It’s the most exciting part of the hunt. It’s the flick of a buck’s ear, the close purr of a tom, the crunching of a footstep as the animal glides into view. Shaking, you struggle to keep the sights centered on the animal. No doubt, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. It also can be one of the most dangerous ones.
That’s how the most common hunting accident involving a gun happens — failure to identify the target. Mistaking someone for game — or failing to identify the target — begins in the head. Failure to identify the target happens when a hunter thinks they are shooting at game but mistakenly shoots a pet, farm animal, another wild animal, or worse, another person.
It sounds like a stupid mistake, but in 2005, the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Turkey Hunting Safety Task Force found failing to identify the target is the most common hunting incident involving a gun. Here’s how it begins: hunters anticipate seeing game when they are afield. When they hear movement or see a flash of color, it might resemble the game they are seeking. Suddenly, their minds fill in the rest of the details. They imagine antlers where a hat sits, and suddenly, the jogger becomes a bounding buck.
The mental checklist
NWTF’s hunter safety expert, Tom Hughes, has a strategy to prevent him from failing to identify his target. He calls it “ironclad identification.”
“You have to insist on ironclad identification,” he said. “It’s not enough to see the red of a turkey’s head; you’ve got to see its eyes, beak and beard.”
In other words, look for several details specific to that animal. When deer hunting, you should look for the deer’s antlers, eyes, nose and body before pulling the trigger. This way, you aren’t shooting at an animal just because you saw a white tail. The tail may, in fact, be a white glove, sock or handkerchief. Identifying multiple details will confirm you are aiming at your intended quarry. If it’s hidden by brush, don’t shoot.
Standing on the other end
This goes both ways. A hunter should also careful he doesn’t draw fire from another hunter. Don’t dress or act like a game animal. If a turkey hunter wears red, white or blue as a part of their clothing, other turkey hunters could mistake his or her clothes for the head of a tom.
It rhymes with orange
While hunting deer, small game or upland birds, hunter orange can help hunters identify other hunters at a distance. It’s very different from the grays, browns and greens found outdoors. Most animals are color blind. They don’t see the bright colors. Hunters should wear it every time the law requires it, so they don’t become victims of someone else’s failure to identify what they are shooting. Orange should be avoided during turkey season where it’s not required. Orange is very close to red and a hunter dressed in orange can be mistaken for the red head of a gobbler.
Unfortunately, most non-hunters do not think of wearing orange while participating in their outdoor pursuits during hunting seasons. They may accidently dress in colors associated with game animals. There are two things you can do. First, hunt away from roads and paths. This will actually increase your chances of seeing game. You won’t have people disrupting the animals. Second, develop the habit of using ironclad identification. This way, a hiker pausing to take a drink won’t become a deer smelling a licking post.
Public and private land
It matters how many people use the land. The task force found, when people increased, the amount of accidents increased. When you see a lot of trucks or hear gunshots in the woods, it’s time to move someplace else.
With so many people in the public woods, some might think that hunting private land would be safer. “Our statistics show that it’s not,” Hughes said. He said many people assume they’re alone on private land, when, in reality, many other people could be using the same land, from trespassers and poachers to other outdoor enthusiasts who have permission from the landowner.
Unlike other hunting accidents, failing to identify your target is not preventable by a piece of gear, but by a safety mindset that has been forged by habit.
Rules for Gun Safety
- Keep your gun pointed in a safe direction.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot
- Identify your target and what is beyond it.
- Keep your gun unloaded until you’re ready to use it.
While turkey hunting, you see another hunter walking by. What you do next is important for both of your safety. The best course of action is to stay still. Then get their attention by saying “I’m over here!” Say it in a clear, loud voice. Don’t worry about messing up your hunt. It’s best to announce your presence and both of you move to different locations.
You see turkeys as you walk through the woods. Could this be your lucky day? Not likely. Turkeys have strong senses, and they would have seen and heard you long before you could catch sight of them. They are probably decoys. First, use ironclad identification. Are the turkeys moving? Are they standing still? Seeing they are decoys, what do you do next? Announce yourself in a clear, loud voice.
You have been rattling for bucks during the rut. You see a buck moving in the distance. It disappears behind a thicket and you ready the gun to fire. Don’t shoot at movement, you must be certain to identify the buck. The next creature that steps out of that thicket could be a turkey, a squirrel or even a hunter. Just because you saw your targeted animal before does not mean it is what you will see next.