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It’s happening. Your quarry is finally in sight and you’re poised for a shot. You quickly shoulder your rifle and look through the scope. Your finger is on the safety, ready to move to the trigger. Do you take the shot? It’s a tough question. Once the bullet is on its way it can’t be turned back. One miscalculation and you could regret the decision for the rest of your life. Here’s what to ask yourself.

  1. 1. IS IT SAFE?

Don’t even think about shooting if you’re unsure of the background. Pass up any animal that’s skylined or presents a similarly questionable shot until it moves to safe ground. For example, if you’re a stander in a deer drive and a buck runs by in the brush but you aren’t certain where the drivers are, don’t shoot. The same goes for grouse or woodcock flushing in heavy cover. If you don’t know where your companions are, play it safe.

  1. 2. IS IT LEGAL?

If you’re hunting an area where game must have a minimum number of points to the side, or a minimum antler spread, you must clearly identify the animal and literally count the tines or make a judgment call on the spread.

  1. 3. IS IT TOO FAR?

Each year, most of us visit the gun range with our trusty, or in some cases brand-new, rifles and sight them in. This usually means that we take a steady rest and shoot at a 100-yard target. Soon, the day of reckoning comes. You’re looking at a bull elk standing across a canyon 361 yards away. (You know that’s the distance because you have a range finder.) Do you know what your rifle will do at that distance? Most of us don’t. Don’t shoot if you’re unsure, especially if you’re using a muzzleloader or a short-range rifle caliber and the distance is questionable. The remedy, of course, is to shoot your gun at different yardages before you go hunting so you know the trajectory.

  1. 4. IS IT TOO FAST?

I often read articles that tell exactly how far to lead a running antelope. This amuses me, because you’d need a calculator to determine your distance to the animal, its speed, the velocity and trajectory of the bullet, and the angle of the antelope’s path. Our brains can’t do that in the few seconds we have to aim and fire, so most of the time these are “Hail Mary” shots. Don’t fire at a running or moving animal unless you’re positive you can hit it solidly with a killing shot.


Many times the quarry is positioned at an angle where it might be tough to get a bullet into its vitals. Hold your shot until you’re sure you can make a good hit. Never take a neck shot unless you’re familiar enough with the animal’s anatomy to know where the spine is and you’re positive you can hitit.


We all know that if an arrow strikes a small branch or twig it will veer off course, but many of us aren’t aware that a speeding bullet will likewise be deflected when it strikes a small twig or even a blade of grass. If there’s brush in the path of your bullet, wait until the animal moves to an open area. If possible, position yourself for a better shot.


If you’re duck hunting without a dog, don’t shoot if birds fly over a deep, fast-moving river. Likewise, don’t shoot an animal that’s across a canyon or river where you might not be able to get to it.

Can you pack the game out by yourself? If not, can you get help from your buddies? If you don’t have the means to recover your game, you should not behunting there in the first place. If you’re hunting moose and the animal isbelly-deep in a pond, wait until it walks to shore before shooting.


Try this simple test. Shine a laser or flashlight beam on a wall and hold it perfectly still. You can’t. Now consider the fact that when the quarry presents itself, you might suffer from buck or bull fever. Or you might be out of breath from climbing or moving fast to get a clear shot. In each case, your firearm will be unsteady if you try an off-hand shot. Use a rest, any rest, whether it’s a bipod affixed to your rifle, portable shooting sticks or a natural object such as a rock, log or fencepost. Even a hat jammed into a bush will help steady the shot. At the least, get into a kneeling or sitting position or use your sling.


Unless you’re with a mentor who will walk you through the shot, you’re on your own. The decision is solely yours. Weigh every aspect of the shot, and never squeeze the trigger unless you’re 100 percent sure. You owe it to the quarry and to yourself.

For information on Jim Zumbo’s books, go to


WHERE: Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

SKINNY: This 3.3 million-acre national forest is the largest in Montana. The last week of the 5-week season is often the best.

COST: Resident:$16; nonresident: $640.25

CONTACT: Beaverhead National Forest, 406-683-3900.