By Russell Thornberry
-- Here are six predictable reasons why hunters often fail to bag that trophy of a lifetime. With some advance planning, you can make sure they don't happen to you!
1) Long Stocks in Cold Weather
As their eyes met in a world-class explosion of adrenaline, both Phillip and the buck immediately began to exercise all they knew about deer hunting. The buck was turning himself inside out trying to spin around and out of sight, while Phillip was jamming a cartridge into his .270 and pulling it to his shoulder.
The temperature was -20 F, and there was a foot of snow on the ground when hunter and deer squared off in a small, frozen slough bottom on the eastern Alberta prairie. It was home to the buck, but not to the visiting Texas hunter. The buck was heading for the red willow thicket at the border of the slough at breakneck speed. The hunter was still trying to get his rifle to his shoulder.
And why, you might ask, is it taking him so long to shoulder his rifle? The answer is as painful as it is simple ... because the recoil pad was hung up in the huge parka the hunter was wearing, at about mid-chest level. By the time the wrestling match between the hunter and his rifle was over, the buck was home free.
How might that problem have been prevented? The problem is eliminated by using a rifle with a stock cut two inches shorter than normal to accommodate the heavier-than-usual clothing.
Back in my Alberta whitetail outfitting days, I used to send out a list to my prospective clients entitled "Why Hunters Go Home Empty-Handed." It listed the main reasons hunters failed on my guided hunts. I wanted the hunters to know how to prepare for hunting in a colder climate. The hunters who heeded my list were usually successful, while those who did not, met with embarrassing situations like the one described above. Here are some other reasons why hunters fail to succeed when they travel from a warm climate to hunt whitetails where it is typically very cold.
2) Frozen Firing Pins
A huge non-typical buck plagued my hunters for three consecutive years before he was finally harvested by Joe Aiello of Longview, Texas. The big deer that we fondly referred to as "Tyrone" had been in the crosshairs of no less than four different hunters, at ranges from 50 to 250 yards. In every case he was standing still, usually broadside, and the hunters had good rests and plenty of time to shoot. But on every occasion, their firing pins were frozen in their bolts. Seven times triggers were pulled in vain, and Tyrone walked out of their crosshairs and into their nightmares.
When hunting in very cold weather, it is important to have the thick, sticky grease removed from the surface of the firing pin so that it does not freeze and hang up in the bolt. That's exactly what happened to the four unfortunate hunters who pulled the trigger on Tyrone. The firing pin was frozen tight and could not fall to ignite the waiting cartridge.
It is possible for a firing pin to freeze up even with no grease if condensation is formed inside the bolt. Continually bringing a rifle into a warm room after being out in freezing weather will cause condensation to form around the firing pin. The condensation turns to water droplets and as soon as the rifle is taken back out into the cold, those droplets turn to ice and can easily freeze up the firing pin. The way to avoid this problem is by storing the firearm in the cold so that condensation can never form. Store it in a locked auto trunk or in an unheated part of the house or cabin, but don't bring it in from the cold and let it warm up to room temperature.
Hunters often store their rifles with the firing pin cocked on an empty chamber. This is especially unwise in a cold climate. Should the firing pin freeze up while the pin spring is in the compressed position, there is no quick way to free it without thawing it out. However, should your firing pin freeze while the spring is in the decompressed position, a mere working of the bolt will free the firing pin as the spring is compressed. By leaving the rifle uncocked while being stored in a cold place, a simple working of the bolt and dry-firing will free the firing pin. For the reasons described here, a manual bolt action is preferable for extremely cold weather hunting. The simpler the action, the fewer parts to freeze-up.
3) Big Deer and Light Bullets
Rather than get into an eternal argument of the "perfect" caliber for big northern deer, I simply suggested to my hunters that their choice of bullets should fall somewhere between .25 and .30 caliber, and should weigh a minimum of 120 grains, not to exceed 180 grains. That way they could adjust whatever firearm they preferred to accommodate the extra large body size of the northern deer they were coming to hunt.
Most hunters obliged and took my advice, but every so often I would get a real knot-head who was bound and determined to shoot some little featherweight sizzler that would have been better suited for ground hogs. One fellow in particular, I remember, was shooting a .25-06, which certainly had the potential to be a great deer rifle in Alberta. The problem was that the hunter was from the Hill Country of Texas where the deer he was used to shooting rarely field-dressed 100 pounds. When he announced that his 87-grain hollow points were all a man needed to put down any deer on earth, I politely told him that a shoulder shot on an Alberta buck would result in a three-legged deer and a nasty tracking job for his guide.
Being the all-knowing sort, he ignored my concerns, which were about to prove prophetic. The following day, he shot a buck in the point of the shoulder. It ran off on three legs, and I spent the better part of the next day tracking it down. Interestingly enough, I dispatched it with a single shot from my own .25-06 loaded with 120-grain Nosler Partition bullets. My bullet entered the fleeing buck just under his tail and exited out the tip of his nose after traveling the length of his body through bone. I consider this a perfect example of what the "right" bullet can do, even from the same caliber that wounded the deer in the first place.
I showed the hunter the damage his ultra-lite bullet had done to the buck's shoulder. The 87-grain speedster simply exploded upon impact and broke the deer's foreleg. The hunter couldn't believe his eyes. "Well, it durn sure stopped every other deer I ever shot," he claimed in amazement. I'm sure his little bullet would stop a big deer, too, if it didn't hit heavy bones along the way to the boiler room, but that's not a responsible premise in deer hunting. The moral of the story? When in Rome, do as the Romans ... their deer might outweigh yours by a couple of hundred pounds.
4) Real Hunters Don't Wear Mittens
At first light I heard a single shot from Herschel's position in the bottom of the river valley. When I arrived, expecting to see a broad smile on his face, I was surprised to see despair. Poor Herschel saw his dream buck walk out in front of him at 150 yards. He was wearing bulky mittens because of the cold, and when he slipped the safety off, without realizing it, the mitten on his trigger hand was touching the trigger. He couldn't feel the trigger through his mitten but the gun went off just the same; long before he was ready. In fact, his rifle was still pointing up in the air. Naturally the buck left in a blue streak, leaving Herschel rattled and shocked, after shooting a nice clean hole in the sky.
The evening before, I had suggested that he use one of the large hand muffs I had made for my hunters. I explained that it would keep his hands much warmer than mittens or gloves and when the time came to shoot, he could slip his hands out of the muff and shoot barehanded. This way he could have 100-percent contact with the trigger. He decided that he wanted to wear his new mittens instead, and they cost him a great buck.
On another occasion, a hunter was unloading his rifle before getting in my truck. The rifle went off unexpectedly, narrowly missing my right front tire. The reason was the same ... heavy mittens that were touching the trigger without the hunter knowing it. No gloves or mittens can compare with the comfort and warmth offered by a good hand muff, and obviously there is nothing like a bare hand when it comes to feeling the trigger properly. Even on the coldest days a hunter can hold his rifle with his bare hands long enough to take his shot without enduring any serious discomfort.
5) Smoking on the Job
Smoking and deer hunting don't mix. This is not a fact unique to cold climates ... it's just a general fact of life. Sure, I know lots of hunters who smoke while hunting; and they even bag deer while doing it. But sooner or later it will backfire ... and when it does, it may cost you the buck of a lifetime.
Such was the case with Jim. I put him in a tripod stand before daylight and told him not to get impatient. The big typical 12-pointer had been showing up in the area well after 9 a.m. As the morning hours dragged by, Jim rested his rifle upside down over the top of the tripod rail and lit up a smoke. Naturally, the deer he was looking for arrived right in the middle of his smoke break. The huge buck walked out in front of him at 50 yards and panic struck.
When Jim saw the buck, it short-circuited his brain, and he was totally consumed with his cigarette and what to do with it. The pressure of the buck's appearance made a simple decision nearly impossible. There was a foot of snow on the ground, so all he had to do was drop the cigarette overboard. In any case, by the time that idea occurred to him, the buck was now out to 75-yards but still walking along rather casually. Because of the time lost with the cigarette decision, Jim grabbed frantically for his rifle, turned it upright and pulled it to his shoulder. That's where the sling problem occurred. As he turned the rifle from upside down to right side up, the sling wrapped around the front of his scope. Naturally, when he tried to find the buck in his scope, he could see nothing at all. He quickly reached out to pull the sling free of his scope, but by then the buck had heard the commotion and was getting nervous. He started walking a bit faster; high stepping with his front feet. Jim finally got things right and found the buck in his scope. It was still an easy shot, but in his panic he pulled ahead of the buck about three feet and led him as if he was running flat out.
Leading a walking buck that's only 80 yards away is generally considered a mistake, and this was no exception. He hit right where he aimed ... three feet in front of the book 12-pointer. Jim was so upset with himself for leading the buck that he just sat there and watched him run off into a bad dream. It all started with a cigarette. The cigarette simply diverted Jim's attention from the intensity of the hunt just long enough to wreck his concentration when he needed it most. I'm sure he thought he was lighting up at a lull in the morning activity, but who knows when a supposed lull is going to break into more action than expected. Besides that, cigarettes aren't good for you! Just ask Jim.
6) Slings and Other Horrible Things
As for slings, I think they are fine for carrying a rifle to and from a stand, but as soon as I get settled, off comes the sling. Jim's issue with the sling wrapped around his scope is just one of many sling problems I have witnessed. I know of several occasions where slings made squeaking noises at just the wrong moment, when a buck was close enough to hear it. Each time it spooked the buck before the hunter could get a shot.
The most amazing sling tragedy I ever heard of occurred when a local fellow was driving down a farm road near his home in the country. He spotted a buck out in a field about 300 yards from the road. He slammed on the brakes, shifted his floor shift gear lever into neutral, grabbed his rifle from the rifle rack behind the seat and jumped out of the truck. Unfortunately his rifle sling looped over the gear shift lever, and when he tried to pull the rifle out the door he inadvertently shifted his running truck into second gear. The truck took off down the road with the frantic hunter hanging on to his rifle and running for all he was worth alongside his truck. Before the race was over, the truck ran off the road and through the fence, dragging its estranged driver into a wind row. No shots were fired and the buck is still at large.
These are but six of the most dependable reasons why my hunters failed to bag their trophies, though there are certainly others. Give them some thought before you head away from home on that expensive "hunt of a lifetime" and save yourself the heartache and embarrassment of coming home empty-handed due to a predictable problem that could have been avoided. Big whitetails have enough tricks up their sleeves ... they don't need any extra help from the hunter.