I was very focused on sports throughout my youth. I spent more time on a field, in a weight room or in a gym than I did anywhere else. My summers were spent mostly at sports camps and working with high-level football coaches.
Once I walked away from competitive athletics, I dove head first into professional archery. My skills and success grew very quickly because I carried many of the lessons I learned from past athletic pursuits to the archery field.
Then, as I progressed as a professional archer, I quickly saw how my practice dramatically helped my hunting. Drills such as one shot counts, need for speed, playing the wind, filling your gaps and knowing your range all came into play when I was wearing camo, and I simply started filling all my tags. In this article, I want to share with you some great backyard drills that will lead to more bowhunting success.
One thing I really liked about shooting professional 3-D archery tournaments was I learned the importance of one arrow. It's not like target archery, where you shoot groups of three to six arrows at the same target.
The 3-D game was all about ONE arrow and ONE target — a concept that translates directly to bowhunting.
When you are shooting a single arrow and then scoring it, you quickly learn whether you seized the moment or messed up badly. If you have multiple arrows in the target, it is easy to focus on all the good shots versus the one or two that missed. However, if those missed were one of your first shots, then in the hunting woods you may have missed your opportunity.
A great drill is to simply get in the habit of shooting one arrow at each of the distances you have a sight pin set for. If you have a four-arrow quiver, focus intently and shoot one arrow at 20 yards, then one at 30, then 40 and finally at 50. Next round do the same thing, but in reverse order. If you have multiple targets, you can stand in one place for this drill and just pick your target and make one shot.
Then range your next target and make one single shot on it. You don't need a 3-D target to do this drill — any target will do. The key factor is slowing down enough to make your one shot count. Really focus on the details of the shot. Use your rangefinder to know the yardage, but also pick a specific spot to aim at. You want to avoid thinking of this as a repetition practice. This is a drill totally focused on being a one-shot wonder.
Need for Speed
One of my favorite times of year to hunt is late August-early September. I love this time of the season because it's when I'm out chasing mule deer, elk or pronghorns. Most of this hunting is on foot, and I have learned time and time again that there is a need for speed.
When I say "speed" I am in no way referring to rushing the shot or making a fast shot. Actually, it's the opposite. This is really about learning to hurry up, but then recover quickly so you can make a smooth, killing shot before you miss your chance.
In hunting situations, many times we are in a hurry or need to run to a certain spot and then BAM, there's the buck presenting a shot and you need to act quickly. However, if you aren't prepared then you are most likely going to fail to make the shot or worse yet, rush the shot and have a poor result.
In field competition, I learned the importance of this because many times we shot in steep, mountainous terrain. My heart was often pounding out of my chest from climbing and most scores would fall.
Then I started working on some drills that helped me condition myself to lower my heart rate faster, which had an immediate affect on accuracy. A drill I started doing was to pick up the pace when going to retrieve my arrows and returning to the shooting line. Often times I would jog to and from targets. (Be sure to have your arrows safely stowed beforehand).
The key is to have a pace that actually gets your heart beating and creates a hunting scenario. Then, once I returned to the shooting line I would load an arrow and focus on deep, slow breaths to help slow down that heart rate. Then I make my shots with intent on control and execution. This is a great drill to combine with the one-shot wonder technique. Your goal is to get faster to and from the target while also shortening the amount of recovery time to make good shots.
Playing the Wind
One thing that affects all archers is wind. There are lots of factors involved with how much the wind will affect your arrow. In hunting though, the moment of truth isn't going to wait for the wind, especially for Western hunters in open country. Your success as a hunter will be determined at some point by your ability to know how to shoot properly in the wind.
In 2004, I was at a tournament qualifying for a U.S. team shooting at 70 meters (77 yards). On the first day, the wind gusts got so bad that while I was aiming at my target, another target with arrows still in it came rolling past my sight pin and then rolled off the range.
I let my bow down and waited for the four archers chasing their target to go by. I shook my head and regrouped to make my shot. A day later, I won a gold medal there, and the reason is because I had learned to shoot as best as possible in windy conditions.
Your success while hunting in the wind will increase tenfold if you learn these valuable tips. A very important point I want to make though is that I really like to find a spot where I am protected from the wind so I can make good shots and not feel anxious from blowing all around on the target.
The takeaway from this drill is to learn how much wind affects your arrow without it making you want to punch your trigger. Here at my house I have a little corner of my fence where I can be protected from the wind. Once my arrow passes three feet from me it is in the wind and I can easily see it drift and I start using my bubble to guide me back to center.
What you may not know is that your arrow will drift in the same direction as you lean or "cant" your top limb. Many people miss on a calm day to the left or right because their bubble level isn't centered. But this can help you on a windy day if you know how to use it.
What I do at home is take my bow outside on a perfectly calm day and experiment by canting my bow sideways with a quarter, half, three quarters and a full bubble outside the level indicator on my sight.
I shoot a group at each level of cant and write down how far left or right of center my groups are at each distance. Then I write down or take a mental note of how far the impact is off center at each distance. For example, canting my bow a full bubble left or right will cause less arrow drift at 20 yards than it will at 40.
Later, on a windy day, I can use the information I learned from this exercise to compensate for wind drift. While standing behind my wind barrier, I consider the conditions and decide how much I need to cant my bow into the wind to account for the force of the wind.
If the wind is light and consistent, you can find the middle of the target by canting the bow about a quarter to a half of a bubble out of center. This varies for each person's setup, so you need to do some homework. Recently, I shot a great black bear during a very windy stalk. I used my bubble to compensate and still made a great hit.
Filling Your Gaps
One very neglected practice for bowhunters is learning to fill your sight pin gaps. What I mean is that most hunters simply practice at even distances such as 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards. How often do you learn how to hold your pins while shooting 36, 44 or 53 yards, for example?
Success as a hunter comes from really knowing your gear, and regardless of whether you are shooting a single pin moveable sight or a multiple fixed-pin sight, you need to know this!
As a baseball player, I was constantly drilled on hitting in the gaps. It was essential to not just have one fixed range. My diversity as a batter greatly improved when I could hit the gaps. As a hunter and pro archer I have learned more about how my bow shoots by trying it at distances that aren't perfect numbers.
You will learn a lot about ballistics, drop or rise by shooting at the gap distances. Honestly, I rarely have an animal stand perfectly at a specific distance long enough to perfectly range it and perfectly set my sight. I am successful because I know where to hold on the fly to make the arrow hit the mark.
A great practice technique is to make it a point to practice at abnormal distances. For example, if you are shooting at 36 yards try making some shots while holding your 30-yard pin high. Then try some shots holding your 40-yard pin just low.
Then try some shots while focusing on your spot while looking through the gap between the two pins. See what is easiest and more accurate for YOU! Everyone is different, and one of those three gapping methods will suit you better. With this drill, you will learn a lot about your arrow drop and be able to compensate on the fly and know how to make a 30-yard shot even when you have a single pin set at 20 yards. This drill is most effective if you can practice it on a 3-D target similar in size to the animals you'll be hunting.
The Range Game
When I was being recruited for football, I had to prove many things to the scouts — one of which was my ability to throw balls at random distances with perfect accuracy. Learning to estimate distance is an absolute for a hunter. When you hone in your ranging skills and combine that with your ability to fill the gaps, you are practically a bowhunting ninja.
I have tried countless ways of practicing range estimation, and the method I have found to work the best is a "confirmation" method. By this I mean you always have a laser rangefinder with you to confirm the true distance immediately after you take your best guess.
Back when I shot professional 3-D archery, my score and paycheck were almost always determined by how well I judged the distances to the targets. Because of this, I practiced judging targets just as much as I shot at them. Every shot, I would step to a slightly new spot in my yard and take my best guess at the distance.
Then I would use the rangefinder to let me know if I was right or wrong. With time, your mind's eye starts to calibrate distance the same as your rangefinder, but again this is something that I did just as much as I shot. How often do you use your rangefinder or guess yardage during practice? Unless you are a 3-D shooter I doubt you do it very often. As hunters we have become very dependent on rangefinders and wouldn't be accurate without them.
Learning to judge distance works differently for different people. Some are just good at knowing depth and just guess a total number. Some people are better at finding a 20-yard reference and then guessing past that. Others like to find a halfway point between them and the target and guess the distance to that. I personally have always done best guessing in 10-yard increments to get me close and then guess on the small numbers at the end.
I'm sure it's because I looked at first and 10 so many times on a football field before I started shooting professionally and it has just stuck with me. Find what works for you and take your best guess, then confirm the distance. If you made a serious mistake on the estimation, then use your rangefinder to find the spot where you were fooled.
Chillin' and Drillin'
Thirty years ago, I started hunting with a bow because it was so addictive. Then I started competing as a professional archer as a way to become super efficient as a hunter. I quickly learned that my practice regimen as a ball player was closely related to helping me practice correctly as a competitive shooter. Then I saw immediate results in the field while I was suited up in camo.
If you want to have a cool head as a hunter, you simply need to implement these drills into your backyard practice to dramatically boost your success in the field!