Lessons learned

Everything doesn’t always go according to plan on a hunt. Will O’Meara recalls two key mistakes he made in the field, and explains what all stalkers can learn from them

All experienced hunters have been in that “What went wrong?” situation. We have all heard the excuses and have made them ourselves. The excuse is not an end in itself; in fact, it should be the beginning. I have been guilty of viewing excuses with disdain, and I have felt almost guilty offering an excuse and have sometimes tried to take the more humble route of saying, “No excuse – my bad”. This can be viewed as admirable and as taking ownership of the failure, but it can also be a quick way out. I suggest that the ultimate outcome of a situation gone bad is a mix of ownership as well as identifying the reason why. Sometimes people blame their equipment in an effort to shift the blame from themselves. To my mind the hunter is responsible for his actions and his equipment, if the failure of his equipment was potentially avoidable then he is equally to blame. Let’s take a look at a previous hunt where a couple of mistakes were made and see what we can learn from these.

We all love those crisp cold days of winter that contain the magic ingredients of a clear blue sky and rays of morning sun that warm the south easterly faces of the hills. On those days you have a good idea where to find the deer; warming themselves in the rays of sunlight. You can glass for miles, the deer “pop” in your optics, their coats illuminated and in contrast to the cold mountain around them. I thought back to such days as I sat there in the predawn darkness of torrential rain. It hammered down on the alloy roof of the Land Rover, amplifying the realisation that I was going to be wet for the day. It is not the idea of getting wet that bothers me (high quality clothing does make it easier to hunt harder for longer), but it is the constant cleaning of optics that is most frustrating.

The deer are harder to pick out, they are in more sheltered spots and thus you rely on your optics more, your optics that become useless every few minutes, and so begins the endless cycle of glassing, fogging up, cleaning, glassing. I was always taught that it was sinful to use tissue paper on your optics, as the lint will scratch the lenses. I have also learned that a lens cloth is great for cleaning your optics but completely useless when it comes to water. I now use a combination of both; tissue in a dabbing motion to soak the rain off your lenses and a lens cloth to polish them clean. I keep these sections of tissue and cloth stacked in a zip lock bag in my pocket, and always have some in reserve in my bum bag. Over the years I’ve seen guys do everything from licking their lenses to using their hat to clean their optics. My last pair of Leica Geovid were subjected to the tissue and lens cloth routine for 11 years and had no adverse signs as a result.

Don’t just dwell on mistakes – learn from them

So as the rain continued to hammer down I carried on stalking, wind and rain in my face, glassing every nook and cranny. After a few hours your mind starts to tell you that there are no animals here, that they would not be out on the hill, that it is impossible to glass in this weather. The temptation is to give in to the laziness and stop glassing. Persistence is key in this scenario; keep glassing, be vigilant in cleaning your optics, and believe that it will pay off.

And for me, it did. One stag… two, now three stags feeding… and another lying off. I hit the rangefinder button – no reading, try again – no reading. I picked a spot halfway: 180 yards. So if I got to that spot I would be within 200. The wind is good and the stags were downhill from me, but the route was wide open. I searched for any fold in the ground that may mask my approach; there was none.

Decision made, I crawled, keeping low and observing their body language constantly. With 50 yards left, the ground dipped and offered me some extra concealment. As I slowly crawled out of the dip I kept looking forward until I could see the patch of mountain grass that marked their location. As I crawled, the misty rain cleared and some light peeked through the clouds. I carefully cleaned my 10x power Leicas and peered through them… Yes, stags still chilled out and feeding.

I ranged the closest one; 211 yards. A nice stag, dark in colour, nine points with very white antlers. I edged forward on my belly, as flat as I could make myself, the wet peat below me, the wiry heather masking my profile. I edged the rifle forward, turned it on its side, deployed the bipod and paused. One stag was looking my way, staring as if looking straight through me. Had he seen something? No, he continued feeding.

I waited for a minute, gingerly eased the scope covers open and placed the rifle. It sank into the heather, muzzle totally submerged. I slowly drew the rifle back toward me and adjusted the bipod to full extension. Then I edged a metre to my left and set up again, checking that the muzzle has clearance of the deep heather. It was close but I assured myself that it would be ok.

Deep heather can provide concealment during your stalk, but can make finding a prone firing position challenging at times

I picked out the darker stag in my scope; he was head down and feeding. Placing my bum bag under the butt of the rifle, I checked that my elevation turret was at zero and slowly drew back the bolt about halfway. My magazine contained four 130-grain ballistic tip rounds waiting to be launched.

I took a round from my bino harness, slipped it into the chamber and closed the bolt. A mist drifted across the gully my stag was in. I sighed in anticipation; the mist drifted away slowly. This gave a solid indication of what the wind was doing down there. I gauged it at 5mph, left to right, half value. The gully acted like a funnel for the wind and forced it more right than it felt from my position, but the wind was light and the distance small; hold 0.1 mils left (an inch).

The stag paused and stared straight ahead, my crosshair on his shoulder. As the rifle recoiled, my eyes opened wide with surprise – a huge cloud of smoke filled my scope. I stared through it but could see nothing. I stuck my head up to see a huge cloud of steam at my muzzle and a waft of smoke from the heather in front.

I frantically searched for the stag. He was there, exactly where he stood; now facing away looking back at me, while the other stags moved off. I reloaded, picked him out in my scope, and put my finger to the trigger – no, wrong decision Will. I applied the safety, unloaded, sat up and watched as the stags trot off across the hill, before lying back in the wet heather, excuses rattling through my head.

I picked myself up and worked my way back across the hill, replaying the events in my mind. What happened? How did I miss? I checked my zero – everything was on. Did I actually have muzzle clearance or did I just convince myself that it was good enough because I wanted to make it work? We will never know.

Will now uses a cover over his moderator to prevent the ingress of dirt and water

What about that cloud of steam – that’s not right. Heat and water make steam. I was running a moderator so maybe that had water in it and maybe the bore was wet? I was always taught that you should only ever fire on a dry bore, this normally referring to oil, but why would water be any different? I went about researching the effects of water in your bore when firing and not surprisingly found that the effect can be huge – 8 inches at 100 yards kind of huge.

So the lesson had been identified: don’t let rain get in your moderator or your bore. Now how to correct it? Well, testing has shown that tape on your muzzle can have a great effect when it comes to keeping it clear of debris (and of course water) without affecting zero. Mauser have even gone as far as producing a plastic insert that covers the muzzle. Hausken have also identified the potential for this rainwater issue and their newer offerings have replaced a recessed face of the moderator with a flat face, which should help prevent the collection of rainwater. My own solution was to use a muzzle cover, or the finger from a latex glove.

As far a muzzle clearance goes, I am always very aware of this when I am guiding others and I am usually very careful of it when I am shooting. I took account of it here, but then took the chance that I had clearance when I knew it was very tight. So there were two lessons in this outing. The first is keep your bore dry, the second is ensure you have muzzle clearance.

As chance would have it, I met that stag later in the season. The circumstances were unique, and there were aspects to the hunt that involved the application of tactics and techniques that were a little unusual in that setting. Next month I will share with you what I learned on that hunt. Until then – always seek clearance and keep your bore dry.

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