Most of us were taught growing up that practice makes perfect. For most things in life, this is pretty sound advice, but when it comes to bowhunting, not all practice is equal.
There was a time, not too long ago, when archery practice consisted of a couple of square bales of straw and a paper plate or pie pan. We would strategically place our bales safely in the yard, attach our target, and proceed to step off 20 yards to begin a marathon practice session. Standing in perfect form, we would launch arrow after arrow into our bales, occasionally moving forward or backward to shoot at distances equal to those of the pins on our sights. This would go on until our arms got tired, or we finally had a group that we were proud of. For many archers today, the quality of the targets has greatly improved, but the routine remains the same.
Don’t get me wrong—there is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of practice. In fact it is an excellent way to solidify one’s form and to train the muscles so that the shooting routine becomes second nature. It should be a part of every archer’s practice schedule. However, when it comes to preparing oneself for bowhunting scenarios, this type of practice has its limitations. This sort of practice fails to cover many of the shooting variables that can come into play under actual hunting conditions. Only when we recognize how these variables can effect our shot, can we effectively work them into our practice routine. And with practice come preparedness and confidence to make that shot-of-a-lifetime when it comes our way.
I would say that more opportunities at deer are blown due to misjudging distance than any other single reason. Even with the blazing speeds of today’s bows, it still only takes a small miscalculation to send your arrow into parts unknown, or even worse into a non-vital area of the deer.
Many of today’s well-equipped hunters have offset this problem with the purchase of a laser rangefinder. With just the touch of a button, you can know within a yard just how far away a critter is. If such a purchase fits into your budget, then I highly recommend it. However, owning a rangefinder is not a replacement for being able to estimate yardage on your own. Batteries can fail, or deer can slip in without giving a bowhunter the opportunity to get a reading with a rangefinder. Because of this, every bowhunter should be proficient at judging yardage out to their maximum shooting range. To do so requires regular practice.
There are several ways you can work on this, and you don’t always have to have your bow in hand. Improving your rangefinding can be as simple as picking out an object in the yard, guessing how far away it is, and then stepping it off to see how close your guess was. You can do this whether you are out in the yard working, walking in the park or out scouting your favorite hunting spot. Just be sure to practice in both wooded and open areas, because there can be a real difference in distance perception between the two.
Not only will you want to practice judging various distances, but you will want to practice shooting from those distances as well. Don’t limit yourself to shooting in 10, or even 5-yard increments, because deer don’t always walk in at those exact distances. A good practice routine will involve walking random distances from your target (without counting your steps), turning around, estimating the yardage and then shooting. You can then step off the distance back to your target and see how close your estimate was. The goal is to know exactly where you need to aim regardless of where the animal steps out. This type of random shooting will also allow you to work on another common bowhunting variable—shot angle.
When it comes to bowhunting, there are two kinds of shot angles: vertical and horizontal. The vertical angle is the one formed by the hunter being either above or below the deer. In most cases, this is caused by the bowhunter being at an elevated position in a tree stand. However, steep terrain can also play a factor in vertical angle. How much effect it will have on your shot, though, will vary depending on factors such as bow speed and arrow weight and can only be determined by practicing at these various angles.
A good way to practice these shots is to shoot from either a tree stand or a second-story deck. If it’s not possible to do this in your own yard, then you now have a good excuse to head to the local woodlot with your bow, target and tree stand. It wouldn’t hurt to have a partner to help retrieve arrows.
Once you reach the woods, you should use the available terrain to practice as many different shot angles and distances as possible, from directly under your stand and all the way out to your maximum shooting range. Also, regardless of what angle you are shooting at, you must maintain your upper body form. To do so, draw your bow back as if the target were directly in front of you, and then pivot your body at the waist to get the desired angle.
Horizontal angle is the angle at which the deer is turned in relation to the hunter. Most of the time, we refer to it as “quartering away” or “quartering toward.” The best way to practice for these types of shots is with one of the many 3D animal targets available. Some of the companies are now making models that have scoring rings specifically for quartering shots, or better yet, ones with anatomically correct vitals painted on the side of the animal. If your target does not have these, it doesn’t mean you have to run out and replace your existing target. The standard target will work just fine. Just remember that when shooting at an animal that is quartering, it is crucial that you keep in mind the location of the internal organs, and plan a shot that will angle through both lungs, regardless of where the scoring rings are located.
The body position of the animal is not the only variable that can cause a good hunting opportunity to go bad. Our own body position can dramatically affect the outcome of our shot and is something we should be prepared to deal with at the moment of truth.
Have you ever noticed that when it comes to deer hunting, Murphy’s Law often prevails? What can go wrong will go wrong. Deer seldom do exactly what you expect them to do, or come in just the way you hoped. This often translates into having to take a shot in a different direction than what you had planned, or if the deer slips in unannounced, taking a shot from a sitting or awkward position.
Working various body positions into your practice routine is not difficult and doesn’t require anything special. It is just a matter of getting into the habit of alternating shots from your normal stance, with any other possible body positions that could occur during an actual hunt. These may include planting your feet at various angles in relation to the target, as well as squatting, kneeling or even sitting comfortably in your tree stand seat.
Try to imagine as many scenarios as possible, and work them into your practice routine. That way, the next time that old buck slips in silently from behind the tree you’re in, you can return the favor by slipping a razor-sharp broadhead right behind his shoulder, because you will have practiced that same shot over and over again.
If you have been hunting for any length of time, then chances are you have missed an animal at some point because your arrow hit a branch or tree. You can’t do much about the ones you didn’t see, but when it comes to shooting through or next to obstructions like these, it doesn’t have to cost you a deer.
I am certainly not suggesting shooting through thick brush or branches that are covering the vitals of an animal. What I am referring to is shooting through openings in these barriers, or right next to a large tree. Many times it is simply the intimidation of the branches or trees that cause the archer to hit off-target. Other times the snag wasn’t in the hunter’s sight window and only came into play because of the arching trajectory of the arrow. Whatever the case, this kind of mishap is preventable and is a fairly easy variable to practice on for the upcoming season.
If you are practicing in the yard, simply use the landscaping available to create intimidating obstacles to shoot around. If you’re heading for the woods to shoot, then it should be even easier to come up with lots of obstructions to sharpen your shooting skills. Using the obstacles at hand, simply place your 3D target in as many real-life-hunting situations as you can. Be aware that this type of practice may cost you an arrow or two, but the practice will be invaluable for building your confidence for these types of shots.
Putting It All Together
While it may seem that practicing for all these situations would take hours, or a variety of shooting stations, that doesn’t have to be the case. You should be able to work all of the variables covered here into a single practice session, by working as many as possible into each shot. The best way to do this is with a shooting partner. Get together your bows, tree stands and a 3D target, and head for a nearby woodlot. You will have to alternate back and forth between being the shooter and target person.
The shooter should put his stand in a suitable tree and get his or her bow ready. The other person can then place the target at random distances and angles, using natural terrain and obstructions to simulate actual hunting conditions as closely as possible. The shooter then gets one shot at each target placement (just as you would in real hunting). As mentioned above, be sure and vary your own body position with each shot in order to make your practice sessions as effective as possible. After 10 or 20 shots, you can then switch up with one another.
A couple of additional items worth mentioning are the clothing you wear and the arrow points you use. Since the goal is to simulate actual hunting conditions as closely as possible, it only makes sense to practice some in your hunting clothes using the same broadheads that you will be using during the season.
Clothing such as gloves, face nets, hats, jackets or heavy shirts can all have an effect on your shot execution. This especially holds true for late-season hunting, when a bowhunter is often bundled up in an attempt to stay warm. Don’t wait until a nice buck is standing broadside at 20 yards to discover that an article of clothing interferes with your anchor point.
The same thought should hold true for your arrow points as well. Fixed-blade broadheads often fly differently than field points when shot from the same bow. For some bows, this may mean the bow is not tuned to maximum efficiency and should be tuned accordingly. Others may simply require a readjustment of sights. Either way, you do not want to find out that your arrows are hitting off target on opening day of deer season. You owe it to yourself and the game that you pursue to have your equipment tuned and sighted in for a clean, ethical shot.
If there were such a thing as the perfect bowhunting practice, one that covers all the above variables we have discussed and more, then it would probably be organized 3D archery. There is no more realistic or entertaining way to prepare for archery season than a good 3D shoot. Generally, shooters are challenged with 20 to 30 various animals set in realistic settings at a variety of unmarked distances. All the various conditions discussed above are mixed in, making it both a challenging and valuable practice exercise. It also provides you with the opportunity to meet other local archers and share in some good-natured competition and camaraderie.
If you have never taken advantage of one of these shoots, then I highly recommend giving one a try. Shoots are held across the country on national, state and local levels and can be easily found through local archery shops and clubs.
When it comes to bowhunting, it seems that the number of things that can cause a hunt to go wrong are infinite. While there is no way to prepare for every situation, you can be prepared for the variables that are most likely to occur. Being able to estimate the distance to an animal, knowing where to aim, and then being able to execute the shot regardless of your body position or the position of the deer will greatly increase both your confidence as well as your chances for success in bowhunting.
Editor’s Note: Check out the author’s blog at www.fulltimehunter.com. His blog focuses on guys who are interested in turning their passion for hunting into a career.