A shot passed up is sometimes a good thing

Ohio’s hunters checked 14,115 white-tailed deer during Ohio’s 2017 two-day deer-gun hunting season, Dec. 16-17, according to the Ohio DNR.

The item goes on to note that in the comparable season last year, in nasty weather not conducive to hunting, 9,228 deer were killed. It goes on to list the upcoming muzzleloading season dates, Jan. 6 through 9, and how archery season remains open through Feb. 4.

Well and good, and “grats” to the hunters with kills to notch. But there is something else to think about – the shots not taken. You ever think about them? You ever purposely pass up a shot, and remember why?

I was reminded of this line of thinking, encapsulated wonderfully in Jim Posewitz’s little book, Beyond Fair Chase (The Hunter’s Institute) just the past weekend. I participated in the so-called bonus deer-gun weekend, hunted hard, came home with great memories, and no deer to process. On purpose.

What follows is not self-congratulation. Take the description of passed-up shot opportunities simply as some examples of how good behavior is a choice. Many, many hunters exhibit it, though most of the headlines instead go to slob behavior, or misbehavior. Many hunters do what I did, so I am not exceptional. But I make no bones about or apologies for being an ethical hunter, and neither should you. We need to tell one another, and the world, that we understand what ethics are about: They are what you do when no one is looking.

I hunted with my longtime outdoors buddy, Chuck Wolf, of Tiffin, and his adult daughter, Katie, a U.S. Army recruiter and an Afghanistan veteran (She was a doorgunner on an Apache helicopter with the 82nd Airborne Division. Yeah, a real deal.)

We hunted familiar grounds in Seneca County. Saturday was a dry waterhole for us. No deer. Sunday, different farms, a jackpot. We saw 21 deer in all, had a couple of honest misses, those laboriously investigated to indeed confirm the misses. And then, there were my three shots not taken.

At 8:35 a.m., two deer worked their way up an old, tree-studded fencerow toward my stand. By the time they were 70 yards out, I could see they were small, likely twins, no doubt last summer’s fawns, maybe 75 pounders. They approached face-on, but then turned broadside for what would have been an open-field shot. No. I already have venison in the freezer, a gun-week doe of about 130 pounds on the hoof. These young deer, yes, legal, but …

I would be lying if I said I never shot a yearling. Much younger, much more excitable, more “needing” to prove what a supposedly great hunter I was, I have killed some small deer. (Hey, if you need the meat, no problem, no argument.) Looking back, I should have waited those times, like time and experience have taught me to do. It does not make me superior, but it does crank up the standards compared to the low-ball notch of what is “legal.”

About 20 minutes later, eight more deer slow-walked the same harvested soybean field, having crossed a creek, but further out. Seven of the eight were mature deer, all good “eaters” (I am not a trophy antler-guy, just a predator to help crop excesses in absence of wolves and cougars). The last deer in the band was a nice buck. They were 125 yards out, slowing, walking, stopping, presenting open, easy shots with my well-tuned, well-practiced .45-70 Ruger No. 1. But, no.

The deer had worked their way disturbingly close to a no-go zone, such that I could not be sure they were on permitted land – no-go land. And the direction that they headed told me that a shot animal would likely fall well on the wrong side of the “fence.” It was very hard to pass up this opportunity. I am glad I did … I also avoided a run-in with “trepass patrol.”

Finally, I was with Katie when two does worked their way for a ridge. Neither Katie nor Chuck, a ways away down a creek bottom, have killed deer this season. “Katie, it’s yours,” I said. She had spotted them coming as we talked quietly, my back turned to the deer.

Katie fired. I watched, thought the deer might be hit. It reversed course. Katie could not get a shot. I asked if it was OK if I took a shot, thinking the animal might be wounded. Twice the deer, a medium-sized doe, stopped, and twice I could not see clearly through intervening trees and saplings to make a clean shot. I waited. Then the deer crested the ridge and there, standing perfectly broadside, 110 yards, no problem – except that the deer was totally silhouetted, steeply uphill, by nothing but a gray-cloud background.

Silhouetted. My bullet likely would have passed through the deer and continued on at a high angle. It might have struck a passing car on a heavily traveled state road a quarter-mile away, or landed in the restaurant of a country club another short distance beyond. This shot was an easy pass-up, however inviting and tempting the still-standing silhouette.

I did the right thing, made the better choice, though I wish I could have taken a shot, at least one of three times. But I withheld my trigger. We still have muzzleloader and lots of archery time ahead. Maybe I will get another chance then. Who knows. It is what the hunt really is all about.

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