We learn from experience…but do we learn the right lessons?
I will never forget the evening Donna shot her first whitetail. It was a few minutes past sunset, just going gray, and we were working our way along Pinto Creek on Jack Fields’ ranch near Del Rio. A nice buck stepped into a little flat, and Donna flattened him with a 7×57. The shot wasn’t difficult, but quickly taken and perfectly placed. Jack congratulated her on a great shot, and it was…but her response was priceless: “Thanks, I’ve been practicing on impala…”
Since we have 35 million whitetail deer on this continent—our most numerous and available game animal—most American hunters start out as whitetail hunters. Most of those who don’t start with whitetails probably live in mule deer, blacktail, or Coues deer country, and that’s what they start out with. Donna was on a different path. Although she’d done some shooting, she had never hunted before she came to Africa with me, intending to be an observer. Like many adults (men and women) who have never been introduced to hunting, she was uncertain about it, but she was open-minded and when she had an opportunity she stepped to the plate. African plains game was thus her first hunting experience…she had, literally practiced on impala and other antelope before she had a chance at a whitetail!
GOOD LESSONS, BAD LESSONS
This is neither good nor bad; we are all victims of our own experience. At the time she shot that whitetail, she was very good at shooting off sticks. She had learned that in a fluid situation, it was necessary to get an accurate shot off quickly…and she had practiced accordingly. When she had a chance at that buck, she knew exactly what to do, and she did it.
On the other hand, unlike millions of American deer hunters, she had never sat in a treestand or, at that time, in a blind of any kind. Since she started hunting by tracking, glassing and stalking, this remains her comfort zone; to this day, she dislikes sitting in a stand. So one chilly morning in Kansas, she made me really proud. I was at my computer writing a story, and I heard a shot from down the hill that had to be hers. Sure enough, a few minutes later she came strolling up the driveway, all bundled up. Time to get the tractor and collect her buck.
My own experience is quite different…but also unusual, at least compared to that of the majority of our millions of American deer hunters. Today Kansas is famous as a great whitetail destination, but when I started hunting, Kansas hadn’t had a legal deer season since the 1920s and wouldn’t for a couple more years. Therefore, Dad and I went west to Wyoming and Colorado. Pronghorn and mule deer were my first teachers. When Kansas first opened, tags were limited, so we applied in the western part of the state, continuing to hunt mule deer. I actually hunted elk, sheep, moose, grizzly and more before I ever hunted whitetail deer. In fact, I was in the Marines and stationed at Quantico before I did any whitetail hunting.
By that time, I was good at glassing, stalking and open-country shooting…but I had done almost no close-cover hunting. I got lucky and took a nice buck in North Carolina in the fall of 1975, but I hunted the Virginia woods hard—and unsuccessfully—all that fall and winter. Heavy cover was totally unfamiliar, daunting and frustrating. I wasn’t very good at it…but I didn’t actually realize that until I hunted in Kenya in 1977. We started in the thick forests on the slopes of Mount Kenya and I was a total disaster. I missed several bushbuck, finally got a good one, and then I messed up on a buffalo. In the thick stuff I had trouble both seeing game and visualizing the shot. Then we moved down to the open thornbush south of Voi and east of Tsavo and I was in my element: Glassing, stalking, shooting at various distances. I missed a running warthog before connecting, but otherwise took a dozen animals with as many shots.
You don’t know what you don’t know…and sometimes the lessons come hard. I put my poor performance on Mount Kenya down to “first safari jitters,” and rested on my laurels from the Tsavo plains. A couple years later, I hunted southeastern Rhodesia…in May and June when the leaves were still on and the cover was thick. Although long since one of his country’s most famous and most beloved professional hunters, I was Barrie Duckworth’s first client when he left Rhodesian Parks and Wildlife. Barrie was already a uniquely accomplished hunter, but we were both a bit green—me as regards hunting in thick stuff; he as regards shepherding a client. Once again, I was a disaster!
Even today, at 60-nevermind-years-old, people who hunt with me comment at how good I am at spotting game. Back then, I was way better than 20/10 in both eyes…but I had serious trouble picking out animals among the mopane leaves. One (forgettable) day Barrie led me to a nice sable bull resting in the shade of a tree. I just couldn’t see it, so we kept crawling closer. Eventually I understood that the black object at the base of the tree was a dark animal, but I still couldn’t resolve how it was standing. We kept crawling, and I doubt we were 30 yards away when the bull tired of the game and spooked.
There were successes on that hunt: A klipspringer up on a kopje, a fine kudu far off down a korongo, plus impala, bushbuck and more. But if the animal was in thick stuff, I sucked! If there is a cure for this other than experience, I don’t know what it might be. Fortunately, experience would come and eventually I would get pretty good at close-cover hunting…however, to this day, I’m much more comfortable with longer shooting in open country.
WHAT YOU SEE FROM WHERE YOU SIT
Our whitetail deer is the most numerous game animal in the world…but also, at least in the East, the hardest-hunted game animal in the world. A creature of the edges, whitetail love heavy bedding cover…and when pressured, they become extremely nocturnal. This makes the whitetail deer one of the most difficult animals to hunt…especially in areas where short seasons are combined with heavy pressure. This describes a lot of Eastern whitetail hunting! I have often said that Eastern whitetail hunters who achieve reasonably consistent success—especially on mature bucks—must rank among the very best hunters in the world. This is absolutely true in terms of understanding their game and game country: Reading sign and wind, laying ambushes, being patient and persistent, and learning all the tricks and techniques associated with whitetail hunting, which include calling, rattling, using scents and decoys, and so much more.
Unlike me 40 years ago, good Eastern whitetail hunters will be very good at seeing the flick of an ear or the shine of an antler in thick stuff, and seeing the horizontal lines and texture of a deer through a screen of leaves. They will also be better than I once was—and probably better than I am now—at picking vital spots through holes in vegetation, and “threading the needle” with bullet, slug or arrow as a deer passes through. And of course, a good Eastern whitetail hunter knows that he or she is good! Hunters who take nice whitetails even every couple of years easily stand out in regions where hunter success is 25 percent or less!
Ah, but does this experience make a good Eastern whitetail hunter ready for long-dreamed of hunts elsewhere? In my experience, no. Eastern whitetail hunters have little experience with the glassing and stalking we do in the American West, and are often daunted by the big and unfamiliar country. Despite all the hoopla about long-range shooting today, shooting at extreme range is rarely absolutely necessary…but good Eastern whitetail hunters accustomed to pasting their deer at less than 100 yards can expect a bit of stage fright when their shots come at 250 to 300 yards—not “close,” but fairly normal in open country. The treestand hunter who is consistently deadly from the stand will find a different world when it comes time to look for a rock or a tree, or rest across the pack…and this applies to all open-country hunting.
In Africa, well, it depends on where they go. A good Eastern whitetail hunter would have been better than me on the slopes of Mount Kenya or in the still-green mopane forests of the Lowveld…but might be well be intimidated in the more open country of Namibia, the Karoo, or the Kalahari. Fortunately, the glassing and stalking—fun if unfamiliar—will generally be orchestrated by a PH…but the shooting is all up to the hunter. The African shooting sticks will speak a foreign language, and hunters whose total experience is whitetail deer will be confused by animals of all shapes, sizes and colors (even though the vitals are, more or less, always in the same place). One of our most famous (and nameless) modern whitetail gurus took the plunge into Africa just once…and vowed never to return.–Craig Boddington