November 04, 2020
By Randy Ulmer
In order to be proficient under any and all conditions you might encounter as a bowhunter, you must be able to shoot well under all circumstances and in every type of habitat.The only way to learn all aspects of in-the-field shooting is to practice extreme shots under extreme conditions.
One of the trickiest shots for any archer to make is the sidehill shot. This was etched deeply into my psyche during the many years I spent shooting competitively. Whether it be a 3-D target or a field-round target, if the shot was situated on a steep sidehill, the vast majority of the arrow holes would be on the downhill side of the 10-ring. Mind you, this was true even in the pro class at the world championships! (They always set up new targets for the pros, so I knew all of the arrow holes in the target came from my competitors).
One of the many reasons for this phenomenon is that most of us use the horizon, or the ground between us and the target, as a subconscious reference when vertically aligning our bows. This method works great on flat land but not in the steep terrain of the mountains. In vertical country, nearly everyone will be influenced by the angle of the terrain. So, archers almost always miss to the downhill side of the bull’s-eye, because they are subconsciously aligning their bows perpendicularly to the horizon.
If you lean (the proper archery term is “cant”) your bow to the left of vertical, you’ll shoot to the left. If you cant your bow to the right, you’ll shoot to the right. As I said, you’re much less likely to cant your bow on flat ground. However, when shooting longer shots on steep hillsides, it’s extremely important to hold your bow perfectly vertical.
The seemingly obvious solution to this sidehill problem is to use a bubble level on your sight. Bubble levels show when your bow is vertical, allowing you much greater left/right consistency in your shooting. A bubble level is absolutely imperative if you’re going to hunt in the mountains.
Many bowhunters have told me they don’t use a bubble level, because they won’t remember to look at it during all the excitement involved when shooting at game. This argument doesn’t hold water, because even if you never look at the bubble level when shooting at game, if you use it during practice, it will teach you to hold your bow at the same angle on every shot — especially if you’re willing to practice on extreme sidehills!
Training your subconscious to properly align the bow on every shot will help carry you through tough shots on severe sidehills. My advice is to always practice with a bubble level and look at it on every shot so that it becomes an integral part of your shot routine.
Remember, glancing at your bubble level once as you come to full draw and then ignoring it isn’t good enough. You must glance at it occasionally while executing the shot to make sure you haven’t tilted your bow one way or the other.
More to Consider
Adding a bubble level to your setup will solve some left/right issues, but there are other factors involved that must be addressed. As I mentioned before, even pros miss to the downhill side — and they all use bubble levels effectively.
The reasons for this are manifold. When shooting on a sidehill, even if your bubble is perfectly centered at the release of the string, you will still often miss to the downhill side. This is because your footing is often not on flat and level ground and is, therefore, unstable. Either your toes or your heels will be pointing downhill, pulling your body to the downslope side and your top limb with it, preloading tension in the downslope direction.
When you’re on a sidehill, most archers also tend to draw the bow canted to the downhill side. This occurs even before your bubble level comes into play. Once at full draw, you’ll notice that your bubble level is buried to the uphill side of the level. So, you crank your top limb to the uphill side to get the bubble to the middle. This winds your body up like a spring, creating tension.
Once the arrow is released, the spring-like tension in your body begins to unwind, taking your top limb to the downhill side. To prevent and counteract this tension, you must exaggerate the angle of your bow by tilting the top limb to the uphill side as you draw. You must then relax into the shot, allowing your bow to come to the vertical position. This allows your body to be fully relaxed during the shot rather than being wound up tight with tension. When your body is relaxed, the bow will stay in position as the arrow leaves.
What You Should Do
Here are your marching orders: Find the steepest hill around, take two targets and place them as far apart as you are comfortable shooting. Keep the targets at the same elevation so you don’t have to worry about uphill and downhill influence (we covered that in the August 2020 issue).
Shoot your arrows at one target, then walk to the target, pull your arrows and shoot them back at the second target. This allows you to practice with the downhill slope to the left of your bow hand in one direction and to the right in the other direction.
You will notice two completely different experiences depending on whether your toes are pointing uphill or downhill. Do not try to give yourself an advantage by digging out a flat spot to stand on; you won’t have that opportunity in the field while hunting.
Draw your bow, exaggerating the top limb into the uphill side (your bubble level should be buried to the downhill side). Relax your body and allow the bubble to slowly move to the center of the level. Begin the shot process, making sure the bubble stays in the middle of the level until the shot occurs.