The Anatomy of a Miss

Missing flat hurts.  Re-living it in your mind again and again, you vow never to tell your upland or waterfowl-hunting friends about how you missed a stationary target that was standing on the ground, while you were concealed and the bird was un-alerted to your presence.  That pain likely pales in comparison to what the turkey might’ve felt in the form of some stray pellets.  I’ve seen the effect of what poorly placed shots can do, and more than we’d like to think the turkey eventually dies from the encounter.  Though we understand it’s our goal to always make a clean and careful killing shot, there are a number of obstacles in our way.

Personally, I’ve shot at and missed 5 gobblers in the course of 21 seasons.  With dozens of turkey hunts per year or more, I’ve been witness to many more misses while hunting with beginners and true experts alike.  Experience isn’t always the best teacher, as last season in Oklahoma, I missed two birds in two days before finally tagging out on a stubborn Rio Grande that was a bit too loud-mouthed for his own good.  Before last year, I hadn’t missed in a decade, but the last time I did, the pain also came in pairs while missing twice before 8AM that fateful Minnesota morning.

Of all the misses and close calls I’ve encountered, the common thread is that most of these are the result of bad decisions often made well before the safety ever comes off.  Fortunately, that means they’re also preventable.  Here’s a “greatest-hits” so-to-speak, of the most common causes for a miss, along with a few ideas on how to remedy to problem:

·         Too Far – More birds are peppered, maimed, and mortally wounded due to long shots than any other mistake from what I’ve seen.  That means it’s time for all of us to brush up on range estimation.  Rangefinders were a spendy contraption when I started hunting, but they flat out improve our ability to make a clean shot.  Have one handy and use it, but more importantly, when in doubt, wait it out.  

·         Poor Shot – Coming in at a close second is taking a hail-mary type shot to begin with.  Miss number one last year was a running bird at 40 yards, and miss number two was walking at the end of my effective range.  I’ve made these shots before, but ultimately knew better than to take them in the first place.

·         No Patterning – Speaking of effective range, if you don’t know how many pellets are in your pattern at various ranges, how sure can you be that a bird will drop at any range?  Shoot through as many chokes/loads as is reasonable to you to find a combination that puts more than 100 pellets in that 10” diameter circle at 40 yards.  Once you get to 100, strive to find a combination that will do 200 or better. 

·         Shooting Technique – Contorting around a tree, shooting from your belly, or flat dealing with the burn as you sit motionless as a statue can certainly contribute to a miss.  That said, hunters that use a ventilated rib and bead combination miss more than those that use other sights simply because they don’t keep their head down.  Unfortunately, I’ve had the over-the-shoulder view from so many of these hunter’s misses over the years, that I get to witness it first-hand.  Given that view, I also get to see quite a few flinches, which is understandable given how hard some of these loads can kick.  Prevent that effect by avoiding the long and bruising patterning sessions just before you’re ready to hunt.   

·         Equipment – Speaking of sights, I’ve seen a good number of malfunctions over the years.  From cracked and broken fiber optics, to front posts being completely ripped off the ventilated rib while dragging the gun through brush, sights can be vulnerable on a turkey gun.  Belly crawling through sand and even dry and dusty prairie grass can make semi-autos fail to cycle for follow up shots.  Keep your eyes peeled for these malfunctions before they ever have a chance to happen.

·         Too Close for Comfort – While I’ve only witnessed one miss because the bird was too close, it’s obvious why.  We patterned a buddy’s gun after the shot to find his load punched a baseball sized hole through paper at the 10 yard distance he missed from.  With how much a turkey’s head moves and how quickly he had to take the shot, it wasn’t a surprise.

·         Confidence – You’re trying to hit a sweet-spot here.  Practice builds confidence, and missing destroys it.  Four of my own misses came in pairs because I had a hard time recovering from the first one mentally.  Conversely, over-confidence leads to ill-preparedness and bad-decisions.

·         Faulty Expectations – This is a growing concern for the more experienced hunters.  The more you hunt, and the more success you encounter, the more likely you are to put it in “auto-pilot” during the last few seconds leading up to a shot.  Past experience can hamstring you here, as your mental programming over the last few dozen birds has falsely associated the act of leveling, aiming, and shooting with a dead bird.  In the back of your mind, somehow just making the gun go “boom” gives you the result you want.  Pause, then go through your pre-shot progression again before just making the gun sound off. 

·         Lucky Bird – Every once in a great while, I’ve seen a miss that defies logic.  You do everything right, line up the sights, go through the checklist in your mind and squeeze off a round, only to watch the bird rapidly disappear into a speck on the horizon.  Somehow, someway, that bird found a hole in your pattern.  More often however, our mistakes are obvious and correctable.

While we can’t always be perfect, we owe it to those turkeys to strive to be.  Every brutally cold wintry day, all I need to do is think about that spring’s tom up in some tree holding on for dear life while it contemplates how it’ll get through the next day.  That provides me with the motivation to practice with a purpose, such that every time I touch the trigger, the tom meets his end far more quickly than any other malady that Mother Nature would prescribe.