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The eight-pointer stood just 25 yards away, but quartering toward me. Heavy brush surrounded the buck and darkness was creeping in.
As I slowly drew back my bow, I felt momentary panic. This may be the only shot I get at a deer I’d coveted for months.
I waited for the deer to turn…and waited…and waited…
Like an old Flintstones cartoon, I heard the whisper of the little devil beside my left ear, telling me to take the shot. “Come on, he’s only 25 yards away! ” Then I felt the angel lean against my other ear and say, “You know this is not a good shot. You’ll probably just wound the deer and never recover it. ”
I let down the string. A moment later, the buck stepped to its right, disappearing into the brush.
Other than the decision to always wear a safety harness when hunting from a treestand (which ALL hunters should do!), choosing whether or not to take a shot is the most important decision a bow hunter can make. Sure, deciding against the shot makes you feel miserable at first, but not nearly as bad as you feel if you do take an iffy shot and never find your deer.
Let’s look at five shots white-tailed hunters should never take, explaining why they’re bad shots, and what will probably happen if you do take one of them.
Shot #1: The Quartering-To
This is the shot I didn’t take, and the one that many hunters will think I should have taken. But here’s the deal. If the deer is standing so that it’s offering a “hard” quartering to, then you’re likely to make a good, ethical shot. But how do you determine if the angle is too severe? You can try to do this by visualizing the exit hole, but how reliable will your estimate be, particularly if the animal’s standing more than a few yards away? If your estimate is poor, then you’ll probably hit the deer in the intestines and/or liver, meaning a slow, painful death for the deer, and little chance of recovery. Remember, an arrow has much less kinetic energy than a bullet, meaning it does less damage. Also, a deer that’s quartering toward you is more likely to see you draw back, further complicating (and perhaps jeopardizing) the shot.
Shot #2: Straight On
I know, you’ve seen TV hunters do this, and it worked out for them! I would counter by pointing out you don’t see the legendary TV hunters take this shot, and there’s a reason for this: it usually doesn’t work. When you look at a deer from the front, there is a small opening that leads directly to the heart. It is found at the base of the neck, where the neck joint meets with the rib cage. But this opening is only about the size of a small fist, meaning your odds of hitting it are slim. If you’re off a little, then two possibilities are likely:
1. The arrow will be deflected by either the brisket or a rib, and cause only a flesh wound.
2. The arrow will only penetrate one lung.
In the latter case, a single lung shot will eventually lead to death, but you can kiss the animal good-bye!
Shot #3: The Spine Shot
Anyone who’s ever witnessed this shot knows what it does to a white-tailed deer. The animal will drop straight down to the ground, then try to regain its footing with its hind legs. I’m ashamed to admit it, but one time I accidentally hit a small buck in the spine, and I’ll never forget the low, guttural groan it made at impact, or the nauseating sight of the animal trying in vain to get up. It required two follow-up arrows to end its struggle, and it was a very painful, protracted death for the deer. In my opinion, it’s not an ethical shot to take. If you miss the spine, you’ll most likely cause a flesh wound, or hit one of the animal’s lungs. Either way, it won’t result in a quick, humane kill.
Shot #4: The Ham Shot
For the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone would try this shot. Sure, the femoral artery does run through the thigh muscle. If severed, it will cause massive blood loss and death. But trying to hit it, particularly if the deer is standing a ways away, is akin to trying to hit an apple on top of a hunting buddy’s head: it’s senseless. Any botched attempt will only result in a good flesh injury. If infection doesn’t set in, the deer will probably survive. But infection does, then you can imagine the death it causes.
Shot #5: The Texas Heart Shot
The origin of the name for this shot is unknown, but I know a lot of Texans who don’t take kindly to being associated with it. Essentially the “theory” is that if a deer is standing straight away, aim for its rump, and the shot will go up through its intestines into the heart and lungs.
A friend of mine was once called in to trail a buck that had been hit this way. Initially there was a blood trail a blind man could follow. But not far into the search, he found part of the arrow and the broadhead – a gnarled, twisted mess of metal. No one knew for sure what the arrow had hit, but it very well may have been the pelvic bone. After several hours, the search was called off, and the beautiful buck was never found.
There are several feet between the rump of a white-tailed deer and its vital organs. If you do manage to get the arrow past the pelvic bone, it will probably stop at the intestines, meaning you’ll have a gut-shot deer to recover. No one should ever try to harvest a deer with this method. It’s unethical, unproductive, and just plain wrong.
Instead of trying to find another angle at which to shoot a deer, learn your effective shooting range. The best way to learn the maximum distance you can accurately shoot is to go to a 3-D range with unmarked distances. I recommend doing this at least a couple times at a shooting tournament, where the added stress of shooting in front of other competitors will help you simulate the stress you feel when you’re loosing an arrow at a living, breathing deer.
Knowing your effective range doesn’t just help you to learn the shots you shouldn’t take – you also learn the shots you’re capable of making. This is critically important, because if you’re like me, your confidence occasionally wanes when shooting at the real thing. A couple years ago I was hunting in an unfamiliar area with a lot of ground cover. When I got into my treestand, the first thing I did was make a mental inventory of shooting holes and lanes that offered me a shot if a buck showed up. Three hours later, one stood broadside 35 yards away with a clear shot at its vitals. My mind questioned whether I should take the shot. I was able to push doubt away and make a good clean kill by reminding myself that I can shoot accurately out to that distance.
This brings me to my final point. At the beginning of every hunt, reduce unpredictability by imagining all the different scenarios you may encounter and plan how you will respond. For example, if a buck comes from a certain direction, how far is the shot? How does the buck need to be standing for me to make an ethical shot? Where will I aim? Knowing how you’ll respond to different situations takes the guesswork out of shot selection, and makes you a better hunter.
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