For many hunters, their biggest fear out in the field isn't suffering an injury, getting caught in a storm or getting lost -- it's wounding an animal and letting it get away.
I've even heard some describe the scenario as their "worst nightmare."
And that's not because they hate to see a trophy get away from them, it's because (believe it or not) outdoorsmen care a whole lot about nature and the game that they pursue.
Hunters have an obligation to finish what they start in the field, regardless of how much trouble it might be.
Such was the case in my teens years when I was walking back to camp after a deer hunt in Santa Clara County. During the trek, I stopped to catch my breath when I heard the sound of a dog sprinting toward me from over a ridge.
Figuring it must have been my hunting partner's dog, I kept my rifle slung over my shoulder as I anticipated the pup coming over the hill to greet me. But instead, a full-grown coyote appeared -- as much a surprise to me as it was to him.
After locking eyes for a moment, I pulled my .270-caliber rifle off my shoulder and began to pull down on him as he dashed up the hill and around me.
I followed him with my crosshairs best as I could before squeezing off what I thought would be a kill shot. Instead, the bullet took out one of the 'yote's hind legs -- the most unfortunate mistake I could have made under the circumstances.
I cranked in another round as I approached the wounded animal, but when I got within 30 yards of him, he made use of his other three legs and scurried down a ravine that led to a deep, thickly-wooded canyon.
As I stumbled and slid down the side of the chasm, I took shots at the fleeing animal, but missed time and time again. But the coyote left a blood trail, and as any tracker knows, keeping an account of that clue will keep you on the animal.
The chase continued -- I'd climb out over a boulder and the coyote would take off again, yet my snap shot would hit a rock or a tree instead of the critter.
Finally, it was bound to happen.
I chased the animal so far, it couldn't keep fleeing. I stood on a pile of dead leaves and branches that were draped over an outcrop of rocks, and as I moved to step down and continue my search, the coyote darted out from right under my feet.
I took a close-quarters hip shot that ricocheted off a rock. That's when the coyote changed course and came right for me instead of running away.
Shocked and confused as to why he was running at me, I pulled the trigger of my rifle again ... nothing.
In all the excitement, I'd forgotten to slide another round in the chamber.
I got one chambered just in time to rest the muzzle of my rifle on the neck of the charging coyote and pull the trigger. It all happened in an instant.
None of the impromptu hunt was "textbook" or safe. And it was certainly nothing to brag about. However, I finished the job and learned a few points as a young hunter.
Paying attention to where you hit an animal can give you an indication where it will go.
A crippled animal that's lost use of its back legs can only go downhill, while an animal that's lost use of its front legs will only go uphill.
Most importantly, keep your cool and stay persistent.
After finishing off the coyote I wounded as a teenager, I took the hide home with me and it's still hung up on my wall as a reminder to always finish what I start, especially on a hunt.
From that season forward, if the shot wasn't there, I haven't taken it. While the first blast from my rifle almost always kills my target immediately, there's always a follow-up round chambered and ready-to-go just in case.
And most importantly, my trigger pulls are a lot more precise these days. You can't beat an accurate first shot.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453.