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Estimating Range The Old-Fashioned Way

Estimating Range The Old-Fashioned Way

Each and every time you take a shot, whether at game or a 3-D target, you'll make a number of important decisions. But none is more important than your decision about the target's distance. Most of today's serious bowhunters carry a laser rangefinder, but there are situations when there just isn't enough time to use it. When you find yourself unable to use your rangefinder, you'll have to estimate distance the old-fashioned way -- or hold your fire.

Laser rangefinders are great, but if you bowhunt long enough, you're going to find yourself in a situation that demands an accurate, on-the-fly yardage estimate. Although the author didn't have time to use his rangefinder on this bear, he felt confident enough in his ranging ability to seize the opportunity.

Most of us who were bowhunting before the advent of the rangefinder are still able to judge yardage fairly well, at least under ideal circumstances. But throw in some limited visibility or challenging topography and we have a tough time. So, in this month's column, I've identified the five most difficult range estimation conditions and how to overcome them.

Low Light, Drizzle, Fog And Snow
When visibility is poor, we tend to overestimate distance. This is a very common situation in the whitetail woods, where shots often occur in thick cover or under a heavy leaf canopy before the sun rises or after it sets. A friend of mine shot over the top of a giant buck recently when it materialized in the fog. He later determined it was 10 yards closer than he had estimated.

It's especially important to learn to how to judge the range when visibility is poor, because you may find your rangefinder is useless, either because the readout isn't visible in low light or because its laser beam won't penetrate the rain and fog.

Just remember that if you're struggling to see the target, it's probably closer than it appears. You can learn your tendencies by spending several late afternoons on the range, shooting at unknown distances.

Shooting Across A Canyon
Bowhunters tend to look at the ground for intermediate range references when determining the distance to a target. The more ground between themselves and the target, the farther the shot appears to be. This natural tendency works fine until the ground falls away and leaves you looking across a chasm. Under these conditions, you'll see much more ground (down and then back up) than you are used to seeing for a shot of that distance.


Until you understand this phenomenon, you'll tend to overestimate the range and shoot high. I've found that when the depression between the target and me is slight, the error is minimal. But, when the dip turns into a chasm and I'm looking across open air, my estimate tends to be long by as much as 20 percent. A 40-yard shot will appear to be nearly 50 yards.

Shade vs. Sunshine
When targets or game are located in the shade on an otherwise sunny day, they always seem farther away than they really are. Try it on the range and you'll see what I mean.

Again, the only sure way to overcome this problem is to practice under these conditions.

Place a target in the shade and shoot it from unknown distances. As with the other scenarios I mentioned, just knowing your tendencies will make you more careful and confident when the shot presents itself.

Uphill And Downhill
Most bowhunters and competitive shooters have the same inclination I did when I first started hunting in the mountains: whether uphill or downhill, I tended to shoot high. I found I was prone to err by as much as 25 percent! This occurs for two reasons. First, we naturally overestimate the length of uphill and downhill shots.

Second, the true horizontal distance (this is the distance that determines the arrow's drop) is always shorter than the line of sight distance. So, the arrow will hit higher than you expect. Even if you nail the correct line of sight distance, you still need to compensate for the shot angle. I'll get into this aspect of shooting in more detail in a future column.

The solution is to practice estimating range in hilly areas. Take things a step farther and purchase an angle-compensated rangefinder and practice with it often. Before long, you'll gain a feel for the adjustments you need to make for various shooting angles.

Animal Size
If you're accustomed to hunting whitetails or antelope, you'll probably have trouble estimating the range to larger game such as elk or moose. The large size of these animals makes them appear closer than they actually are. The opposite also is true. If you are used to hunting large game, you will be prone to overestimate the distance to smaller animals.

The difference can be dramatic. I've been fooled by as much as 10 or 15 yards in these situations.

When you're planning to hunt game significantly larger or smaller than you're used to, the key to success is to be aware you will tend to misjudge the distance and must compensate for it. Spend some time practicing with 3-D targets of the right size until you are comfortable judging the distance. The only alternative is to use your rangefinder, without exception, on all but the very closest shots. However, this solution may limit your ability to get off a quick shot.

Don't assume you'll always be able to use your rangefinder. If you find yourself in a situation where you simply can't use it, you'll need to know how to accurately judge yardage, no matter the conditions.

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