July 30, 2021
This was it; the moment I had worked so hard for eight days to experience. I finally had the elk herd cut off, and as all the cows and calves walked single file toward me, I couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief.
I had chased this bull and his harem for the past five days and knew their routine well. On this morning, I cut the herd off as they moved from their water source back to the dark timber. My plan had worked perfectly, as the wind was in my face and the herd was unaware of my presence. Everything seemed perfect, and I was as mentally prepared for the moment as possible. Ranging an opening along the worn game trail at 42 yards, I adjusted my sight pin and waited. The bull was the last animal in the herd, as they typically are, and I knew once he got close to my opening I needed to be at full draw and waiting.
My plan seemed foolproof, until the unthinkable happened. Suddenly, the last cow and calf broke loose from the herd and ran down the hill toward the bottom of the canyon. Chaos ensued, and my mind quickly shifted into Plan B mode. I grabbed my rangefinder and scanned for an opening as the bull tore down the mountainside in pursuit of the cow and calf. A small window at 76 yards was my only option. Setting my slider and drawing back, I knew this was my moment, and I knew without a doubt I was prepared to release a perfectly placed arrow. With seconds feeling like minutes, I pushed and pulled until finally, the shot broke, and I watched as my shaft sank to the fletching right behind the bull’s shoulder!
I was ready to make my Plan B shot work. The question is, would you be ready? In bowhunting, success or failure typically comes down to one moment, one opportunity, one shot! In order to capitalize on our hard-earned opportunity, we must be mentally and physically prepared. A successful kill shot doesn’t just happen by chance at full draw; it starts the second we “flip the switch” and know our moment is at hand.
In this article, I’m going to dissect the anatomy of a kill shot. From our plan of attack, to getting within range, to our pre-draw thoughts and moves and then, finally, our mental game at full draw, we’ll conduct an in-depth examination of what it takes to be consistently successful in the moment of truth!
Prepare for Hardship
Long before my bow is drawn, I’m thinking about my plan of attack. Whether it is a long stalk and I’m going over my every move or I’m in a treestand ranging all my openings, waiting for a buck to appear on the ridge above me, my mind is always preparing for the worst!
Now, you may be asking, “Why are you thinking about the negatives and not the positives in these situations?” That’s a great question. In bowhunting, we have dreams about all the perfect moments. We envision that giant buck walking in to 20 yards or that majestic pronghorn standing still at 40. But rarely does it happen like that. The old adage, “If it can go wrong, it will go wrong,” holds very true in bowhunting!
I don’t know anyone who trains, plans, practices and prepares for his hunts more than my good buddy Tony Trietch from Michigan. Year in and year out, his success speaks volumes about his attention to detail. Here’s what Tony had to say when preparing for shot scenarios while in a treestand. “The best advice I ever got for practicing my shot sequence was to shoot every arrow as though it is the real deal, like a 180-inch whitetail is broadside and my time to get the job done has arrived. It can be tiring to always practice with such intensity, but the rewards have proven worth the effort. When it’s time to let an arrow loose, my thoughts go as follows:
“Get stable footing. What’s next to my feet? It has to be solid and silent throughout the draw and shot. What is above my top limb? Will my limb clear it? Bad things happen when your bow limb meets a tree limb. Find my shooting lane and shot opportunity. I need two things — a clear path to his vitals and the opportunity to draw undetected. Settle in to my anchor, level the bow, bend at the waist and let all the perfect practice I have done work; pull through and follow through.”
This is fantastic advice from a seasoned bowhunting veteran.
On my hunts, I like to have a plan for every possible scenario and be able to react on the fly rather than stop and make a decision. For example, when I’m on a stalk, as a right-handed shooter, my bow is always in my left hand and my rangefinder is in my right. This allows me to quickly make a range adjustment, if needed. If I’m in a treestand, waiting on an antelope to walk in to a water source, my bow is always hanging in front of me with my release handy, ready to go. Another thing I always do is keep my quiver on the bow! Too many times, I’ve had an arrow pop off the string during a stalk. These things happen, and if they haven’t happened to you yet, they will.
Preparing for misfortune keeps us focused and keeps our minds at ease when the wheels suddenly fall off the wagon. I remember years ago, while putting a stalk on a mule deer buck in Colorado, the unthinkable happened; my arrow popped off my string while closing the distance! Instead of panicking and making a quick movement, which would have ended badly, I froze and let the situation calm down. The buck went from high alert to feeding again, and I slowly grabbed another arrow from my attached quiver. By having my quiver on and running this scenario through my head beforehand, I was able to make the right decisions during crunch time!
No Trying, Only Doing
Successful bowhunters keep a positive attitude and set their minds on making it happen. Whether it is a stalk, a shot or anything else, they expect their efforts to succeed. Whenever I am in the field, my mindset is always the same — there is no trying, only doing!
When Michigan bowhunter Tony Trietch climbs into his treestand, he carefully considers every possible shooting scenario and how he will deal with potential obstacles such as tree limbs. Doing this helps prepare him to seize the moment when a giant whitetail such as this one walks into bow range.
Far too many bowhunters lack the mental strength to keep it all together at full draw. In our minds, we “hope” we make a good shot. Or we think about “trying” to execute a perfect shot on the animal of our dreams. This is not a winning mentality, because it leaves room for doubt to creep in before the arrow is ever released! In my opinion, this is a huge mistake, because confidence is critical to success. Having total confidence in our equipment and our shooting ability is vital to making the most of the hard-earned opportunities we all strive for.
So, how do we gain this mindset? How do we practice it to ensure we’re ready when it’s time to come to full draw? The answer is visualization, a valued mental exercise any professional athlete will attest to. We must strive not only for perfect practice but also replay perfect shots in our mind! Any arrow I shoot — whether in my yard, on a 3-D course or just messing around with a buddy — is treated as if it's the most important arrow of my life, and I leave no doubt that a perfect shot will be made. By constantly telling myself I will make the shot, it will be perfect, I will be perfect, it allows my mind to believe in my abilities. This creates confidence, and confidence in the bowhunting woods is very, very deadly!
I also mentioned replaying shots in our minds. This is something professional archer Levi Morgan — arguably the greatest 3-D shooter of all time and one of the world’s most successful bowhunters — does on a daily basis. After hearing Levi talk about the importance of visualizing success, I adopted this technique as my own. This constant visualization of perfection almost makes a real-life shot scenario seem like I’ve been there before and already know the outcome! It has really helped me calm down during the moment of truth, and the calmer we are while shooting, the better shots we will make. If you aren’t already employing visualization as part of your overall training regimen, I encourage you to do so.
Winning the Moment
Another good friend, Montana bowhunter Dan Heavrin, is no stranger to getting it done during the moment of truth. His mindset is as solid of a foundation as anyone I’ve ever shared a camp with. Dan has some great insights when it comes to winning in the moment of truth.
“Everyone has their own thought process when it comes to drawing the bow and preparing for the shot,” he said. “Mine is simple. I breath in through my nose and out through my mouth to slow down my heart rate while I’m positioning my feet or knees for a solid foundation. In my head, I repeat to myself ‘pull,’ ‘pull,’ ‘pull,’ ‘pull’ while I draw my bow back and hold on target.
“When drawing, I try to move as slowly and steadily as possible. I never try to just rip the bow back. I really like it all to happen in one steady, fluid motion. Once drawn and on target, if I tell myself to pull and continue to pull hard on the back wall, this seems to steady my aim a lot faster.
“Once my pin is where I want to hold, my odds of making the perfect shot go way up if I let the pin hover on that spot for an extra second or two while repeating ‘pull,’ ‘pull,’ ‘pull.’ Waiting that extra second is extremely tough, and by doing so, the animal I am trying to shoot has walked out of my shooting lane many times. So, there is always a chance of not taking a shot, but if and when it does come together, your shot will be that much more accurate.
“So, to sum it up, the exact sequence of my shot goes like this: feet or knees rock solid; slow and steady draw; string to nose; level my bubble; pull, pull, pull, while looking through my pin with complete focus on the animal; let that pin find home and take that one extra breath and squeeze, squeeze, squeeze.”
I couldn’t have said it any better than Dan on getting it done during those final few critical moments leading up to the shot. At that point, we’ve come too far to simply let it all fall apart. As long as we strive for that perfect shot and let the bow do its job, we will emerge victorious!