Here are the seven steps I take each year to make sure I am ready for the hunting season.
Step 1: shoot for strength: Total relaxation of every muscle not specifically needed to hold the string back is the key to accurate shooting. Before you can relax to this degree you must have complete mastery over the bow. If you are fighting it, you are attempting to shoot too much draw weight or you have not shot enough arrows to condition your muscles.
Whenever I start up my practice regimen after a long layoff, I always spend the first two weeks rebuilding my shooting muscles. It is reasonable to shoot 75 to 100 arrows per day during this period.
Step 2: shoot for form: After you have gained the needed strength, it's time to reduce the number of arrows you shoot and concentrate on making every single one of them count. Quality is much more important than quantity at this point in the improvement process. Twenty or thirty excellent shots are much better than 200 to 300 mediocre ones. Shoot every single arrow as if it is the only one you are going to shoot that day. Don't get lazy on a single arrow. The habits you build during this phase of the practice regimen establish the instincts that will take over when a big buck suddenly shows up near your stand.
I have two keys that I use on every shot when fine-tuning my shooting. These are personal traits, but I think they apply to most bowhunters. As soon as I settle into my anchor I pay attention to my bow hand. It is impossible to shoot consistently with a tense bow hand. It should be completely passive — a soft cradle at the end of a post. Generally, the act of relaxing the bow hand will also relax the rest of the body. Second, I sharpen my concentration on the spot I want to hit. When the small Aspirin-sized spot I've chosen comes into sharp focus I know it is time to start the release sequence. From there it is only a matter of remaining patient while executing a surprise release.
Step 3: stretch your skills: Comfort zones limit potential in all aspects of life including archery. In order to keep from reaching a premature plateau in your abilities, it pays to make your practice sessions challenging. One of the primary ways you can do that is to practice at longer ranges than you plan to shoot when hunting. For example, if you want to become deadly accurate at 30 yards, do most of your practicing at 40 and even 50 yards. Your form and focus will improve automatically. When you step up to 30 yards, the shot will seem ridiculously easy.
Another way to make your practice challenging is to choose shots that don't permit perfect form. When hunting, opportunities to use backyard form are rare. Most often you will be twisting, kneeling, bending, leaning or sitting as you try to bring the pin onto the animal's vitals. If you make a habit of regularly practicing awkward positions you will be prepared to turn every shot into a freezer full of venison this fall.
Step 4: keep it fun: Some of my fondest memories involve shooting with my friends. Pool your money and buy at least one 3-D target resembling the kind of game you hunt most often. You can enjoy hours of fun and challenge by placing the target in a typical hunting setting and then taking turns picking the shot. Keep score - make it a grudge match. The banter and pressure will help you become better at focusing amid distractions — an important skill for any bowhunter. One of these sessions every week or two will also supply a reason to take your daily practice sessions seriously. Who wants to lose to a bunch of knuckleheads?
Step 5: learn your maximum range: As your shooting improves it is time to make a realistic evaluation of your limits. Under real hunting conditions most bowhunters aren't nearly as good as they think. Here's an effective way to gauge your true maximum range. It can be a real eye-opener.
Go to a 3-D tournament with a couple of buddies, but use your own rules. Allow only 10 seconds from the time each shooter reaches the designated stake until the arrow must be fired. Someone should count it down to add pressure. Alternate the order so that no one gets a consistent advantage in estimating range. Keep score. Most targets are scored as follows: 10 for the inner ring, 8 for the vitals outside the ring and 5 for the rest of the animal. List on your score sheet the distance you estimated when taking each shot and the type of target, i.e. bear, deer, turkey, etc.
When the round is over, study your score sheet. Focus on targets similar in size to the animals you plan to hunt. Note the estimated distance to any target where you scored less than eight points. Every time you estimate a shot in the field that is beyond this distance the animal is out of range. You may be surprised to find that your maximum range will actually be somewhere around 25 yards.
Step 6: practice with hunting gear: Arrows tipped with broadheads don't fly the same as arrows tipped with field points. To determine how much affect this has on your accuracy you need to test shoot every single arrow that will go into your quiver. If you are shooting replaceable blade heads you can save money by using the same dull blades while testing each head. Determine where the hunting arrows are grouping. If necessary, move your sight pins to bring them back on target.
Spend several practice sessions wearing the same jacket, gloves and facemask that you will wear while hunting. By troubleshooting your wardrobe now you can head off problems such as a bowstring hitting your sleeve. You'll also get used to the unique feel of shooting in full hunting attire.
Step 7: in-season practice: Most bowhunters make the mistake of discontinuing their regular practice sessions when the season starts. That's a big mistake. You need to keep up your strength and maintain your form throughout the season so that it will be sharp when you finally need it. Find an indoor range where you can shoot every other evening or carry a portable target in your vehicle and take a few shots whenever possible between hunts.
These seven off-season preparation steps for bowhunters require commitment. After two to three months of practicing with purpose, you will become a bowhunting machine — more confident and better prepared.