Earlier this week I was informed that a dog at my hunting club was killed by a careless hunter who was caught up in the moment of the hunt and took a shot at a pheasant that was flying too close to the ground. The dog that died was named Izzy, a 6 year old pudelpointer owned by Dale Parker of Jackson Creek Kennels in Colorado. I spoke with Dale yesterday, and he told me that Izzy was his number one dog and a special member of the Parker family. He said the family is still grieving, and that it was an incredibly difficult loss. In Dale’s words, “Izzy was a beloved, hard-working dog, and a wonderful dog to hunt over.” What a tragic event, and one that could have been avoided. This sad news inspired me to write an article about gun safety, and my thoughts are with the Parker family as I write this.
In 1997 I turned 16 one week before Christmas, and by that time I had been doing a lot of fishing, camping, hunting, and shooting in my life. On Christmas morning my Dad gave me a JC Higgins 16 gauge pump shotgun. It was a fine looking gun, with smooth-finished dark walnut wood on the stock and fore end, intricate checkering at the grip points, and polished blue steel on the barrel and receiver. What was ironic about that Christmas gift is that my Dad is a paraplegic from having been shot in the chest when he was 21 years old, by a drunk guy he didn’t even know, in his dorm at college, for no reason. That is an entirely different story, but I have to point that out.
After I opened that gift and admired it for a few minutes, Dad told me to bring the gun and follow him into the backyard. He pushed his wheel chair in a determined manner about 20 yards away from the house and set a thick wooden shingle against the fence. Then he came back to me and said “Hand me the gun,” which I did. He put a shell in the chamber, aimed at the shingle, and blasted a two inch hole right through the shingle. He held the gun upright as he handed it to me, and he said “That’s what this gun will do to a person, be safe with it,” and he turned and pushed his wheel chair back into the house. That was my gun safety training, coming from a man whose life was forever changed because of a single bullet.
While that moment has never left my memory, of course I have had much more education and training in fire arms safety, including my training in the Air Force, as well as formal hunter education safety training. I have been extremely safe with fire arms throughout my entire life, and I have shared that same ethic with my sons, and anyone else I have introduced to fire arms or bows.
First of all, in case you didn’t get the magnitude of what I said earlier; any time you have a gun or bow in your hands, you have the ability to drastically alter or end a life, whether that be a human or an animal. You have to take ownership of that responsibility from the moment you take a weapon into the field, or in your hands for personal protection. Regardless of your intent, you have to commit yourself to be educated, competent, and responsible with your weapons. I hunt with a bow primarily, and I know that there are so many factors that come into play when taking a shot at an animal, such as wind, blades of grass in the shot trajectory, elevation, etc. I don’t take a shot unless I am confident that I can make a kill shot, no questions. I don’t care if it is the biggest bull elk I have ever seen, I won’t take a questionable shot. I spend hours upon hours practicing with my bow, but if I am not sure for whatever reason, I pass on the shot.
When it comes to bird hunting, the saying is “don’t shoot until you see blue.” What that means is don’t shoot at a bird until you see sky between the bird and the ground, meaning that the bird is high enough off the ground that you won’t risk shooting a dog, a guide, or a fellow hunter. On my last pheasant hunt a couple of weeks ago a rooster exploded from the ground 6 feet in front of the dogs, right in front of the guide, 20 feet to my right. I held my gun straight up and down as I saw the bird rise, knowing that I could not shoot in that direction, but as the bird caught the strong wind and flew to my left, I swiveled 180 degrees and shot the bird going away. Just remember that phrase “don’t shoot until you see blue.”
I certainly understand that this won’t always apply when hunting in wooded areas where a covey of quail may erupt from a brush pile, or areas of steep terrain when a grouse flushes so close to you that it startles you and there is no skyline to be seen in the flight of the bird. There are always exceptions to rules, and bird hunting certainly requires exceptions as no two bird hunts are ever the same, but the most important thought in your mind is safety at all times.
The inverse applies when you are shooting a rifle; if you see blue behind your target, don’t shoot, because you have no idea where your bullet or arrow will go or what it might hit past the animal that you may see on a ridge. The difference here is that pellets from a shotgun will not travel more than a hundred yards, whereas a bullet from a rifle can travel a mile or more depending on the bullet you are shooting. When hunting with a rifle or a bow, make sure you can see that your bullet or arrow will not cause any harm if you miss your target.
The bottom line is that safety should always the most important thing you are thinking about whenever you have a weapon in your hands. There will always be another rooster or another bull, but if you are careless you may make a mistake that can’t be undone, such as with Izzy.