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ROGER WILTZ: A fundamental hunting mistake

I don't really want to tell you about this.

No one should know any better than I that a high-powered rifle with a quality scope is a precision instrument.

That if the shooter has a good sense of distance, the shot will probably hit the target. I have had some good reminders over the years.

Some years ago, I was fall turkey hunting in Gregory County. A number of gobblers were in a corn field covered with perhaps ten inches of snow. They didn't appear to be particularly wary, and I decided to quarter toward them on foot. When I was within 30 yards of the edge of the flock, I pulled up my 12-gauge shotgun and rolled one.

While I walked over to fetch him, I crossed deer tracks sprinkled with blood that headed toward the cedars at the northwest edge of the field. Ten yards inside the trees I found a beautiful five-by-five whitetail buck. He had been dead for perhaps four or five days.

Someone had taken a shot from the road, watched the buck as he bounded for the safety of the trees, and assumed he/she had missed. There were no other human tracks in the field. The shooter had never checked to see if the deer was hit. In checking with the landowner, no one had permission to hunt the property.

About 25 years ago I had taken a stand in some timber at the edge of a corn field. A good buck crossed the highway north of me and ran into the field. He stopped on the fence line about 200 yards straight out. I had a steady hold against a deadfall, and I squeezed off the shot. The buck bounded off, flag waving to and fro, into the timber that bordered the Missouri River. I wondered how I could have missed.

Three hours later, I was driving home when it occurred to me that there was no way I missed that shot. I turned around and headed back to the now dusky cornfield. Five yards inside the timber lay my buck piled against a tree. Yes, experience has taught me over the years that a buck that bounds off may well be mortally wounded, even if his tail is erect.

This past November, I had chosen a stand on the north side of a heavily wooded draw. I sat on a grassy slope above the timber. My elevation was equal to the elevation across the draw straight south where the same timbered bottom met the sloped prairie grass.

I anticipated seeing deer cross this open area 200 yards out. Two years earlier I had killed a six-by-six whitetail from this same spot, but he had emerged from the timbered bottom straight west of me. I had confidence in my location.

I hadn't been there 15 minutes when a nice muley buck crossed the clearing south of me. He never stopped, and I passed on a shot my partner Doug could have easily made.

Ten minutes later, a gathering of whitetails began to assemble in the same clearing. I adjusted the bipod legs. Two bucks were pushing each other around while a half dozen does looked on. Five or six fawns were also present.

Because the bucks' horns were locked, it was difficult to judge antler size. I did know that the antlers of one were mahogany-colored while the others were light gray. Eventually, both bucks were broadside and no deer stood behind them. I struggled with the notion of taking the shot.

Even with the bipod, I wasn't very steady. Antler size was also an issue. And then, I remembered something Curt had said while we sat around his kitchen table after the previous Sunday afternoon's pheasant hunt. It went something like this. "You'll never get anything if you don't take the shot."

I'm not blaming Curt for taking the shot. I'm a big boy.

After a series of inhales and exhales, I touched the set trigger of my Steyr-Mannlicher .30-06 carbine. Deer ran in every direction.

No "whup" sound.

Nothing lay on the ground.

I had apparently missed.

It wasn't difficult to accept. After all, I never did hold that rifle as steady as I wanted. Apprehension may also have been a factor. Could I navigate the steep banks and ice of the creek bottom with my numb legs?

At any rate, I never crossed the draw and looked for blood on the opposite side hill.

It may have been 45 minutes when another whitetail buck came out of the brush on the opposite slope. He was definitely a shooter. I put the crosshairs on him and touched the trigger. Over he went. I could see his legs kicking in the air. I left my rifle, bipod and heavy parka on the side hill and worked my way to the crick bottom. There would be much work to do, and I didn't want the extra load.

Eventually, I found a place cattle used to cross over. I climbed through the timber and up into the prairie grass. And then to my absolute horror I found a dead buck with mahogany-colored antlers.

My stomach knotted.

I felt sick.

My mind raced as I attempted to think things through. I would field dress both bucks. Then, I would return to the ranch, tell the rancher about it, and then call Game & Fish and tell them what I had done. I expected no mercy and I deserved the worst.

I climbed up to where my second buck lay, but he wasn't there.

For the next hour and a half I cris-crossed the entire slope every six or seven feet. No blood, no buck.

Doug came over and joined the search. Eventually, he called to me and showed me a place where a deer had lain. The grass had obviously been raked back and forth.

"Roger, I'll tell you what happened. You hit an antler and rang his bell! I've seen it happen. He got up and ran off." Other than grazing his skull or hitting another non-lethal area, there was no other explanation.

I deserved no break, but I got one. I made a fundamental mistake. I never searched for sign of a hit on the first buck. I won't make this mistake again.

Why did I fess up to my poor decision? Perhaps I can influence someone else not to make the same mistake. It would make a good hunter safety class lesson.

*See you next week.