The hunter stares down at the brushy hillside across the basin, trying to focus on the tree line as the first light of the day forms in the east. He’s been here before, scouting the best possible long-range ambush spots, and has taken several practice shots from this exact location. His ballistic solver is already loaded with the current conditions, all that’s left is a range and wind call. As the sun threatens to rise over the ridge to his left, he scans the huckleberry brush and fire-scarred timber directly to the south. As he does, a mature black bear feeds out of its bed into an open patch of berries. The rangefinder reads 906 yards to the bear. With no wind at his location, and no indication of wind at the bear, the hunter remembers to look at the trees in the saddle to the east. Cold air from the basin behind the ridge is being pushed up and over the saddle by the rising sun. The tree tops are visibly swaying. He settles in behind the scope, dials for elevation, and holds two minutes of left wind to account for the thermal. At the shot, the bear collapses from the impact of the bullet, quickly succumbing to the double-lung hit. The hunter notes the wind call and correction, then packs up his gear to retrieve the bear.
This long-range hunting scenario is common in the terrain of northern Idaho. The hunter had years of experience shooting under similar conditions, but what if this had been his first time in the forested mountains of the northwest? Would he have known to look for wind in the middle of that canyon? Would he have trusted his experience, and held two minutes into a wind he couldn’t see, feel, or hear? Probably not. As long range hunters and shooters, we are all faced with having to study the wind and make shots through it. There are a lot of articles and videos about wind reading to check out, and I won’t pretend to be able to cover it all in this one. My intent is to share with you some of the fundamental principles I’ve adopted concerning long-range shooting in the wind.
• No two shots are the same, and no two geographical locations have the same characteristics. Unless you’re shooting at a static target from a designated position, it’s rare to have the same wind correction for any given shot. Conditions are always changing, and require us to look at every shot like it’s the first. Likewise, geographical locations and terrain vary widely, and influence our ability to read and interpret the wind accurately. A shooter from the timbered canyons of northwest Montana will have a different way of looking at the wind than a shooter from the high desert country of southern Idaho. Gain as much experience as you can, shooting in different environments as much as possible.
• See, hear, and feel the wind. Look for clues, especially when the air seems calm. Learn to judge wind speeds by feel at the shooting location. Use your spotting scope to check mirage and vegetation, focusing on the wind closer to the target. Listen for big winds at the heads of canyons and tree tops above you. If there is moving water below you, your ears will also pick up volume changes when the wind shifts. If you’re in a sheltered shooting position, periodically move away from it to check for wind.
• Use an anemometer, and understand its limitations. Invest in a quality anemometer, such as a Kestrel. Use it during the off season. Hang some flagging tape on a tree branch, and learn to put a wind speed value to different vegetation and tape movements. With practice, you’ll be able to judge wind speed pretty accurately without the gauge. It’s also worth your time to observe mirage through a spotting scope, then confirm your readings with the Kestrel. Positioning someone across a canyon with a two-way radio and the Kestrel while I watch the vegetation at their location through a spotting scope is another training tool I’ve used in the off-season. They can provide instant feedback and help you build a mental database to use later.
• Atmospheric conditions will alter how we read the wind. Humidity, sun angle, and air quality will greatly affect how we see the wind. The same conditions that are prime for watching bullet trace also seem to be ideal for reading wind. Mirage is easiest to see when the sun is up, and the air is humid and clear. Lingering smoke from forest fires or controlled burns can be a real party killer, but light rain or fog can be your ally.
• Be decisive! Learn to trust your wind call and act on it quickly. If you hunt with a partner who calls the wind for you, work out how to communicate those calls. The wind can change in the time it takes to read this sentence, so once that correction is called for, get on the gas!
• Shoot as much as you can in the wind, but know your limitations. Good wind reading skills are all about experience. The more you shoot in the wind, the more confidence you’ll gain in your abilities. It should also teach you humility and show you where your limitations are. It’s better to discover those limitations on paper and steel, rather than flesh and bone. If you can’t read the conditions, you’re merely guessing where to point the barrel. That will become obvious in practice. Sometimes the best lesson learned from shooting in the wind, is when not to shoot.
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