Missing in action

Excuses, excuses. I’ve heard them all before and have most definitely used some myself.

My stalking partner John returned to the truck after our morning outing. Usually the most mild-mannered of men, he was on this occasion muttering ancient oaths. It was clear that something hadn’t gone according to plan.

As it turned out, a fallow doe and calf had emerged from the woodland almost from under john’s seat. They grazed away to his right, and John prudently let them get 30 yards away before ever-so-slowly turning the muzzle of his rifle in their direction. As he was so engaged, a buck emerged close on his left, saw him, and jumped straight back into the wood, causing the doe and calf to follow.

Such was his disappointment that John was laying the blame on all and sundry, but mainly on the buck that had stepped out underneath his seat. He went on in this vein for sometime, obviously aggrieved at having been caught out while getting on to the doe and being deprived of a shot. I couldn’t resist chiming in. “Deer too near, Hargreaves?” I enquired, all tongue in cheek. I have high hopes that the name will stick and JH will forever be John Deer-Too-Near Hargreaves to his many friends in the stalking world.

So near and yet so far? David was reminded that passing up a shot is better than chancing one

Another guest of mine took an early morning shot in poor light, and was deeply embarrassed by the unsuccessful outcome. “I just don’t miss deer,” he said. A visit to the site with my dog, Mr Midge, following up his own thorough search, disclosed that in fact he did. There was no paint or pins; no interesting trail for Mr Midge. After exhausting all possibilities short of setting fire to the wood that we had been stalking in, we conceded defeat and asked the rifle if he was amenable to walking away. By that stage he was as convinced of a clean miss as I was. He’s come away with a new name: Jack Never-Misses Horner.

As we left the site I thought, “There but for the grace of God go I,” for it could so easily have been me getting a new nickname. A couple of hours earlier, after a blank morning, I was giving my top high seat a last ten minutes when a dark-coloured fallow doe stepped on to the ride and made to cross it 70 yards in front of me. I stopped her with a shout, and she stopped and stood for a moment before going on. I stopped her again and, realising the need to shoot immediately, fi red in a heartbeat. “Under her!” I thought as she raced off the ride. “Was that a miss? Have I got a wounded beast to follow up?” One or the other seemed likely as I told myself I had pulled the shot in my hurry. However, when I went forward I found her dead just 30 yards in from the edge of the ride. The shot was low but high enough to take out the top of the heart. So, no need for an excuse – and a narrow escape from the humiliation of being rechristened Barrington Brisket Barnes.

I once took a stalker into a forestry block. A fine shot and an excellent exponent of the art of stalking, this gent I would expect to defeat almost every deer he engaged. However, while we were in the forestry, he missed with two shots. He asked himself the usual questions and checked his zero. It transpired his rifle was off, which had him thinking back to his flight from England to Scotland and the rough handling his rifle case had suffered at the hands of the baggage loaders. His resolution to always check zero after a flight seems good to me, and I have no doubt he will always make that check. Nevertheless, he will always be Freddy The Frequent Flier to me.

Deer Too Near John eventually made up for his excuse by grassing a roe doe

My own contribution to the litany of excuses was made one winter evening at the head stalker’s deer larder after a difficult day on the hill that had seen me miss a red hind. Seeking to explain this away, I referred to my long shot, by necessity off sticks, at a beast that was already spooked and on the point of bolting. Having listened patiently, the head stalker smiled and enquired in a disarming manner: “Deer too small, Sir?”.

There are excuses for not taking the shot at all and others deployed after making a poor shot. Knowing the safe zones around my high seats, I not infrequently applaud my guests for their forbearance from taking a particular shot. Though they are always briefed as to the possible dangers, I make it clear that the decision to shoot or not, as the case may be, is their call.

Of course there are other reasons for passing on a shot separate from the all-important safety angles. The beast may be standing behind brash or other cover. Other deer may be masking the target beast or standing close behind it. The light may be going or have gone, making a late shot really difficult to follow up if the shot deer goes into heavy cover.

As for the shot, no responsible stalker wants to make a poor shot, miss, or worse still wound a deer. Avoiding this with every shot is easier said than done. The ‘deer too small’ tag is worth keeping in mind as a reminder not to simply shoot at beasts that are beyond your effective range.

Poor shots are also affected by the rifle’s state of mind in the moments leading up to the shot. The requirement for a quick shot may lead to the shot being snatched. Perhaps it would be better passed up in the hope that another suitable beast will show itself. Rifles and scopes get knocked in vehicles and in the field, not just on aeroplanes, so regular checks for zero should avoid the need for the embarrassed stalker to pull out that time honoured excuse, ‘My rifle must be off!’.

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