A massive whitetail buck dashes over the rise and away, his white tail flagging goodbye with every cheerful bound. He fish-hooks to the left and stops, facing you dead on. Your crosshairs waver across his white throat patch, then steady. You have only seconds before he bounds away and is gone, this time for good.
Let’s paint a picture of this scenario, with you in the middle. You’re the wildlife manager on a vast West Texas ranch that numbers over 350,000 acres of private hunting land. It’s all low-fenced (who needs fences on a ranch that big?) and teeming with wildlife. There are elk (re-introduced by local ranchers in the 1960s), Trans-Pecos mule deer, whitetails, aoudad, javelina, Rio Grand turkeys, Scaled quail, and tons of predators, including mountain lions.
You manage the ranch primarily for trophy mule deer and elk. Whitetails compete with these bread-and-butter species for habitat and forage, so the ranch has a liberal hunting policy toward whitetails – shoot them whenever possible. You didn’t make the rule, but right or wrong, that’s how it is. Whitetail bucks don’t grow very big here, with a fully mature buck usually tipping the scale at around 125 pounds on the hoof and sporting a compact rack measuring in the neighborhood of 120 B&C points. But you love to hunt these little desert whitetails, and with almost 130 landowner buck tags in the file cabinet, there’s no shortage of opportunity.
The major guiding season has passed, and you’re enjoying some much-needed time hunting with your buddies. Luck has been with you, and in the last couple of days, everyone has killed a deer or two. It’s late afternoon and you’re headed toward headquarters, tired but happy. Then it happens; a doe dashes across the gravel two-track in front of your truck, closely pursued by a buck. It’s a very nice buck, sporting massive, palmated main beams. You slide the truck toward the bar ditch, drop it into park, and cut the motor. Climbing the roadside bank, one of your buddies spots the doe, standing motionless behind a greasewood clump some 60 yards distant. He drops her with one clean shot, and then you all see the buck bound over a rise and away. Then, he fishhooks and comes to a stop facing you about 190 yards distant. He’s looking directly at you over the rise, just his head and the upper portion of his neck showing. His white throat patch glows in the evening light, making an inviting target. But it’s a really small target, and if you try to assume a sitting or prone shooting position you will lose sight of him entirely. Your only possible chance to shoot this buck is from an offhand (standing, unsupported) position. Your buddies are trying to do just that; three of them lined up like a firing squad, training their crosshairs on the buck. But none of them fire.
Seconds tick by, and finally, you can stand it no longer. Since none of your buddies are shooting you throw your old faithful rifle to your shoulder and find the bucks head and antlers through the scope. That throat patch is a small target, a long way off, from the hardest field position there is. However, you have vast confidence in your old rifle, backed by years of experience. You settle your finger on the trigger.
RIFLE, SCOPE, AND AMMO SETUP
The rifle at your shoulder is a bolt-action .30-06 with a 22-inch barrel, walnut stock, and aftermarket Timney trigger. It’s supremely well balanced and fits you like the proverbial glove. The custom trigger is tuned to break at a perfectly crisp 2.5 pounds. This was your first real hunting rifle, custom shaped to fit your physique. It’s been your one-and-only hunting rifle for nearly two decades and, simply put, you’re apt to hit whatever you draw a bead on.
The scope resting snugly atop the action is a simple Leupold 3-9X42mm VXII model. Not an expensive scope, it’s nonetheless reliable. It’s also perfectly zeroed at 200 yards. Hornady Superformance ammo rests in the magazine and hot in the chamber, ready to send its 165-grain SST bullet smoking downrange at over 2900 feet per second. It’s a simple but lethal combination.
Right now, staring through your crosshairs at the distant buck’s neck, you don’t know the exact range. All you know is that the buck is out there near your zero, so a dead-on hold will put your bullet where you’re aiming. The buck is statue-still, the wind nonexistent. Your nerves are steady, and with adequate concentration you can settle the crosshairs. To make a clean kill you must place your bullet into a softball-sized target at 190 yards, from a standing, unsupported position. And you have to do it now.
Do you take the shot?
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED (TRUE STORY)
This story happened exactly as outlined, one dusky West Texas evening in early January. I was the main character, so to speak. Since my buddies were not taking the shot I shouldered my old faithful .30-06 to see how well I could settle the crosshairs. Only seconds remained before the buck would bolt. My crosshairs were steady enough, so I pressed the trigger.
When the trigger broke my crosshairs were perfectly centered in that little white throat patch. A satisfying “thud” sounded from the buck’s position, and he disappeared. As I lowered the rifle my buddies all congratulated me on a great shot, and we walked over to the buck, lying dead with a bullet through his neck, front-to-back. I stood there, looking back toward the place I had shot from: That was a good shot.
Here’s one detail I left out earlier: I competed in various shooting events around the west all my growing-up years. Most of the matches I competed in were shot from the offhand position, standing and unsupported. I wasn’t world champion material, but I did win a bit, here and there. As a result, I am more comfortable with offhand shots than most hunters.
This shot must be decided on an individual basis, in my opinion. Only you as the hunter can make the call: Can you place a lethal bullet? My three hunting buddies are good shots, one of them in particular, but they all chose to pass on the shot. They told me later that they couldn’t get steady enough. Their decision to hold their fire was admirable, and the ethical choice to make. I don’t profess to be any better shot than them, and in some scenarios, I’m not as good. But, particular to this scenario, they didn’t have the training and background in offhand shooting that enabled me to make the shot.