“You gotta bust a move,” the gray-haired bowhunter told the young guy in elk camp. “You can’t just rely on your shooting gear to bag a bull.”
I was sitting and listening in the cook tent as the two compared notes. The veteran archer was holding an old compound bow with wood-core limbs, cast magnesium riser, simple metal-pin bowsight and heavy aluminum arrows.
The young beginner had all the latest high-tech gear—short split-limb compound with aggressive cams, fiber-optic bowsight and a back-tension target release aid. He was shooting “toothpick” carbon arrows with tiny mechanical broadheads. It was the exact setup pushed so hard today by many archery shop employees.
But guess what? The gent with the antiquated setup had just come back to camp with a beautiful 6x6 bull. Length of shot? Sixteen yards. Number of shots? One.
By comparison, the young man was feeling depressed. Number of shots? Six. Average shot length? Forty yards. Number of elk in the bag? Zero.
A third guy at the table piped up—I’d already pegged him as a troublemaker. “I’ve got an excuse,” he grunted. “I shoot a recurve bow, but you’ve got every advantage, including training wheels on your bow. Why can’t you nail an elk?”
The veteran hunter swiveled in his seat. “It ain’t about the bow, son,” he told the cantankerous traditional shooter. “It’s about how you hunt. It’s about how you move. You can’t hide behind that fancy stick bow of yours any more than this boy can give his setup too much credit. It’s the hunter behind the bow who counts, not the bow itself. If you don’t shoot a critter, it’s your fault and yours alone.”
I felt like standing up and cheering, but I stayed quiet. The traditional archer left the tent in a huff. His half-empty bow quiver proved what he hadn’t admitted to anyone—that he’d missed a few shots of his own. At least the high-tech kid did the more sensible thing by asking an experienced and successful archer for advice.
You can certainly handicap yourself with improper shooting equipment. For example, a longbow or recurve coupled with the wrong arrows won’t shoot worth a darn. Similarly, a bowhunter with target-shooting gadgets like a slow-to-use back-tension release aid, ultra-fast carbon arrows and mechanical broadheads might not get his shots off in time or have his arrows penetrate deeply enough for a quick, humane kill.
No matter what your shooting style, you’ve got to pick equipment and tailor it to shoot animals—not bull’s eyes. The traditional archer who uses his equipment as an excuse for small animals or outright failure is kidding himself. Likewise, the high-tech compound shooter who expects his expensive gear to give him the crucial edge is also kidding himself. It’s hunting ability and persistence that usually get the game.
Close The Gap
Getting within slam-dunk bow range is essential to shooting animals, and every species requires different techniques to make this happen. For example, the veteran bowhunter in our elk camp used aggressive stalking and soft cow calling to bag his bull. Unlike the recurve and high-tech shooters in the same camp, he didn’t sit back and expect bulls to come to bugles and grunts. He knew all about today’s call-shy elk, and when he heard a bull he made an aggressive move. While the other guys were wasting their time waiting, the older hunter was hiking up valleys, circling peaks and slipping through thickets until he got really close to bugling bulls. Then, with cow calls, he relaxed nearby elk and coaxed in the herdmaster.
For mule deer, by comparison, the most successful archers hang back and glass with binoculars, find a buck to stalk and then hustle forward using ground contours and foliage for cover. They only slow down when they’re within 100-150 yards of a buck and then gauge their final stalking speed based on terrain, other animals in the area and what the buck is doing. It’s a complicated game where one wrong move can mean failure.
On whitetails, you make your move by scouting hard and setting up treestands or ground blinds where deer are most likely to appear. You don’t randomly sit in trees far away from bedding areas, scrape lines or feeding fields. You pinpoint high-use deer runways upwind from good stand sites and then sit until a close-range opportunity presents itself.
You have to know when to shoot. This magic moment seldom lasts more than a few seconds, and if you miss a shooting window, another might not come along. Good bowhunters wait for a high-percentage shot and then take it immediately. They never dawdle when a green light appears.
A perfect shot opportunity has many elements, and experienced bowhunters can almost feel when things come together—appropriate range, broadside or quartering-away angles, no obstacles to deflect an arrow and a relaxed and stationary animal. The elk I shot on the bowhunt with the three hunters mentioned earlier illustrates how this happens.
A bull grunted late one afternoon in a wooded hollow a half-mile below me. He had the raspy, sore-throat voice typical of a mature bull. I dropped off a ridge into the dark timber, circled to get the wind right and eased ahead with ears open and eyes peeled. Just before sundown, the bull grunted again barely 75 yards in front of me. I could see only 15-20 yards in the lodgepole pines and continued to slip toward the sound.
Suddenly, antler tips flashed above a bush 30 yards away. A cow elk stepped out and trotted across an opening with the big bull hot on her tail. Seconds later, the cow circled back, and I drew as she minced across the same opening, watching for the bull above my arrow. Hair flickered dully in the half light, and his massive chest appeared. An instant later, my 30-yard sight pin rose behind and above the moving elbow of his front leg. The elbow stopped and I dumped the bowstring.
That bull scored between 350 and 360 Pope and Young Club points—one of my best. Had I not shot when I did, I believe he would’ve disappeared in the half light of dusk into the deep timber. The difference between success and failure is often a fine line between good and bad shots, or no shot at all. You have to recognize that line and shoot when the timing is right.
The recurve shooter on my elk hunt seemed too cautious at the moment of truth. He kept telling everyone he was waiting for the perfect opportunity, but apparently he was too uncertain to take advantage of it when it appeared. Then, as bulls moved away, he’d take decidedly low-percentage shots out of frustration. I know this because I watched him do exactly that through my binoculars during the last morning of our trip. Thankfully, he missed.
Like the recurve shooter, the young man with the high-tech archery gear didn’t shoot an elk either. His main problem seemed to be his deliberate, back-tension target style. He’d get a chance, draw, but then aim too long, causing him to miss the narrow window of perfect shooting time. He left camp with a comment that some hunters are simply “luckier than others.” I hear he’s still hunting elk with the same slow-to-shoot setup today, several years later. And he’s never bagged a bull.
I’m sorry to say neither guy woke up and smelled the coffee. The recurve guy told everyone as he departed camp that stickbow shooting is just more difficult than modern shooting, and that he was proud to be an “elite archer” in spite of his failure to bag an elk. The outfitter told me this same character continued to bowhunt elk for 3 more years, kept coming back with arrows missing from his quiver and continued to use his bow as an excuse.
Thoughtful bowhunters don’t need excuses. They ponder the key moves to game-shooting success with archery gear, and they make success happen with lots of time spent perfecting these moves. They learn to get close. They learn to recognize good shots. And they learn to shoot like lightning when opportunities present themselves.