Just before last Christmas, I was chatting with a good fellow hunter. Ralph (not his real name for obvious reasons) does exist – all 56 years of life and four decades of regular hunting behind him – and is an experienced hunter. His message is clear: “Not identifying your target and shooting another hunter can happen to anybody. The potential to make that fatal mistake is there in everyone. It’s a big mistake for any hunter to think otherwise.”
Ralph told me of a hunt for whitetail deer on Stewart Island when he was 25 years old. He was walking a sandy beach at dusk looking at a clearing about 100 metres away. The beach was crisscrossed with deer tracks. In the clearing, he suddenly saw a whitetail spiker’s head looking at him from behind a tree fern. He sat down, took aim, and lined up on the base of its neck.
“I gave the mandatory pause to identify my target and was absolutely convinced it was a deer’s head I was looking at,” he recalled.
His finger curled around the trigger, settled, and he gently squeezed the bullet on its path. But the deer did nothing. A clean miss? Yet it had been a steady shot.
Ralph was incredulous the deer was still there staring at him. Realising the deer was likely to break for cover, he immediately reloaded and took aim again. But something niggled.
Besides, Ralph had shot a deer earlier that day so it was not a matter of desperately wanting to score a deer.
“I thought if that spiker was so stupid to stand and stare at me after I had taken a shot at it, then I would get closer to make a headshot easier,” he said.
He crept along the beach looking down his scope every five metres or so to check the spiker was still there. At just 25 metres away, Ralph realised it was not a deer.
It was a fern frond configured to the form of a deer’s head moving gently in the gentle breeze, complete with dead branchlets that looked exactly like a spiker’s budding antlers.
Ralph stood there looking at the fern frond with mixed emotion – bemusement, puzzlement, foolishness, embarrassment, and then a sense of relief swept in as he realised he had been on his own with nobody to witness the mistake. Then that relief was shoved aside by the sudden realisation of the seriousness of the incident. He felt cold. A shiver ran down his back.
He felt bothered and bewildered. Puzzlingly, Ralph had been sure it was a deer, otherwise, he would not have fired. As it turned out, it wasn’t one, but what if it had been another hunter? Nine years later, Ralph was hunting in South Westland when he saw a deer’s rear end about 50 metres away.
He took careful aim through his scope sight and fired. Nothing happened. He walked slowly up to the “deer” only to realise it was some brown dead punga ferns, gently swaying in the breeze. Memories of the Stewart Island incident surged back.
“I was sure it was a deer, but it wasn’t,” he ruefully recalled. On both occasions, Ralph admitted he afterwards felt “absolute disgust.”
After each trip, he returned home in a state of inner shock. In all three cases, including the one he scored a deer, the trips were far from enjoyable; in fact, he termed them “disasters”.
“Twice I’ve made the cardinal error. I’m not a brilliant hunter but a good one and very experienced by dint of 42 years of constant hunting. I guarantee the greater majority of experienced hunters have had similar experiences.”
Another experienced hunter I know is Len. We were hunting a Marlborough high country valley of manuka and frequent clearings. I spotted a stag on Len’s side, ambling down an open face and into some tall kanuka.
I radioed Len quickly, who circled to get the breeze right and moved down into the kanuka. Five minutes later, a shot rang out. But when Len emerged from the kanuka, dropped into the stream, and climbed up to where I was, I could see he had no venison. I thought perhaps he had missed the stag.“What happened? Did you miss it?” I asked. Len looked sheepish and white-faced. “There was no deer. It was a brownish log I shot but I could’ve sworn it was a bloody deer,” he said ruefully. “But it wasn’t.”
Nothing needed to be said. Len knew that he had been guilty of misidentification. He had a sharp wake-up call, a real jolt. Back to Ralph who has strong advice for any complacent hunters. “If you say, even think, it can’t happen to you, you’re in a very dangerous attitude situation. It’s a no-brainer that it’s better a deer gets away than you take the risk of another hunter and a manslaughter charge.” Eliminate any possibility by realising before any hunt the potential for it happen to anyone is there and being ultra-certain in identifying that it’s a deer and not another hunter. “If you’re not 100% sure and a deer gets away, so what?”