It is time to blow the dust off your bow and your shooting form and get ready for another exciting season. Man, I love this part! I think the anticipation is just as much fun as the hunt itself. We are all golden leading up the season — every buck is big and every shot is true in our minds.
My goal with this feature is to feed you the 10 steps you need to be just as golden when it happens for real. Strip away your pride; it is time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
10: Equipment Changes
Any equipment change will temporarily short-circuit the vital connection that makes the bow an extension of your body. If you have to apply conscious mental effort to perform routine tasks, such as hooking up a new release aid or choosing the right pin from a new sight, or if the strange feel of a new grip distracts you, you are in big trouble. When game approaches, adrenaline will cloud your mind; you’ll revert to your basic instinct and your performance will become a bloopers reel. Now is the time to make all changes to your equipment. Do it right away, and you’ll still have a couple months to get used to the new feel, arrow flight or sight picture.
9: Beat Target Panic
If you trigger your release aid with a conscious Now! command, you almost surely are fighting some form of target panic. Unless you take precautions right now, you may never become a good archer. Briefly, target panic is the attempt — and the inability — to hold the pin steady on the intended target while consciously deciding to take the shot.
Invariably, those afflicted will stab at the release’s trigger as the pin momentarily pauses near the spot. It is a very inconsistent and distressing way to shoot a bow. I used to shoot this way, and I never felt confident when hunting until I changed my method.
The cure is simple: learn to shoot the bow in a way that assures the release will take you by surprise. You will need to use a specialized release to break this habit — to learn how the shot is supposed to feel — before going back to your normal hunting model. You have two choices: a release with an optional spring trigger (several models available from Scott Archery) or a true back-tension release (available from Carter, Stanislawski, Scott, T.R.U. Ball and others).
If you do nothing else during the off-season, make a commitment to learn to shoot a bow using a surprise release method. You will be forever happy you did.
8: Shoot for Strength
Total relaxation of every muscle not specifically needed to hold the string back is the key to stable aiming and accurate shooting. Before you can relax to this degree, you must get your shooting muscles in shape. If you are fighting the string, you are attempting to shoot too much draw weight or you have not shot enough arrows to condition your muscles.
Whenever I start my practice regimen after a long layoff, I always spend the first two weeks rebuilding my shooting muscles. It is not unreasonable to shoot 75-100 arrows per day during this period. Though I try to shoot those arrows accurately, I am not particularly worried about where they hit. I’m just regaining my form and building my strength.
7: Shoot for Form and Focus
After you have gained the needed strength, it’s time to reduce the number of arrows you shoot and concentrate on making every shot count. This is a really important step. Most bowhunters shoot way too many arrows per practice session once they have their strength. Quality becomes much more important than quantity at this point. Twenty or 30 excellent shots, with total focus on each one, are much better than 100 casual ones.
Shoot every single arrow as if it is the only one you are going to shoot that day. Don’t get lazy on a single arrow. Seriously, this is critical. Use every step of your pre-shot routine on every shot. The habits you build during this phase of your preparation establish the instincts that will take over when a big buck suddenly shows up near your stand.
Here are a couple points you can bake into your routine to help you get in tune with your form. As soon as you settle into your anchor, pay attention to your bow hand. It is impossible to shoot consistently with a tense bow hand. It will tell you what the rest of your body is doing. Your bow hand should be completely passive — a soft cradle at the end of a post. Generally, the act of relaxing the bow hand will also relax the rest of the body.
Second, sharpen your concentration on the spot you want to hit. When the aspirin-sized spot you’ve chosen comes into sharp focus, you know it is time to start the release sequence. From there, it is only a matter of remaining patient while executing a surprise release.
6: Stretch Your Skills
In order to keep from settling into a comfort zone in your abilities, make your practice sessions challenging. One of the primary ways you can do that is to practice at longer ranges than you plan to shoot when hunting. For example, if you want to become deadly accurate at 30 yards, do most of your practicing at 40 and 50 yards. Your form and focus will improve dramatically. When you step up to 30 yards, the shot will seem ridiculously easy.
Another way to make your practice challenging is to choose shots that are a bit awkward. When hunting, opportunities to use backyard form are rare. Most often, you will be twisting, kneeling, bending, leaning or sitting as you try to bring the pin onto the animal’s vitals. If you make a habit of regularly practicing awkward positions, you will be prepared to turn every shot into venison.
5: Keep It Fun
Some of my fondest memories involve shooting with my friends. Pool your money and buy at least one 3-D target resembling the kind of game you hunt most often. You can enjoy hours of fun and challenge by placing the target in a typical hunting setting and then taking turns picking the shot. Keep score. Make it a grudge match. The banter and pressure will help you become better at focusing amid distractions — an important skill for any bowhunter. One of these sessions every week or two will also supply a reason to take your daily practice sessions seriously. Who wants to lose to a bunch of knuckleheads?
4: Shoot 3-D Tournaments
An organized 3-D tournament offers the most realistic hunting practice you can find. Because there is more pressure when you have to post a score for everyone to see, these tournaments cause more throat-tightening, heart-pounding moments than you’ll encounter while casually shooting with your buddies. Typically, t
he shots are set up to challenge but not demoralize the contestants — they are generally realistic. The variety of shots encountered makes the event great fun for the entire family and the perfect acid test for your overall level of preparation.
You can get a list of local tournaments by contacting your nearest archery pro shop. Most tournaments are affordable to enter and have multiple classes to accommodate a wide range of shooters from youth to expert.
3: Learn Your Maximum Range
As your shooting improves, it is time to cut to the core. Here’s an effective way to gauge your true maximum range when you aren’t able to use a rangefinder. It can be a real eye-opener.
Go to a 3-D tournament with a couple of friends, but use your own rules. Allow only 10 seconds from the time each shooter reaches the designated stake until he must fire the arrow. Someone should count it down to add pressure. Alternate the order so no one gets a consistent advantage in estimating range. Keep score. List on your score sheet the distance you estimated when taking each shot and the type of target (bear, deer, turkey, etc.).
When the round is over, study your score sheet. Focus on targets similar in size to the animals you plan to hunt. Note the estimated distance to any target where you scored less than a vital hit. Every time you estimate a shot in the field that is beyond this distance, the animal is out of range. You may be surprised to find that your maximum range will actually be somewhere around 25 yards.
2: Practice With Hunting Gear
Arrows tipped with broadheads don’t always fly the same as arrows tipped with field points. To determine how much affect this has on your accuracy, you need to test shoot every single arrow that will go into your quiver. If you are shooting replaceable blade heads, you can save money by using the same dull blades while testing each head. Determine where the hunting arrows are grouping. If necessary, move your sight pins to bring them back on target. Spread this out over several practice sessions.
Also practice while wearing the same jacket, gloves and facemask you will wear while hunting. By troubleshooting your wardrobe now, you can head off problems such as a bowstring hitting your sleeve. You’ll also get used to the unique feel of shooting in full hunting attire.
1: Make It Happen For Real
It is finally crunch time. All that preparation comes down to one season-topping shot. There is still one more thing you can do to create success: establish a routine you use for every shot and force yourself to stick with that routine when the shot is for real. In other words, all summer as you practice, make sure to go through every step of your routine. Through all your 3-D shooting and even when shooting on the range, make a conscious effort to acknowledge the distance, select your pin, choose the shooting hole, decide when to draw, etc.
Work out a routine you can use on every shot so when you face the real test, an adrenaline-charged encounter with a big buck or bull, you can fall back on the routine without having to do a lot of fresh thinking. Adrenaline and fresh thinking don’t go hand-in-hand.
Now, go that final step and spend some time visualizing yourself successfully going through your pre-shot routine with a trophy in range. It is a fun exercise that is actually very useful when preparing your nervous system for this exciting time.
Getting ready for the season is a 10-step process that is a lot of fun but also requires commitment. After three months of practicing with purpose, you will become an efficient archery machine. Then it is just a matter of turning those newfound skills loose in the woods.