Many of the shots we get while hunting from a treestand during the rut are different from any we practice. On the practice range, we stand nice and straight, using perfect form while shooting tight groups.
Unfortunately, in the real world of hunting, shots that permit perfect form are rare. Things happen fast, so you need to have a plan for handling the toughest ones.
It is very common during the rut to encounter a buck that is walking steadily as he passes your stand. These cruisers are the norm rather than the exception. To handle them, you need a game plan.
There is always some chance that when you stop them for a shot, they will take a step or two extra and be outside your shooting lane. Sometimes it just makes sense to take the moving shot.
I've shot a lot of deer as they walked past my stand, usually because my shooting lanes were too narrow to risk trying to stop them. I used to hunt fresh stands a lot, and that meant carrying stands in and setting them up the afternoon of the hunt. In those situations, wide shooting lanes are never the norm.
When handling these situations I came up with two rules that dictated the answer to the all-important question of whether to stop a walking buck.
First, to take the walking shot, the range has to be short — for me, 20 yards is the maximum for a walking shot. This is something you will learn with practice (not at live game). The longer the shot, the harder it is to gauge the correct lead. So to play it safe, keep it short.
Just a word of caution on stopping them, however. If the range is beyond 20 yards, be prepared to aim low because stopped bucks are alert and that means he becomes a potential string jumper.
Pace of the Buck
Second, the pace of the animal has to be leisurely. If it is moving faster than a steady walk, I pass it up or try to make it stop and hope I can find a lane to the vitals. Again, the required lead is too tough to gauge when the animal is moving fast.
Moving shots aren't particularly tough if you practice them a few times. Practice this shot by having someone roll an old tire with a target in its center down a gentle grade in front of you. You'll quickly learn how far ahead you have to hold for a good hit.
In my experience, with a bow shooting about 275-300 fps, the lead for a walking animal is about eight to 10 inches at 20 yards. This is a static aim, not swinging with the animal.
The easiest way to make the shot in thick cover is to pick an opening and wait until the leading edge of the animal's shoulder just crosses in front of your pin. Time the trigger pull with this moment and you'll have a double-lung hit every time. Obviously, shorter shots and faster arrows require slightly less lead.
Short Shots from a Tree
Shooting from a treestand is similar to shooting down a gentle slope. You will probably hit a bit above your aiming point unless you compensate by moving your sight pin or learn to hold low.
In treestand shooting situations, as the range increases the downward angle decreases, diminishing the effect of being in an elevated position. You will probably have to move your 20-yard pin somewhat for perfect treestand accuracy, but you may not have to adjust your 30-yard pin at all.
Proper form is important when shooting from a treestand. You will tend to make a mess of even short shots if you don't bend at the waist to achieve the proper downward angle.
It is easy to inadvertently alter your line of sight in relation to the arrow's flight when shooting down, especially if you don't use a peep, or at least a kisser button, to lock you in. However, if you remember to bend at the waist, keeping your bow arm at a 90-degree angle to your upper body, you will greatly reduce this problem.
Since I am on the subject of shooting through gaps at rutting bucks, I am going to give you another one to consider.
Being able to negotiate mid-flight obstacles (gaps in the cover) can certainly make a huge difference when a buck passes your stand on the side he "is not supposed to" — something that is all too common during the rut.
Because your arrow's trajectory is arcing, you can often thread a shot through an opening if you study things a little. With your bow at full draw, aim at the target with the appropriate sight pin for the range of the shot.
Quickly guess the distance to any obstacle between you and the buck. If the pin that corresponds with that distance is clear of the obstacle, fire away. Your arrow will fly cleanly to the target. That might mean it will go under some branches and over others. It is pretty cool to see this in action.
For example, assume a buck is walking past at 30 yards. You hit full draw and grunt to stop him. He is broadside, offering a perfect angle. Unfortunately, a horizontal limb about 10 yards short of the deer blocks the critical heart/lung area.
The deer is starting to get edgy and things are going to unravel in a few moments. Should you shoot or wait for a better opportunity that probably won't develop?
Pull up; put your 30-yard pin right where you want the arrow to go on the deer. If the 20-yard pin is above the limb, your arrow will clear it. Go ahead and shoot.
You can also use your sight to determine if your arrow will pass under a branch or obstacle by estimating the range to the obstacle and then noticing whether the pin corresponding to that distance lines up with the obstacle.
If it is below the obstacle, the arrow will pass under it. Knowing this little trick will help you prevent deflections from branches that you "didn't see" because they were above your line of sight.
I have had some very big deer get away because my arrows hit branches I didn't notice when aiming because they were above my sight line.
Practice is always the key to pulling off perfect shots under less than perfect conditions. Put yourself in realistic, though awkward, conditions when practicing. The outcome of a hunting season may depend on how well you handle these specialty shots that are all too common during the rut.