|Where were you when October flew by? If you've been sitting on the back porch enjoying the fall weather and thinking there's plenty of time before deer season, check the calendar again, because you have till Saturday morning to decide where you're going to hunt and what you need to find-buy-fix before you go!
Maine's firearms deer season (the one that matters most to the majority of hunters) opens Saturday with Residents Only Day, and then kicks off on Monday for anyone with a valid 2005 big game hunting license. Opening week harvests are the highest of the season, perhaps because there are more hunters out there that week, but deer numbers will also be the highest of the season the first week, so you don't want to miss a chance to tag your Maine whitetail while the weather is still relatively balmy.
Year after year, the number one thing hunters should do (but often don't) is sight in their rifles. If I had a dollar for every “I don't know how I missed him” story I hear during deer season I could buy a lot of land down Portland way. There are a lot of reasons for missing a 200-pound buck standing broadside at 40 yards (twigs in the way, buck fever, etc.), but when you have an open, clear shot at the trophy of a lifetime and miss because you don't know for sure where your bullet might go, that's just plain careless (and hard to explain to your buddies!). Used to be that any hunter in camp who missed a shot at a deer had his shirttail cut off, but now he just becomes the butt of a million bad jokes about missing deer - a week of that and a new shirt seems cheap by comparison!
The difference between a rifle that shoots where you aim it and a sad story to tell at day's end is about 15 minutes on the range. The process is simple and straightforward, and in most cases will cost you no more than half a box of shells, a small price to pay if you want to hit where you aim when the big moment arrives.
To begin, be sure all your stock and sight screws are tight. Use Lock-Tite or some other fixative (to help keep the screws in place all season). Find a solid, steady platform to shoot from (a picnic table is fine) and use a sleeping bag, sandbags or similar firm but pliable rest to place under the rifle's stock and forearm. You want the rifle to be unwavering as you shoot, but not touching anything hard (wood, metal or rock) because this will create an unnatural “bounce” at the shot that will cause the bullet to fly off target.
Place your first target 25 yards from the muzzle of the barrel. Check the rifle barrel for obstructions, then settle in to shoot - sitting at a bench or prone (lying on the ground) are preferred because these are the most stable shooting positions. Aim carefully at the center of the bull's-eye and squeeze off three slow, aimed shots. You will have a group of three holes (ideally close together) somewhere on the target. We're not looking for pinpoint accuracy now, just one tight three-shot group. You may be right on target or you may be a foot high and right - the important thing now is a tight group.
Adjust your sights as necessary (read your rifle's owner's manual for details), let the rifle barrel cool down, and then fire three more slow, well-aimed shots. These should be on target, or at least closer to the center (remember, we're only 25 yards away!). If not, make more sight adjustments and continue the process till you have three shots clustered in the center of the bull's-eye.
Now, back the target off to 100 yards and shoot again. With most .30-caliber deer rifles (and pretty much all centerfire rifles these days) your shots should now be printing about 3 inches high. That is exactly right! Sighted in this way, your rifle should be dead on at 25 yards, 3 inches high at 100 and dead on again around 200 or 250 yards, depending on the caliber. Because most deer in Maine are shot at under 100 yards (more like under 50 yards), you should not miss any deer you see in the woods this season - at least not because the rifle was at fault!
There are many reasons for missing deer (I have seen hunters close their eyes and shoot, or eject unfired shells thinking they were shooting, or just panic and shoot five rounds as fast as they could pull the trigger), but if your rifle is properly sighted in and you take the time to aim and squeeze the trigger, you won't have to explain why you missed.
A second major mistake hunters make is aiming at the whole deer, not the part the want to hit. It's not easy to take your focus off a big buck's antlers, but that is what you must do if you want to be the king of the game pole next week. Think only about the area on a deer that is directly behind the shoulder and halfway up the body. This is where the heart, lungs and liver are, and a bullet placed here will put the animal down for good in short order, a clean kill with little tracking required. Take your time, aim straight, squeeze the trigger. That's all there is to it.
I have written words to this effect for over 35 years and yet every season I hear new stories about missed or, even worse, wounded deer that might have turned out differently if only the hunter had taken a few minutes ahead of time to sight in his rifle. You can't possibly make a clean, killing shot on a deer if you don't know where that bullet is going to go when you pull the trigger. Sight in your rifle first, know ahead of time where you want to hit that deer and when the time comes you'll have the confidence of knowing that you can put your tag on any whitetail you see out there this season.
I don't expect it, but I'm hoping that this will be the year when everyone heads to the range before they miss the buck of a lifetime!