Elk have big kill zones, and the country they live in is big. The natural progression of these two profound thoughts is the need to push your maximum range outward when going after these animals.
Extending maximum range is not just for elk hunters, however. I shot my biggest whitetail buck right at the very fringe of my maximum range, and I know I am not the only one who can say this.
And then there is the matter of simple math. By simply moving your maximum range from 25 to 35 yards, you double the amount of ground you can cover from a single stationary point, such as a treestand or ground blind. Think about that for a second.
If you are hunting an open ridge, for example, you have just doubled your chances that a passing buck will be within range. The tips in this column will help you add those valuable 10 yards to your maximum range.
Steady Your Aim
On 20-yard shots, you can get away with a pin that bounces around the target like a moth around a streetlight. But when you start to push your limits, you will soon learn accuracy is very unforgiving of sudden twitches.
The physical part: If there's any tension in your body, it will be transmitted straight to the pin. Though the pin never has to completely stop moving, it should always be floating close to the spot you are trying to hit.
Tension starts with your legs and works up. Focus on each body part while shooting to assure that it is tension-free. Most important is your last link to the bow — the bow hand. The hand should feel like a lifeless cradle at the end of your arm. It should have nothing to add to the shot. It is the direct link between the bow and a relaxed bow arm.
Getting stronger through fitness and regular shooting will help you relax every muscle more fully and slow the pin's movements. The final step is to put a very slight bend in the elbow of your bow arm so it can act as a shock absorber for the shot.
The mental part: Some top shooters will focus on the spot they want to hit while others watch the pin, trying to keep it still. It calms my bow arm to focus on the spot while aiming because it isn't moving, but you will need to experiment with this yourself.
Concentrate as hard as you can on every practice arrow (never get mentally lazy on the range) and learn to relax fully to eliminate those occasional flyers that ruin long-range consistency.
Squeeze the Trigger
You can get by with rough shooting on close shots, but when you stretch it out you have to be smooth. With a release aid, this means squeezing the trigger while focusing on the spot you want to hit. As long as you don't break your concentration on the target to mentally shout, "Now!" the release will be fine.
Ideally, it will take you by surprise. Your only job is to relax and keep the pin floating around near the spot you want to hit until the bow fires. You will immediately eliminate target panic and your long-range groups will become much more consistent.
Follow-Through is Glue
I've helped a lot of average bowhunters add 10 yards to their maximum range by doing nothing more than keeping their bow arms pointed at the target until the arrow hits. This is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your consistency past 20 yards. The other steps are important, but follow-through is the glue that holds all of them together.
Having a critical feedback system will help you improve more quickly, and there is no more critical feedback than missing the target! The more you practice at longer distances, the more you will realize how unforgiving accuracy is of every flaw in your form and the quicker you will fix those flaws — almost naturally.
Confidence is also important when lining up a tough shot in the field. If you have any doubts about whether you can make the shot, you should not take it. Increased confidence is another benefit of long-range practice. For example, if you want to be a great shot at 35 yards, do most of your shooting at 45 or even 50 yards. After only a few weeks, the 35-yard shot will feel the same way 20-yard shots used to feel.
Increase Arrow Speed
The faster your arrows travel, the flatter your trajectory will be and the better your bow will compensate for slight errors in range estimation. Fast arrows will increase your maximum range when the distance is unknown. When the time comes to upgrade, consider a faster bow or possibly slightly lighter arrows.
Even though you may carry a laser rangefinder all the time, you will still encounter some shot opportunities where you just can't get a reading in time. Maybe the animal changes course after you reach full draw, or it approaches from a direction you didn't expect and catches you by surprise, not permitting enough time to use a rangefinder. So, if you're relying on a rangefinder to do all your work, you may be in for a surprise. You still have to be able to judge distance without aid.
First, choose an object you think is right at 20 yards. Next, mentally lay out blocks of yardage in five or 10-yard increments along the ground until you arrive at your target. With some practice, you can become very quick and accurate at this. When practicing this skill, you can pace off the distance, or better yet, use a laser rangefinder to get instant feedback on the accuracy of your guess.
Since +/-15 percent (the range estimation error the military attributes to its trained gunners) is about as good as most people can average by eyeball alone, your maximum range depends heavily on this skill, yet it is one we rarely practice.
Putting It All Together
If you can shoot four-inch groups at 20 yards, can estimate range within 15 percent of actual every time and shoot an average arrow speed of 230 fps, your sure-kill maximum range at unknown distances is 20.5 yards.
But if you're willing to improve your shooting skills until you can lay one arrow right on top of the next and bump your arrow speed to 270 fps, your maximum range at unknown distances increases to the magical 35 yards that will make you a better, more efficient bowhunter. And with a laser rangefinder, you increase your maximum range to 40 yards using the shooting form tips found here.
Adding 10 yards to your maximum range is very realistic and is one of the most important steps you can take between now and the start of your season.
In the end, maximum range becomes a personal thing, and has as much to do with why we bowhunt as it does with skill and technology. Some bowhunters never take shots beyond 20 yards, because that is the game for them. They feel that if they can't get the animal that close, they didn't do their part and don't deserve to take it home. I understand that mindset. I hunted ducks all the time as a boy and I never took a shot unless the birds were sold-out and totally fooled by the decoys. I could have killed a lot more by taking passing shots, but I just liked the game of fooling them.
Bowhunting is supposed to be up close. That's the real excitement of this sport. But I still count 35-40-yard shots as being "up close." That's a shot any serious deer hunter can be ready, willing and able to make every single time. You aren't cheating the integrity of the sport by adding 10 yards to your maximum range; you are only cheating yourself if you don't.