would occasionally get a glance of her through the herd and she had her head up at full attention but she didn’t even try to stand up. The big buck went over to her to investigate and the rest of the herd took off. He then wheeled to chase the rest of his ladies down. Dan now had a clear shot at her and held on her vitals and fired. I called the shot left and he couldn’t figure out how. I just told him that he needed to settle down and finish her off. He steadied his breathing and held on the base of her neck and fired one more time. This shot hit its mark, broke her spine and ended the ordeal.
On the walk to her, Dan seemed shaken. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and I was not happy that Andy’s first experience with hunting had been like this. We got up to the poor girl and inspected the wounds. It was not pretty. Dan kept asking me, “Should I feel bad?” I didn’t know how to respond. Certainly any ethical hunter would feel remorse for causing suffering to an animal, no matter how brief. I didn’t know what to tell him. I eventually told him that these things happen but that they can be avoided with practice. He felt very bad but knew that he had to change the way that he prepares for hunts. He now understands the importance of thorough preparation with one’s rifle. He vowed that he would never take a shot like that without being prepared for it and he promised himself that he would get out to better familiarize himself with his rifle.
It is not optimal that this epiphany had to come at the expense of that poor doe. But at least she was put down within three minutes of the initial hit. I believe that this experience has changed Dan as a hunter. I think he will put much more thought into the shots that he decides to take. Like everything in life, hunting is a learning experience. It is dynamic and you never stop acquiring new knowledge. Lessons aren’t always easy, but the way that they make us better people (and hunters) is priceless.