August 16, 2022
We all dream of the scene: a big 8- or 10-pointer comes walking in — unaware — offering a good broadside or quartering-away shot, a virtual slam dunk! Reality, however, dictates that things don’t always go this easily or seamlessly.
Knowing how to set up the "perfect" shot requires we first understand how the deer we are hunting move through the woods. And while there are no absolutes in the deer world — they never "always" do something — we can set up based on the things they usually do.
When it comes to whitetails, does usually use trails when they travel. Yes, you will see them at times just cutting through the woods, but before they have gone very far, they will settle onto a trail. This is especially true as they get closer to their feeding areas.
Antlered deer, unfortunately, are a bit harder to pin down. So, let’s talk a bit about typical buck movement.
Early and Late Season: Early and late in the season, when their lives revolve around feeding and bedding areas, bucks will often use trails. Maybe they won’t do so as devotedly as the does, but they will use them often enough that hunting trails is the best way to tag them during those times.
Late October: There is a window in late October, in most parts of the whitetail’s range, when bucks will travel more in daylight and still use trails within their usual ranges more predictably. These are still bed-to-food patterns for the most part, but bucks will also range a bit more as they check out doe family groups. Late October has become one of my favorite times to hunt. The weather is usually awesome, the woods are aglow with autumn colors and the bucks are reasonably killable. They are still living where you think they should be, and it’s a great time to be a bowhunter.
Peak Rut: During the high-intensity days of the peak rut, all bets are off. Trails mean nothing as bucks cruise swiftly through the timber thinking only of where they want to be next. Or, they come past chasing a doe. At best, you can assume general travel corridors, but you are oversimplifying things if you think they will follow trails.
What Is the Perfect Shot?
I have been caught unprepared too many times for the shots that come my way to ever think I have this part of bowhunting mastered. In fact, every season brings new reasons for humility.
The simple act of setting up your stand or blind to create shot opportunities is one of the most important things you can do when it comes to archery hunting. It does little good to spend months checking and moving trail cameras, practicing with your bow, setting up stands, scheming and planning only to finally have your buck come by and get away.
You have been drilled since you first drew a bow to focus on creating broadside shots — and rightfully so. They are great and we love them; we would all take a lifetime of 15-yard broadside shots and never complain.
Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t dish out those opportunities as quickly as we want to consume them. Sometimes, the buck turns just before stepping into the shooting lane, or he goes on the wrong side of the tree. There are as many reasons why the perfect shot doesn’t happen as there are bucks in the woods. I sometimes think I have found every way a buck can get away, and then a new season introduces a few more.
Take the First Good Opportunity
As bowhunters, we usually have to deal with surprises at every turn. So, with that in mind, it is unrealistic to wait for a perfectly broadside 15- or 20-yard shot. In reality, what you need to be ready for is the first shot you know you can make, even if it isn’t the one you have defined as perfect.
We have now crossed into the land of experience and judgment. How do you know you can make a shot? This decision should be based on your proven skill on the range — how far you can shoot accurately — and your understanding of whitetail anatomy. You must know, and not guess, what angles will take an arrow into the vitals without interference from bones or heavy muscle.
You gain this knowledge from studying anatomy charts online and from the deer you gut. Pay strict attention to where everything lies inside the deer and how the angle of the deer’s body affects where you have to aim to hit both lungs.
Finally, knowing what shots are makeable requires a very healthy dose of reality in the form of understanding deer reaction times. The deer still has to be in the same place when the arrow arrives for the shot to be considered ethical. If the animal is likely to move, you need to know how to address that movement ethically or hold your fire.
I have struggled over the years with bucks and does that moved while the arrow was in the air. It’s called string jumping, and I believe it’s the No. 1 reason we make bad shots at whitetails.
Dealing With String Jumpers
After years of filming all my shots at whitetails, I have come up with some definite and sobering conclusions. First, it is hard to tell which deer will react to the sound of the shot and drop to load their legs before the arrow gets there and which ones won’t.
Most of those that appear alert will react to the sound by dropping, but even some of those that aren’t alert will also drop. It is a very frustrating problem, and after studying the footage of many bowshots frame by frame, I now aim low on just about every deer when the distance exceeds 25 yards.
On 30-yard shots, I aim roughly at the heart or just above the brisket line. On 35-yard shots, I aim just below the brisket line and on 40-yard shots, I aim roughly three inches below the brisket. Even if I am shooting really well in the backyard, I am still very hesitant to shoot past 40 yards on a deer; there is just too much chance for substantial unpredictable movement.
If the deer is obviously relaxed, or the wind is blowing enough to cover the sound of the shot, you can reduce the amount you aim low at each of these distances. So, as I mentioned, there is a lot of experience and judgment that goes into knowing when you are looking at a good, ethical shot.
Eliminate the Single-Lung Hit
There is no telling when the next buck will come straight at your stand, leaving you in a panic trying to decide how to get the shot. Compounding this problem is the fact that the worst hit you can make in bowhunting is to catch just one lung. The shot is almost always fatal, but the animal can be very hard to recover as it may travel a long distance before dying, leaving little in the way of a blood trail along the way. As an ethical bowhunter, you should do everything in your power to prevent the dreaded single-lung hit.
Close shots from treestands — under 10 yards — are the most common cause for a single-lung hit (string jumping is a close second). This type of shot may look very easy since the deer is right there — big as a Buick station wagon and as tempting as a hot fudge sundae. Unfortunately, however, it’s a "no-go." The angle is bad, so don’t take this shot.
Instead, it’s much better to let the deer pass and move away before looking for the aimpoint. Once it gets 10-15 yards past the stand, you can angle the arrow through the liver and into at least one lung and possibly even catch the heart. This is a quickly fatal hit and a much more ethical shot than the close-range broadside shot.
That said, waiting long enough for the deer to leave can be very risky to your overall hopes of bagging it. When you have a deer under your stand for any length of time, it tends to find stuff it doesn’t like. Whitetails may see your tree steps, smell where you set your jacket down on the ground, catch you moving out of the corner of their eye or even hear the very slight grinding of boot on stand or rustling of outerwear as you twist to follow their movement.
If you are still going to turn this opportunity into venison, you need shooting lanes on all sides of the tree so you can get the shot once the deer starts to move away, since you don’t know which direction he is going to go. Maybe you assumed all the deer would pass on one side — the side with the trail on it — and that is where you opened up shooting lanes. Then along comes a buck and proves you should be that kid who always has to sit in the corner wearing a dunce hat.
Dang it; now what? Panic and a missed opportunity!
Whenever possible, it is much better to set up in a way that keeps the deer from ever getting that close to you. However, if you have bowhunted for any amount of time, you know this is really tough since deer do unpredictable things.
Set ’Em Up for the Shot
What if you’ve been forced by terrain, such as a nearby creek, bluff, ditch or field edge, to set up closer to a trail than you would like? Or, maybe there just isn’t a tree right where you want it — and you have to take what’s there — putting you right next to a trail.
When you are placing the stand or setting up the blind, this decision may seem harmless enough. You might even consider it and then shrug it off without really thinking about what that shot is going to look like and what your options may be. Instead, you decide in passing that you will just worry about it when the time comes, like when the buck is right there.
Well, if you are going to set up very close to a trail, then you have to try to reposition the deer to produce a better shot angle. The easiest way to accomplish that is to use a diversion to get the animal to change its course just enough to open up a shot before it gets right to the tree.
One option is to create a mock scrape a few yards to the other side of the trail. During October and early November, most passing bucks will turn to check it out, opening up their vitals for a shot. But as the rut advances, they will completely ignore scrapes as they move single-mindedly from Point A to Point B.
A better idea is to block the trail altogether and force deer to turn. You can easily do this by piling brush and vegetation on the trail. You need to make the diversion at least 15 yards from your tree so you have a good shot angle as the deer turn to go around the brush.
Maybe you can come up with something even more creative. I am pretty sure it is legal in most states to build a short section of fence that would also clearly turn deer away from the too-close trail to open up a broadside shot. The bottom line is that you should do what is necessary to eliminate any chance that the deer you want to shoot ends up right under your stand.
With whitetails being as unpredictable as they are, setting up the perfect shot may be a pipe dream, but you will definitely be rewarded for doing everything in your power to reduce the chances of an unexpected string jumper or a single-lung hit. It’s imperative that you avoid both of these troublesome shots at all costs. Good luck, and happy hunting!