Memorable Misses

posted on June 24, 2013

It seems like there is one in every camp, the jerk who knows it all and never shuts up about it. This guy was holding court about shooting.

“I never miss,” he said with great importance.

I’d had enough and replied, “Anybody who says he never missed either doesn’t hunt much or is a damn liar.”

I had seen him shoot at the range and I knew in his case it was a little of both.

About an hour later we were going to our afternoon deer stands when a nice 8-point buck came running at a full gallop across a field about 150 yards in front of us. He snapped off a shot and the buck piled up and skidded to a stop.

The guy got in my face and with his best Clint Eastwood whisper said, “I told you, I never miss.”

It’s like my grandfather always said about lucky shots: “The bullet had to go someplace.” I doubt that guy could pull off that shot again in a thousand tries. But, he did it that time and I had to eat a little crow.

Yet I still maintain that any honest hunter with much experience has missed. If you don’t have a miss or two keeping you staring at the ceiling late into the night, you are indeed an unusual hunter.

Here are but a few of mine. I am not ashamed of them and wear them as a badge of honor, proving that I have hunted a lot and I am an honest man. I just wish they would stop visiting during those long, lonely, dark and sleepless nights.

My First Day in Africa
We were an hour into what was my first day of hunting in Africa as we slowly stalked a critter I couldn’t have named a month earlier. While I was jet-lagged and disoriented, moving through the thick brush in a slow “sneak-and-peek” hunting style was starting to feel a lot like whitetail hunting.

We spotted the red bull lying down and waited for him to stand. His black, oddly curved horns and crippled, deformed stance pushed any thoughts of whitetails from my mind. Instinct directed the rifle, and the shot came without my recalling having ordered it. Usually, those are the best, the shots we don’t think about that rarely miss.

It was an easy shot with an accurate rifle. A special rifle actually, custom built by Mark Bansner and chambered for the .358 UMT, a wildcat cartridge I designed. This was the first shot I had ever fired at game with the gun.

I was confused and puzzled when the red hartebeest ran off, apparently unhurt. There was no way I could have missed. It was like the hand of God had reached down and plucked the bullet from the air. I was confused and stunned. Suddenly Africa seemed far more mysterious than it had only a moment before, and when one of the trackers suggested that a witch had stolen my bullet I found little to argue with him.

There was an explanation of course, but any thought about it escaped me at the moment. This was an important shot: the first ever at game with a rifle and cartridge I had conceived and designed. That’s a benchmark moment in any gun guy’s life, and that it had occurred in a place that had haunted my dreams for a lifetime made it even more important. This unexpected result was mentally devastating.

The PH was videotaping the shot, and when reviewing the tape later there was a forked tree between the hartebeest bull and me. At the shot, the fork disappeared and the right branch flew off the screen. I don’t know where the deflected bullet went, but it clearly did not hit the bull.

We found him later that afternoon and that time I didn’t miss.

Ghost Buck
He wasn’t much to look at, but in Vermont any deer is a trophy and two of my buddies had already missed this little whitetail buck. He had unique antlers that made him easy to identify, and twice in the past week he had escaped, dodging bullets that had no business missing. We were starting to call him the Ghost Buck.

We were doing a drive and he came out along a wooded ridgeline I was watching. He was running through the trees and there was no shot. But when he hit a cut cornfield, he turned and ran on a course that would take him 150 yards from my stand. I was back in the trees about 50 yards from the edge of the field, but when he stopped I had a clear shot.

I was shooting a Weatherby Vanguard in .257 Weatherby. It was an extremely accurate rifle with a very good scope. I had a solid rest on a tree branch, and that deer’s best option was to walk over and surrender. There was no way to miss. I was so sure I was already thinking about which pocket held my wallet with the tag.

The shot broke clean and when the deer took off at a run I figured it was good for only a few yards at best.

The last time I saw him was at the other end of that cornfield, 465 yards away. I know. I measured it. I looked hard, but there was no blood, no deer, no hit.

What happened? I don’t have a clue. The best guess is that I hit a branch. But I looked for hours and didn’t find a thing.

We never did get that buck.

Impressing the Top Dog
I was hunting with Federal Ammunition at the Stasney Cook Ranch in Texas years back. My companion was Mark DeYoung, then the president of Federal and now the CEO of ATK. Mark is a big dog in the hunting world and obviously, as a gun writer, I wanted to show him what I could do.

It was just breaking daylight as we were watching a group of deer. There were a few decent bucks, but my little voice was whispering in my ear to wait a while. That paid off when just a few minutes later a huge 8-point buck wandered in to check out the does. I took a solid rest, and when he stopped broadside at about 100 yards I shot him in the shoulder. Or at least I thought I did. He failed to comply and simply ran off.

Mark denies it, but I am sure I heard him snicker. I knew what he was thinking, that I was just another in a long line of gun writers who shoot better with a keyboard than they do with a rifle.

Thank God for does in heat and the stupid bucks that love them. Ten minutes later, the buck came back, his nose in the air and his thoughts focused on that wonderful perfume of a lusty doe.

That time I did it right. He was a good enough 8-point that the state of Texas sent me an award later that year.

While we were shooting photos, Mark took a walk. He came back holding a twig the size of my finger with a bullet hole through the center. In the poor light of early dawn none of us had noticed it when I shot the first time.

I have always figured I owed Mark for saving my reputation and for explaining to everybody in camp that I was so good with a rifle I was able to hit that tiny branch dead-center.

Short-Gun Turkeys
I love to turkey hunt, but I am not one of those “shotgun-only” Puritan hunters. I love a challenge and will hunt turkeys with anything that’s legal. I have used bows, crossbows, rifles, muzzleloaders and  shotguns of course, and even handguns. For example, I shot a big gobbler in Texas once with a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum with an Aimpoint sight and found it very exciting.

So when I found out that Alabama allows hunters to use iron-sighted handguns I decided to give it a try. I was hunting at White Oak Plantation with the legendary turkey guide Bo Pittman. He wasn’t so sure about the handgun, but I talked him into letting me give it a try.

We had a big gobbler in a field about 30 yards away, but with all the hens he was courting it was hard to move. Watching every eye was a problem, but I finally managed to ease the gun into position. I had stopped moving and was waiting for a shot when one of the old biddy hens saw us. It was ironic that I had spent the last half-hour easing the gun up, only to get busted when we were both sitting like statues. But, as any turkey hunter knows, they have a knack. She didn’t spook, but simply started walking away. The rest of them followed, with the big gobbler bringing up the rear.

I had an old Model 19 S&W in .357 Magnum that I bought used back when the waters were still receding around the ark. I had tuned the trigger and shot it so much I felt like it was an extension of my arm. I tracked the gobbler with the sights all the while Bo was whispering not to shoot, to let him go. But I knew he was wrong. I could make the shot in my sleep and I was going to prove that to Bo. Then I jerked the trigger. Being a left-handed shooter, the bullet went to the right and a bit low, just clipping the end off the turkey’s beard.

“I knew them dang ol’ pistols weren’t no damn good,” Bo exclaimed. “I just needed to prove it to you. Tomorrow, you bring a shotgun.”

I did, figuring I would shoot one of my two turkeys allowed and then go back to the pistol. But the weather changed and it got tough. I shot a gobbler, but it was half an hour before I had to leave for the airport. I never did get a rematch with the pistol and that haunts me still.

After the Whitetail Apocalypse
The winter of 2010-11 was Al Gore’s worst nightmare. Vermont got a lot of snow early on and it stayed until deep into spring. More and more piled up, not only bringing the issue of global warming into question but proving that a “green” approach to forestry is hard on the deer.

The “hands-off” approach to logging the Left instituted years ago in Vermont meant that there were no viable winter deer yards. Those we had were grown past usefulness, and without clear-cut logging to create new growth we had not made enough new winter habitat. Some areas of the state suffered under almost 300 inches of snow, and the deer just foundered and died.

The fall deer season in 2011 was pathetic. It was like an alien spaceship had used a giant vacuum hose to suck up all the whitetails. I have never seen the woods so empty; there were no deer, no tracks, no droppings. Mast crops sat on the ground uneaten. It was as if most of the deer had vanished. Which they had.

My grandfather grew up hunting under similar conditions, when the whitetails were just getting reestablished back in the early years of the 20th century. He had told me that he kept moving and looking until he found the deer, then he started hunting. So, that’s what I did. I finally found where a few deer were eating some beechnuts on a ridge above a big beaver bog. Just below them, on the edge of the pond, was the only apple tree with fruit that I had seen in two days of hard walking. Near that apple tree were several fresh scrapes and rubs. So that night I sat downwind, along an old, abandoned road, watching and waiting.

As a gun guy, I was excited about my new rifle. It was a .280 Ackley Improved built on a Model 700 action. I had traveled to Pennsylvania to Mark Bansner’s shop and he had taught me how to chamber and fit a rifle barrel, using this gun as one of the test subjects. Then I went home and turned that raw, barreled action into a unique hunting rifle. I had finished the stock and put the gun together Thursday night. Friday I zeroed the scope. Saturday, deer season opened. This was Sunday.

It was starting to get dark when I checked the road for the thousandth time. What was different was that this time a buck was standing there looking at me. Not just a buck, but the biggest buck I had seen alive in 46 Vermont deer seasons.

The trouble was, he came out where I didn’t expect him, and I had to rise up the bank a little and poke the gun through some brush for the shot. The scope came clear, the crosshairs were on his ribs and I added that last little bit to the trigger. The buck ran back into the swamp, but I knew he wouldn’t go far.

I was shocked when I couldn’t find any blood, even with a flashlight. After looking for half an hour I went back to my stand. The fresh scar on top of the log told the tale. I had the scope clear, but in a rookie mistake the barrel was not. The bullet kissed the top of a downed log 2 feet in front of the gun. From there it careened off and hit a sapling then wandered off into an unknown location other than where the deer had been standing.

A guy from a neighboring camp heard my shot and was waiting at my truck. I told him nothing, but he and all his buddies were in that part of the national forest the next morning. Ten days later one of them shot the buck and got his picture in a local paper for bagging perhaps the best buck in the state that year.

To rub salt in the wound, I had been hot and sweaty after looking for the buck and faced a long hike back to my truck. I gathered up my coat and vest in my arms, slung my rifle and made the long, dark walk out while trying to keep the black dogs of depression at bay. When I got home I noticed that the rifle had been rubbing on the metal buckle of my suspenders the entire time, wearing a big, nasty hole in the side of my new stock.

Remember when I mentioned misses that keep you awake and staring into the dark at night? Well, this one has cost me a lot of sleep.

There are more, far too many, actually. For example, I missed one of the best bucks I have ever seen in Alabama. We were using shotgun slugs, testing some new product. The distance was long, but I could make the shot 100 times out of 100 tries at the range. He was in an open field, no branches to blame. I just missed.

Or the whitetail I shot at twice in Michigan with an AR-10 in .338 Federal. Clear shots, good rest, accurate rifle.

I think the witches took my bullets.


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