In my last column, I said that to be a consistently successful spot-and-stalk hunter, you must be able to shoot well under all circumstances and in every type of habitat.
As I mentioned, knowing the distance to shoot for is extremely important. And a good, angle-compensating rangefinder will give you that information, no matter the terrain. But that's only half the battle. You also need the necessary skill to make the shot. Severe uphill, downhill and sidehill shots can be extremely difficult to make and require a great deal of practice to master.
Whether you are shooting uphill or downhill, always keep your form the same from the waist up. In other words, your arms should always be at right angles to your torso. We call this T-form. To maintain this T-form, you must bend at the waist, whether you are shooting uphill or downhill. To become proficient, you need to find a place to practice these shots, and the steeper the better. I like to place one target up a very steep hill and one target down the hill. I make the distance between the targets my maximum effective range. I shoot the uphill target first, climb up with my bow and rangefinder, then shoot the same arrows back down at the lower target.
If you lean (cant) your bow to the left, you'll shoot to the left. If you cant your bow to the right, you'll shoot to the right. The angle of your bow doesn't matter all that much on close shots on flat ground. However, when shooting longer shots on steep hillsides, it is important to keep your bow vertical.
Most of us use the horizon, or the ground between us and the target, as a subconscious reference when vertically aligning our bow. You may not even think about it, but you do it on every shot. This works great on flat land in Kansas, but not in the steep terrain of the Rockies. In the mountains, nearly everyone will be influenced by the angle of the terrain. They'll nearly always miss to the down-slope side of the target. So, if you're going to hunt in the mountains, it's crucial to have a level on your sight.
A lot of bowhunters tell me they don't want to use a level because they won't remember to look at it when they're shooting at a deer anyway. My point in advocating a level is that even if you never look at it when you're shooting at game, using it in practice will teach you to hold your bow at the same angle on every shot. So, my advice is to practice with a bubble level and look at it on every shot until it becomes an integral part of your shot routine.
If you sight your bow in at sea level and then hunt at 10,000 feet, you will shoot high, especially at longer ranges. At high elevations, the air is thinner and does not create as much resistance as it does at lower elevations. Arrows maintain more downrange velocity at higher elevations, so they will have a flatter trajectory.
This flatter trajectory usually comes as quite a surprise to the bowhunter, and often at the worst possible moment. This is especially true among mule deer hunters who have traveled directly to timberline from their low-elevation homes.
The real key to fixing the problem is first understanding it exists. After that, the physical solution is simple. Because the gap between each of your pins is affected by the different trajectory, you can't gang-adjust your entire sight head upward. You could re-sight every pin individually, but that is very time consuming.
The most efficient method I've found to sight in at high elevation is to turn down my bow's draw weight to reduce arrow speed. The key is to reduce the bow's weight just the right amount. I start by sighting my closest pin. This pin should be affected very little by the change in elevation. Then I back up and shoot the distance my longest pin is set for. (This is where I continue to shoot while making all my adjustments). I start turning my limb bolts out (reducing draw weight) in small increments until I'm hitting dead-on at this longer range. Make sure to turn both bolts an equal amount to maintain even tiller.
Once you're right-on at long-distance, move up and check your shorter-range pins again, just to be sure everything is still tracking. Your 20-yard impact point may be slightly below the intended target, but the difference will be so small it is insignificant.
There is no such thing as a normal shot while spot-and-stalk hunting. Things can deteriorate rapidly, so it is important to take the first good shot you are presented with. Because we use the most cover possible to stalk into position, there are often obstacles between the hunter and the deer at the shot. If the obstacle is close to the animal, it generally presents no problem. The arrow will go where the pin is aimed, and you'll notice if there's a branch in the way.
However, if the obstacle is either very close to you or midway between you and the target, you may have a problem. Your line of sight is not the same as your arrow's trajectory. That's why many bowhunters end up with deflections. They see nothing between them and the buck's chest, so they shoot. That's when the arrow hits a branch and deflects.
You don't have much time to determine if your arrow will go above or below an obstacle. Luckily, there are tricks to hasten the process. With your bow at full draw, aim at the deer with the appropriate sight pin. Guess the distance to any mid-range obstacles. If the pin that corresponds with that distance is clear of the obstacle, shoot. Your arrow will fly over or under the obstacle and cleanly to the target.
Assume a buck is standing 40 yards away. He's broadside, feeding. A limb between you and the buck cuts right across his vitals and may deflect your arrow. Use your rangefinder or make an estimate of the distance to the limb. Let's assume it's 30 yards away. Draw your bow and put your 40-yard pin on the buck's chest. If your 30-yard pin is above the limb, your arrow will clear it.
It takes an extremely composed bowhunter to recognize potential obstacles that aren't in the line of sight. When deciding if you have a clear shot, take an extra moment to look for any obstacles close to you and below your line of sight. Next, look farther out, at mid-range, for any obstacles above your line of sight. If there is a branch below your line of sight a few feet away or one above your line of sight at some mid-range distance, you better take an extra few moments to decide if your arrow is likely to deflect.