The Anatomy Of A Miss

Pure and simple: If you hunt long enough, you're going to screw up. How well you deal with it-and what you learn from it-could make or break your remaining time in the field.

“GET ANOTHER ONE IN HIM!” KELLY WIEBE WAS ABOUT AS ANIMATED AS I’VE ever seen him … and it wasn’t helping. Another one? I was pretty sure the first shot had drifted high. I quickly levered the Marlin 338 as the Alberta black bear scampered uphill, only a couple of bounds away from heavy cover and safety. My stomach was already churning. We’ve worked so hard to get in this position, and I missed! I swung the rifle hard to the right and cinnamon-colored fur filled the rifle scope. I tugged the trigger a second time … and came up short. I watched in despair as the tail-end of the bear melted into the pines.

Kelly was already up and moving as I collected my daypack—and my wits—and hurried to where the bear had slipped into the timber. There was the lingering hope that my first shot had connected. “He took off like a rocket!” Kelly was stooped over looking for blood. “It looked like a hit … I was just waiting for him to drop.”

I shrugged my shoulders and knelt next to Kelly. “I’m not sure what happened; I felt like I was on him. The shot felt good, but I’m pretty sure it sailed over his back.”

Denial eventually gave way to reality, as we followed the bear’s winding tracks in patchy snow for more than a half-mile—finally confident I’d missed with both shots. There was little to say. Kelly is a super guy, and a great guide—he knew I didn’t need any help beating myself up. And I was doing a pretty good job of it—my guide had held up his end of the deal, but I’d failed mine. Justifications didn’t help: the dash uphill and quick setup; tough quartering angle; new, unfamiliar rifle; 250-yard shot with a lever gun. They seemed like shallow excuses for a shot I should’ve made. I’ve missed shots before—easier shots, in fact—and I’ll miss them again, but this one hurt.

It had been a tough hunt, one of the most physical I’ve endured. An untimely late-spring snow—more than 2 feet of it—had slowed bear activity to a crawl and made getting around difficult. “I keep listening for the sound of the hounds,” Kelly had joked as we slipped and slid our way up the mountain on the first day out, knee deep in wet snow. “This feels more like a December lion hunt than a spring bear hunt.”

During the first 5 days of the hunt, we saw a handful of black bears but either they weren’t shooters or we failed to get to them before they moved on. The problem was, it was just beginning to green up and there was very little feed to hold the bears in one place for any length of time. Instead, they were hanging out close to their dens and moving very little, or grazing from one location to the next with little pause. If we spotted a bear we had to get to it immediately. We had a couple of close calls during the final 3 days of the hunt, but I eventually went home bear-less, which made the miss on Day No. 5 all the more significant—and all the more difficult to swallow.

I used to fall apart after a miss. The self-loathing would eat me up for days and I’d even lose sleep. Now that I’m older and wiser, and have many more hunts under my belt, I deal with it much better. But that’s not to say that making a poor shot doesn’t still bother me, it’s just that the grieving period is much shorter and less severe. I’ve learned to enjoy the essence of the hunt rather than just focusing on the kill, and I’ve also learned how to take positive things away from my misadventures—to learn from my mistakes. This has gone a long way toward salvaging the remaining days of a hunt after a miss.

That doesn’t mean any hunter should condone poor shooting performance. It’s our responsibility to be the best riflemen, wing shooters or bowhunters we can be. Be assured, there are steps you can take to avoid misses and in the event of a miss, recover from the mental anguish it causes and regain the confidence to get on with your hunt.

So let’s look at the anatomy of a miss, what can be done to avoid it and how to deal with the ramifications if it occurs. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to focus largely on rifle hunting, even though most of the principles apply to bowhunting and wing shooting as well.

What Causes A Miss?

There are a number of things that can cause poor performance in the field, particularly when it comes to making a good shot: faulty or inappropriate equipment, poor preparation, unreal expectations— even a complete mental/ emotional breakdown. The first thing that should jump out is that you have a certain amount of control over all of these factors. Does this mean you’ll never miss a shot? No. But it does mean you can affect the frequency of your misses.

Let’s begin with your equipment. It’s absolutely imperative that all of your gear is in good working order, that you’re intimately familiar with all of it, and that it’s appropriate for your hunt—from your rifle right down to the boots you’re wearing. Each piece of gear you tote should contribute to the success of your hunt. An equipment failure—from a foggedup riflescope to a blister on your foot— can cost you big.

First off, put some thought into what rifle/optics/bullet choices make sense for your hunt. They should all be appropriate for the type of hunt you’re considering and range-tested. The rig you might use for your annual Mid western whitetail hunt—say a favorite Model 70 Winchester chambered in .243 Win. topped with a 2-7X32mm scope and loaded with 100-grain bullets— wouldn’t be the best choice for a Western elk hunt. The caliber, riflescope and bullet selection should all reflect the tenacity of the animal you’ll be hunting, the type of terrain you’re in and the likely range of your shot. In some cases, compromises can be made by simply changing optics and/or bullets. For example, the .300 Win. Mag. can cover a wide range of applications by simply applying appropriate bullets and optics.

And get to know your rifle. It’s your lifeline between being tagged a hero or a zero. That means shooting it enough so you’re not only confident in its accuracy, but so you’re familiar with all of its components: the safety, the action, the magazine, etc. The operation of the gun needs to be automatic at the moment of truth. Even fumbling with the safety for a couple of seconds can cost you big.

If you can tighten your groups on paper, you can take the mental image of those targets to the field with you. I can’t tell you what a boost in confidence this will give you when settling the crosshairs behind an animal’s shoulder. But be assured, the same is true of poor performance at the range. If you’re shooting poorly at the range, you’ll carry self-doubt to the field.

Range work also reminds you of your limitations. I have a shoulder injury that prevents me from shooting well offhand. But I still practice shooting in that position, so I’m prepared should the need arise. If I’m shooting well at 50 yards at the range the visual feedback will tell me if I can take the shot in the field. If I’m spraying bullets at 100 yards I’ll know better than to try.

The visual feedback from the targets lets me know if I can attempt the shot, or if I need to make every effort to get a solid rest … or pass on the shot. The bottom line is: Only when you’re fully confident in your equipment will you perform to the best of your ability in the field.

If you’re hunting with a rig you’ve recently used on other hunts, a simple trip to the range to check your zero should suffice. Double-check your scope mounts to make certain they’re tight and you should be good to go. Try to make arrangements to shoot your gun when you arrive at your hunting destination, especially if you’re flying. I can’t tell you how many times my rifle has been off the mark when I arrived in camp, whether I’m flying or driving.

Range preparation should include shooting from field positions after you’ve determined accuracy shooting from the bench. Practice quickly deploying and shooting from your sticks because they’ll be your best buddy in the real-world hunting conditions you’ll likely face. Cycle your rifle and shoot again, perfecting that oh-so-critical follow-up shot.

Prior to a bowhunt for elk a couple seasons ago, I practiced sprinting up a hill at my archery range, quickly ranging the distance to the target and then drawing and releasing each arrow as if I was on the hunt. In my mind I visualized the bull elk I hoped to encounter, and not only did this provide a good exercise in shooting at various distances and angles, it got my heart rate up and simulated genuine field conditions.

It All Begins With Preparation

Your ancillary equipment should be selected based on the type of hunting you’ll be doing. Your boots, clothing, daypack, shooting accouterments, etc. should be hand-picked for what you’ll encounter in the field. Prepare for as many scenarios as you possibly can based on past experience, what your outfitter has told you and common sense. I keep a checklist on my computer at home for the various types of hunts I do. If I’m headed out to my annual Black Hills turkey hunt, for example, I simply bring up the list and all of the appropriate gear is there, based on previous hunts. All I have to do is pack it and I’m good to go.

Give all of your equipment a final check when you arrive at your destination. I pack everything I’ll need for the day in my backpack the night before, so I don’t have to think about it in the wee hours when I get up in the morning.

Don’t forget to prepare for the physical requirements of the hunt, especially if it’s going to take place in rugged terrain and/or in high elevations. I was in reasonably good shape for my Alberta black bear hunt, but the uphill sprints through the snow were killing me. Talk with your outfitter prior to the hunt about what kind of physical challenges you can expect and then do the best you can to prepare for them.

I only mention it because too many people fail to do this: Break in your boots! If your feet go down you’re finished, simple as that. Also pay the extra money for good socks. Believe me, it’s worth paying a few extra bucks to keep your feet happy.

The Show Goes On

OK, you’ve done all the preparation, all of your gear is in top working order, and you’ve sneaked into position on a mature bull elk or muley buck … and missed the shot! It happens. And believe me, it isn’t the end of the world. It might feel like it immediately after the miss, but it’s not. The quicker you’re able shake it off, the sooner you can get back to business.

First off, stay focused! Watch for any indications that the animal might be hit, even though you think you missed. Take a follow-up shot if the opportunity presents itself. Once the dust has cleared, comb the area for any indication that the animal is wounded. You’d be surprised how common it is that no blood trail is immediately evident, so don’t assume you’ve missed just because you don’t find blood right away.

Now comes the tough part. You’ve confirmed that your shot was off the mark … you missed. The good news is that you aren’t dealing with a wounded animal. The bad new is, well, the bad news is that you missed. It’s time to run the events of the shot through your mind and try to visualize why you missed. Did you rush the shot? Jerk the trigger? Misjudge the distance? Don’t just shrug it off. Only by analyzing the encounter and determining what you did wrong will you avoid making the same mistake during a future hunt.

A couple autumns ago, I was bowhunting elk in Colorado and missed a 30-yard shot at a broadside bull. I had made the mental error of ranging several trees but lost my reference as the bull moved into my shooting lane. I sailed an arrow over the bull’s back—I thought he was at the 40-yard tree when he was actually at the 30-yard tree. To this day, I still run that scenario through my mind and am convinced that if I had it to do over I would make the shot.

Obviously I can’t call that shot back, but it gives me a reference should a similar situation occur. I now take more care when marking my distances and keeping my reference points straight. Mistakes, errors in judgment and misses evolve into a memory bank of experiences and references that you can use to your advantage. It all adds up to experience. We’ve all said it after doing something stupid: “I’ll never do that again.” We’ll, just make sure you don’t.

If someone tells you he or she has never missed a shot, they’re lying. Everyone misses. It’s a natural component of hunting and there’s no shame in it. No matter how much you prepare for a hunt—and what steps you take to avoid the unavoidable—at some point you’re going to come up short and miss a shot. Whether it’s an equipment failure, a miscalculation, lack of preparation or a mental error, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is how well you deal with it. Overcoming the mental anguish from a miss—and learning from the experience— will ultimately affect how you look back on your hunt and how well you perform on future hunts.