October 28, 2010
The ability to accurately read an animal's body language is one of the most important field skills a bowhunter can possess. Discipline yourself to be very conservative in shot selection when movement is likely. Antelope are notorious for jumping the string.
Throughout the Full Draw series, I have focused on things we can control, picking them apart and dissecting them to eliminate all the variables. However, some things are beyond our control -- yet they still have a direct impact on our ability to deliver an accurate arrow. We need to recognize the uncontrollable factors involved in shooting at game and analyze the challenges they pose.
In this column, I am going to address how animal movement affects your accuracy and what you should do about it.
For most of us, the potential for game movement limits our maximum range more than our archery skills do. In fact, our ability to read the animal's body language may be one of the most important skills we have as ethical bowhunters.
The animal may take a step while feeding, it may turn or it may actually hear the shot and begin to drop down to load its legs to bolt, all while the arrow is in the air. This latter phenomenon, called string jumping, is the hardest to gauge and potentially the most frustrating. So, I will start there.
Handling string jumpers: The first step in handling this unpredictable situation is recognizing when it is likely to occur. I have seen even relaxed deer drop at the sound of the shot to load up their legs in preparation for flight. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as merely learning to read body language. Experience plays a key part in knowing how to handle string jumpers. You can learn a lot by asking veteran bowhunters how they deal with this situation in the areas you hunt.
Once you have a general feel for the twitchiness of the deer where you are hunting, you have to come up with a coping strategy. The safest course of action is to aim a little low on all shots that may involve a string jumper. Shots past 15 yards are increasingly risky if the animal is alert. Certain species are quicker to react than others, and animals of the same species will react differently in different regions and settings.
For example, an alert whitetail buck in South Texas will typically drop much more quickly than an alert whitetail buck in Minnesota. In both areas, does are more likely to drop than bucks, even if they are not alert.
Knowing they may drop is the easy part, figuring out where to aim is much more difficult. Here is a typical situation: a buck walks past your treestand at 30 yards. You grunt to stop him for the shot and then you settle the pin. The buck's attitude can range anywhere from casually curious to noticeably tense. Where are you going to aim in each case? If you come up with an answer that works every single time, please let me know.
This buck is just far enough away to be a problem. He has time to react and move a foot, or more, between the release and the arrival of the arrow. More than likely, he will drop at least a few inches. Deer also tend to turn away from the sound as they drop.
Some experienced whitetail hunters I know have spent a great deal of time studying video of string-jumping deer in their area. They assume the worst and will aim at least 8 inches low (right at the bottom of the brisket).
It is hard to make yourself aim anywhere but center vitals, but if the animal is alert and standing flat-footed and you are in a string jumping area, you may consider hedging your bet by aiming off center a little.
Beyond 30 yards, string jumping becomes very unpredictable. Sometimes the animals don't drop at all because the sound of the shot is beyond their perceived danger zone. Other times, they literally vacate the sight picture before the arrow arrives. There are too many variables to consider a single strategy past 30 yards; I would simply avoid taking shots at extremely alert whitetails beyond that distance.
Animals can also move for other reasons while the arrow is speeding their way. You can often anticipate this activity by studying their patterns and watching for telltale signs. For example, if a buck is feeding in an alfalfa field and taking an occasional step, time his movements so you know you will have a stationary target for the necessary time it takes to squeeze off the shot.
Also, watch for a tail flick. Many game animals, especially mule deer, will flick their tail a second before taking a step. If you see the tail flick, hold off until the animal moves and then reassess the situation.
We can come up with hard and fast rules for making great shots on stationary targets, but when the target may move at any moment things get tougher. Discipline yourself to be very conservative in your shot selection when game movement is likely.