One of the most uneventful hunts I ever had took place in Alberta in 2010. It is hard for me to even write this, because Alberta is one of my all-time favorite places to kick off my fall bowhunting season.
I vividly remember that summer was filled with everything but archery for me. I was in the middle of buying property in Iowa, training an international archery team in Europe and trying to sell our home in Wisconsin. On top of all that, we needed to move to Iowa before our son started school!
To be honest, everything was a blur until Aug. 20, when my outfitter called to ask what time I was flying in on the 24th. "When is the 24th?" I asked.
"In four days!" he replied. That's when it really hit me that my bow case and hunting gear were literally still packed exactly how I left them after my spring bear hunt in May.
I scrambled to unpack and shoot some arrows in the yard. I was in total disarray, and although I was hitting the target when I shot, I wasn't at my best and certainly wasn't practicing what I preached as a professional archer. I'm embarrassed to admit my thought process for the hunt was, My bow shot fine back in May. So, I'm sure I can shoot well enough for a few arrows to fill my two tags. It was a terrible thought process. I was accepting mediocrity — and my payback was hell!
After arriving in Alberta, I spent several days missing shot opportunities, sailing arrows past world-class mule deer and even completely missing an elk. It seemed each time I fumbled, my confidence dropped to a new low. With each error came more anxiety for the next opportunity.
I Stopped Hunting
I got what exactly I deserved. After five days of screw-ups, I finally just stopped hunting. I told my outfitter I needed a full day to myself with an archery target. I needed to put in some time to get things right. Several hundred arrows later, I was able to compose myself and get out to kill an elk on the last day of the hunt.
Some would say the hunt was still a success, but in my mind it wasn't because I knew I wasn't ready. It gave me a crystal-clear vision of why some people are consistently more successful than others. What separates these people from the majority is the simple rule that you get what you give. I believe this is a rule of life, as well as sport.
All the success I ever had in competitive target archery came from the training I put in. The event was easy because I was prepared for it. During my time as a full-time shooter, I always made the time to improve my game during the off-season. That was when I made adjustments and set a goal of starting the new season better than I was when the last season ended. This article is about adopting the same mindset when it comes to bowhunting and how you can spend this summer using proven training methods that will guarantee fall success.
Become a Zen Master
That Alberta hunt was my wakeup call. The fact is, no matter how many thousands of arrows I have shot in my career, I still need practice! But not all practice is the same. Just going through the motions is useless, because many times you only reinforce bad habits. Practice doesn't make perfect; PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
If you work on practice that eliminates your flaws, you will benefit greatly. Summer is the time to set a schedule and commit to having time for perfect practice. I believe in having a set time and place where you can practice on your own. For me, it is always either first thing in the morning or the last hour before dark. I like these times because they normally have the calmest winds and are less likely for a distracting phone call.
Perfect practice is all about reinforcing good habits while eliminating the bad ones. You need undistracted time to make some shots, shoot some groups and find a competitive rhythm. Find the one shot that feels almost too easy when it goes off and then strive to maintain that feeling for each shot thereafter. I teach some of the world's best archers that the hardest shots to make are the bad ones. I believe that simply because a bad shot normally takes twice as long to fire, is less steady and has the most anxiety. Its takes more oxygen, more muscle and is mentally taxing. That's a lot of work!
On the other hand, think back to a time you looked at the target, drew back, looked through the peep, just started to aim and — thwang — the shot just fired and the arrow landed right in the middle of the bull's-eye. I have seen this happen to a lot of archers. It's funny seeing the surprised look on their face each time, because since the shot happened so fast they expected a miss. However, the opposite is true. It goes in the middle. The best shots happen with the least amount of effort. That is what I strive for, and is what I believe is the true Zen of archery — effortless shots will equal a perfect time of practice. It's all about rhythm. When you get that going, practice is easy and extremely productive.
One of the biggest challenges in archery is target panic. Unfortunately, almost every archer will encounter it at some point. Target panic or "buck fever," as many hunters call it, often manifests itself as overwhelming urge to make the shot fire or a total inability to place the sight pin on target. Both of these battles indicate a war raging in the mind.
Target panic develops from a subconscious anticipation of when your release aid should fire. Many "professionals" say target panic is a byproduct of an inner fear of missing the target. However, I disagree. I believe target panic is a result of you actually being afraid to hit the target!
Think about that for a second. If your pin is not on the target, yet you force the release to fire or try to time the release to fire as you swing past the target, then in my mind you aren't trying to hit the target at all. You aren't afraid of missing, because that is exactly what you are setting yourself up to do! Aim off the target and then punch the trigger. Congratulations, you accomplished your mission of missing your mark. In my book, being afraid to miss would mean you would slowly squeeze the release as you do your best to hold your pin on the spot, not off it.
The best time to defeat target panic is summer. Don't rate your practice sessions based on your group size or how many bull's-eyes you hit. In fact, I don't even want you to pay attention to where your arrows hit! Instead, place total focus on what you do to get your release to fire the arrow.
For the purpose of this exercise, where the arrow goes once the release goes off is irrelevant. You simply need to strive to settle in an anchored position and consistently, continually pull on the trigger until it goes off with a total surprise. One way to do that is to play a game with yourself to see how slowly you can continually build pressure on the release until it fires. Many people try to do it by thinking of the squeeze with the tip of their finger. However, a better way is to focus on the rear elbow.
What I like to do is draw attention the tip of my elbow as I am aim with my finger set around the release trigger. I do have a slight amount of tension on the trigger with my finger, but once I am at that point I try to imagine pulling my elbow back towards the wall directly behind me. This will build added pressure on the trigger with your back muscles instead of your finger. These bigger muscles in your back are much more difficult for your brain to sense trigger travel with. This helps you learn to fire the release by pulling, and not punching, the trigger.
Practice doesn't make perfect; PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
Since your fingertip is extremely sensitive, your mind quickly learns how much you can move it before the release fires. Your bigger muscles in the back override that sensitivity and anticipation. This technique is what is commonly referred to as "back tension." The vast majority of the world's best target shooters use release aids designed specifically to fire from back tension instead of finger movement. Use your summer wisely to focus on making a surprise release and I am certain you will surprise yourself at how you hold up against a giant buck.
Set the Scene
One practice technique I have used many times with great success is to set up a scene similar to what you expect on your upcoming hunt. This can dramatically reduce buck fever and shooting nerves. When I worked with the Korean archery team — one of the toughest in the world to compete against — I learned a valuable training technique called desensitizing.
To help their archers prepare for Olympic and world-championship competitions, they build training stadiums and settings that replicate what they will experience in a medal match. Many times, they bring in spectators to cheer and shout, while other times they have announcers on loudspeakers calling every arrow in practice or hypothetical match scores. This technique desensitizes the archers to that situation so when it happens in real life, they aren't anxious about it.
When I first taught my wife to hunt, her first animal was a turkey. I set the scene by building a replica setting for what she was going to experience. When she practiced, she shot at a turkey target from inside a hunting blind, while sitting in a chair with me next to her. Each round, I would move the target to a new spot with a slightly different angle. After several weeks of practice, she was completely prepared for the hunt. She was the most calm and collected first-time hunter I have ever been with. When her first tom came strutting in to 15 yards, it was game over.
Mentally it was just another day at the range to her, because there wasn't anything we hadn't prepared for.
The next season, when I took her and my son bear hunting for the first time, I did the same thing. I set up a ladder stand in the yard with a bear target at 15 yards in a fake bait station I set up. Practice was fun for both of them. It was a family event and everyone was prepared. Both made perfect shots and said, "It was just like at home."
When preparing for my Western hunts, I use the same philosophy but add a little to it. I practice shooting on uphill and downhill angles, as well as at longer distances. I also practice shooting after running to and from the target. Mentally, most people see an elevated heart rate and heavy breathing as part of being really nervous. Sometimes that can be the case, but many times it is just part of being a little winded from physical exertion. There is a difference between the two, but learning to shoot that way will help you overcome either one.
Additional things you can do to set the scene are shoot from a treestand while wearing your harness and shoot from a seated and kneeling positions. The basic concept to my technique is simply, "Practice how you are going to play."
Do Your Homework
Oddly enough, you should be sure to do your homework during your summer school practice. What I mean by this is use those pre-season months to test your new gear
BEFORE you take it to the field. This is one thing that I continue to see people fail to do. Products such as new broadheads, new releases, new vanes, new nocks, new anything for that matter needs to be tested at home before it's tested in the field.
By new, I mean anything that is new to your setup that you aren't totally comfortable with how it works and/or how it will perform. Although this magazine is filled with advertisements and product claims, you should never accept marketing statements at face value and use them as an excuse not to try something for yourself before you carry it into the field. There are so many factors to how products perform and certain things will work better for certain people than others. No matter what it is, just get out and spend some time grading it for yourself.
Reap the Rewards
I started this article by letting you know the negative results I experienced in 2010, when I wasted the summer away without ever committing to being a bowhunter. I let my archery fall into a dark closet where it sat the entire summer. Once my hunting season started, it was an utter disappointment and something I was not going to let happen again.
Fast-forward a year to the summer of 2011. I was practicing exactly what I preached here in this article. I spent a lot of time behind my bow. I tested and tested and was confident I had built the most deadly combination of equipment I had ever held in my hands. I was eager to board the plane to head north again for the early bow season in Alberta. I got out everything that I had put into hunt. I filled three tags in only five days.
What a difference only a few months time can make! It was all because I put in the time during the summer with plenty of perfect practice. I made sure I had my surprise shot execution and had set the scene for the hunt. I knew what my equipment was capable of doing and I had 100 percent confidence in myself to make it happen. My summer success added up to a flawless fall.