I often have trouble sleeping at night. Too often I find myself thinking about all of my previous encounters with animals that got away or ones that I wounded. The one who got away for me was a huge bull elk in the backcountry of Colorado. Every night I think about it. He was the king of the mountain. He had a massive body and a presence that truly was majestic. I battled this bull in a place that few men would go, and then chased him four miles up to 13,000 feet and down to 11,700. After hours of hiking and tracking, I found myself 15-yards with my hair being blown back from his bugle. I came to full draw with my bow but would never release an arrow as he never presented me a clear shot through the few branches that separated my arrow from both of his lungs.

I have always said, “Well, even though I didn’t shoot anything, I still had a successful hunt.”

I found that I said this more to please people and convince them that I wasn’t some cold blooded killer who loved killing innocent animals. Now just because you don’t kill an animal on a hunt doesn’t mean you are truly unsuccessful. However, if every hunter were to be completely honest, he would tell you that tag soup leaves a sour taste that lingers for a long time after the hunt.

Is there really anything that is worse than this feeling? I say yes.

Hunting can be a controversial topic. I believe this has led to misconceptions about what the actual definition of hunting is. I do not go out to “harvest” a deer or “collect” meat when I go hunting. To put it bluntly, I go out to kill whatever I am chasing. I have found myself almost downplaying the true meaning of hunting to appease other people’s ideas of what “hunting” is so that they don’t get offended. Now some parts of a hunt should not be shared, and one should be cautious about being too gruesome in describing details to an audience that is not familiar with the outdoors. With this in mind, I have used the term “harvest” before in explaining to people my taking of a trophy buck, but I didn’t harvest that buck. Crops are harvested, not deer. When you say, “I killed this (insert animal),” you can come across as a variety of different characters to different people you decided to share your story with. I believe as hunters we have to find the “right story” to tell to people to educate them on “yes, I did kill this animal, and here is why…”

The situation couldn’t have been more perfect. I had snuck into the oak along our creek here in West Texas. Crawling into a west wind, I had spotted a 4.5-year-old 7 point chasing a doe about 100 yards away. He soon lost the doe and started walking away defeated. I saw the opportunity presented and acted. The doe had walked behind me, and I knew that nothing would get this buck madder than if another buck showed up to steal his girl. I rattle my antlers briefly, and just like that, he is making a beeline right for me. Everything came together perfectly. He stepped out and presented me a 20-yard frontal shot. (A shot I am very comfortable in making) But I screwed it up. I had held my bow for over 1.5 minutes and in the process had lost some mental focus in shot placement. I had focused so hard on holding back my string that I had let my mind shift to the pain in my muscles instead of focusing on the buck.

The result: A low non-lethal shot. I tracked this deer for 600 yards and came to the conclusion that he would live on, and he did as I would see him later on in the season healthy as can be.

There is not a feeling that hurts more than wounding an animal. My goal every time I go out to hunt is to kill my prey. When I am presented with the opportunity to make a kill and fail, I feel sick. The animal deserves to be killed in the fastest way possible by whatever means of weaponry you are using.

The sight and sound of a wounded animal are one that is never forgotten. I don’t know how to describe it but the look I see in the animal as it breathes its last few breaths can rightly change a man. All of a sudden I go from being a killer to being almost apologetic for the pain I have caused. Killing an animal is a whole lot easier mentally when they run off and die in the brush or drop in their tracks.

When you make a life goal, you want to accomplish it with 100 percent success. All the time and effort you put into preparing for the opportunity to succeed builds your emotional ties to the subject. When you come down to it, an animal dying in not graceful or majestic. Killing is killing. You are taking the life of an animal that God has put on this planet. With this responsibility, you have to find what you perceive as your personal ethics.

Being a hunter means you have taken up the responsibilities that come with killing an animal. Practicing, having the right equipment, taking ethical shots, honing your tracking skills, and meat care are all parts that you should try to learn and advance in. The animal deserves your best effort as a hunter. When you do wound an animal and lose it (if you hunt long enough you will wound one and either lose it or have to track it a long ways and anyone who says they haven’t had this happen after so many years of hunting is probably lying), learn from that experience. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it makes you question rather you should go hunting again. Visualize your mistake. Carry out the appropriate adjustments so that the next time you are presented with the opportunity to kill; you make it happen.

Don't agree with hunting? The first thing I want you to ask yourself is “How often do I eat meat?”

Now I will eat a cheeseburger, and I enjoy a good steak, but I have no clue where the meat came from. When I eat deer, elk, or any other kind of animal, I know for a fact that the animal was on a 100 percent organic diet. The animal did not live a stressful life in captivity. And I also know that the person who killed the animal has respect for what this animal provides. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I will never force someone to accept that hunting is right for them. If you don’t like hunting, I respect that, but please be educated on the practices and ethics presented in the whole process of hunting before you decide to talk down on the matter.

As for me, I still think about all the animals that outsmarted me and the ones that got away with my arrow. Every time I shoot my bow, I visualize these situations in hopes of bettering my skills both physically and mentally. But no matter how much I practice, I will lose at least one animal in my next 50 plus years of hunting. Sometimes stuff happens.

As a hunter, I don’t want to be judged on how many “trophies” I have taken or lost. I want to be judged on how I reacted in times of great obstacles. Rather that be passing up an animal because the shot isn’t 100 percent there, having to follow a blood trail on a bad shot or having to finish off an animal because it is suffering, I want my actions to show what I truly am. Even though I am a killer, I find respect and admiration in the animals I hunt. I am blessed to of acquired skills that help me run through the mountains and walk across the brush country, and I will use these skills in a way that is ethical in the field of hunting.