Battling The Breeze
September 23, 2010
Technology is no match for solid wind-reading skills.
Even on a relatively short shot with a high-speed cartridge, lacking the ability or the time to read the wind properly can cost you big-time.
On opening day, pronghorns are often relatively trusting and easy to approach. The next day, well, that can be a different story. I was hunting two weeks past opening day, in an area that receives just enough pressure for every buck to have figured out exactly what was going on, and almost as exactly how much distance was required to stay out of trouble. Worse, a west wind was gusting well past 30 miles an hour.
Rex Morgan, an old high school classmate, had settled in Rawlins, Wyoming, and had acquired an outfitter's license (Antelope/Deer Hunts Outfitter, 307-321-1076). I hadn't seen him in years, so I put in and drew.
We knew the area held lots of pronghorn, but the area wasn't "first choice," (or second), meaning it was unlikely to hold any monsters. That was just fine with me. What I wanted was to see the country, glass some antelope and make a good stalk. Of course, since I hadn't seen Rex in an awful long time, what I didn't want was to mess up in front of him.
The area was quite open and the pronghorns fairly spooky, so a couple of stalks didn't work out. Then we glassed a herd bedded below a distant ridge on the edge of a green winter wheat field. There was one buck, and he looked just fine--heavy and plenty tall.
I was relieved, because it looked like we could come in totally unseen to less than 200 yards, and in the horrible wind there would be no long shooting: If we caught a full crosswind, even 300 yards would be pushing it. We marked the spot, made a huge circle and started over the sagebrush ridge.
The slope was gentler than it had looked, and it rolled so that we were actually a bit too close when the first pronghorn came into view. It was a doe, and she was already up, looking at us. The whole group spooked long before we could pick out the buck, but they ran just 100 yards to the edge of the field and stopped.
When we started over the ridge I realized the wind had shifted and was now out of the south, a straight headwind. As soon as the pronghorns came into view I looked for a stout, slightly higher sagebrush that might give me a rest. I found one, flopped down and was reasonably ready when they stopped as I'd hoped they might.
The wind was still straight into my face, negative value. The range was something a bit over 250 yards, but there was no time for precise ranging because we had another problem: Now there were two bucks. Where did the other one come from? No clue, but there were two dozen nervous pronghorns, so a decision was essential.
While I puzzled out the shot, Rex judged the horns and told me to shoot the one on the left. With a negative wind and a range of less than 250 yards--shooting a .270 WSM--I held right where I wanted to hit and squeezed the trigger.
The buck, a very nice one, dropped like a rock. Except, as we approached, he tried to get up and I had to shoot him again. During the approach, as we came off the ridge, the headwind switched to gale force wind right to left, straight out of the west again. As we admired him my partner asked, "So, where did your first shot hit?"
I gave the only answer I could come up with: "Hell, I don't have a clue."
I knew exactly what had happened when I felt the shift in the wind, and I knew I had been extremely lucky. Wind is the great variable, and sometimes it defies figuring. In the space of 100 yards a strong wind did a 90-degree shift, undoubtedly channeled by the terrain.
If I'd had time to study the grass and sagebrush maybe I could have figured it out, but it wasn't a long shot. At the muzzle the wind was in my face, so I played it straight--and I was dead wrong. I hit the antelope in the hips but through the spine and was fortunate to anchor him. The entrance was about 10 inches left of my aiming point.
Any good ballistic program will tell you the precise wind drift for any bullet at any velocity. My QuickTarget program tells me that, if the wind was 30 mph, and if the distance was 250 yards, I had about 11 inches of wind drift to contend with. But on that flat where the pronghorn lay the wind was stronger than 30 mph. The distance was a bit more, too--but at exactly what point did the wind change and start to work on the bullet?
We have great technological advances such as laser rangefinders and now laser rangefinders within riflescopes. Very soon we will have computer chips that will automatically adjust the hold for distance, and I suppose there will be on-board weather systems that will measure the wind (and angle, and elevation and barometric pressure) and adjust for that as well.
But when all is said and done, reading the wind will remain one of the great mysteries in field riflery. There are no range flags out there, and all any computer program can give you is a constant. Wind is not constant, especially in varied terrain. Regardless of the equipment you are using, you must try to read it throughout the bullet's path, and no device can do this for you.
This means that, even if the wind seems constant, in a strong wind there is some point where you have a no-shot situation. On that day, at just 250 yards, I was in a no-shot situation. I just didn't realize it because I judged a "negative value" wind and was dead wrong.
If the antelope had been standing with his head to the left, I'd have missed him clean, but as he stood, if the bullet had landed even slightly differently we would've had a wounded animal on our hands.
Would I take the shot again? At that distance, yes. You have to read the wind as well as you can and understand that it presents variables that no technology will ever be able to overcome.
Sometimes you'll read the wind right, and sometimes you'll read it wrong, but on game there must be a cutoff point. And that point is a whole lot closer in the wind than it is on a calm day.