Elk Strategy: Don’t Think Too Much

In The Hunt by Wayne van ZwollLeave a Comment

Why do inexperienced hunters sometimes enjoy maddening success? Maybe it’s because they haven’t begun to out-think themselves. 

To paraphrase an insightful saw: “Whether you think you’ll hit or not, you’re probably right.”

Any hunter can beat himself with too much thinking. The more elaborate the tactic, the more likely it is to fail. One reason inexperienced hunters enjoy maddening success is that they haven’t yet begun to out-think themselves. They follow simple strategies, some of which they’ll learn later are “all wrong.” They kill game that has learned to pattern sophisticated hunters who all think alike and often think too much.

Like hunting, shooting is largely a mental game. Almost anyone can hold a rifle, aim and pull the trigger. The difference between real marksmen and those who’d like to be has more to do with how they think than with technique.

Long ago, at a four-position match at Michigan State University, I labored through prone, sitting and kneeling with predictably solid, if unexciting scores. Then came offhand. I was not a good offhand shooter. This stage could ruin my aggregate and the university’s. I hoisted the Anschutz with sweaty palms, quivering knees and a flannel mouth. The sight danced briefly through the black, then traced ever bigger loops in the white. A bullet hole would appear there if I did not put the rifle down to let my muscles rest.
But what was the use? I’d shot poor offhand scores all season and probably would now. The sight hesitated at one o’clock, then stooped like a falcon toward the center. Quick! Here’s your chance! I yanked the trigger as a muscle twitch bumped the sight. A speck appeared at the edge of the six-ring like a fly clinging to the black for dear life.
Off to a miserable start, I completed that stage with nine more shots not much better than the first. This exercise in prophesy fulfilment literally left me in tears. 

I try not to cry in public anymore, at least not over shooting. Crying doesn’t make me a better shot. Intelligent practice does. Truly, what you think you can do is what you can do; and confidence comes from repetition. 

Once, you probably wondered if you’d be able to ride a bicycle. After a few spins around the block, you didn’t even think about the mechanics of riding. You just grabbed the bicycle, jumped aboard and started pedaling. A pianist may be challenged by new music but will play confidently if he or she has mastered the keyboard. It’s just a matter of reading notes and adapting to a different arrangement.

Over-thinking a shot can cause a miss. If you wait too long for a perfect hold, your eyes and muscles will run out of oxygen. The crosswire will dance ever more violently. Your confidence will start to wane, and your muscles will tense. You’ll try to horse the rifle instead of following its natural point of aim. You’ll jerk the trigger. Meanwhile, the animal may indicate that it’s about to move. The wind may pick up. Your mounting desire to get the bullet away makes the shot harder and harder.

You can, of course, fire too quickly. But unless the target is tiny or conditions are such that you need time to calculate drift or find a rest, sooner is better. Adequate hits delivered quickly trump shots held too long in the vain hope of perfect placement.

Thinking impairs your shooting when it makes a shot complicated. Most of the shots I’ve bungled would have ended well if I’d just put the crosswire where I wanted the bullet to land and squeezed the trigger. Truly, you must consider lead on moving animals and sometimes allow for drop and drift. But moving elk aren’t all sprinting at right angles to the bullet path. If you shoot only when you’ve a 90 percent chance of a kill, you probably don’t need to lead running elk at all, because they’ll be close. Given Frisbee-size vitals, if you keep your reticle on the elk’s shoulder, you’ll make a lethal hit on almost every elk you have any business shooting. 

I’ve had to aim in front of elk only twice. A 3-foot lead with a .30 magnum put the skids under one bull at 180 yards; using about half that lead, I shot a .270 softpoint through the lungs of another bull barrelling downhill at 70 steps. Most elk running in cover are quartering away, so their apparent speed falls well short of actual speed, and the range is so short you can ignore bullet flight time. I’ve shot in front of two elk that sped away through the trees; I cannot recall ever shooting behind an elk.

Over-doping wind drift also spares you a locker bill. Only wind blowing across the bullet path matters. A 15-mph blow from 5 o’clock has about the same effect as a 5-mph right-angle breeze. For elk out to 200 yards, you can ignore that. Remember that air resistance on your bullet’s nose is the equivalent of a 2,000-mph gale—so a wind blowing directly against the nose of a bullet, while it might slow it down a little, does not move it to the right or left.

Shooting over elk happens with epidemic frequency. Hunters forget that when they zero a rifle, they ramp the barrel in relation to the sight. The bullet always points above the target when it leaves the barrel, and then drops into the target. If you “help” the bullet by holding high, you’re second-guessing your zero. With most rifle rounds, you can hold center to 250 yards, given a 200-yard zero. You’ll want to elevate at 300, but that is a long shot. Today as I write this, two experienced hunters and I guessed yardage across deceiving terrain. My estimate of 450 yards was 20 percent too high, according to our Leica rangefinder. But it was the closest. My partners had guessed 500 and 600.

Once, in Utah, a hunter and I bellied to within 300 yards of a fine elk. It gave us a good look at the forward slats, and my partner had a rest, prone. “Where should I hold?” he whispered. I suggested top of the shoulder. It was bad advice, because he missed. Not only had the distance been closer to 200, but his rifle, I found later, had been zeroed by a friend at 300. His bullets were programmed to strike 5 inches high at his distance from the elk!

Confidence in your zero saves you from yourself. Confidence in your shooting helps you make shots that seem harder than they are.

On a Colorado hunt last fall, I spied an elk far away. It appeared ready to bed, so I quick-stepped across a shallow valley, then up into dense oak scrub. Worming my way over the crest and out onto a finger ridge, I glassed the animal 180 yards below. But it was lying in a thicket, its vitals shielded save for a small alley. Wait, I said to myself. Many minutes later, the sling had put my arm to sleep and rain had begun to fall. “He could lie there until dark,” I told myself. “You can make this shot.”

I tuned my position until a miss was quite improbable. Then I dry-fired several times and called killing hits through the alley. Confidently I chambered a round, stuck the crosswire, locked my lungs and pressed the trigger. The bull erupted from his bed and vanished. I cycled the bolt. Silence. Then oakbrush shook as he kicked his last.

Talking yourself into a shot makes sense if it is like many you’ve made before. Prone, with sling tight, I had every confidence of threading that melon-size hole to the elk. 

A more common blunder is talking yourself into a shot you want to make but haven’t made often enough to engender confidence—or a shot that will never be sure no matter how often you practice. Shooting far, shooting through brush or shooting before you can catch your breath sets you up to miss. A miss makes the next shot more difficult. Better to wait or pass. But that’s seldom what we tell ourselves.

“Eland!” Donny gripped my knee. “A magnificent bull! You must shoot!” 

I’d joined him at the water for light’s last hour, to photograph. The rifle was just a prop, until this bull had shown up. He’d come in downwind and smelled us. In that graceful step so incongruous with eland immensity, he eased again toward cover.

“You must shoot quickly!”

Of course, I didn’t have to shoot at all. I prefer to hunt eland on foot; killing a bull now would fill my license. But that’s not what I was thinking. The thick, gnarled horns and Donny’s urging slid the safety ahead with no help from my thumb. I drove a 180-grain .300 WSM bullet toward the off-shoulder. 

But the angle was steep, and the bull showed no reaction. I fired again, then fished frantically for the spare round in my shirt. The eland made its way through an opening, and I shot too far back. Tearing my pack open for my remaining cartridges, I jammed them into the magazine and raced after Donny, around brush hiding the bull. From shooting sticks, I delivered the final rounds.

This embarrassing episode reminded me that wanting to kill is no excuse for taking a low-percentage shot. The eland’s size and the short 90 yards that separated us gave me confidence. I should have thought more about how I wanted to take an eland and how far my bullets would have to penetrate to reach the vitals of a 1,600-pound animal. Two eland I’d killed on earlier trips had each dropped to one shot. It was easy to be confident. Egged on by my partner and excited by the thick horns, I made bad decisions if not altogether bad hits.

Knowing your odds of making any shot is the first step to making any shot. If in practice you’ve done well at this yardage from this position, odds are in your favor. If this is a first-time effort, you can’t be confident because you’ve no history!

Shooting from the bench gives you confidence in your rifle. Alas, rifles don’t miss elk; people miss elk. With that in mind, practice from positions you’re likely to use on the hunt. Of my last five elk, three were shot offhand, one from the sit and one prone. Offhand, I was able to lean twice against trees, but all of those shots happened quickly, in cover. It seems from this brief record that I’ve little to gain at the bench.

Now wait a minute! How can you gain confidence from unstable positions that scatter bullet holes all over the target? Well, just concentrate on the good shots. If you make one, you can make more. But only one at a time. A lot of bad shooting happens when you think too far ahead. In competition the score has no bearing on the bullet in the barrel. On a hunt, thinking about a second shot is likewise pointless. Anything that drains your attention from the sight picture and trigger can make you miss.

Not long ago I joined some fellow hunters at a fundraising event that included competition with hunting rifles, pistols and shotguns. After a dismal performance with a new shotgun, I banged down all of the plates on the pistol stage and scored 9 of 10 with my 6.8mm SPC rifle at silhouette targets 200 yards away. Chiding myself for the miss, I figured I’d get 10 hits on the paper targets at 100 yards. I’d zeroed there earlier and practiced for the offhand stage by dry firing. 

But suddenly someone called for a lunch break. As every competitive shooter knows, eating raises your pulse and makes holding difficult. But lunch wouldn’t wait, so I caved. Only six of my next 10 shots scored— not because I had a sandwich but because I thought eating would impair my performance. After a final, humbling clay target event, I slunk back to the rifle range on my own. All 10 shots found the middle.

Beating yourself when the shots count is easier than when they don’t. If a lot hinges on the hit, you’re more apt to think about getting it than making it. As pressure mounts, you tense up. Even if the mechanics of shooting have become second nature through practice, you can blunder. Your focus on the outcome gets in the way of what you’ve trained your body to do. When the eland did not collapse after my second shot, I suddenly lacked coordination for the simplest tasks, like retrieving a cartridge from my pocket. Focused on a kill, I should instead have been thinking a step at a time.

Some years ago I guided a hunter to an elk bugling in a thicket at dawn. The shot came at about 100 yards. The first bullet struck a bit too far back, and I urged him as calmly as possible to shoot again. He missed with that round and the next three. Inserting another magazine, he missed with his five remaining cartridges. I had no rifle, but we’d left another client a couple of hundred yards behind. I dashed away, snatched his rifle and returned to find the bull still in the same spot. He dropped to my shot. The hunter apologized. I understood.

I recall three other elk hunters who’ve missed bulls repeatedly after making a first-round hit. Each miss makes another more likely, especially if the hunter can’t tell where his bullets are landing. Shots with short deadlines up the ante.

“Brush will mess up your mind, too,” observed one hunter. “It’s impervious to bullets, but if you look through it long enough it disappears.” That happens quickly if your scope or binocular focus makes the animal appear sharp while blurring the brush. You think your bullet will arrive, but you’re imagining a path that isn’t there.

Another hazard in thickets is the off-center tunnel. When you have a shot alley to vitals, you tend to aim in the middle of the alley. But threading this needle counts for little if the bullet doesn’t land where you want it to. More recently than I care to admit, I lost an animal this way. The alley was big enough, but high on the forward ribs and shoulder. A long branch blocked the chest about where you’d want to aim. Instead of trying to just clear the branch, I let fly with the crosswire almost centered in the tunnel. The bull dropped immediately in tall grass and brush. A couple of minutes later, before I could reach him or shoot again, he was up and away. I suspect the bullet clipped a spinal process; had I aimed just a tad lower, the bullet would have broken the spine or shoulder or hit lung. The last elk I killed gave me a bigger tunnel, but my bullet still struck high. It is hard indeed to ignore a thicket framing the vitals. One way to sharpen your focus on the target is to shoot through brush tunnels during practice. 

As predators, we humans rely a good deal on our intelligence to kill animals that are faster, stronger and have far superior senses, in country they know intimately. We also have the capacity to over-think. Time afield teaches us to recognize ideal elk cover, even if we can’t explain why we think it is. It tutors an instinctive step along trails that take best advantage of terrain. The best shooting also follows many hours of routine firing. Practice well and often, and you’ll most often shoot well.

Rifles are like bicycles—easy to manipulate but hard to master. You wouldn’t enter the Tour de France having to think about the mechanics of staying upright on a bicycle each day. Whether your next hunt is a week away or months in the future, it’s a good idea to think about shooting an elk now—so when you can shoot you won’t be thinking.