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Reflections on Deflections

by John Trout, Jr.   |  October 28th, 2010 0

Sticks, limbs and brush should be a reason, not an excuse

Clearing shooting lanes is necessary, but many veteran hunters believe you can easily overdo it–keep in mind your effective shooting range and the importance of cover surrounding your ambush site.

“You’ll never forget that one,” said Tim Hilsmeyer after I explained how a 10-point buck had just escaped bodily harm when an invisible tree intercepted my arrow.

You see, it appeared to be a hunt that was destined for success. The buck had walked a fenceline 60 yards to the south. My only chance was to grunt and hope he would come closer. It worked! Upon hearing the second grunt, the buck turned, slicked back his ears and deliberately walked toward me.

I nervously turned to my right on the portable stand and looked ahead for an opening. There it was, just beyond a large oak tree. The buck would pass by at 25 yards. A few rapid heartbeats later, he did just that as I drew, aimed and released. Then I heard a dull thump just as the buck bolted. However, when he stopped a short distance away and scanned the woods, I knew I had missed.

I won’t go into the details of searching for my arrow for the next 30 minutes. I will say, though, that my wife Vikki soon joined me in the search. It was she who spotted the arrow eight feet above the ground centered in a small pignut hickory tree. The tree was halfway between the buck and I. I could see the deer’s tracks where he had bolted and could tell my alignment was fine. Yet, I had not seen the tree as I prepared to shoot.

Arrow deflections save numerous bucks each season. Although some deflections can be prevented by careful stand setup, others show up in the heat of the moment and take their toll.

The Oldest Excuse
I’m sure by now you’re saying, “Been there, done that.” In fact, that’s exactly what Tim said after explaining that you take those memories to your grave. This certainly wasn’t the first time either one of us had hit a limb, tree or other obstruction that caused arrow deflection and saved a buck. Nonetheless, the archery hunter’s oldest excuse for missing is alive and well.

Unfortunately, it’s the agonizing reminiscence of deflections that cause the most suffering for archers. I’ve cleanly missed a few big bucks over the years, yet they do not bother me like those deer that escaped bodily harm due to an arrow deflecting. I recall one buck that I missed when an arrow nock broke upon release. I remember others that escaped because I misjudged yardage, or perhaps didn’t shoot as effectively as I should have. Those errors are far easier to accept.

On the other hand, when a deflection causes the miss, I am plagued with anxiety for days to come. Time might heal and reduce the pain, but it never removes the ordeal from my mind. After all, we typically work hard for a chance to kill a super whitetail. We also know opportunities don’t come often. Then there is the ambush site issue. A deflection that occurs when stalking is not the same. You are at the mercy of whatever obstructions happen to be there when it comes time to shoot. But ambush sites are planned attacks. What could we have done, or should have been done different to prevent a deflection?

Line Of Fire
We can’t deny that our line of fire typically arrives at the spur of the moment. It seems that no matter where we expect a buck to be, he invariably is elsewhere. Thus, we often make a split-second decision to find that one shooting lane that will work. Well-known archery hunter Myles Keller once told me that when a big buck approaches, he takes his eyes off the antlers to prevent distraction. Once he knows he wants the buck, he forgets the antlers and looks ahead to find a shooting lane.

Locating the line of fire must happen quickly. It’s not a matter of “hmmmm.” Nope, you take the first available spot–now! It’s a routine that occurs in the deer woods consistently, yet we cannot count on seeing everything between the tip of the arrow and our intended target.

We can refer to this line of fire as a sight window, a straight line between our eyes and the deer. We also can assume that many sight windows are open, while others are laced with debris.

Naturally, the tighter the sight window, the more difficult it becomes to shoot through. However, even those that appear “open” play havoc on the archer. Such was the case with the 10 pointer mentioned earlier. I didn’t think I could miss, and I certainly didn’t see the tree that intercepted the arrow.

Consider a buck I shot at with a muzzleloader several years ago. The huge eight-point buck stood broadside at 35 yards. I had an open sight window through my variable power scope.

I squeezed the trigger and the buck ran off unscathed. Uncertain how I could have missed, I spent 20 minutes looking over the area. Then I found the problem. A one-inch white pine limb a few feet in front of my barrel was splintered and had deflected the projectile.

My point is, our sight window is smaller than we anticipate. In the case of the bullet, it might have looked clear through the scope. However, the projectile comes from the barrel first. If the limb were one inch lower, or higher, the buck might now hang on my wall. In the case of an arrow, our sight window might look clear. Nevertheless, the straight line you see is not necessarily the path of the arrow.

Most ambush sites require clearing. I typically hang about 20 portable stands each season and must always open shooting lanes. However, I’m cautious of how I clear and how much I remove.

First, be aware that whitetails know their stomping grounds better than you do. All will notice significant changes to an area, and a mature buck could be the first to notice. Big bucks are seldom forgiving. You often get one chance only. If a red flag pops up when he passes through your area, perhaps when you are not even there, your chances of intercepting him could end before it begins.

For this reason, I open minimal shooting lanes. I prefer to leave cover near me to remain hidden, and I prefer to leave cover near the ground to keep deer feeling hidden and secure. Perhaps that is because I still haven’t forgotten one huge buck that noticed how I opened the area surrounding my stand many years ago. He approa
ched calmly but stopped dead in his tracks after spotting my clearance. He turned around and walked away as though he had never been there at all. I firmly believe that if you set up your stand in a dense area, keep it dense.

When clearing, always be aware of your effective shooting range and don’t bother opening areas beyond that. It’s nice to be able to see what is approaching or passing by, but the bottom line is to kill the deer. Therefore, worry only about shooting lanes that will help you do so, and limit the number of lanes around you. I would much rather take my chances with a few areas that could cause a deflection than to spoil an ambush site by making certain I can shoot in every direction.

Finally, I would suggest you have help when clearing. If one person does it all from the ground, they will probably remove more than necessary. It’s best for one hunter to stay in the tree stand and point out to someone below those limbs to be cleared.

Life Saving Limbs
We know that errant limbs have a tendency to allow bucks to mature, but it is interesting to note that those closest to the hunter cause the most problems. I don’t want my arrow hitting anything, but if I had a choice, I would prefer it pass through debris that is close to the deer. Brush that is within feet of the animal will not deflect an arrow as much as that close to you.

The more distance between the deflector and the target, the more the arrow flight is affected. In fact, I’ve killed a few deer that stood directly behind small debris, such as honeysuckle vines and small leafy limbs. I seldom allow small debris to stop me from shooting if extremely close to the animal. However, even a small vine will deflect an arrow drastically if a mere few yards exist between it and the target.

There’s also the penetration factor. Any deflection could affect penetration. It’s not so much the reduction of arrow speed that hurts, but the straightness of the arrow on impact. An arrow that is deflected will not travel the straight line necessary for the best chance of a pass-through.

Low Light Factors
Dawn and dusk have played a primary role in deflections. Common sense tells us that we won’t see as well in low light as we do in bright light. Also not surprising is that many deer come within our effective shooting range when light is poor.

I still remember a draw hunt in Indiana on the Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge where I had hung my stand the day before. I was pleased when they turned us loose early on the morning I hunted. The sky was pink as I climbed into my stand. I had no more than pulled my bow up when I heard an approaching deer. As the deer hit the 30-yard mark, I saw his huge headgear. I found an opening, so I thought, and waited for the buck to pass through at 20 yards. He cooperated. His lungs looked to be in the wide open as I released, but all I heard was cling-clang upon release.

I did not bother to climb down and retrieve my arrow just yet. I wanted to see exactly what I had shot through from a bird’s-eye view. As dawn progressed, I saw a cluster of low bushes in my line of fire. The low light had hid the debris. Perhaps I would have killed the buck had he waited a few more minutes before coming. That I’ll never know. What hurt most, though, is the opening I saw only a few feet beyond the location where I chose to shoot.

We can do little about low light. Once legal shooting time arrives, we are at the mercy of what lies between our intended target and us. We can clear shooting lanes before our hunt, but more important is to remember them when low-light conditions exist. Regardless of how clear your shooting lane appears, you won’t see it all at dawn and dusk. Even large limbs can disappear.

I have found that it helps to study my surroundings from the ground up when hunting from a stand. In other words, as I look for the best shooting opportunity, I don’t look at the brightest area that is situated well above the ground. This distracts you most and hides the lower obstructions where it is darkest. If time allows, you can look at the dark woods floor first and allow your eyes to adjust. Then you can better see debris that is a few feet above the ground.

The Follow-Through
You’ve probably read your share of stories about the importance of following through. I’m not going into the school of hard knocks to explain the technical factors, but will briefly discuss its importance. I also will say that if you don’t follow through, your arrow has a much better chance of being deflected.

Archery hunters typically work hard to make sure they will get a shooting opportunity. However, it only takes one arrow deflection to ensure that they will go unrewarded.

Most of us know the definition of a follow-through. It’s the art of continuing to aim upon and after the release. If your form is lost and the bow arm drops too quickly, there is no follow-through and arrow flight is affected. Some archers will stay true to form until the arrow hits. They claim it is not necessary to follow through for this long, but it does guarantee the perfect follow-through.

Finger shooters are more affected by this more than release shooters, but damaging results apply to all. Right-handed shooters that don’t follow-through typically shoot left, while lefties will typically shoot right. The more distance between you and the target the more the arrow is off if you fail to follow through.

Now, let’s examine the possibility of deflections if follow-through is lost. Your shooting lane could appear wide open. However, if you don’t follow through and the arrow moves a few inches left or right, the possibility becomes greater it will hit something and deflect, especially when shot windows are small.

I’ve discovered one thing over the years. If I don’t shoot, I can’t kill the buck. I consider myself an ethical hunter and take shots only within my effective shooting range. I have taken shots, though, when some debris did exist. I also can say that I have filled a few tags only because I took the shot when a deflection was possible. The truth is, perfect shooting opportunities are few and far between.

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