To be a consistently successful spot-and-stalk hunter, you must be able to shoot well. You must be proficient under all circumstances and in every type of habitat.
Of all the environments bowhunters encounter, the mountains present the toughest challenge. There you may encounter just about every situation that can make shooting difficult. The wind is usually blowing, you’re nearly always on a hillside and the shot is almost always uphill, downhill or sidehill. You’ll be under intense pressure, and you’ll probably be shooting at a relatively long distance.
When it is time to shoot, you may have been lying flat on your belly for several hours — usually after a long stalk. You will have to draw your bow slowly and quietly with cold, stiff muscles. You’ll likely be shooting from an awkward position — through, around or over a bush, tree or boulder.
And those are just the physical difficulties! Add in the capacity of a large set of antlers to cause a massive mental meltdown, and it’s easy to understand why even seasoned veterans get weak in the knees and succumb to buck fever. So, to be an all-around great hunting shot, you’ll need to work on your mental game as well.
The vast majority of my bowhunting over the last 40 years has been of the spot-and-stalk variety. I’ve made every shooting mistake one can make — and most of those mistakes I’ve made again and again. Unfortunately, I still make lots of mistakes. However, I do have a great deal of experience and have learned a few things. So, I’d like to give you some advice. Hopefully, your learning curve will be easier (and shorter) than mine.
Extend Your Range
To be an effective spot-and-stalk hunter, you need to increase your maximum effective shooting range. By long range, I mean any shot over 30 yards. Hopefully, you can stretch your effective range to 40 yards or beyond.
Trying to slip within 20 yards of a bedded animal is very difficult. Even if you’re capable of getting that close, it would probably be a mistake. I remember getting within 10 yards of a few bedded mule deer bucks in my early days. Once I got that close, it dawned on me I didn’t know what to do next. And what I ended up doing on those occasions is what I’ve always done best: I spooked the deer.
I believe the sensitivity of an older age-class animal increases exponentially as you close the distance. For instance, I think you can get away with a lot more than twice as much noise, movement and odor at 40 yards than you can at 20 yards. Nowadays, I rarely push a stalk inside 40 yards.
Rather than forcing the action, I’ve learned to be patient and wait for things to unfold. I’ll remain motionless for hours if necessary and let the animal make the next move. I choose to stop my stalk at the farthest range where I can consistently make a lethal shot.
Statistically speaking, if you are going to stay back to make the shot, you need to be able to shoot accurately out to 40 yards. According to the Pope and Young Club, the average shot at a trophy whitetail buck (usually hunted from a stationary position) is around 20 yards. However, most trophy muley bucks (usually hunted spot and stalk) are killed at approximately 40 yards.
I can look back on nearly every successful stalk I’ve made and point out how patience helped me take the animal. The most important time to be patient is when choosing the time to shoot. Most people tend to rush the shot. They have an overwhelming urge to get the suspense over with and shoot as quickly as possible. These hunters describe a constant, nagging fear that the buck will detect them and run before they can shoot.
Remember, your odds of killing the deer are better if you are patient. You need to wait for a time when the vitals are fully exposed and the deer is either looking away or has its vision blocked. You almost always have more time than you think you do.
Ups and Downs
If you’re going to spot and stalk in the mountains, you’ll eventually have to shoot sharply uphill or downhill. Shooting these steep shots is tough for a couple reasons, First, you can’t just range the animal and shoot. You must figure out what the “shoot for” distance is before you draw your bow.
Although it may not seem logical, you must aim lower on both uphill and downhill shots than you would when shooting the same distance on flat ground. The rule of thumb is to shoot for the horizontal distance to the animal, rather than the true (line-of-sight) distance. Understanding the necessary adjustments is the key to nailing these shots.
You can guess how many yards to cut, but that hasn’t worked well for me in the past. Fortunately, you have several equipment options available to help you determine the “shoot for” distance. The tool I’ve used for years is a small inclinometer. I keep it in my pocket when I’m hunting in the mountains.
One quick look through this little gizmo gives me the exact angle to the target. I also carry a pocket-sized laminated chart that tells me how much yardage to cut for each angle and each distance.
The second option is an inclinometer app for your smartphone that will calculate the angle and the cut for you.
The easiest, quickest and most convenient way to determine the “shoot for” distance is with an angle-
compensated laser rangefinder. It will measure the angle and automatically make the calculations for you. It’s just going to cost you a little more money than the other options.
We’ll cover a great deal more about spot-and-stalk shooting in the next column.