Making a rifle still, and doing it quickly, is the first step to a good shot.
Nearly all shots on big game require the hunter to be steady, but the longer and trickier the shot, the more important stability is.
We had seen this mule deer two days earlier, before the opener, and now we had our chance. The buck was in a hollow to our right. A strand of autumn-yellow aspen lay between us, and the only view of the buck was from a standing position--between waving treetops.
It was the best mule deer I'd had a chance at in more than 20 years, and I wanted him real bad. I had an extending tripod, so I set it up--several times--trying to find a window through the treetops. The buck and a smaller male were totally oblivious, just feeding along. The range was 290 yards, a long shot on sticks. Two or three times I had a clear presentation, but I couldn't get the shot off before he walked out of the window.
An essential early step in field shooting is going--or getting--steady. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't do it. After several minutes of moving the sticks, looking for the next open opportunity, the buck walked behind tall aspens and was gone.
I thought he was gone forever--a lost opportunity I would long remember--and then came a reprieve. Just after he dropped out of sight, the wind settled for the first time that day. We slipped up to the head of the strand of aspens so we could look into the basin, and with light fading fast I spotted him.
Now the range was just 230 yards. I set the tripod low, and propped my plump daypack as a support for my non-shooting elbow. This time I went completely steady, and when the big buck stepped clear of his little buddy I took the quartering-away shot. He made a few steps and fell over.
Without question I was fortunate to get a second chance. So was I incredibly wise to pass an uncertain shot--or did I just plain fail to get steady enough when perhaps I could have? I'll never know, but I am convinced that it's far better to pass than to take any shot you aren't certain of.
Misses are going to happen even when conditions are perfect. Game animals have lots of air space around them and, unfortunately, non-vital zones are much larger than vital zones. If you take risky shots--shots that you aren't certain of or when you aren't quite steady enough--then all potential errors are compounded.
While standing on tiptoes trying to shoot that mule deer, I nearly got off a shot several times. Perhaps I could have, but every time I was steady enough the presentation was wrong--and vice versa.
Up to that point, my hunting year had held some incredible highs and lows, and had we not gotten a second chance, my toe dance on that ridge would have been one of the latter. I had done some of the better shooting of my career--and some of the worst.
Some good ones: In March, I pasted a Derby eland perfectly, a difficult shot after a very long and very hot day. In June, I made a brilliant shot at a kudu on a far ridge.
In late October, in fading light, I made a perfect downhill shot on a Spanish ibex. A few days later, in blowing snow, I made the same shot on a Carpathian chamois.
What these shots had in common, and this is important, is that each time I was able to get steady quickly--and within a few seconds the animals stood with reasonable presentation.
These are two separate parts of the equation of making a good shot, but both are essential. The first you can control. You must find a way to get steady enough to get off a properly aimed shot. How steady you must be depends somewhat on the distance and the size of the target.
Whether you choose a natural rest, a backpack, shooting sticks or one of the formal shooting positions, you must achieve steadiness--and if you expect consistent success, you should also do it quickly.
The second part of the equation is the animal's movement and presentation. These you can do nothing about. Sometimes there just isn't an opportunity, but unless you're steady and ready none of this matters.
Of course, steadiness isn't the only ingredient in a successful shot. It's also important for your equipment to be right, to properly visualize the shot, and of course to hold 'em and squeeze 'em.
The responsibility to do these things is all yours because once you take that shot, you can't call it back. I relearned that the hard way last year. In one case, I drew a 300-yard shot at a beautiful nyala bull in Mozambique--the primary goal of the safari--and blew it. Later in the year I flubbed a shot on a fine brown bear in Romania. I took the shots; therefore I must have thought I could make them--but I was wrong.
Like I said, getting steady isn't necessarily the only ingredient in a successful shot, but it's an essential first step. You simply must get steady, and then, most of the time, the rest will fall into place. Sometimes it won't, but if you're not steady to start with, everything is working against you.