Better Hunting Through Competition

Nathan Payne

I didn’t see the buck at first; it was a doe that caught my attention.

As I sat in my stand, the sun crested the trees behind me and turned the unharvested bean field ahead to a beautiful golden brown. I spotted the doe along the edge of the field just north of a big maple tree that I had earlier ranged at 388 yards. When I shouldered my rifle and looked through my scope, I caught a glint of sunlight coming off the antlers of a buck that was standing in the tall grass behind her.

After a quick check with my laser rangefinder, I pulled out my smartphone and entered 397 yards into my ballistic app. I also entered a 5 mph crosswind, and the app gave me a picture of exactly what hold I should use. I set the forend of my rifle on my portable monopod, tucked my backpack under my armpit for more buttstock support and settled the crosshairs just behind the shoulder of the buck.

I took a deep breath and let it half way out as I added ounces to the trigger. As I felt the rifle recoil, I knew that I had made a good shot. I saw the buck kick his rear legs high in the air and sprint into the woods on the far side of the field.

After almost a quarter century hunting whitetails, I’ve learned that no matter how perfect the shot, don’t be in a hurry to climb out of the stand. So, for several long minutes following the shot, I sat in my stand. Looking over that now still bean field, I felt the residual results of the adrenaline dump wash over me.

When I was younger, I would feel this from the moments leading up to the shot to when my feet finally touched the ground again. But now, it is typically delayed until after the shot has been fired and doesn’t often last more than a couple minutes.

As the rush wore off, I cleared my rifle and gathered my gear to go recover the buck. Walking across the field, I felt that familiar excitement that comes from that special place where expectation meets the unknown. I thought about all the things that led up to that moment and came to a strange realization that things would have been vastly different just a handful of seasons ago.

I grew up with a father who was a law enforcement firearms instructor and an accomplished competition shooter. He introduced me to firearms at a young age and ingrained in me the fundamentals of marksmanship, which are still the bedrock of my own shooting endeavors.

However, about seven years ago I took to competition shooting in a serious way. The skills I have learned and developed over that time were the reason why I was walking across the bean field on that beautiful morning with the expectation of finding a fine buck at the end of a short blood trail.

For many hunters, taking their rifle to the range and making sure it’s zeroed is as far as they will go before heading into the field in pursuit of their quarry. I must admit that when I first began hunting, I was one of those hunters who didn’t properly prepare. However, competition shooting has changed the way I hunt.

First of all, I now demand a much higher performance from my rifle, optic and ammunition. My rifle needs to be repeatedly accurate and able to perform at greater distances than I was previously comfortable shooting. My optic has to be equal to the task of taking a long-range shot, even in low-light conditions. I now run optics with subtensions and exceptional glass in order to accomplish ethical shots in every situation.

My ammo is of the highest quality and built for the task at hand. I don’t purchase the least expensive ammunition in order to save a few dollars. I have learned over the years that the peace of mind that comes from knowing that my ammunition will perform when I do my job is priceless.

Beyond just equipment upgrades, I’ve built my skillset through competition shooting. Certainly, my fundamentals are far more sound than they were previously, and I have learned how to correct them when they falter. I have also added many skills that were gained through the experience of competition.

Perhaps the most important skill I’ve learned is preparation. I prepare myself—and my equipment—by going to the range and training. Yes, that’s right, training. I don’t simply zero my rifle and call it good.

I also chronograph my ammunition, enter my data into my ballistic app and then test that data at a variety of ranges. I ensure that everything is compatible and that I’m confident that I can count on my equipment. After that, I spend a little time shooting those targets from compromised positions in order to learn what my limitations are for me to comfortably take an ethical shot at an animal.

Another skill I have learned through competing is the ability to curtail the negative effects of stress. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t feel the adrenaline dump until well after I made the shot. This stress is so prevalent amongst hunters that we actually have a name for it: “buck fever.” Shooting competitions has given me the tools to make the shot in spite of that stress.

I still remember breathing so hard before the first stage at my first major 3-gun match that it fogged-up my glasses before the timer even started. Through years of experience, I have learned how to manage that stress and make it work for me. I don’t believe that stress ever goes away, and I honestly don’t want it to as it’s the reason why I enjoy competing and hunting. But I no longer allow that stress to affect me negatively. I recognize the stress, stare it in the eye and focus on the fundamentals I need in order to accomplish my task.

Another skill I’ve gained through competition is how to set myself up for success. In competition, the shooter needs to know how to “game a stage” in order to gain every advantage over the other competitors.

It’s simple things like bringing my portable monopod into the stand with me in order to have a reliable rest for almost any shooting position I may encounter. As I mentioned earlier, I used my backpack to aid in steadying my rifle for that long shot. Through competition, I have experienced many shooting positions and found some best practices that I use to aid in steadying my rifle.

Upon getting settled into my stand, the first thing I do is range landmarks with my laser rangefinder and enter them into my ballistic app so that I know my appropriate holds should I find myself in a dynamic situation where I may not have time to range my target. I also keep my rangefinder close at hand so that I may use it quickly and with minimal movement. My smartphone is also readily accessible so that I have access to my ballistic app anytime I need.

When I look back on the events that took place on that crisp autumn morning, I wonder how things might have been different without the skills I’ve accumulated through the experiences of competitive shooting.

Certainly, there are many hunters who are capable of making excellent shots under the most stressful of conditions and have never shot a single match. I do not believe that competition is necessary in order to make a good hunter, but I do believe that it is a proven method to make a hunter better.


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