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How to Avoid Hunting’s Most Common Disasters

By Doug Howlett
11/27/2012 10:56:59 AM

We've all committed them at some point or another in our hunting lives-those unforgivable errors that completely blow a hunt or cost us the trophy of our lives. From something as simple as a forgotten license to a more serious thing like an injury, we sometimes walk a fine line between participating in the ultimate experience and complete and utter frustration. In light of that, here are three of the most common hunting disasters and advice on how to avoid them.

Forgetting the Essentials

One of the most common hunting "disasters" many of us face happens before we ever leave home. We've all been there: We forget something critical to the hunt and we're left kicking ourselves. To be sure, there are many gear items that aren't essential to putting meat on the ground. But there are others-guns, shells, bow and arrows-that would derail our hunt before we ever step foot afield. Others-like a safety harness, flotation device or warm clothing-are essential to our safety. And still other items-like a hunting license or orange apparel-are required by law. Forget any of these and you can forget even the chance to hunt. There's nothing more frustrating than ending your hunt before it begins.

I remember years ago driving two hours to a tract of public land to turkey hunt with a coworker, only to discover that I left my hunting license at home. The sun was breaking and hunting ended at noon, so there was nothing I could do except put the gun and calls back in the truck and tag along as an observer.

Over the years I've forgotten or borrowed orange hats, flashlights and ammo. I've even arrived on an out-of-state hunting trip where I had to buy boots and rain gear because I left mine at home. I've been in the field with hunters who have forgotten to load their guns, have left their bow in the truck that dropped them off, or simply had to sit and wait for their transportation to come get them at lunch. I even remember a guy losing his gun in the woods. Apparently the camo Mossberg blended in so well he couldn't find it after setting it down to film shots for his TV show (I won't name names here).

Part of the problem is that many of us try to bring too much gear in the first place. In addition to the essentials-clothes, hat, boots, gun (or bow) and ammo (or arrows)-there are binoculars, rangefinders, flashlights, knives, GPS units, ThermaCells, decoys, calls and much, much more. In the old days, our fathers grabbed a gun, their flannel shirt and jeans and strolled into the woods with relative simplicity. Today, many of us look like we're taking a six-month expedition around the world.

Just like a pilot, the trick is to make a checklist before each trip and then make use of it. Commercial airline pilots, despite flying several times every week for years, still use a pre-flight checklist every time they take to the air. Hunters should, too. Make your list well before a trip or at the start of the season when you're not rushed, and then go through it for every time. Pack all of your key items in a tote or large pack and you'll be ready to leave on the fly, confident you have everything you need for a successful hunt.

Brush Up on the Law Books

I woke up in the chilly predawn darkness of a tent on a Nebraska deer hunt with some friends years ago. It was my first time hunting in that state, and before we set out my host asked to see my license. I'm glad he did. I hadn't realized that a $15 conservation stamp was required in addition to the big game license, and it could have led to serious trouble.

Game department websites are notoriously vague in specifying what non-residents need to hunt a species in their state, and rules and regulations vary greatly from state to state. Be sure that you have all of the proper permits before leaving on an out-of-state hunt, and check with a local hunter or outfitter. It's always a good idea to call the game department where you will be hunting too, just to be sure.

Don't think just because you only hunt at home you are immune from making a similar mistake. Game rules and season dates can change from year to year, so it is vital to always double check before the season. A wildlife officer isn't going to accept your ignorance as an excuse, so do your homework.

The Heat of the Moment

Although it is most commonly known as "buck fever," I'm going to call it "target panic," because it can happen when hunting virtually any species. It can take many forms as well: From simply failing to execute on basic shooting mechanics, to shaking so hard with excitement you can't shoot straight (or even forget to), it's easy to miss in the moment. I saw this happen on a recent hunt where a good friend missed three black bears-all standing still and in fairly close range-and the only explanation was that he psyched himself out in the moment. It only got worse with each miss. On paper the gun and he were both flawlessly on. I've known even of an extremely experienced turkey hunter who missed five birds in a row, his exasperation growing with each miss.

In such cases, you have to let it go. Get it out of your head. The last miss doesn't matter. Only this shot matters, and you should make each shot routine by practicing regularly. I know quite a few deer hunters who pass on doe after doe, waiting for that one shot at the big boy, only to miss when the time comes. Why? Because he hasn't kept sharp on real hunt shot presentations. Killing must become as instinctual as it is when you practice.

And when that trophy is standing before you, don't focus on the antlers-or in the case of dangerous game, how the animal might kill you if you miss. Instead, simply focus on the target area and executing the shot as normal. Do that and you'll be fine. After the animal is on the ground, that's the time to marvel at its size, beauty and the awesome shot you just made.

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