I was caught out of position, still gawking at his antlers when I should have been preparing for the shot. When my right elbow hit the tree I overreacted, fearing the opportunity was at risk. It would have been a simple thing to bend forward, clear the tree with my elbow and then go back to following his left-to-right progress with my pin. Instead, I jerked the bow down toward the buck’s vitals and punched the trigger.
The arrow smacked harmlessly into the soft ground right under the buck’s chest. It was over in the blink of an eye. I’d just missed a gimme, 10-yard shot.
As the buck bounded off, I was as shocked and reeling as if I’d just taken a Mike Tyson uppercut. But it was nothing compared to how I felt on a hunt in Alberta in 2003. I let a giant, 180-class buck sneak up on me, and by the time I spotted him, he was nearly through my shooting lane. He was only 19 yards away, yet when I whipped the bow into position and punched the trigger, the only thing I cut were a few hairs on his brisket — and a dead log on the ground behind him.
Sometimes the so-called “easy” shots are the ones that give us a lifetime of nightmares. We take them for granted and fail to do the one thing that pulls all the pieces together during the moment of truth. It was simple in hindsight; I should have taken the extra moment required to pick a spot.
By contrast, I’ve also made a few shots that seemed ridiculously simple while they occurred but were, in hindsight, fairly difficult. I remember one such shot that required perfect timing. The buck ran in, pivoted at the base of my tree and began to accelerate as he changed direction. Time stood still. I locked in on the spot I wanted to hit, and at the shot, I actually saw the hairs on the buck’s side part as the broadhead sliced through. I’ll never forget that sight. It was as if I was standing two feet away and life was happening in super slow-mo.
The simple act of first choosing a small spot on the animal is at the heart of all good shots at game. Picking a spot focuses everything that happens later.
How to Do It
Despite its importance, choosing a spot can be one of the hardest things you will have to do this season. What is often taken for granted when standing in the backyard, or even at the stake in a 3-D tournament, seems as difficult as walking backwards on a tightrope when you have to do it with a buck in front of you. We all suffer from buck fever to varying degrees. One of the surest symptoms is panic, the desire to shoot fast and the inability to pick a spot.
Bowhunters go to amazing extremes to encourage this simple act. We’ve all seen bows with little stickers that say, “Pick a Spot.” Recently, I saw a recurve in a bowhunter’s basement with the message “Pick A Spot Here” written on the back of the upper limb in paint. Lest he forget where “here” was, the owner had painted an arrow pointing toward the sight window. We laugh, but I’ve had days when such simple instructions would have been all I could handle.
On every shot you take for the rest of your life, whether in competition, practice or while hunting, make a conscious effort to first pick a small aiming point. Build it into your routine by actually thinking about the need to pick the spot before choosing it. Don’t get lazy in this regard. Especially when practicing, you need this to become instinctive. Ideally, you’ll pick the spot you want to hit before you draw the bow and then you’ll lock onto it like a bulldog on a bone all the way through the shot sequence. Only when you build this important step into your everyday shooting routine will you be able to consistently do it when it really counts. If you have to think about it, you will probably forget to do it when the heat is on.
The Pre-Shot RoutineHere is what my pre-shot routine looks like. There are going to be a number of elements I don’t have time to discuss in this column, but the main thing to take away is the fact that the specific, conscious decision to pick a spot is one of the few steps. Here is how it goes:
1. Figure out where the shot needs to occur.
2. Determine if the wind will affect the shot. If so, how much?
3. Get the range to that spot — I like to use a laser rangefinder whenever possible.
4. Decide when to draw.
5. Draw the bow and aim through the shooting lane before the buck gets there.
6. Look for sticks both in the line of sight and right above it; the sticks right above your line of sight are the ones that will get you.
7. PICK A SPOT!
8. Squeeze the trigger.
9. Keep aiming until the bow fires.
10. Hold all positions until the arrow hits.
I make a point of performing all 10 steps on every single practice shot. Consistently performing the entire routine — even on practice shots — ingrains it to the point where I no longer have to consciously think my way through the list.
Make Time Stand Still
Have you ever made a shot at an animal when every detail seemed to unfold in slow motion? I already told you about the buck I shot in 2000 in Colorado when that happened in a most remarkable way. I can’t ever remember a slow-motion episode that ended badly. There is only one reason time seemingly stands still; you are in the zone — totally focused.
I read a book about sports psychology where the author had interviewed many gifted athletes about their state of mind during peak performance. Many said that complex actions seemed simple; time practically stood still. It comes down to concentration, a learned skill. It is something that you can choose to do and practice until you improve.
When concentration is sharp, a very small spot on the target snaps into clear focus. You may not even have a conscious idea of exactly where the pin is during the shot because you are directing so much mental energy toward the target. For me, narrow focus is the visual trigger that indicates I’m ready to shoot.
After you learn to pick a spot, practice holding that focus until the arrow hits. Strive for the feeling that your concentration is so
tight it doesn’t lapse until the arrow hits the target. This type of mental follow-through while the arrow is in the air will really boost your accuracy. You won’t be satisfied unless you hit that exact spot — that exact hair. Aim small, miss small!
The Right Kind of Practice
Famous golfer Jack Nicklaus once said that practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. The best way to practice concentration is to shoot fewer arrows and give each one maximum effort. Treat every shot like it’s the only one you’ll shoot that day. When I’m putting the final touches on my pre-season preparation, I shoot only 15 arrows per session and give each one total concentration. By putting 100 percent of my mental energy into each arrow, I never get lazy with my concentration and I build better habits that carry over into the actual hunt.
Regardless of what faces you when a big buck or bull steps within bow range, the simple act of picking a spot is the glue that keeps you from falling apart. Picking a spot is so important it comes as close as anything you can do to actually guarantee a good shot.