We do the wrong thing when we don’t know any better, but then thinking critically about how our decisions resulted in an undesirable outcome and making a plan for how to achieve a better outcome the next time is the map to improvement. Perhaps the only thing better than learning from your own mistakes is learning from someone else’s. Let’s get into five common mistakes that we aren’t going to make this year, and will all be better for it.
DON’T HIDE BEHIND TREES
We tend to think of the world the way we experience it as humans. That’s why we are hyper-focused on making sure animals don’t see us. I’m no different. I am careful to make sure I am using the best camouflage available, cover my face, and never cross a ridge on the skyline. As a young hunter, I was always seeking concealment behind the brush, rocks, trees, etc. I am thankful that I’ll never know how many critters got close to me without me ever seeing them because I can’t see through trees in the same way that I can’t be seen through trees.
On a high desert peak in central Nevada, my good buddy Adam Hutchison and I spent a week hunting mule deer with a long bow. We had the basic pattern of the bucks nailed down after a few days. In the morning they’d graze on one side of the ridge until it got warm then bed down on the shady side until evening when they’d cross again to graze. One evening we watched an ancient old 4×4 get out of his bed beneath a juniper tree and start working his way towards a pass in the ridge with a prominent game trail going through it. I stayed in place and watched through my spotting scope and Hutch scrambled off our knoll and positioned himself behind a short thick piñon pine that had been stunted by relentless Nevada winds. The tree itself might not have been more than 8’ tall but the trunk and limbs spread out to make an area that was around 15’ across. The buck climbed along steadily into the pass as Hutch waited with an arrow knocked. I could see the wind pick up small puffs of dust as the buck walked, a wind blowing at the deer’s back, and just knew Hutch was going to get a shot. The old buck walked straight to pine, opposite where my buddy stood. They both waited there a long time, spread by no more than 6 yards. At the same time as Hutch took a step to walk around the tree counterclockwise, the buck did the same thing, also counterclockwise. They mirrored each other as they walked around the tree, 180 degrees apart, both vaguely aware of the other but neither confident enough to make a bolder move. When the buck got to where Hutch had been standing and could smell his scent on the ground he bolted and we never saw him again.
Good camo breaks up your outline and blends into the background. If you stand in front of a tree, your camo will do its job and you’ll have excellent visibility of animals approaching and a full range of motion to draw a bow or shoulder a rifle. Try to pick locations where an animal will have to pass behind objects that will allow you the chance to move if you need to.
DON’T GLASS TOWARDS THE SUN
Spot and stalk hunting requires a lot of time spent glassing. When I scout an area, even more important to me than finding animals is finding good places to glass from. I want different glassing locations for different times of day, but above all I do not want to glass East in the morning or West in the evening. At first and last light, deer and elk will glow in the low angle sunlight and are very easy to spot if the sun is at your back. If it’s in your face it will flare out your lens and you’ll be fighting to tell trees from rocks.
During morning glassing sessions I like to take inventory of who is in the area and where they go to bed. Depending on the situation I can then make a mid-day move or be in a good position for the evening. During evening glassing sessions I tend to put myself much closer to the zone I am glassing so I can get into position and make a shot, especially if I am rifle hunting. With a bow, I tend to work towards situations where I will be shooting in the morning to give myself max daylight hours for blood trailing and getting meat hanging.
During an especially bad fire year, I hiked two days into the wilderness to get to a spot I just knew was going to hold deer. I made an especially difficult climb onto a glassing knoll that looked into a basin and settled in about 2 pm. The fires puffed up as they tend to in the afternoons and my basin grew hazy with smoke. I could still glass so I wasn’t bothered by it. As the sun headed towards the horizon and the color of the light warmed, the smoke picked up that color and became impossible to glass through. My entire hunt depended upon being able to glass from this knob, and if I’d spent 30 seconds thinking about the light and air conditions during my two-day hike into that location I would’ve come up with a much better plan. As it was, I committed to the spot, and after three days of not being able to see, I hiked out empty-handed feeling dumb.
WAIT FOR THERMALS TO STABILIZE
When the ground is cooler than the air, it causes air to settle in a way that makes the wind begin blowing downhill. As the ground heats from solar gain in the morning and becomes warmer than the air, it causes lift that makes wind blow uphill. Animals base their movements, feeding locations, and when/where they bed on these diurnal wind conditions. However, there are transition times when the thermals are switching that you get periods of uphill wind followed by downhill followed by uphill again.
I’d been guiding a group of gentlemen from the East Coast on a backcountry elk hunt in the alpine for a week. We had seen and smelled elk but not many and weren’t able to get them to engage with calls and couldn’t navigate the steep country well enough to maneuver on them, so we headed to a different area that was short grass prairie interspersed with canyons, the north sides of which had timber. We glassed up a herd of around 70 elk with a great 6-point bull and watched them come off a south-facing ridge and settle into a north. It was going to be an easy approach and I was fully confident we could challenge that bull into archery range. At 8:30 am I felt a puff of wind come uphill and grabbed the hunters and headed into the north. As soon as we got into the trees I could immediately feel the coolness and stopped. Then that dreaded feeling of cold sweat on the back of my neck made colder by a downhill thermal rippled through me and the scent carried on down into the trees and 70 head of elk got up at 150 yards and thundered off, ending our hunt. There was no rush, those elk were going to sleep in that north all day long. We could’ve taken a nap and waited until 10 am for some really stable wind conditions and slipped into calling range and gotten that bull so mad he’d be willing to fight, but I rushed the thermals and blew it. Lesson learned.
DON’T OVERSHOOT THE WIND
We seek comfort and efficiency naturally because those are survivable conditions. If you are anything like me, you enjoy going out to the range on days with pleasant weather. I can settle into a bench with my rifle on a bipod and shooting bag and hit targets at will. Even if the wind kicks up a little, I know my rifle range and can tell the difference between a 9mph wind and a 12 mph wind and I know how a three o’clock at the bench turns into a 5 0’clock at 500 yards. I know this because I’ve shot there a lot. The odds of getting to practice in the location you’ll be shooting in a hunting scenario are so low it’s not even worth talking about.
Here’s my point, the wind is doing something on the terrain you are hunting in that you don’t fully understand. Learning and reading wind takes a lot of trial and error. As the earth tilts on its axis during fall it causes massive shifts in weather patterns. The decreased daylight hours and even the change of color on foliage all play a role in fall weather. There is a much higher chance you are going to shoot through storm-driven winds which are also being influenced by diurnal terrain-driven thermal winds. Just because you could hit your target on your home rifle range at 600 yards every time in July doesn’t mean you can do it on the mountain. Take your maximum effective range in practice and reduce it for hunting.
I missed three consecutive shots, prone, with a shooting bag, on a target at 505 yards at the Sig Hunter Games in Wyoming this year. The wind was blowing between 10-15 mph at 6 o’clock from the shooting location, and around 20mph from 9 o’clock from 150-350 yards, and then who knows how fast at 7 o’clock from 350-500. Whiffed three times in a row. I shot the same target the day before with half that wind and went three for three. I don’t take 500-yard shots when hunting big game for this exact reason. I can’t guarantee a precise hit.
DON’T SHOOT TOO MUCH BOW OR GUN
This has got to sound weird coming from me, and a younger version of myself would be rolling his eyes right now. Recoil is a real thing. If you don’t believe you are affected by recoil, the next time you go out to the range get in a contest with your buddy who shoots as well as you and see who can shoot a tighter group at 30 yards. You get to use your hunting rifle, and he gets to use a 22lr. I’ve played this game with guys who are much better shots than me and if I have the 22, I win. I have had a ton of clients show up with rifles that had too much recoil and they couldn’t shoot them well. Same thing with bows. The times I have turned down the draw weight for clients they have always shot better. Take the indoor archery shooters as an example, you know, the guys you see lined up in Vegas shooting half-inch dots over and over and over again from the 20-yard line. How many of them are drawing 80lbs? Zero. 70lbs? Zero
Do I shoot an 80lb bow? I used to. Right now I am pulling 70 and shooting better than I have in a decade. Will I shoot 80 again? Maybe, but only if I can shoot it well enough to satisfy my own accuracy requirements. I’d rather see a client shoot a smaller rifle well or a lighter draw weight bow more accurately than a heavy-hitting contraption that scares them into shooting poorly. Fun fact: If you turn your bow’s draw weight down and increase your arrow weight, you can get the same penetration you had before.
I’m not telling you to run out and buy a new gun. You can reduce recoil on the rifle you have by adding a suppressor, making the gun heavier by adding accessories, or by changing the stock or barrel, or adding a muzzle brake. I despise muzzle brakes and ask that clients do not bring them, but they are a relatively inexpensive way to reduce recoil. Just make damn sure that you and everyone around you are wearing good ear protection and don’t shoot it across the hood of a pickup. If you do decide to buy a new rifle, getting one with an adjustable stock will go a long way toward making the shooting experience more pleasant.
The best way to learn any of this is to not take my word for it and go out and make these mistakes yourself. Like the drill instructors enjoy saying, “pain retains.” The most efficient way? Well, that’s to let my mistakes be your lessons.
I’d love to learn from your hunting mistakes, so if you’ve ever made one, write it in the comment section at the bottom of this article. Let’s learn from each other and improve together.