Reflections of a Sportsman: Passing Up Shots
by Chris Larsen
We often hear stories about big bucks or days when it felt as if ducks were falling from the sky like raindrops. Rarely are the hours of staring at blank skies or deerless fields discussed. Mistakes… they are only talked about immediately afterward. Excuses are made and sometimes we even blame ourselves. My favorite tag soup dinner is one in which we decide not to shoot. Not by mistake or bad luck but by a conscious decision not to take a shot. These are moments in which we have done our job as outdoorsmen but leave our duty as hunters for another day. The reasons why are wide ranging.
It was a sunny day in September as bear season opened and Foremost Outdoor TV ProStaffer Nick Haas hit the woods. Vibrant rays of sunshine crept through the green canopy of the Chequamegon National Forest just weeks before the oak leaves transformed to their autumn gold hue. Nick and his camera operator put in a 10 hour day on stand and the last few hours of hunting were approaching. Suddenly, a twig snapped a short distance away. Moments later a large bear crept within view. The camera operator focused his lens on the black beast. Nick stood and began to draw his bow. The black bear continued closer and closer until he stood just below Nick’s tree. The big fella looked straight up the trunk and right at the hunter with his drawn bow. The intimidation worked. This black bear walked back into the woods without Nick releasing the arrow.
I have asked Nick why he didn’t shoot that bear several times and have received several different answers. The first time he told me it was simply a case of bear fever. He was so excited and impressed with this bear he just forgot to sink the arrow in him. The next time the story came up Nick said he wasn’t sure if the bear was big enough to shoot on opening day(it was). Another discussion revealed vegetation blocked the shot as the bear walked back into the forest. Moments later something even more strange occurred. The 250 pound bear ventured right back under Nick’s stand. There were no excuses the second time around.
As the starlit sky gave way to a clear morning, I pulled my camo face cover up and leaned back against a hickory tree. My dad joined me on this hunt as a spectator. We patterned this flock of turkeys the day before and knew they would move across the ridge and around a huge tree that had fallen several years earlier. At that point these fall turkeys would be within range of my Benelli. An hour after my eyes adjusted to dawn I heard the purrs and feeding clucks of the flock approaching. Moments later, flashes of movement were visible through the underbrush.
The first bird to peek over the fallen tree was no doubt a veteran gobbler. His beard nearly fell to the ground as he continued to close the distance to my tree. No reason to take a long shot here. We both knew where he was headed and I waited for the 15 yard shot. As he neared the edge of my shooting opening, I pushed the safety off and prepared to tap the trigger. At that moment a young deer appeared directly behind the gobbler less than 10 yards away. Taking this gobbler was not worth punishing the deer with the hot No. 5 shot waiting in my chamber. I let this big boy walk and the young deer continue his life without stray pellets of lead in his body. That was the only mature gobbler in the flock and he would never show his waddles again. While it was a heartbreaker to see him slip by, it was a conscious decision and I would make the same choice every day.
Six hours into the toughest pheasant hunt I’ve ever experienced, we had just a few birds in our vests. The snow was deep and the dogs were tired. We were tired too. We dropped the shells out of our break barrels and took a few moments near the trucks to rest and hydrate. The birds were simply outrunning us. Pheasants can walk across the crusty snow far easier than dogs and they made laps around the orange clad hunters behind the dogs. As intelligent predatory creatures, we decided to outwit the birds. A group of us would drive the birds toward two standers at the edge of the field. The trap was set.
The younger hunters would march as the old timers waited for the birds we believed were hiding within the tall grass and cattails. A long hike was followed up with a tough trudge through dense cover. As we approached the standers, a ring neck propelled from the brush. One of the old timers, and I won’t name any names due to respect for my elders, shouldered his gun and at the moment we expected to hear the bark of his over-under, silence. This bird will never know how lucky he was that day. When I reached their position I had to ask. “Why didn’t you shoot?” The answer was simple. “My gun wasn’t loaded.”