September 29, 2021
I am supposed to share things I have learned from 30-plus years of bowhunting. That’s how long I have been writing for Petersen’s BOWHUNTING.
Last month, I wrote about my four “best” lessons. Truth be told, there are lots of things I have learned about bowhunting over the years, so I am going to revisit this subject with four more lessons.
Where to Aim
It seems I have had more than my share of bucks that moved while the arrow was in the air. In almost all cases, they dropped at the sound of the shot to load their legs in order to bound off. It’s called “string jumping,” and this phenomenon is a much bigger problem than I ever suspected.
Now, the No. 1 decision I have to make when deer hunting is not which stand to hunt, but rather where to aim on any shot past 20 yards. Not that I don’t know where the vitals are within the deer, I just don’t know where the deer itself will be when the arrow arrives. Some deer will drop 12 inches at 30 yards while others don’t even move. That sure messes with your confidence when aiming.
This inconsistency in a deer’s reaction to the sound of the shot creates a very challenging decision; do you aim low or not? Even though I still can’t tell for sure which deer will drop and which ones won’t, I have settled on a few rules about where to aim regardless.
If the deer is completely relaxed in a wooded setting with enough wind and leaf noise that they aren’t as prone to hear the bow, I aim low vitals on every shot. But if they are in the open, or if they are alert (such as when you have to make a sound to stop them for the shot), I aim increasingly low. If they are looking in my direction, for whatever reason, I also aim low.
Again, how low I aim is dependent upon how far away they are. At 25 yards I aim for a spot just above the heart — low lungs. At 30 yards, I aim for the brisket line, and at 35-40 yards, I aim about three inches below the brisket. Beyond 40 yards, it is too hard to tell where the deer will be to pick any kind of aiming point with reliable consistency. Such shots only make sense if the deer is perfectly relaxed and looking away, or if there is enough background noise to cover the sound of the shot.
Squeeze the Trigger
I used to get buck fever bad during the moment of truth, and that caused some rough stabs at the trigger with my index finger when my pin hesitated on the vitals. I never felt confident when faced with a shot at game. I always felt like I was rushing and was always afraid I would mess up.
Then, back in the early 2000s, I was talking with PSE founder Pete Shepley at one of the trade shows and we got on the subject of hunting accuracy — something Pete understands very well. I understood the value of producing a surprise release when target shooting but doubted its value in hunting.
Pete told me you have to squeeze off the shot and create a surprise release, even when hunting. I figured the need for precise timing was more important in hunting than the need for precise accuracy, but I was sure wrong.
After that talk with Pete, I started using a back-tension release for all my off-season shooting. Then, when I switched back to my index-trigger release just before the hunting season, I sought to maintain the surprise release with that device too, by squeezing the trigger slowly. Not only did my accuracy improve significantly on the range, but I was shooting more accurately at game too. In addition, I found another bonus — one that was even more important.
I learned that the need to wait an extra second or two as I squeezed the trigger actually calmed me down tremendously. It forced me to focus better and that pause resulted in me settling into much better aiming points. The excitement was still there, but the panic was gone, and my confidence improved. Pete’s tip remains the most important lesson I have ever learned about shot execution when bowhunting.
Not Every Buck Is Killable
It took many frustrating years to learn that some bucks are much more killable than others. Further, it is generally not worth hunting those bucks that send up the huntability caution flag.
The reason is simple; some bucks move almost entirely at night. I once stated that some bucks are purely nocturnal, but got feedback from biologists pointing out that there is no such thing as a purely nocturnal buck. They further pointed out that bucks will, in fact, get up and walk around a bit near their bedding areas.
That may be true, but it doesn’t do us much good as bowhunters. If some bucks don’t travel beyond a few yards of their beds during daylight, for all practical purposes they may as well not get up at all.
For years, I thought every buck was killable if I could just find his weakness. Maybe I am not good enough at this game to find all those weaknesses, because I have definitely hunted a number of bucks for weeks on end that I never saw. Now, I just accept the fact that some bucks move very little in daylight and I don’t hunt them. As soon as I realize a buck is a night roamer, I just move on and try to find a different one that moves in daylight.
Not surprisingly, trail cameras are the key to learning the behavior of specific bucks. You can tell quickly which ones are moving at least occasionally in daylight. Those are the ones you hunt.
We all know some stands are better than others, simply because they sit over well-used funnels. Those are easy to find. But there are those that look good that actually are traps that will cause you to waste time and possibly even ruin your chances for success.
The real chess match of deer hunting is getting to and from your stands without the deer knowing you are there, or that you have been there. That can be really tough and is the reason some stands just aren’t worth hunting no matter how much sign they overlook. To be successful with a bow, you have to go to extremes. You can’t just take one step in the right direction; you have to go all-in. You have to micro-manage every single detail you can, and that means every step you take to and from your stands.
Over the years, I have learned to ignore sign and focus on my own entry and exit routes first. Once I figure out how I can get in and out of the area cleanly, I then look for the best stands I can find along those routes. This is what I now call “scouting backwards”.
Most people start with the sign and then try to justify a great spot by finding some sort of route they can take to get to it, even if that route is not perfect. Scouting backwards means you do just the opposite. You never compromise on entry and exit routes. The amount of sign your stands overlook is where you compromise.
I have a friend who offered a good analogy for this argument. He said, “A burglar would never come walking up the sidewalk to your front door beating a bass drum and then try to pick your lock. He would sneak up by whatever route he could so that no one knew he was there.”
It is the same with entering our stands. It does no good to hunt great-looking spots where the wind is perfect if the deer already know you are there.