I LIKE TO THINK I’ve learned a lot about deer hunting in the 52 years since I notched my archery tag after taking my first handsome whitetail buck on the final day of Indiana’s 1963 bow season. Fact is, I know I’m considerably wiser and a lot savvier than I was on that chilly late November evening. Admittedly, Lady Luck put me within easy arrow range of the rut-stupid buck that noticed but ignored me standing there just over 20 yards away. His total focus was on the hot doe he was trailing.
Big mistake. Even a greenhorn like me, shaking like a wind-whipped oak leaf in an autumn thunderstorm, managed to complete a practiced draw and release a broadhead-tipped arrow. And though that decades-old adrenaline-laced excitement remains a thrilling part of any close encounter I have with a 21st century buck, I’ve learned the keys to consistent success are that proper practice and mental preparation.
Here are a handful of time-proven thoughts and tips that have helped me and many other successful deer hunters fill their tags season after season:
*PRACTICE DOESN’T MAKE PERFECT! It takes perfect practice to properly prepare bowhunters for the moment of truth we all dream of. Standing at ground-level plunking arrow after arrow into a foam or paper deer target from known distances doesn’t impress deer. Neither do tight, fletch-ripping multi-arrow groups. Why? Simply because the odds are miniscule you’ll ever get the chance to place more than a single shaft into an animal’s kill area from the same distance, much less with it standing in the same spot.
*ADD THE ELEMENT OF PRESSURE. Since few of us “warm up” with multiple shots before walking through inky darkness for a morning hunt, start all pre-season and in-season practices by nocking a single broadhead-tipped shaft. Take only one shot from between 20 to 40 yards at a one-inch spot in the center of the target’s kill area. One chance. No do-overs. Rain or sunshine, windy days or calm, hot or cold. When you can consistently hit the kill area’s tiny spot with your first and only attempt, you’ve done something meaningful and impressive.
Also, never take the same practice shot twice. Kneel. Crouch. Sit. Twist your upper body. Shoot at the target to your left. Then the right. If possible, use a 3-D life-size deer target. Repeat until shooting the bow is an automatic process, where you’re thinking less about the procedure and focusing more on the exact spot you want to hit.
If you use a rangefinder, fine. But don’t let it become a crutch. If you’re in a blind or stand, range distinctive nearby landmarks: a rotting stump, a tree, a fallen branch, etc. Many times animals appear suddenly and you won’t have time to take an exact reading of the yardage. Unnecessary movements have probably saved the lives of more deer than any other cause except maybe human scent. And if the deer is alert, drawing your bow without being detected can be challenging enough.
*WEAR YOUR REGULAR HUNTING CLOTHES. Early season camo is usually lightweight and less binding; cold weather clothing is typically bulkier. Don’t wait until a nice buck is standing within bow range to discover the bowstring slaps your jacket sleeve or chest when you release or the fabric is unusually noisy when you move.
Find and correct such problems in advance. I love hunting in fleece and wood, mainly because they’re quieter than other clothing. Also take pains to silence your bow, too. During practice, I like to have a buddy stand within 20 yards or so with his back turned to me. If he hears my arrow sliding across its rest or hears my clothing rustle, I know any big ol’ buck or doe will hear the same sounds.
Practice realistically while belted safely in a treestand or seated comfortably in a ground blind. Take your single shot either standing or sitting. Does the stand or stool creak or pop when you shift your weight? Is your safety vest or harness quiet enough? If not, do what’s necessary to eliminate any telltale noise. Is there ample space to quietly draw your bow inside the blind? If you’re shooting through a mesh window netting, make certain your arrow flies true. I’ve arrowed numerous bucks by shooting through mesh — but not before pre-hunt practice.
Note: Consider investing in one of those handy compact block or bag targets that comes with a convenient carry-handle. Keep it in your vehicle for in-the-field practice. After the morning hunt, set it up for a shot or two. And don’t forget to take a practice shot before heading back out for an evening vigil. It’s just one more way to gain confidence and prepare yourself mentally for a one-shot kill when the moment of truth finally comes.
*BROADHEADS OR PRACTICE POINTS? Honestly, I practice with both. With the price of a single broadhead now what a dozen heads used to cost back when I began bowhunting, it’s smart not to throw away money. I use field or Judo points (always the same weight as my hunting heads) during the off season until a month or so before opening day. Since I favor fixed blade, cut-on-contact broadheads over mechanicals, I want to make absolutely certain my broadhead-tipped shafts are flying straight and true. The only way to check a broadhead’s point-of-impact is to shoot it. Look at it as another savvy monetary investment.
On the subject of broadhead choice, I favor 125-grain 3 or 4-blade heads. I also shoot heavy arrows, sacrificing some speed for in-flight stability and deep penetration. If lighter arrows and open-on-impact mechanicals are your choice, fine. I base my personal choice on several hundred big game kills – from one-ton bison and bull moose weighing half to three-quarters as much, down to pronghorn antelope and deer tipping the scales at 100 pounds or less — tallied over the past half century. I know what works and that’s why I use what I use. All successful bowhunters have full confidence in the tackle they use.
Proper practice hones shooting skills and builds confidence. That can make the difference between bowhunting success and a blown opportunity.
Lastly, in addition to the shaving sharp heads I’m toting in my bow quiver, I always include one practice arrow. Once I’m safely belted in for an evening hunt, I’ll take a single practice shot at a nearby leaf, stick, hedge apple, or tuft of grass before settling down to wait. And at the end of each morning vigil, I take a single shot before climbing down. It’s the closest thing to shooting at a buck or doe until a live deer is actually standing in front of you.
If you like to read M.R.’s bowhunting adventures you will love his newest book, Hunting the Dream.
Hunting the Dream is available now so be sure and get your copy of this great book.
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