Shoot or don’t shoot?” That’s a common quiz in hunter education courses, based on safety rules. We believe that knowing when to shoot or not to shoot based on hunting considerations is just as important. The object is to recognize a shot opportunity when you see it, to decline an iffy shot, and to avoid passing on a quality one. That is the essence of hunting and harvesting game.

We both have at least 50 years of experience as bowhunters, half of that with traditional bows. We also have nearly 300 bow and gun deer kills between us. Here is what we have learned about when to shoot or not. Some lessons were hard-learned and some were just good decisions.

After a grueling day of sneaking and stalking on a piece of timbered woodlands last fall, we were walking together to our vehicle an hour before quitting time. We were tired and hungry, and the season was just beginning. With the van not a hundred yards away, a black bear moved off the side of the logging road we were walking. It was bear season, and unlikely odds were shining on us.

In the dimming light of the cloudy day, the bear was just a featureless ink blob flowing through the tangled brush and spindly trees as it toyed tantalizingly with our personal effective shooting ranges. While both of us were ready for the shot, it never happened. It just wasn’t there.

Another time, in another state with overlapping bear and deer seasons, a bear Bob pushed oozed past Linda inside 20 yards. It offered only a head shot when it looked right at her, so it offered no shot at all. Linda has yet to loose an arrow at a bear.

This buck not only is angling wrong, but the vitals are not clear through the brush.

Years ago, Bob decided not to shoot at a female black bear with a pair of 50-pound cubs in tow. At the time and place the sow was legal, but his personal hunting ethics would not allow it.

Twigs, branches, and other physical obstructions often play a role in shoot or don’t shoot decisions. A few years back, an 8-point buck came charging toward the noise Bob’s shuffling feet made in the dry leaves. He readied an arrow and prepared to draw. The buck slammed on the brakes at 13 steps as Bob hit full draw.

There was a small twig over the buck’s vitals, but the shot was close, and Bob’s excitement was reaching a crescendo. His arrow flew true—to the twig. Then it made an abrupt turn, dodging under the buck and slamming into the inside of the deer’s opposite ham. After a restless night, Bob easily recovered the dead buck the next day. This is not a success story. There was no shot, but Bob took it anyway. Bad things can happen and do. No good memories on this one.

We both have had numerous times when distractions have caused us to pass a shot. You get to full draw, only to feel your hat brim against your bow string or your bow limb tip against a branch or a knee-level stump or rock. Once, at full draw, Bob noticed the rope he had used to pull the bow up into a tree was still attached and he had to let down.

Another day, Bob knelt to shorten his silhouette as a buck approached. When all was right, he attempted to draw, only to find he couldn’t. Kneeling had pinned the leg of his camo coveralls tightly to the ground. There was not enough give in the one-piece outfit to let him raise his shoulders to draw. He watched the buck go by while he was locked in a straitjacket.

With our overly connected lives today, we need to understand that it’s not all about us. People we love, work with, or play with often depend on us. The decision to shoot or not to shoot should consider them and commitments that have been made.

The buck of a lifetime came charging in under Bob’s tree stand, responding to rattled antlers. The rack was high, wide, and handsome. At eight steps from the stand, the deer stopped and looked away. Bob’s shot would be nearly straight down. Slowly he came to full draw, his aim focusing between the raised hackles on the rutting buck’s shoulder blades.

Then Bob let down. He wasn’t really hunting that day. He was sitting aloft in the autumn woods, getting his thoughts straight about the next pre-dawn morning, when Linda would face her second cancer operation. He realized that if the buck didn’t drop or die in sight, the next day’s schedule would be in shambles for both of them. Bob didn’t need that to happen, so it didn’t. Linda came first; getting a deer was a faraway, unimportant second. Bob would have been wiser to have left the bow at home or just stayed home completely that day.

Either bull moose here is desirable; however, distance and the fact that they are fighting could lead to a miss or —more likely—a wounded and/or lost animal. Best to wait for a clean shot.

Bob’s brother and his wife had committed us to our niece’s band concert. As most favorite aunts and uncles would be, we were “thrilled” to embrace this opportunity. We could see no way out of it. Bob was greeted upon arrival by a distraught brother who was dealing with an upset daughter and a gut-shot buck. Aunt Linda attended the concert, while the brothers recovered the buck. We felt Bob’s brother should have considered this possibility before he decided to go hunting that morning, but when we learned the niece hadn’t put a reed in her clarinet because she didn’t want to make a mistake, we figured it all evened out.

Recovery situations should figure heavily in your decision to shoot or not to shoot. If you are not sure, absolutely sure, that you can make the shot, quell the urge.

We love mountain hunting. We try to get into the backcountry as far away from the masses of hunters, and oftentimes deer, as we can. Deer are generally found in greater numbers around interspersed farms, brush, and woodlands. Even if only for a day hunt, we often trek the Allegheny National Forest and hunt some of its larger wooded tracts. Being on foot in big country is just good for the soul.

So it came to pass that Bob was climbing up a steep hillside toward the ridge top, where Linda had parked the van that morning. As he climbed in the dry leaves, he couldn’t help but make noise. He stopped for a breather and heard a serious amount of leaf rustling coming toward him. Leaning against a centurion beech, he readied an arrow. Three bucks were coming to check out Bob’s foot shuffling.

Great bull elk, but not a recommended shot for several reasons!

First a sub-legal spike passed at ten yards, offering good shooting opportunities and raising Bob’s excitement level. Then a symmetrical mountain 8-point slammed to a stop with his front feet up on a raised bank, posing like the Hartford Insurance stag. Bob knew the buck was beyond his sure shooting distance of 18 yards, but just barely.

The deer had Bob nailed. Slowly Bob drew his 54-pound Gharing and, with the buck still glaring at him, loosed the arrow. The coiled buck almost totally avoided the arrow, as in his heart Bob had known it would. But as the deer ran uphill, he saw the arrow with its two-bladed Bear head hanging from the skin below the knee of a hind leg. A two-day recovery effort, just in case the hit was somehow better than it appeared, never presented as much as a blood drop.

A nice mountain buck taken from the ground with a recurve is just about the ultimate bowhunting trophy. The same buck, unrecovered, leaves a scar on your heart when you know that you knew that was what was likely to happen.

Identifying shot placement before taking the shot requires you to think in three dimensions. Wild animals can contort their bodies as though their spines were rubber. A deer can be facing you and have its tail facing you, too. For the bowhunter, it’s all about heart and lungs versus paunch and bone. The only good thing we can say about zoos and menageries is they have let us study shot placement at length, up close and personal. If you don’t have quality shot placement at an unmoving animal, you don’t have a shot.

A 5-point buck sniffed a doe rag hanging in a tree at nine paces. Bob was shooting from a stand about six feet above the buck. The angle was hard away, with only a slight pocket at the back of the ribs to hit. But darn, he was close! The shot looked good and we immediately took up the trail in the fading light. The hit bled well, but the deer seldom bedded over the next two days. Twice we got close looks at the buck and realized the broadhead had ridden the outside of the rib cage, creating a long slicing cut about an inch and a half wide. We never recovered that buck.

This bull is presenting an ideal shot. The animal is not alarmed and its foreleg is away from the vitals.

Weather and time of day should be a big consideration in any shoot or don’t shoot situation. Rain and falling snow can knock you off a blood trail readily, as can blowing debris in heavy wind. Darkness, if you are not properly prepared, can also ruin your trailing ability. When coupled with rain, snow, or blowing debris, you are just out of luck. Avoid making late day and bad weather hits.

Linda was hunting from a portable stand set low near a wild apple tree we had located in the big woods. The previous evening had provided untaken shot opportunities as darkness neared and rain threatened. The following morning rain was still imminent, but our mountain time was running out. Hunt then or wait until next year was the choice we had to make, and we chose the former.

The doe came into Linda at nearly point-blank range and her arrow flew well, but not perfectly. We will never know exactly where it hit. In the few minutes it took Linda to walk across the overgrown field to get Bob and return, the heavens opened up, the rain came down in torrents, and the blood trail washed away. We donned rain gear and searched for several hours, but never found any sign.

Finally, if you have grown tired or sick or notice gear problems, give it up for the day. There will be another day and other shot opportunities. All these things can make for a wrong decision about whether you should shoot or not shoot.