The whitetail rut brings its own set of shooting challenges. The pace of the action can be fast and the shots very unpredictable. Most of the deer follow trails early and late in the season, but during the rut, a buck can pass your stand in any direction, at any distance, at any time and at any speed. You have to prepare for every imaginable shot.
The Short Ones Are Trouble
It’s easy to get sloppy on a short shot. To combat this tendency, be patient on the trigger. Put just as much concentration into the short shots as you do the long ones. To be certain you do this, pick out a single tuft of hair on the deer’s side and focus on that spot until the arrow hits. This will keep you from simply shooting at the whole deer.
Short shots are also tough because the angle from your stand to the vitals is often severe, especially if you are higher than 15 feet. A deer’s vital area is almost as wide as it is tall, but that doesn’t mean it is just as accessible from above as it is from the side. From a treestand, you have to penetrate a thick mass of bone and muscle to reach the lungs, and there is a very high probability of only hitting one lung. On close shots, the best angle occurs as the deer begins to walk away. At this point, you can aim back just a bit and angle the arrow through the liver into the chest for a quick, sure kill.
Few bowhunters practice enough close-range treestand shots. You need this kind of practice to get comfortable bending at your waist fully to create the needed 90-degree angle between your upper body and bow arm. The tendency is to simply lower the bow arm without bending at the waist, a bad habit. When bowhunters miss slam-dunk shots (and it happens all the time), they tend to miss them for this very reason.
A Walking or Chasing Buck
Rutting bucks are seemingly always on the move. I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to the stop/don’t stop decision. It is full of trade-offs. Now is the time to plan how you will handle this shot.
Most bowhunters elect to stop every moving deer they want to shoot. That’s not necessarily a bad decision and is definitely the most conservative approach. But there will be a few bucks during your lifetime that will get away as a result. They sometimes spook at the grunt (especially if they are close).
It’s OK to take a moving shot if you prepare for it and then only take close shots at slow moving game. If the animal is moving faster than a steady walk, or if he’s farther than 20 yards away, always stop him, even if your shooting lanes are narrow. Also, pass up all moving shots when visibility is less than perfect, like early and late in the day. Finally, don’t take this shot until you’ve practiced it thoroughly and feel very comfortable you can place the arrow accurately.
A shooting lane should be at least six feet wide to give you time and room to stop the buck in the open for a clear shot when you grunt at him. When shooting at walking bucks through small openings, it is easier to aim at the opening and time the buck’s arrival than to try to swing your bow with the deer and time the opening. Through practice, I’ve learned that on a 20-yard, walking shot, I have to trigger the release as soon as the buck’s shoulder appears at my sight pin — a lead of about 10 inches with my arrows. It is slightly less on shorter shots.
During the rut, it is very common for a buck to come out of nowhere, chase a doe up to your stand, pause for a moment and then bolt off after her. Here are six tips to help you handle this fast action:
Hold your bow: You will be able to react more quickly to any opportunity if you keep your bow in your hand. It can be a pain, but it definitely produces faster shooting.
Use a release you can load quickly: Regardless of whether you use a string-nocking loop or connect your release aid directly to the string, you need to use a release aid that is proven to attach quickly and easily. When using a string loop, consider releases with a single open jaw or peg that easily snags the loop without having to look at it. Use a wide, large string loop of stiff material to allow easy hook-up.
Forget the wrist sling: A wrist sling is only effective if it is snug, making it very tough to get a gloved hand into position quickly. While I heartily recommend slings for western hunting at longer distances, they can be a nuisance while whitetail hunting.
Today’s bows don’t recoil as dramatically as bows from only a few years ago. You can still produce a proper surprise release without launching the bow out of your hand if you circle the handle lightly with your thumb and middle finger. Always remember to use a wrist sling during practice to train yourself not to grab the bow at the shot.
Stand while hunting: If a deer approaches quickly from the right and catches you sitting, it will be very tough to get off a good shot. First, you will have to stand (which adds time and movement) before you can even pick a shooting lane. When standing, you are ready for anything.
Rehearse: Quick execution requires a plan. Spend some time rehearsing each possible shot from your stand — when to draw, where to stop him, the range, etc. This will prepare you to react very quickly when time is short.
Quick squeeze: Even when shooting quickly, make a conscious effort not to punch the trigger. A fast, smooth squeeze can still produce a very fast shot without sacrificing accuracy.
There is no such thing as a standard shot during the rut, and there is no way you can guess where the shot will occur. Prepare for every possibility and stay alert until the magic moment arrives.