In this column, I have detailed many techniques on how to shoot a bow better. Most of my knowledge on this subject has been garnered while preparing for and shooting in competitions. However, at the end of the day, it comes down to how we shoot at game; not targets. Most of us are bowhunters first. Accuracy in the field requires careful shot selection. The most important step you can take toward shooting better at game is restricting your shots to those you know you can make.
Being able to make a wide variety of shots certainly helps, but I’m also well aware of my limitations and try to never go beyond them. Here are a few things to consider when deciding whether to take a shot:
Your Maximum Range
A huge part of the shoot/don’t shoot decision involves knowing your maximum range. We need a reliable test of shooting skill to determine the legitimate edge of your accuracy. Before you consider taking 40-yard shots in the field, for example, make sure you are able to produce four-inch groups at the range.
Evaluate your ability based on your worst groups on days when you are struggling. Put another way, if you shoot every day for a week, you should never put an arrow outside this 4-inch circle if you are going to call this your true maximum range. Suddenly, 40 yards seems like a long way, doesn’t it? No doubt, this is a restrictive yardstick, but I think it is realistic because most bowhunters’ shooting skills decrease dramatically in hunting situations.
Few bowhunters are as good on game as they are on paper. Their body angles may be awkward as they aim, buck fever sets in and cold muscles are prone to quiver at full draw. The four-inch group on the range becomes more like eight inches in the real world.
After honestly assessing your abilities, you are likely to walk away disappointed, looking for ways to extend your maximum range. Stretching your max is one of the few achievements in archery that has a tangible, measurable reward. For every yard you improve your maximum range, you increase the odds of getting a shot at game.
A maximum range of 40 yards is a realistic goal for most serious bowhunters. I’ve spent my entire career as a competitive archer learning to be as proficient as possible at long range. Even after all those years of practice, hunting shots of 40 yards or less are still my goal.
Here are a few tips to help you shoot better at this distance.
1. Do most of your practicing at ranges well beyond your comfort zone. In other words, you want 40 yards to feel like a normal shot. If it doesn’t, you aren’t ready to take that shot in the field.
2. Practice in your hunting clothes. The addition of a glove on your bow hand and a facemask on your head, for example, will affect your impact point.
3. Focus on alignment. A consistent sight picture is critical when aiming. Make sure the peep and pin are precisely aligned for each shot. Use a bubble level on your sight.
4. A good follow-through covers many sins. At short range, you can get away with some bad habits and still produce a reasonable group. But at longer distances, any problems really begin to degrade accuracy. Concentrate on keeping your bow arm and bow hand completely relaxed and motionless until the arrow hits the target. In other words, keep aiming at the spot you want to hit until the arrow thumps home.
Read The Animal
It is one thing to possess great archery skills, but another thing completely for the animal to stand still long enough for the arrow to arrive. You have to factor in both your ability and the animal’s body language when deciding whether to take the shot. Even though a shot is within your maximum range, it may still be a poor choice.
If the animal is likely to move and take a step, duck the string or turn, it will destroy your accuracy. It takes time for an arrow to cover 40 yards, so you must anticipate the animal’s every move. It takes experience to read body language, so start conservatively. If there is any chance that animal will move before the arrow arrives, keep your shots close until you have the experience needed to correctly anticipate the action.
String jumping is the most common example of problematic animal movement and one of the biggest enemies of accuracy. If the animal appears alert or tense, it will likely drop at the sound of the shot. Experience is the best teacher, but when you notice that the animal is tense, aim a little low! Until you have the needed experience, avoid shots at tense animals unless they are very close.
In this column, I often stress accuracy on the range, but that is only the means to an end. The end we seek is better accuracy on game. That is why we work as hard as we do to become better archers.