Get Ready For Bowhunting’s Moment of Truth

In a sport where a million things can go wrong, it pays to sweat the small stuff in preparation for making the shot. Here are some things you can do to make a difference this season.

John Stanley | September 1, 2002

I stumbled across some interesting information on the Internet a while ago concerning the origin of Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong,it will”). It seems that in California back in 1949 there was an Air Force Captain named Edward Murphy. He was an engineer working on a troublesome military project and coined the phrase after running into problem after problem. Now I don’t have any idea if the good Captain was a bowhunter or not. But considering the seemingly never-ending list of things that can (and too often do) go wrong while bowhunting, it wouldn’t surprise me if part of his infamous Law was born out of the frustration of attempting to successfully harvest a deer with a bow and arrow.

Think about it — what other sport has so many accessories and moving parts, while at the same time restricts you to such a limited range? Then factor in the relative slowness of an arrow’s flight and the difficulty of consistently shooting a bow accurately. On top of all that, throw in the movement that has to be made while drawing a bow, having to accurately judge yardage, the effects of buck fever and the list goes on and on. Short of attempting to skewer one with a spear, putting yourself in bow range and then being able to consistently put an arrow in the kill zone of a deer is about as tough as it gets here in Georgia.

In spite of the challenge and effects of Murphy’s Law, the number of bowhunters is on the rise as is the quality of bucks being harvested each year with archery tackle.

Thirty-four years of bowhunting experience has taught me lots of lessons, one of the most important being that to be consistently successful at killing deer with a bow you have to pay attention to the details. From tuning your bow to actually making the shot, here are some things to consider and hopefully help you prepare for the opportunity when that deer steps into range this season.

 Tune Your Bow

There isn’t sufficient space here to get too deep into the actual details of how to tune a bow. It’s not that difficult once you’ve done it a time or two, and it can pay big dividends. If you’re a novice, it’s something a local archery pro shop or your knowledgeable bowhunting buddy can help you out with. The point is that an improperly tuned bow will cost you speed, kinetic energy and more importantly, accuracy.

In a nutshell, ensure your arrows have the correct spine, are matched to your bow’s draw weight, and that your  nocking point, peep sight and rest are positioned correctly to allow your arrow to leave the bow properly when shot. Nothing is more important than having a bow with the correct draw length. Perhaps the worst mistake some bowhunters make is shooting a bow with a draw length that is too long. To ensure you draw the bow the same each time, you need a “wall” to draw against.

For years I had a problem of inconsistently shooting left and right. When I was fitted for a new Mathews bow last year, I was told I needed a 29-inch draw length in spite of the fact I had shot a 30-inch bow for years. It felt short at first and took a little while to get used to, but once I did, my accuracy increased and my left and right problems disappeared.

 Keep It Quiet

Sound travels at an approximate speed of 1,100 feet per second. The fastest bows on the market, and I mean the real speedsters, don’t shoot much over 300 feet per second. What that means is that a deer’s potential to evasively react to the sound your bow makes is somewhere between three and five times faster than your arrow in flight. It’s impossible to make a bow 100 percent noise free, but there are a number of things that can be done. Every little bit helps and your goal is to get it to an acceptable level. Think of the noise effect and its ensuing reaction this way— what would have scared you more when you were a kid, your brother sneaking up behind you and whispering “hey” or him suddenly yelling, “BOO!”

String silencers are essential but just a first step. There are a variety of shock absorbing devices from Sims Vibration Laboratories and other companies you can attach to your bow’s limbs, stabilizer and accessories that do a great job. I put a product called Loc-Tite on the screw threads of all my bow’s accessories before tightening them down to keep them from backing out and making noise.

There are some excellent quality bow-mounted quivers on the market today, but I remove mine when shooting. Not only does this eliminate a common source of rattling noise, it decreases the bow weight, allowing you to hold the bow steady longer and shoot more accurately.

Hunting with a quiver attached cost me a shot at a buck years ago. He was standing behind me in the open at 20 yards, but I had to attempt to turn all the way to my right and shoot. That buck escaped a broadhead through his boiler room because my quiver hit the tree, preventing me from moving the extra few inches I needed to for the shot.

Don’t forget to check for noise when actually drawing your bow. I guarantee you there are bowhunters out there who won’t realize until it’s too late how much noise their arrow makes on their rest until they draw on a deer in the serenity of the woods on opening morning. A little heat-shrink plastic or moleskin on your rest will   take care of that problem.

If you’re shooting aluminum arrows, a nifty little trick is to apply a light coat of paste wax to the shaft. Not only will it be quiet sliding across the rest, it makes arrow removal from a target much easier.

 Tune Your Arrows

Your bow isn’t the only piece of equipment that performs better when tuned. An arrow with an incorrectly installed broadhead or nock will not group well at best, and at worst can perform in-flight maneuvers that would rival an F-15 fighter.

I once saw a guy shoot an arrow at a target from about 40 yards. About 10 yards before it reached its intended destination, the arrow suddenly veered left and struck the target sideways.

The shooter thought the arrow was bent, but after heating the insert up and turning the broadhead, we were able to get it flying perfectly. After installing all the broadheads on your hunting arrows, place the point on a wooden tabletop or piece of plywood and “spin” it while watching the broadhead and nock to see if it wobbles.

This can also be accomplished by other methods including laying the arrow in an arrow straightener and rolling it to check for wobble. If it doesn’t spin correctly, turn the insert or nock and continue checking it. If that doesn’t work, check to make sure the blades are seated correctly in the broadhead or that the shaft isn’t bent.

After I’ve gone through all the arrows I plan on hunting with, I use a small permanent marker to number each one and then shoot them all as one last check. I’ve had arrows in the past that for some reason wouldn’t group well no matter what I tried, including changing the nock, insert, broadhead and even re-fletching. I promptly cut those shafts into 3” pieces, stuck a nail through them and then nailed them into a stud in the basement for bow hangers.

 Keep ’em Sharp

Broadheads kill by hemorrhage, not shock, and therefore they need to be kept as sharp as possible. For those of you who use replaceable blade or mechanical heads, don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re all razor sharp right out of the package. Many of them are, but I’ve witnessed some that wouldn’t even come close to shaving the hair off my arm. The situation can be remedied by touching them up with one of the small hand-held sharpeners available. Be sure and check them during the season as well as they can become dull from rubbing against your quiver’s head cover and being taken in and out. In addition to penetrating better, a sharp broad head slices blood-carrying pathways more efficiently instead of possibly pushing them aside. So whether you choose a fixed head, replaceable blades or mechanical broad head, keeping them razor sharp and zipping them through the vital organs will lead to short blood trails and quick recoveries — and that’s what it’s all about.

 Realistic Practice

In my early bowhunting years, whenever I missed a deer (which fortunately for the deer was quite often!) I would console my wounded ego by telling myself the miss was a good experience. There’s still a lot of truth to that today, and examining what we did wrong after a miss will help in preventing the same mistake when another opportunity arises. Short of an actual experience in the woods, backyard or archery-club practice with a 3-D deer target is the next best thing. The key to this type of practice is putting yourself under a little pressure while making it as realistic as possible.

How do you go about doing that? First, whenever possible practice in your hunting clothes and with the same broadheads you’ll be hunting with. If you’ll be hunting out of a tree stand, set one up to shoot from or a 3-D target of a deer set in the woods is the most realistic practice to get you ready for opening day.shoot off of your roof or deck. The deck on my house is only about 12-feet high so I set up a 10-foot step ladder on it and shoot from there. Now here’s the key — climb up to your perch, nock an arrow and then give yourself about 10 seconds to draw your bow and take a shot — one shot only. This won’t be the first shot of your warm-up as you’ve always done in the past; in your mind make it the only shot you’re going to get at that big buck you’re after this season. Remember how well you did on that first shot, even writing it down, annotating whether it was a kill, miss, gut shot or whatever.

Now I’m not saying your practice is done for the whole day or that you shouldn’t shoot a couple of dozen arrows at a target to continue to sight in your bow and build up your shooting muscles. But the point is to remember that very first shot and its result and to do that each time you shoot. The vast majority of the time it’s the first shot of the day that really counts in a day of hunting.

While practicing at home, I’ll often take several “first shots” in a day. I may take one first thing on a Saturday morning, write down the results and then go mow the grass or something. When done, I’ll move the target to an unknown distance, climb the ladder and give myself another 10 seconds to take another shot. If you have a partner to practice with, try this little game. Get into position and then turn your back while your buddy moves the deer target to different areas, perhaps placing it between two trees, quartering away at an unknown yardage. When he’s done and out of the way, turn around, find the deer and execute the shot within 10 seconds.

Keeping track of the results of those “first” shots you take under varying conditions in the backyard is a better indicator of how well prepared you are than the results of the last group of four arrows you flung after practicing for 30 minutes.

Don’t fall into the trap of stopping your practice sessions after the season starts. Many bowhunters shoot daily as the season and excitement of opening day looms near, then seldom practice after opening day. Not only does it allow you to keep a check on your equipment in case something unknown happens (bent sight pin, slipped nocking point, etc.), good practice increases your confidence and will help you pull off the shot when the time comes.

 Make The Shot

The reality is that what you do in the short time from when you draw your bow up to the second you release the arrow is largely what is going to determine success or failure. Talk about pressure — this is the bowhunting equivalent of having a three-foot putt to win the Masters or needing a hit to score the winning run with a full count and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning.

I don’t remember much about the shot sequence, if you can call it that, of the first handful of deer I attempted to shoot. With my heart pounding, knees shaking and breathing coming in spurts, my routine suddenly went from draw, pick a spot, aim, shoot and follow through to just get the bow drawn, aim in the direction of the deer and let the arrow fly.

The excitement of the shot and the effect of adrenaline is something that will never go away (thank goodness), but there are some things you can do to counteract them and increase your chances of making a good shot.

First, don’t get in the habit of shooting only at bulls-eyes. One of the keys to hitting where you want on a deer is being able to pick a spot to aim at. That’s something that takes practice, and shooting at 10-ring targets or a 3-D with the kill zone outlined where you can see it doesn’t help much.

Nothing ingrains a better mental image of seeing your sight pin locked in steady on a tiny spot behind a deer’s shoulder than actually doing it on a live deer — and that’s what I attempt to do whenever the opportunity presents itself. I practice aiming at small bucks and does I don’t intend to shoot when they pass by my stand. Hold the sight picture for as long as you can and concentrate on as small a target as possible. Doing this enough times that it becomes a habit should help you avoid one of the most common mistakes: shooting too quickly.

How you go through the aiming process can also make a big difference. On the advice of a friend, I changed the way I aim several years ago and have had better results. Instead of drawing, focusing on the sight pin I intend to use and then picking a spot on the deer, I find it better to pick out the spot first and then never take my eyes off of it.

I then draw the bow and move it to the point where the pins are exactly where I want them. The pins will actually be a little out of focus but with practice they’ll subconsciously move right to where you want them. Focusing on the kill zone will prevent you from getting so locked onto the pins that you may not even notice that the deer has turned or taken a step. Focusing this way will also allow you to better follow the arrow’s path and see your point of impact.

Two points bear repeating here. My guess is that if you surveyed bowhunters and questioned why they have missed in the past, a couple of reasons would pop up more than all the others. These would be shooting at the whole deer and rushing the shot. Here’s a good mantra to repeat to yourself, a pre-shot routine if you will, as you prepare for the shot and your emotions are on the verge of going haywire: “Pick a spot and take your time. Pick a spot and take your time.” It’s so important to me I have it printed on a sticker attached on the inside of my upper bow limb as a reminder.

The definition of success when it comes to bowhunting can be different things to different people. Personally, any day safely spent in the woods with a bow in hand is a success to me. Mix in a few hunts that end with a well placed broadhead through a deer’s vitals and those days become even more memorable. For that to happen however, you’ve got be able to make the shot count when your moment of truth arrives.

With some practice and attention to detail you can do it, too — in spite of what Capt. Murphy and his Law says.

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