When Not to Shoot

The best hunters know when not to take the shot.

It was day seven of a 10-day hunt with Gana River Outfitters in the Mackenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories, and we’d put nearly 80 km on our boots already. We were finally looking at the object of our quest; a big, old Dall sheep ram. My binoculars read 479 yards. I’d been shooting out to 600 yards all summer and as I settled the 500-yard crosshair low on the ram’s shoulder, I couldn’t believe how good everything felt. The crosshair was rock solid on the perfectly broadside ram. The world around me disappeared. I caressed the trigger with my index finger, knowing that a scant two pounds of pressure would cause it to unleash the firing pin and set in motion a series of events that would be catastrophic for one of us. If my aim was true, the results of the 140-grain bullet striking the ram’s shoulder would be devastating. If my aim wasn’t true, the past seven days of blood and sweat would have been in vain. I felt as though the weight of the world rested on my shoulders and I’d placed it there.

My guide’s voice snapped me out of my trance.

“Wadda ya think?” Trevor asked.

What did I think, indeed. After some 26 years of hunting sheep and nearly four decades of chasing big game, I’ve come to understand that not only is it important to learn when to take the shot, it’s equally, if not more important to know when not to take the shot. My mind had been like a computer from the first moment we spotted the ram, computing the angle, distance, wind speed and host of other variables. If there is one thing that long-range shooting has taught me, it’s to be patient and to assess all of the variables. A stiff breeze caressed the back of my neck. “I think we should wait,” I responded.

In Defence of Waiting

First and foremost when deciding whether to shoot or not, is to evaluate how much time you have on your side. If you are undetected and the animal is not likely to leave your shooting window any time soon, there really is no reason to rush. I think this is where experience really plays a role. Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than a few animals get away over the years from hasty shots but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one lost when time was taken to ensure that everything was perfect. Patience is really hard to learn but typically, hunters have far more time to wait for the ideal shot than they imagine. By not rushing things, a low percentage opportunity can usually be turned into a slam-dunk.

There’s little question that nearly everything becomes relative to the distance you are from the target and the first acid test as to whether or not you should shoot or not — is can you get closer? If you can, you should. Each yard you gain on a target means a reduced time of flight for the bullet, less wind drift, less bullet drop, a more precise point of aim and increased accuracy from your rifle. But, with each yard you gain, the likelihood of being detected increases as well. If you can get closer, do get closer. If you can’t, then you need to start weighing the other variables. Often an approach from a different direction will allow you to get closer and other times waiting for the animal to move will allow a closer approach. It’s only when you’ve exhausted these possibilities that you start weighing the options of a shot from your current position and that was exactly the case with my Dall; getting closer at that moment was out of the question.

While I was well practiced at the range I was presented with, there were two things working against me: the wind and the severe angle of the shot, both of which can drastically change your point of impact. The rams were right in the middle of basin that more closely resembled the dark side of the moon than quality sheep range. There were a few scattered patches of grass here and there but both Trevor and I felt the rams had to move. And, no matter which direction they moved, it put us in a position for a better shot. It was a time not to shoot.

While we were content to wait as long as it took, often, waiting for a better shot just means waiting for an animal to reposition it self or move away from some sort of cover. If you have the patience to wait, typically an unobstructed, broadside view of the vitals will present itself. Certainly it doesn’t hurt to practice shots that are offered from less than ideal angles but with a little patience, they can most often be avoided all together.

To Shoot the Sheep

Trevor and I sat on the Dall rams for the remainder of the day and they never left the safety of the basin. I put the crosshairs on the big boy several times but I just had a nagging feeling that I should wait. There was no hurry to do anything and short of the rams sneaking out of the basin in the dark, things could only get better. So just before dark we made the two-hour descent to camp. It was a restless night in the tent as I constantly second guessed my decision.

We were up early the next morning and overlooking the basin once again. The rams had moved closer to a ridge on the east side so we decided to make our way around the mountain and hopefully intercept them as they ascended the ridge. It took us nearly three hours to reach the ridge above them and much to our relief, they were still in the bottom of the basin, right at the base of the ridge. The rangefinder now read 391 yards. I was feeling much more confident. We assessed the situation and decided to make our way down the ridge as far as we could without being detected.

It was a couple hours later when the largest ram, the object of our attention, started to climb the ridge. He was coming up further to the north than we had anticipated but we were pinned down and just had to let things play out. I kept track of the ram through the binoculars. He was 371 yards when I felt the wind brush the back of my neck. The ram came to attention a few seconds later. Steadying the rifle on a rock, I found the ram in the scope and placed the 350 yards crosshair high on his shoulder. While not shooting had been the right decision until now, the time had come to shoot or the ram would be gone. At the report of the .270WSM, the ram literally flipped over in the air and landed with all four feet pointing skyward. There is a time not to shoot but there is also a time to shoot. The key is to know the difference.

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