How to Make Bowhunting's Toughest Shots
August 25, 2016
Ask five great bowhunters what specific shot gives them trouble and you'll get 10 horror stories.
To a large degree, what constitutes a truly tough shot depends on who you are asking. For example, most Western hunters think nothing of a 50-yard shot across a sage flat — a shot many Eastern bowhunters wouldn't even attempt.
But ask that same Western hunter about a 20-yard shot from a swaying treestand at a severe angle; well, that's a doozy.
In this article, we'll take a close look at nine common but notoriously tough bowshots and provide some advice on how you master them.
The Ground Blind Grind
Pop-up ground blinds deprive me of sensory information, and I don't like them. Nonetheless, they are extremely effective and sometimes must be utilized for success. One of those times was while I hunted pronghorns in New Mexico.
Fred Eichler of Full Draw Outfitters scouts his land intimately and knows his stuff. And just like he predicted, a small group of antelope including a shooter buck sauntered down the two-track road to the windmill and watering hole a couple hours after dawn.
"Think you could just put the blind in the water," I ribbed Eichler the night before. Believe me, I'm all for close shots, but eight yards? It seemed ridiculous.
I didn't range him, but I'm guessing the buck was 12'‰¾ yards when I drew my bow. And then I discovered something. I couldn't shoot while sitting in the deep-seated lounge chair.
So while at full draw, I stood up (as far as the pop-up's roof allowed), kicked the chair back, found a hole in the blind through which to shoot and then discovered I couldn't see the buck from my newfound angle.
So I dropped to a knee, but that made me too low to clear the window. So I spread my legs out, crouched down and tried to center my arrow in the window without spooking the buck. At this point I was 30 seconds into my hold and swiftly growing less comfortable. But at 12 yards, how could I miss?
So, without concentrating on shooting fundamentals, I pasted the top pin on the animal and slapped the trigger, thereby breaking the first, second and third fundamentals of every shooting sport: proper stance, sight alignment and trigger control. What ensued was a first-class goat rope that finally resulted in a dead antelope — eight torturous hours later. As a hunter, there's no excuse, and I've got to do better. But how?
Practice shooting from the exact ground blind you plan to use on the hunt. Figure out a stable shooting position that works for you, given the shooting ports and anticipated shot angle. For tall folks, kneeling often works well. For others, shooting from a short stool is best. Whatever you choose, practice until it's second nature.
The Wind Bend
Being from treestand country, I discovered another tough shot while in an antelope blind, this time years ago in eastern Montana.
I figured the 40-yarder to the watering hole would be cake — until I noticed a tumbleweed flying across the prairie. Keep in mind, while in a ground blind you can't feel the wind, and so wind reading, especially in treeless areas, is challenging.
The next day, I lugged my Block target and a few extra arrows to the blind and set the target out by the waterhole. I held into the whipping wind on the right edge of the Block and squeezed.
I missed the target by a couple feet! After a few shots, however, I figured the wind hold and began hitting the bull's-eye. Several hours later, when a pronghorn buck sauntered into the water, I used the same hold and loosed an arrow. The animal ran a few yards before falling over dead.
Upon recovery, I discovered I'd hit him in the jugular, not the lungs where I'd aimed. Now outside the blind, it was obvious the wind had picked up. I'd failed to account for it, but got lucky. Fact is, long-range shooting in the wind is tougher than goat jerky.
After all, arrow fletching is designed to catch air to stabilize the arrow, and so wind drift in archery is often measured in feet, not inches. Because wind drift depends on so many factors including wind speed and direction, your arrow's ballistic coefficient, arrow speed and others, generic wind charts are worthless.
You must practice with your setup in various winds until you develop a feel for it. There are some tricks; such as using your sight's bubble level to meter your hold into the wind, but even so, practice is the only way to master wind.
Transitional Deer Fear
Michael Waddell is more than a TV host with a bag full of one-liners; he's a calculating killer of game animals. But he says it's the cruising bucks during the rut that have given him fits. Over the years, however, he's learned how to hammer them.
"Identify a place ahead of the cruising deer where you can kill him, then shoot quickly and decisively the moment he enters it," Waddell said. "I suggest hunting with the mindset of a poacher: see the deer, kill the deer and get out of there. You can't wait for the perfect shot."
A Hard 30 Yards
Danny Farris is the past associate publisher of this magazine and a lifelong bowhunter from Colorado.
"The toughest shot for me," says Farris, "is a 20-35 yard treestand shot at a whitetail. As a Westerner accustomed to longer distances, I'm fooled into thinking these 20-35 yarders are slam-dunks. But they're not. It's the range where a deer can both hear the bowstring and still have time to duck the shot."
So, how does Farris deal with this bread-and-butter shot?
"I aim at heart level when taking shots from 20-35 yards, or sometimes even low-heart depending on the amount of background noise and the animal's demeanor. At this range, deer usually duck into my arrow for a double-lunger. And if they don't, I'll have a heart shot."
I'm amazed how many hunters practice in T-shirts in August then act surprised when they miss a deer by three feet in November. Bowstrings hit coat sleeves, and cold muscles underperform. In general, cold weather makes routine shots tougher.
That's why Michigan bowhunter David Farbman, founder of Carbon Media Group, always practices in gloves, facemask and his heaviest coat. Southerners who venture north to hunt should take note.
"I always wear an arm guard or a compression sleeve to combat the string from snagging my coat," says Farbman, noting that many bowhunters have gone away from what used to be standard equipment. "When it's cold, I'll shoot one arrow for practice, so I'll know if I can handle my draw weight with cold muscles. I may have to decrease my poundage and re-zero when really cold weather hits."
Sure, Easterners are adept at shooting extreme angles of treestands, but it's the optical illusions created by rising and dropping terrain — or shooting across coulees — that often cause the inexperienced to misjudge distance and miss.
Some rangefinders compensate for angles while others do not; but often hunters don't have time to use a rangefinder while they're clipped onto the string and a deer prepares to bolt.
Tim Gillingham is a bowhunter and renowned tournament archer. His toughest shots are those with severe uphill/downhill angles out West. "Rangefinder cuts are sometimes off," said Gillingham, "and for this reason I make my own cut sheet." He's referring to a chart/cheat sheet that shows his holds for every yardage for various angles, both uphill and down.
Whether you use an angle-compensating rangefinder or your own custom cheat sheet, here's what you need to know: regardless of whether the shot is uphill or downhill, aiming using the actual line of sight distance between you and your target animal is going to result in a high hit — or sailing the arrow over the animal's back.
Although this may seem counterintuitive, it's simple matter of physics. Gravity only acts perpendicular to the earth's surface, so it's impact on your arrow only matters for the horizontal distance between you and your target.
I won't bore you with the geometry; just know that the degree of compensation required is magnified at shorter distances. For example, if you are 20 feet above or below your target, you will need to "aim for" a 15-yard shot on an animal that is 25 yards away. But if you are in the same position shooting at an animal that is 50 yards away, you only need to reduce your "aim for" distance to 46 yards.
Another problem with steep shots is that you are typically shooting on very uneven ground, making it hard to recognize that your bow isn't level. So, make certain to check your bubble level and straighten your bow as you take aim. Otherwise, your arrow is going to drift off course in the direction your bow is tilted.
As with most of these scenarios, practice is key. Go out of your way to shoot steep angles and develop the confidence you'll need in the clutch.
Threading the Needle
The line of sight to a target is vastly different from an arrow's rainbow-like flight path. Therefore, what seems to be an easy shot through a 10-inch hole in the foliage can actually be impossible, depending on range, arrow trajectory and how far the animal is from that hole.
For example, a bow shooting a 375-grain arrow at 280 fps will drop roughly 60 inches, or 5 feet, at 50 yards. This means that the bow must be held at an upward angle so that the arrow rises 60 inches over the line of sight and drops into the bull's-eye. If there's any foliage five feet or less above the target, there's a good chance your arrow will hit it.
Fortunately, if you are using a multi-pin sight, you can use your pins to figure out whether your arrow can avoid potential obstacles. In the example above, for instance, if you place your 50-yard pin on the target, your 20-, 30- and 40-yard pins will show you exactly where your arrow will be at those distances.
So, if the foliage in question is 30 yards away but your 30-yard pin is not touching it, you can confidently take the shot knowing your arrow will avoid the obstacle. But if your 30-yard pin is hitting the foliage as you place the 50-yard-pin on target, you have a problem.
The point is, threading the needle is more difficult than it appears. Practice is key to success. Set up some partially obstructed shots in the backyard and use lighted nocks to better monitor your arrow's flight path.
The Huffing Hail Mary
Treestand hunters might not realize just how difficult it is to make a shot while gasping for oxygen. "Anytime the body is put under physical or emotional stress, a chain reaction is triggered," says Brice Collier, a bowhunter and owner of Koda Crossfit gym in Oklahoma City.
This is the "fight or flight" response, noted by quickness of breath, elevated heart rate, tunnel vision and blood rushing out of the digestive system and into the muscles. It diminishes fine motor control greatly and therefore has a dramatic impact on accuracy.
"By getting into better shape, recovery time is shortened," says Collier. He recommends "interval training," something Olympic biathletes know well. Physiology lesson aside, it means you'll be able to reach that next ridge fast and yet calm down quickly enough to make an accurate shot. Here's Collier's basic training model for bowhunters:
May: 3 rounds of activity, for 5 minutes @ 60 percent intensity; walk 5 minutes between rounds
June: 5 rounds of activity, for 3 minutes @ 70 percent intensity; walk 3 minutes between rounds
July: 8 rounds of activity, for 2 minutes @ 80 percent intensity; walk 2 minutes between rounds
Aug: 12 rounds of activity, for 1 minute @ 90 percent intensity; walk 1 minute between rounds
"Run, bike, row, ruck or do any activity you enjoy," Collier said. "If possible, take a medium-range shot during rest periods. Over time, you'll notice your body adapting and your accuracy improving."
The Boone and Crockett Buck
Perhaps the most difficult shot in bowhunting is one that takes more than knowledge or skill to make. Mentally, it's identical to making a free-throw in the championship game with thousands watching. It's when the buck of a lifetime is 18 yards away, broadside. The shot itself is easy; it's the pressure that makes it a beast. In essence, you must figure out how to control your nerves so you can focus on the shot.
So, how do you do it? There are several keys.
One is experience. The more adrenaline you experience, the more you learn to deal with its effects. So, shoot does and smaller deer before going on that once-in-a-lifetime elk hunt. Simulate pressure shots by betting with buddies on the range or competing in 3-D tournaments. Even visualizing making the perfect shot helps.
Second, ingrain the fundamentals and a solid shooting routine. Breathe. Remind yourself to anchor, pick a hair, release smoothly and follow through. Write it on your bow's riser if you must.
Waddell has made a living making high-pressure shots in front of cameras. He says after practice, confidence is key. "I never expect bad things to happen when I shoot," he said. "I've practiced. I know I can make the shot, and so I believe I will."
Lastly, after deciding to shoot, Waddell tries not to think too much.