It was supposed to be a mere scouting trip. He certainly wasn’t well-rested. His friend and fellow target archer David Houser wouldn’t arrive in camp for several more days. Yet Tate Morgan came face-to-face with more than a dozen elk only a few minutes after leaving his truck one September morning last season. What happened next would have rattled a less experienced bowhunter, but Morgan’s career as a competitive shooter, as well as the total confidence he had in his gear, helped make the difference.
Morgan, 26, of Billings, Mont., was fresh off the firing line, having driven 11 hours from a tournament in South Dakota the night before. The event’s timing had kept the Hoyt pro shooter from hunting Montana’s elk opener, but he was behind the wheel and on his way as soon as the results were announced. Arriving home shortly after midnight, Morgan caught a few hours’ shut-eye before rising early the next morning to, he thought, locate a big bull for Houser. Thankfully, Morgan brought his RX-3 Ultra with Turbo cams along for the trek.
The elk were quiet that morning, which made Morgan’s close-encounter even more challenging: The herd was within bow range before Tate even knew it was there or had a chance to nock an arrow. He quickly ducked back down the trail, dropped his pack and readied his bow. He then eased back around the bend, ranged the cows at 52 yards and waited to see what the herd bull would do.
It didn’t disappoint. Even though Morgan couldn’t see the tops of the bull’s tines because of the brush it was standing in, its fronts were good enough to make the hunter come to full draw and ready himself for a shot. Years of tinkering with his setup had given Morgan a super-tuned bowhunting rig he was as comfortable with as his target bow. With its cam-timing, stabilizer length/weight and more all set to his preferences, Morgan was ready when the giant 6x7 bull finally stepped onto the trail. Morgan’s shot was true, and just like that, his elk season was over.
Beyond the Basics
So, what does “super-tuning” a hunting bow to the exacting standards of a target archer involve? It all begins with a mindset — you have to want a super-tuned bow before you can have one.
“Some people will go in and be hyper-critical on their target bows, and they kind of have the mentality of, Ah, man, I can just wing it on the hunting bow. I’m not shooting a dot or anything like that; I’m just trying to hit a pie plate at 20 yards,” Morgan said. “If you told me to go out there and I had to make one shot and I had to hit the four-inch dot or whatever it is at 80 yards, I’d feel 100 percent confident picking my hunting bow up and shooting one arrow at it and hitting it, just because of the time I take to set up my hunting bow.”
Morgan’s first step toward a super-tune is to swap out his factory bowstrings for custom G.A.S. strings as soon as a bow is unboxed. While today’s factory strings are worlds better than they were years ago, aftermarket strings feature almost no stretch. This results in little to no peep rotation, allowing for quicker, more reliable sight-in periods with a new bow and more consistent shooting over the long haul.
Next is cam-timing: Morgan prefers to run his top cam a bit ahead of the bottom cam, meaning he adjusts the top cam to hit its draw stop earlier than the bottom cam does its draw stop. This helps Morgan aim better throughout his shot sequence by pre-loading the control cable before the bottom cam hits, giving a firmer and more repeatable back wall. A repeatable back wall leads to a repeatable anchor point, which leads to consistent accuracy. Paying careful attention to cam-timing is important with hybrid-cam and dual-cam bows.
After that, Morgan checks his bow’s tiller, the distance from each limb to the string from the base of each limb at a 90-degree angle. Tiller affects the height of your nock point, which means setting it correctly, right out of the box, is critical. Morgan puts a bow square in the limb pockets and measures back to the string to ensure the tiller is dead-even top and bottom, giving him a good starting point before he adjusts anything else on the bow.
With his aftermarket bowstring in place, Morgan adds four or five loops of serving string below his nock point for a bit of extra pressure under the arrow and, thus, an even more stable nock fit. He may also add a few loops above the nock point if the lower serving causes tuning issues, such as left tears through paper. He then ties on a D-loop and nocks an arrow, careful to place the center of the shaft even with the upper half of the Berger hole to begin with. (Some 2020 Hoyt bows are compatible with the new QAD Integrate rest that attaches via a dovetail mount on the back of the riser instead of the Berger hole. A Berger hole is still present, however, for use with other rests and uses such as Morgan’s.) From there, Morgan adjusts the rest as needed to achieve a perfect, bullet-hole tear through paper.
Arrow selection is, of course, key when shooting a target or an animal. Morgan chooses stiffer spines for his hunting arrows than his target arrows, as stiffer arrows tend to provide better penetration on game. That’s because they flex less when the arrow hits, reducing the amount of kinetic energy lost compared to a weaker shaft that has to straighten itself out upon impact. He then cuts the arrows as short as possible — roughly even with the back of his riser and just shy of cutting his fingers on the broadheads but still long enough that the arrows don’t interfere with his Hamskea Hybrid Hunter fall-away rest — for even more stiffness.
Bare-shaft-tuning follows, providing Morgan with a solid baseline for the broadhead-tuning to come. “Bare” is a relative term, though, because he wraps the back four inches of the shaft with electrical tape to mimic the weight of his arrow vanes and the stiffness they impart to the shaft. Morgan makes a mark on the top of the shaft and shoots into a target from five feet away. He then notes the position of the mark, steps back a foot and shoots again. He does this until he can determine the natural rotation of the shaft. If the shaft turns to the right, Morgan fletches it with the vanes pointing right, and vice versa.
From there, it’s back to paper-tuning to check for any tears that may result from wobble in the shaft’s flight. The shaft will still hit where it did during initial testing, but the paper-tune will identify any problems the arrow may have with spine stiffness. If anything’s amiss, it’s back to the drawing board with a new shaft selection, as his rest is pretty well set by this point. The ultimate goal is a bullet hole through paper when the shafts are hitting together at 20 yards.
Morgan insists that his broadheads and fieldpoints hit the same, even out to 60 or 70 yards. To do so, he takes a fieldpoint-tipped arrow and a broadhead-tipped arrow and shoots at 20 yards. He adjusts his rest until the broadhead arrow hits where the fieldpoint arrow was. Then he sights his bow in again so the fieldpoints hit where the broadheads do. (Since the rest changed and not the arrow speed/pin gaps, only gang adjustments are usually necessary.) This results in lethal accuracy Morgan can depend on, whether he’s using his rig for target practice or to take an animal.
Arrow-tuning also involves checking for vane clearance. Even when using today’s low-profile vanes, it’s important to ensure your fletching doesn’t make contact with the rest on its way toward the target. Morgan uses foot powder to identify potential fletching contact if he notices marks on his fletching or detects wear on his rest.
If needed, Morgan will then torque-tune his bow. Torque-tuning involves changing the distance between the sight and the arrow rest to account for hand torque imparted on the bow via the shooter’s grip. With the shooter causing left torque, the arrow will usually hit to the right of the aiming point; with right torque, the arrow usually hits to the left. The solution is to move the arrow rest forward or backward to find the “sweet spot” where left and right torque don’t affect the point of impact. (Moving the arrow rest is generally preferred over moving the bow sight, due to the greater impact of the former.)
Torque-tuning comes into play when Morgan notes shot deviances at, say, 50 yards. Western bowhunters shooting at longer distances, steeper angles and/or in strong winds will especially benefit from this technique, but be advised: A little goes a long way with torque-tuning. Morgan said he once moved his rest as little as a 1⁄16-inch to combat a five-inch miss at 55 yards.
Morgan uses a stabilizer setup similar to his target bows when hunting, albeit scaled down. He runs six ounces on a 15-inch front bar and seven to eight ounces on a 10-inch sidebar, a ratio that helps steady his bow sight even when he’s staring down the pins at a monster elk. Perhaps most importantly, Morgan adds the stabilizers while attaching his other accessories — before he begins tuning the bow, not after. This results in more accurate tuning.
Hunters often scoff at such relatively long stabilizers with such relatively heavy weight, but Morgan says his roughly 10-pound hunting rig allows him to shoot with a heavier draw weight — listen up, speed freaks — without feeling like the bow is off kilter. In turn, this allows him to pull harder into the back wall and hold steadier while aiming. Wouldn’t you appreciate a sight picture that is practically motionless in the moment of truth?
Fellow Hoyt pro shooter David Houser joined Morgan in camp a few days later, and while his portion of the hunt also ended well, Houser’s bull didn’t come as easily as Morgan’s. Houser, 22, of Creekside, Penn., is an accomplished archer in his own right, having competed at one level of competition or another since he was a kid. With many wins and a Vegas podium appearance to his credit, it was high time for the hunter to take one of the outdoors’ top prizes — a bugling bull elk with his bow.
After lacking shot opportunities at a couple of good bulls through the week, Houser and Morgan located a screaming bull along a ridgeline one morning. Morgan worked the bull for two hours but simply could not get the elk to commit, as it was on the verge of bedding down. The hunters did manage to slip in close, though, at which point Morgan was able to call the bull down and around a cedar bush where Houser had set up.
Houser, who had been listening to Morgan’s bugling for hours, suddenly heard Morgan cow call, but he couldn’t figure out why.
“I’m just sitting there; I’m not even drawn back yet ’cause I can just see the elk’s horn tips,” Houser said. “[The bull is] probably within 80 yards, and I hear Tate do a cow call! I’m like, ‘What the heck? I wonder why he’s doing that.’ ”
Turns out, Morgan was trying to stop the bull for what he thought was a wide-open shot for Houser. There was only one small problem: no such shot existed.
“He thinks, from his perspective 15 yards behind me, everything looks great,” Houser said. “So, then the elk takes, like, 10 more steps, and Tate cow-called again. I turned around and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He’s like, ‘Shoot him!’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t even see it!’ ”
Morgan finally left the stopping to Houser, who, when the bull reached the edge of a field on the timberline 60 yards away, was able to stop and arrow the bull. A couple hundred yards later, Houser’s first archery bull, a beautiful 6x6, was down for the count.
From Box to Bull’s-Eye
Houser’s approach to super-tuning is similar to Morgan’s. Houser begins his super-tune by setting his bow’s draw length and cam-timing correctly. He is so exacting as to adjust his draw length in 1⁄16-inch increments, not just to the half-inch as most archers do. Houser twists his bowstring or ties a longer D-loop to accomplish this.
“If those two things [draw length and cam-timing] aren’t right from the get-go, it’s really, really hard, no matter what you do to that bow, to get it to aim super well for you,” Houser said. He also checks his cam pitch (lean) by laying an arrow along the left side of the top cam. He prefers to start with the cams straight to allow for parallel nock travel. More on that later.
Like Morgan, Houser bare-tunes and paper-tunes his arrows, using electrical tape on the back of the shafts to mimic the weight and stiffness of his vanes. Trial and error is key: Houser fletches three arrows one way and three another to compare setups.
“I’ll check how they both tune, and then I’ll shoot them both downrange, normally at some distance,” Houser said. “I’m not really worried about where my good shots hit, because they should be in the middle; I’m more focused on where my ‘OK’ shots are going to go, because a bow is going to shoot a tighter pattern than your … sight picture is holding.”
Houser also prefers a stiffer, shorter arrow. As a right-handed shooter, if he gets a left tear through paper, he will adjust his arrow rest as needed. If he has already adjusted the rest toward the riser as much as he cares to (he tries to stay within 3⁄4- or 13⁄16-inch of center shot, if possible), David will yoke-tune his Hoyt bows instead. (Sorry, single- and dual-cam shooters.) This may, in fact, impart some slight cam lean while counteracting the affects of hand torque and other variables in the process.
One of the biggest factors Houser considers when super-tuning a bow is vane clearance. He checks for vane contact with his arrow rest by spraying the back 10-12 inches of the arrow with foot powder. Visually inspecting the arrow post-shot is usually enough to detect any contact, but checking the bow and rest is also beneficial.
Houser’s broadhead-tuning includes shooting his broadheads out to 80 or even 100 yards, just to make sure they’re hitting spot-on. Regarding stabilizers, he runs a 12-inch bar with six ounces on the front and a 10-inch bar with 12 ounces on the side. Again, that extra weight is extremely beneficial when it comes to taking an animal.
“I’m not trying to hit a one-inch dot, but I’m trying to make the most ethical shot I possibly can, in all fairness to the animal,” Houser said. “It’s something I take super, super seriously, so I want that bow to be as accurate as humanly possible and as good as I can get it. I don’t cut any corners with my hunting bow. I really just bring pretty much every aspect of the target stuff over to the hunting bow.”
In the end, super-tuning your bow is simply about how super you want your bow to be tuned. As Randy Ulmer mentions in this issue’s Better Bowhunting column (p. 16), everyone’s bow setup is unique to that hunter. These techniques work for Morgan and Houser, but if you really want your rig to be as accurate as possible, you need to get out and see what works best for you. Put in the time and effort this off-season, and you’ll have a super-tuned bow perfectly suited to your shooting style when you head afield this fall.