Should You Take That Shot?
Four shots my dad taught me how to take
By Steve Sorensen
My dad never used a top quality gun, he always had a cheap scope, and I doubt he knew what a good trigger was. But he could shoot. Whether he was punching cloverleaf groups when sighting in from my uncle’s picnic table, or ventilating the boiler rooms of running deer, he could put bullets where he wanted them to go. I can’t recall him missing, but if he ever did he never blamed his gun.
Early on he got me to thinking about shooting under field conditions—how to get the bullet into the deer no matter what the deer was doing. Running flat out? Walking through brush? Sleeping in his bed? 400 yards away?
None of these were a problem for Dad, so I listened carefully when he told his stories. I might have been a slow learner, but I learned from the best. One important lesson he taught me was that you have to think about your shots before you ever take them—long before they ever present themselves. So with that in mind, let’s think about four not-so-easy shots, in hopes you will learn from my dad and make those shots when the time comes.
Shooting this one-antlered spike buck on a flat-out run was exciting, but I’d much rather shoot a buck in his bed (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
1. The Running Shot
Some hunters think running shots are unethical because there’s a high probability of merely wounding the deer. Not everyone can hit a running buck, but if you’re a boots-on-the-ground still-hunter, you need to learn or you’ll find out tag soup isn’t nourishing and tastes pretty bland.
Years ago I missed a standing shot at a young buck and the shot propelled him instantly to top speed. Up until that time I had shot a couple of does that were running, but this time I remember thinking “No way I’ll hit this one!” I was wrong because what my dad taught me made my next moves second nature. I locked my eyes on him as I ejected the spent .30-06 round and chambered another. Then I picked out an open spot the deer would probably run through. When he entered my scope I fired. The deer shifted into overdrive. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until the buck was finally out of sight. I gathered my empties and walked to his tracks without much hope—and then I saw all the crimson snow.
I followed the blood trail for about 80 yards to a spot where he made a right turn and headed down the hill. I spotted him about 50 yards away. All four running shots had connected and he had been running on empty.
If you ask hunters how to shoot running deer, you’ll get lots of answers, but the one that works for me is what my dad taught me. Don’t swing the gun—you’ll probably won’t find him in the scope. Just pick out a spot where he’s going to be—probably a gap between the trees—and when he enters the field of view in your riflescope, make a minor up or down adjustment if necessary, and press the trigger. It works. If he’s not running at top speed, you might have a little more time, but to me it doesn’t matter how fast the deer is going if he is running in a straight line. The bullet goes a lot faster.
Before I ever took my first running shot I thought a lot about it. I visualized some of the deer I had shot, imagined them running, and played them on the video in my mind. I’d rather not shoot at running deer but if I do, I shoot with confidence.
Any shot opportunity in thick brush will be available only for a second or two at most. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
2. The Walking-Through-Brush Shot
I had my daughter with me one day during doe season. To keep her interested and warm on that cold day, I planned a series of stands, maybe staying at each one for an hour or so. I was fairly confident I could find a deer
At the second stand I caught movement way down the hill. Three deer were angling toward us, cautiously picking their way through some thick brush. This would be a challenging shot because I was shooting a light cartridge, a .22-250, and if my 70-grain bullet hit a twig or a sapling, it would go anywhere but to the deer.
When shooting in thick brush Dad taught me to watch both the deer and where the deer is going. Thick brush usually has several intersecting trails. If the deer picks up a smell, sound or sight he doesn’t like, he will turn and disappear into even thicker stuff.
In concept, it’s simple enough. You must thread a bullet through a tiny opening in the brush when a vital spot on the deer is in that opening. But any shot opportunity will be available only for a second or two at most. In this scenario you’ll probably get only one shot among several possibilities, so pick one and press the trigger quickly. If you don’t, you’ll have to wait for another opportunity.
It was hard for my daughter to see what was happening, but after the shot we formed a strategy to find the deer. She learned a lot and she was a big help.
3. The Sleeping-in-His-Bed Shot
On another hunt I was easing along a hilltop, watching out ahead. At every step I had to choose between patchy frozen snow and crisp frozen leaves. Despite the unavoidable sounds I made, I spotted a six-point bedded roughly 100 yards away. He was a buck I had passed up several times in archery season. With rifle season waning I decided to take him. I raised the .243 and found the buck in my crosshairs. With nothing to rest the rifle against, I let the crosshairs drift down from above him and when they crossed his spine I pulled the trigger. He got up, but I knew he was hit hard. He ran down the hill and collapsed when he failed to clear a fallen tree.
The biggest challenge when shooting at a deer in his bed is to make sure you can put a shot into his vitals. That’s far more difficult than if the deer is standing broadside or quartering away. A bedded deer will be curled up. Dad taught me that his anatomy will be somewhat contorted and it might be hard to see exactly what you’re shooting at, so take your time and study the deer. Make sure his hind quarters aren’t in the way of a bullet reaching his front quarters. Don’t let a shot to his chest, if slightly high or low, take out only some ribs without ever penetrating the chest cavity. Aim into the spine if the top of his back is toward you, and center of mass if he’s facing toward you. These shots leave a little margin for error.
Dad used to say, “There’s a lot more room around a deer than on it.” That accounts for most missed shots, and sometimes a dead tree. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
4. The Long Distance Shot
What’s a long distance shot? It varies. I once shot a deer that was at least 300 yards away. My dad shot one that was well over 400 yards away, literally from one hill to another. Here’s how.
My brother Andy and I were heading up a trail with a plan to push deer off the point of a hill where they often bedded. They would likely cross over to the hill Dad was on. We weren’t very far up the trail when Dad spotted a doe stand up, just up the hill from us. She was looking down on is, but we were no threat to her. When we heard Dad shoot we turned around and went back to him, only to learn we had been much closer to the deer than he had been.
The secret for long shots is to find a steady rest. I’m surprised how many hunters take offhand shots, and then blame everything they can think of for missing. The bullet probably hit a twig. The scope must have been knocked out of alignment. They misjudged the distance. The simple fact in most cases is that the barrel of the gun is waving around like a flagpole in a hurricane. The woods offers thousands and thousands of very solid shooting rests, so use one. Rest against a tree and take a calm, stable shot. That’s what Dad did. At that distance he held a little high—right on the spine—and his .308 drilled her through her chest at roughly a quarter-mile.
Dad taught me long ago what should be obvious—that trees are usually only a few steps apart, so you almost always have a rest handy. Even when still-hunting, he taught me to move from one tree to another and spend 95% of my time watching beside a solid rest.
Before you enter the woods this season, anticipate what might happen. Let your mind’s eye create various scenarios and mentally practice them. Get familiar with your trigger, maybe by shooting a lot, or maybe by dry-firing your centerfire deer rifle in your living room. Then when a shot offers itself, you’ve already practiced, you know your rifle, you’ve acquired trigger control, and you’ve envisioned the outcome. It will make you better when you take shots at whitetails.
Steve Sorensen has published articles in top magazines across the USA, and won the 2015 “Pinnacle” Award for magazine writing. He also writes an award-winning newspaper column called The Everyday Hunter®, and frequently contributes to the Havalon website. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.
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