May 09, 2023
Last year I had the privilege of introducing my 24-year-old daughter Jordan to bowhunting and ultimately helped her shoot her first two deer with a bow. She shot a doe in mid-November and a buck on the first day of December. What I learned through the process made me sit back and think about how hard this sport really is for a beginner.
It is all too easy to forget what happened 45 years ago when I first started bowhunting — all the mistakes and the long years I spent before drawing first blood. Helping to shorten the learning curve for other bowhunters should be a primary goal for all of us and with that in mind, I am going to spend the next 1,500 words doing just that.
Untangling the Setup Process
The journey started simply enough with me hiring Jordan to help me create another bowhunting series on YouTube. Outside of PE class in high school, Jordan had never drawn a bow. I am not sure how she could go so long in our family without shooting a bow, but somehow it happened. She had killed a number of deer with guns but never showed an interest in bowhunting.
Jordan’s original job description was to handle promotion, graphics and social media for my fledgling channel, but shortly into the project she decided she also wanted to try her hand at bowhunting. It was September by now, and we had a lot of ground to cover before she would be ready. The first step was to find the right bow. I have been shooting Hoyt since 1997, so we started there with the Hoyt Eclipse. This is a fine short-draw bow that produces good energy and a smooth draw.
Now the first challenge — set up the bow. I can’t imagine how a beginner can figure out all the fine points of setting up and tuning a bow. Not much about the process is intuitive. Sure, you need a rest, sight, some arrows and a release aid, maybe even a stabilizer. But, how do you know which ones to buy and how to adjust them? The process is super intimidating!
I asked Jordan what she would do if I wasn’t there to help her. She said she wouldn’t go bowhunting, because getting started is too complicated. That should speak to all of us. The future of our sport depends on two things — mentors and archery pro shops — since someone needs to teach new bowhunters.
Archery hunting is a very intimidating sport to get into. Sure, there are ready-to-hunt bows out there and those are one possible starting point, but even then there are many aspects of learning to shoot a bow accurately that aren’t obvious. For example, I didn’t realize it at first, but Jordan spent several practice sessions at close range to the target aiming with the wrong eye closed. It was such a fundamental thing I never even considered it, but how could she have known without someone to teach her?
We captured the entire process of Jordan’s growth into bowhunting with videos on the new channel. Our viewership base gave me a hard time when I set up Jordan’s bow so she would attach the release directly to the string rather than use a loop. Somehow, everyone forgot we all did that only a decade ago.
It is simpler for a new bowhunter (and even a weak-eyed veteran) to engage the string without a loop, and this practice also increases the power stroke of the bow by at least half an inch. That’s more energy for downrange penetration.
By attaching two brass nock sets to the string to set the upper limit of the nocking point and then just tying a small knot of loop cord on the string to create the lower bumper between the arrow and release, she was off and shooting. If you choose to go this route with a higher draw weight (Jordan was shooting 40 pounds) you should also overwrap the bowstring center serving with something like old bowstring material in the area where the release contacts the string to reduce wear.
Before we leave this phase of the process, it’s worth repeating that there is no simple way for a beginner to set up a bow. Mentors and archery shop professionals are critical.
Simplifying the Shooting
Like everyone, Jordan struggled with holding a group when she first started. In fact, for three weeks her shooting was so bad that I wouldn’t let her hunt. She shot twice every day to improve her accuracy. To simplify things, she focused on three aspects: grip, trigger squeeze and follow-through.
By taking the same grip every time, she created a consistent foundation for the rest of the shot. By focusing on squeezing the trigger instead of punching it she kept from getting ‘flinchy.’ And, finally, by keeping the bow arm pointed at the target until the arrow hit she developed consistency. Her shooting improved very quickly, and by mid-October she was ready to hunt.
Setting Up an Easy Ambush
Jordan was good enough at 10-15 yards, so that became her initial maximum range. Plus, to keep from testing her knowledge of anatomy, I decided that only a perfect broadside shot would do. Further, the shot window had to be clear, completely free of tree branches.
Have you ever gone into a season thinking that you could only take 10-yard, perfectly broadside, wide-open shots? I haven’t either.
It was a tough challenge for me to even come up with situations that I could control that well. Forget the open ridges during the rut with bucks crunching past on unpredictable missions. The first choice had to be very simple, and it came in the form of an open gate.
By setting the stand just 10 yards from the gate, we could control the shot distance and angle. And by cleaning out the lane, we knew it would be open. Any other shots around that stand would be gametime decisions, probably a no-go. It was a very good starting point and would have worked if the deer had actually been going through the gate.
We had one buck walk through there in five sits and I spooked him by grunting to stop him. It was the first buck I have ever seen that reacted that aggressively at the sound of a soft grunt. He just turned and wheeled; he never even paused.
This got me thinking; how would Jordan have known what to do in that situation — when to draw and when to grunt, etc. — if I had not been sitting with her? I bet she would have just watched the buck go past, hoping he would stop on his own so she could draw and shoot him. We take so much for granted; success in bowhunting is so hard for a beginner.
Practicing the Shots
The simple act of firing three practice arrows every time Jordan went to the blind or treestand had a huge effect on her accuracy and confidence. After those shots, there were no questions about angles and whether she could make the shot. She fired those fieldpoint-tipped arrows at the exact spots we thought a deer might show up. It was the perfect dry run at every single setup.
I thoroughly recommend this real practice for any bowhunter who is in the early stages of development — and, really, it would benefit all of us. The only downside, of course, is the need to walk into your shooting lanes to get the arrows after the hunt. We never had an arrow that was sticking in the ground actually spook a deer, but we didn’t see tons of deer either.
Making It Count
Within only a few weeks of hunting, we realized the very best way to create a close-range, highly controlled shot was to hunt from a blind in the edge of a small corn plot. It was a patch of corn that was around half an acre in size. By knocking down a 15-yard radius in front of the blind, we created the perfect shooting arena.
Some deer came in and stayed outside that small area in the corn, but with enough trips we finally got a doe to step in and Jordan made a perfect double-lung, broadside shot. That was notch number one for her new bow.
It took two full weeks to get notch number two. Like all of us, Jordan wanted to shoot a buck. We kept going back to that same spot, and I enlarged the radius slightly to keep up with Jordan’s improved shooting.
But despite very cold weather that should have had all the deer looking for corn in daylight, we didn’t have much action. Finally, on Dec. 1, just two days before the first part of the Iowa bow season closed, a nice young buck came in and gave Jordan a 20-yard shot.
By this time, Jordan’s proficiency with a bow was very good. Daily shooting at the target in camp and those three practice arrows every time we hit the field had her shooting very nice groups out to 20 yards. She made a perfect 20-yard shot that led to a 60-yard blood trail. It was a long process with a lot of days in the field, but Jordan finally killed a buck.
Shooting your first deer with a bow is not simple. We forget how hard it really is until we take someone through the process from start to finish.
One important takeaway is the need to keep things very simple during the moment of truth. Even more important, however, is the critical importance of mentors and archery shop pros. Without one of these — in this case, me — there is no way this new bowhunter would have gotten her start.
It humbles me to think back over how blessed I have been with the number and quality of people who have helped me. We all need to thank those people and look for opportunities to help others who need that same help right now.