In mountain hunting pulling the trigger is less than 1% of the hunt, but it is crucial to the success of the whole trip.
As a guide, a missed shot can be one of the most frustrating things on a hunt, all the hard work to get into a good position and then a miss. This is difficult for any hunter to deal with, especially if you have spent a lot of time, money and effort on getting to that shot position which is normally the case. A wounded animal is an even more frustrating situation. There are an enormous number of factors that come into making a good shot, but good gear and practice can remove many of them. Range finders are pretty much standard practice now and remove all doubts about how far, and what angle as well. Modern flat shooting calibers, good optics and drop charts can make a 400-yard shot seem easy, yet missing is still common on mountain hunts (from my experience and talking with other guides). I personally try to keep all shots within 400 yards and have only had 2 situations where we had to take an animal beyond that(on a ‘trophy’ animal). I am not against ‘long range hunting’ as such but generally most people are just not ready to make those shots consistently,on a trophy animal, in field conditions.
It comes down to practice. Everyone knows how to shoot off a bench at 100 yards. But how often is a shot like that in the field?
A typical awkward shooting position
Nearly every single shot I have taken on an animal is on some sort of angle and often it’s some weird-ass position where you’re half inside out trying to hold onto the mountain. That’s the reality of hunting the mountains. Things that I see contribute to most misses are too much gun and poor technique (usually these factors are directly linked), actual problems with the rifle/ammo/scope count for a very small number of missed shots. The average person (myself included) can’t comfortably shoot a magnum caliber light weight rifle in field positions. Traditionally big calibers were made in heavy rifles,for good reason. With today’s modern materials we can make rifles crazy light but this in turn has a huge increase on recoil. This is where muzzle breaks and suppressors come in. They make all the difference on magnums and I strongly suggest one if you don’t already have one fitted. We are lucky in NZ that suppressors are easily available and the rifles I supply for hunters are suppressed. This makes a huge difference to not only the shootability of rifle but allows much better communication in the moments leading up to the shot. You don’t need to be shooting a .416 Rigby to create alot of recoil, high velocity magnums in light weight rifles are very hard to shoot. If you are looking at recoil tables try and find one that list recoil velocity as well. The speed at which the recoil happens is as bigger factor as the recoil energy itself.
I started off ‘big game’ hunting with a light .270 with a 20” barrel as a scrawny 14-year-old. I soon learned how not to shoot! I blamed everything, rifle, ammo, scope etc, but at the end of the day I didn’t like pulling the trigger and that was the problem. Flinching is as much a product of noise as it is recoil. Good hearing protection is a must. Both the recoil and noise of this rifle caused me a lot of issues.
After that I ‘upgraded’ to a .243. Slowly I learned to shoot again and with my brother (shooting a .223) became very proficient at taking awkward shots, uphill, downhill, standing, left handed you name it we practiced it. A .243 is a ‘small’ caliber but I have seen more wounded animals with ‘magnum’ calibers than a .243, shot placement is the MOST crucial factor.
Shooting in the field is a skill that must be learned. Practice and practice alone will help your shooting. Sighting your rifle in off a bench is common sense, but once you have your set up shooting how it should, leave the bench alone. You will not learn how to shoot game shooting off a bench. Dry firing is great practice to learn trigger control and breathing but learning how you and your rifle recoils and behaves in field positions must be learned the hard way. The best practice I think is small game/rabbit shooting. Take your big game rifle out and shoot some bunnies. Sounds easy, right?
The infamous .303 Lee Enfield, notorious for poor accuracy and recoil. Some .303s shoot better than others, or maybe its the shooter…..
Even at close ranges shooting small game consistently with a big gun is difficult as you will soon learn. Leave the bi-pod at home and shoot field positions. Sitting is the most useful and accurate position you will use on the hills. Shooting prone is more accurate yes, but not often applicable in a real hunting situation. When you can hit a rabbit every time at 50-300 yards then worry about the ‘long range’ stuff. You might think ‘ammo is too expensive to shoot rabbits with my ultra mag’ but remember the only wasted money is the shots you miss…
I prefer a 200 yard zero for rifles and this allows easy and fast shooting from zero out to 300, as with most calibers simply aiming on the back of the animal at 300 will get you in the vitals. Knowing your drop chart and having a good turret set up is critical for any further ranges. There are a number of rifle/scope set ups that are sold as 1000 yards out of the box systems. And they are accurate there is no denying that. But buying a 1000 yard rifle does not make you a 1000 yard shooter.If you want to get into long range you will need to spend countless hours in the field learning about wind and how the terrain effects wind over distance and the ballistics of your set up. I prefer to get closer and make the first shot count.
I prefer a good controlled expansion projectile(bonded core, or mechanical ‘locks’ to stop over expansion) or a monolithic expandable (Barnes etc). Good penetration is key. Vary rarely are you presented with a perfect ‘broad side’ shot and you want to be able to trust and rely on the projectile making it through the vitals from ANY angle.There is a big craze for high B.C long range bullets, and they have their place, but it’s not as an all-round projectile. Reliable penetration and expansion are far more important than a high B.C in 99% of hunting situations. Most game is shot under 300 yards and always will be.
I am by no means an expert with the bow and have a long way to go with my archery skills, but much of the same is true as with rifle shooting. I know first-hand how frustrating poor shooting and technique can be. I have shot only a few ‘game’ animals with the bow (around 20) and have a lot to learn. I have made the classic mistake of not getting set up properly and not learning how to shoot before hitting the field. Consequently, I have missed more bull Tahr than most people have even stalked. I would recommend shooting as much small game possible as with rifle shooting. Luckily practice with the bow is much easier than with the rifle and to be good consistently I feel you need to be shooting almost daily. I would add the advice of getting set up properly, this is a big problem for some people especially in places like NZ where there is very little in the way of bow hunting or archery stores. I would advise going to see a professional bow shop even it costs a lot it will save you money down the track.
Aim small, miss small!
For back pack hunts I would suggest to always carrying some field tips, or even better small game heads. I have found the rubber ‘bludgeon’ type to be very durable and fly true to my broad-heads. Having a few spare arrows in a tube in your pack is not bad idea either, a full quiver of arrows are easy to break in the mountains!
I prefer a good fixed blade broad heads and use single bevel 2 blades myself. Penetration is by the far the most important factor to killing well with the bow. There is a lot of actual facts about broad head performance that are worth looking at if you are interested in what actually happens with broad-heads. Dr Ashby has compiled arguably the only and best real test of broad heads/arrows on game, these aren’t opinions but FACTS.
The old aim small miss small saying really does work. My father always told me ‘If your any good you shouldn’t be shooting them in the head……you should be shooting them in the eye….”
A hunters’ mental ‘toughness’ or attitude is by far the biggest factor in enjoyment and success on the mountain. Mountain hunting pushes you physically and mentally harder than nearly any other activity in the world.
How will you behave when you miss a 100-yard shot? How will you feel when it rains for 5 days straight? When you fall in a river and all your gear is wet? When you twist your ankle on the first day? When you can’t walk anymore but camp is 3 hours away?
These are all things that can and do happen and it is how you react when things don’t go to plan that decide whether your hunt is enjoyable or not. Rarely does it all go to plan.
I’ve seen hunters come away from a hunt feeling unhappy despite taking multiple record book class animals and I’ve also seen hunters at the end of a hunt without firing a shot but have had one of the best times of their lives. This all comes down to expectations and attitude.
Mental ‘toughness’ is something that can’t be bought or trained. There is no easy quick fix 20-day money back plan to being ‘mountain tough’. It must be learnt the hard way. I have guided plenty of people who were not fit or well prepared physically for the hills but have the right mental attitude. These guys will out walk the fit young hunter who has not had a hard day on the hill every time. The human mind is an amazing thing and always remember ‘the body does what the mind tells it to’.
If you tell yourself you can’t walk anymore then you can’t. If you tell yourself you’re just warming up who knows how far you can walk!
Things I would recommend to guys starting out is to do some ‘hard yards’ so to speak. Spend a night out in the bush with no gear. Do a day’s walk without food. When that big storm comes through get out amongst it and test your gear and yourself. Obviously, I don’t want anyone to go out and hurt themselves so test these things in a controlled manner, and have someone supervise/keep track on you. This is where you should be combining your physical fitness and mental training into one. The harder mentally and physically your training is the easier your hunt will be.
My goal for 2014 was to take a mature bull with the bow, I had hardly any archery experience and broke my bow one week before this trip, a borrowed bow, 4 missed shots, countless failed stalks, hard work and a bit of luck finally paid off with this bull near the end of an epic adventure.
Make a Goal
Success means a lot of different things to different people and setting out what you want to achieve from a hunt before you plan it is very important. If you’re going on a guided hunt make it very clear at the beginning to your guide/outfitter what YOU want from the hunt and WHY. This is a very big part of being in the right mental state when on a hunt.
Creating a goal for a hunt will make your decision making on the mountain easier and more efficient. Maybe the goal is taking a certain age/record class animal or taking an animal with a certain method(bow/rifle). Or it might be going through a pass into a valley you’ve never been, or helping a friend/family get their first animal.
Setting an achievable goal will make the whole planning process much easier. Without a clear goal in mind you will find yourself just wandering around in the mountains not knowing what you want to do.
Hopefully you find these tips helpful and make planning your next hunt that much easier.
Good luck to everyone in their mountain adventures and I hope you have set some goals and work hard to achieve them!