Back in camp my swaggering client’s taken on all comers in impromptu shooting contests during hot midday downtime. He’s been taking their money, one dollar at a time, a dollar per shot. While exhausted guides catnap or pack morning meat, a cadre of archers gathers behind the lodge to shoot under scrutiny by those who’ve wisely conceded defeat, good shots and bad eliciting raucous cheering and jeering. I return from a stand hanging errand to find them backed well out into the graveled drive. Ninety yards distant, showing between parked trucks and lodge buildings, sits a standard-issue 3-D deer target. My guy’s at full draw.
His chartreuse fletchings arch high, dropping gorgeously into the 10-ring. Spirited oaths escape gaping mouths. Thank God, I think, I finally get one who can shoot…
The Real Test
Now three calf-towing cow elk and the 350-inch bull are strung along the long finger of scrubby pines flanking the canyon header, making toward open ground. It’s our chance. We hastily don stalking slippers, sneak into the bottom and run beneath its concealing crest, catching our breath before inching over the lip to have a look. Tan flashes and churning chocolate legs show through gaps and we regard one another with knowing grins.
Stealing ahead with wind curling back our eyelashes we wait beside a stunted cedar. And it’s just that simple. After days of fruitless stalks, a shot is as certain as death and taxes. I spend the minutes carefully popping laser readings from rocks and boughs with the rangefinder I’ve slipped from my client’s hip pouch. I thoroughly commit the area to memory–most 35 to 40 yards.
I’m already forming meat evacuation plans in my head….
Perhaps the wait proves too long. Something happens to my steely-nerved charge in those five or 10 minutes, because when that bull clears cover at 38 yards, after I’ve delivered the whispered news straight into his ear, after he’s aimed steadily seeming minutes, his arrow buzzes over that bull’s back and into another zip code. The cows jerk their heads and spin to face different directions. The bull freezes as if he’s discovered a coiled and dangerous snake in his path.
"Hold your 40-yard pin in his armpit!" I hiss, in case there’s been some misunderstanding regarding range.
His second arrow follows the first. This time the small herd flows gracefully into waiting pines without pause or fanfare. My guy is visibly vibrating, looking me over as if I’ve just kissed his sister. I’ve been guiding long enough to know what’s on his mind and hand over the rangefinder so he can confirm what I already know.
I’ve seen it too many times. The 3-D champs, the guy who can dot the "I’s" in camp, falls apart at moment of truth. And we’ve all been there. During back-yard practice it seems impossible to miss, but the next morning you do just that on a broadside buck at 18 yards.
Pressure affects every shooter differently. Some fold under pressure, losing all confidence, even the easiest shots causing trepidation. Others thrive on it, concentrating that much harder when presented with a chance to win a big tournament with a single arrow or to tag a trophy. Some are simply predisposed to an icy demeanor. Others must work diligently toward controlling nerves that can ruin easy shots. Once you’ve physically mastered the act of shooting the bow, 90-percent of competent shooting rests firmly between your ears. Plenty of practice is a good thing, but just as important is mental attitude and confidence. You can get there in five easy steps.
Back To Basics
In the beginning shooting game with a bow can seem impossible. You want that first success so badly that when an animal does suddenly appear your brain short circuits. Your thoughts become muddled and hasty and you blow easy shots. The key in the beginning is tricking your mind into slowing down and operating clearly. There are many easy tricks to this end.
Remember when you were a kid and lost your temper, and your m
other told you to count to 10 slowly? This was a simple ruse to slow your thoughts a tad. These simple gambits also work while shooting under pressure. I had been bowhunting perhaps five years when I hit on the notion of reciting the alphabet as slowly and evenly as possible before shooting at game. My hit-to-miss ratio began to climb quickly.
You can devise your own tactic, and granted a rutting whitetail passing your stand position certainly won’t allow reciting the alphabet through, the point is to do something, anything, to gain control of your thoughts, to slow your brain down. New Archery Products has long given away stickers that adhere to the back of your top bow limb. They say "Stay Calm/Pick A Spot." This can be enough. Simply remember to look at it and you’re well on your way.
My buddy Gary Sefton says he’s adopted a simple checklist he mentally recites before important shots. His checklist is designed specifically to address important points of shooting form while at full draw. His list goes something like this; "Check anchor. Loose bow grip. Solid peep alignment. Pin solid on vitals. Squeeeeeze the release." Your own checklist need not be elaborate, only something to slow down your thoughts while making an important shot.
Call it silly if you will, but such exercises certainly work.
While at full draw you shouldn’t be hoping to hit the target, but believe you will. This holds whether shooting at big game or a foam 3-D target. In fact, the friendly competition of backyard or organized 3-D is a great way to build that confidence, without the boredom of shooting a bag target or block of foam. Bet a nickel or a quarter a shot, or a soda or beer for afterwards. If your buddy hits the 12-ring announce that you’re going to split his arrow and concentrate on doing just that.
And always strive to become a better shot. Determine what your number-one shooting problem is, say, general shooting form, anchor, release, complete follow-through, target panic. Work only on that single aspect of your shooting until it’s solved before moving to the next. Trying to solve all of your troubles at once can prove confusing and overwhelming.
Stump shooting is another worthwhile confidence builder. Shooting dried cow patties, grass clumps, pinecones or anthills is obviously not as critical as shooting game; hitting close normally good enough for the ego. A Zwickey Judo Point, rubber blunt or PDP GameNabber makes it more difficult to lose or break arrows if you select targets and backdrops wisely. Make a game of it with friends, playing "follow the leader," taking turns choosing targets at unknown ranges, a "winner" allowed to lead until someone else hits closest. Small game hunting can go hand-in-hand with stump shooting. Jack and cottontail rabbits, tree and ground squirrels, groundhogs, crows (all when and where legal), even carp, present fun and challenging targets. They also come with responsibility. Even non-game deserves a quick and humane end, which puts the pressure on to shoot your best.
Also strive to take advantage of overlooked game. Feral hogs are cropping up seemingly everywhere, making not only challenging quarry, but also superb eating. Winter varmint calling can present copious shooting opportunity, game such as superfluous coyotes, fox and bobcat readily coming to the morbid calls of dying bunny to offer sporting targets and unique trophy-room additions. Don’t discount late winter and spring opportunities like Southwest javelina or spring bear and turkey for added bowhunting opportunity outside traditional fall deer seasons. Look around and before you know it 3-D season will be in full swing.
Al Henderson, in his book "Winning Archery," talks about mental visualization at great length. By concentrating on picturing the perfect shot before you even draw your bow your mind believes it has already occurred. In other words, your mind has a difficult time distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. You’ve likely observed downhill skiers standing in a starting gate during the Winter Olympics. You see them with eyes closed, leaning and ducking through imaginary turns. They’re seeing the entire course, planning each turn, attacking each gate. They are mentally visualizing the perfect run in their minds.
This is a powerful tool in steaming the pressure of an important shot. The "power of positive thinking" is more than catchphrase. When I’m "In The Zone" during a 3-D tournament or while stalking game these thoughts come automatically. I see myself calmly picking a spot, executing a perfect shot, the arrow flying true. Most days this doesn’t come naturally, you must will yourself into that calm place. Use the quiet time on stand to meditate, visualizing likely scenarios around your site, where deer are likely to appear, setting up to take the shot, which pin to use and exactly where to hold it–then, of course, seeing the arrow fly perfectly into the vital area. You will normally feel stress melting away. This is easy to do while stalking as well, simply rehearsing likely shot scenarios before they materialize.
Over The Hump
At some point in your bowhunting career, after a certain amount of success, you’ll hit a point where you don’t panic on difficult shots, big bucks no longer unnerve you (though excite you plenty), where you don’t let pressure get to you, exe
cuting every shot competently and skillfully. This is called experience, and the hard-earned confidence that comes with it. You’ve been there and done that and know you can pull it off once again.
Gaining confidence comes through repeated success. In today’s goal-driven society, many archers forgo easy lessons by remaining too focused on trophies. They let does and smaller bucks parade past without shooting, waiting for “the big one”. But then that big buck does arrive; only they don’t have the experience to pull off a competent shot.
When I started bowhunting mule deer as a kid, does were quite legal during New Mexico’s general archery seasons. Yet my older bowhunting buddies considered shooting females something less than manly. Luckily, another bowhunting mentor, an ancient gentleman who’d been bowhunting longer than Fred Bear (Papa Bear was still alive at the time) set me straight on the subject of bow and arrow success.
“Don’t listen to them yahoos,” he said, shaking his head sternly. “You’re just gettin’ started. Shoot every legal animal that crosses your path. Then, some day, when that big buck comes your way, you’ll be ready for him.”
I never did forget that, and while my buddies gave me some healthy ribbing for shooting a doe that fall (and the next), I had two recurve deer under my belt by age 13 so that by the time they did tag a buck, I was right there with them collecting antlers. It’s advice I still adhere to, shooting the warm-up doe (when legal) even during a dead-serious trophy hunt on prime ground. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with doe steaks….
Don’t Get Cocky
On the adverse end of this business, getting too confident, downright smug, is a state of mind best avoided. Confidence is good; believing you are infallible can be dangerous. This can lead to taking risky shots, stretching beyond your maximum effective range, pulling the trigger when you should hold off. No matter how competent and steely nerved you believe you are, you owe your quarry some humility, assuring to the best of your ability a quick, clean kill every single time you release a bow string. Any time you take the precious life of another being it’s darn serious, bloody business. Remember this the next time you draw on game of any kind; this is not a target or a contest prize, this is a miracle of creation or evolution or whatever you choose to believe in, deserving utmost respect.
Equipment choices determine how much time you must invest in shooting practice, but my bet is you shoot just fine. The physical aspects of shooting a bow become engrained with time. It’s the mental angle that throws us for a loop. We all get excited by shots at game. If we didn’t we’d take up something else. The secret to success in bowhunting or 3-D archery is learning to control anxiety, to close the gap between calm backyard practice and shots at game or under scrutiny of competition. Use these tricks of the pros and you’ll be well on your way.