The black-tailed buck wasn't much by trophy standards—that is, unless you happened to be a first-year bowhunter in a state where any buck was rare. When I started bowhunting in California, the archery success on deer was less than 5 percent, in part because a legal deer had to have a branched antler on one side. As was the case in Pennsylvania and some other places back East, older bucks in my home state were hard to come by due in large part to heavy gunning pressure.
Although a young teenager with limited archery experience, I'd already won a few local target-shooting competitions with my 53-pound-draw recurve bow. I was a pretty good shot on bull's-eyes, but as I was about to find out, bucks with beating hearts were a whole 'nother matter.
As the late-summer sun slithered behind the hills, 2x2 antlers appeared above a bush. The little forked horn was moving my way. Seconds later, the reddish-brown deer stepped out between two bushes. He buried his nose in the manzanita brush to feed, and I drew my bow. After that, things got a little fuzzy.
The recurve made a thud after I released the bowstring, and the Easton 2016 aluminum arrow covered 20 yards in less than a half-second and smashed with a liquid thud. For a moment I thought I was in heaven. Then reality hit. The pine tree I'd just buried my broadhead in didn't move, but the buck swapped ends in a giant cloud of dust and disappeared. I couldn't believe my eyes.
The truth is, I couldn't remember aiming at that deer. And as I think about the incident many decades later, I was so shocked to actually have a buck within solid bow range that I couldn't imagine actually placing an arrow through the animal. I pointed the bow in the general direction and dumped the string—no precise aiming, and no confidence I could score a hit. I shot 6 inches over the buck's back.
It took me 2 more years of hard hunting to finally take my first buck with a bow—another small 2x2—and to this day it's one of my proudest achievements in hunting.
Getting Your Head On Straight
Like many sports, bowhunting is largely a mental game. When you shoot, you've got to concentrate and have confidence. If you don't know you can make the shot, you'll probably miss.
Golfers, bowlers and field-goal kickers require a similar thumbs-up mindset. If they send the ball toward the target without supreme confidence, they usually miss. A possible tournament-winning putt rolls short, a bowling ball misses the pocket, and a football veers to left or right of the uprights.
By comparison, an aggressive and confident effort often succeeds. Defensive, tentative, weak-minded tries don't work in golf, bowling, football—or archery.
It's easy to preach bow-shooting confidence, but it's much harder to master it. There's absolutely no substitute for experience at shooting animals. There is a fine line between “trying to hit” and “trying not to miss,” but the difference is crucial. Until you shoot at a few animals with a bow, you might not even know what I'm talking about. But every experienced archer does. Here's another example.
A friend of mine started bowhunting 6 years ago. He lives in Iowa, where whitetail bucks are plentiful and large. This guy had been an excellent target shooter for a dozen years, with a closet full of 3-D and indoor archery trophies to prove his ability. But he missed the first 11 bucks he shot at from a tree! He got so frustrated that he almost quit hunting. But he called me first.
We developed a game plan over the telephone. The key was raising his confidence level, and there's nothing like a plan to do that. With a road map, you're less likely to stray off course.
The first step was serious practice at a 3-D deer target from a treestand. My pal had never done that—he'd shot only from ground level. Second, I suggested he change the aiming focus of his eyes. He'd always focused on the target, with his bowsight pin slightly blurred in the foreground. I encouraged him to practice focusing on the sight pin, with the target slightly out of focus. I figured this would mentally remove him from the deer he was aiming at and allow him to concentrate without coming unglued.
Two weeks later, this combo of realistic treestand practice and adjusted aiming technique paid off. As I admired my friend's first archery buck in his garage, he confided that the 20-yard shot had seemed easy. Shooting at the living deer was a lot like practicing at his 3-D deer target, and concentrating on the sight pin had reduced his stress and boosted his confidence.
Now, bagging whitetails with a bow is routine for my friend. He knows he can make the shot, and he doesn't think about trying not to miss. Confidence—it's the name of the game.
The first few years I bowhunted, I wrestled with doubt that creeps into every athlete's mind. I'd find myself wondering if I could really make the shot. Whenever this happened, I usually missed. Through the years, I developed a four-part strategy that lifted my game-shooting confidence to the point where I seldom doubted the outcome. In a nutshell, here's what I do.
First, I practice hard for many months before deer season. By the time archery season begins, I know that my bow and arrow are perfectly tuned. I know that my shooting muscles are in excellent shape, and I know that my aiming and follow-through form are a subconscious reflex.
I shoot 3-D targets a lot because it's realistic practice. I wear my hunting clothes and other gear like a daypack, and I shoot broadheads so arrow flight is never a surprise. I inspect all my arrows for perfect straightness and exact broadhead alignment, and check the tune of my equipment at least once a week. I know that my shooting and hunting equipment are perfect, and they fit like an old glove—well-used and comfortable.
Second, I ward off the excitement of the shot with a little mental trickery. I tell myself that things probably won't work out, that Murphy's Law is always alive and well in bowhunting. By lowering my expectations, I relax and don't place such high value on the shot. Without anxiety, I shoot better.
Third, I pick a small imaginary aiming spot on every target and animal I shoot at. This is a common piece of advice, but it's amazing how many bowhunters never think to practice this bow-shooting basic. Picking a spot does the same thing for me that focusing on the sight pin did for my Iowa deer hunting friend: It helps to mentally remove me from the fact I'm shooting at a game animal. The target remains a target—a very specific and mentally inanimate aiming spot—a bull's-eye.
Like the field goal kicker who focuses on a single spectator in the crowd dead-center beyond the goalposts, I focus on a few hairs on a deer. Otherwise, I'd shoot at the entire animal in a feeble attempt not to miss. Field goal kickers in a slump have told me they have this malady—they look at the entire goalpost setup and pray that they send the ball through the sweet spot.
Finally, like every honest bowhunter, I admit I still miss shots on occasion. And I also tell myself that it really doesn't matter that much, because bowhunting is too complicated to control the impact of every arrow. You do the best you can, and try to laugh at cold or tired muscles, lapses in mental concentration, and bucks that are already running when the arrow arrives. If our sport was easy, would we want to participate anyway? I don't think so.
Being humble and refusing to take this sport too seriously will help you to relax at the moment of truth. You'll launch your arrow with a level of confidence that many bowhunters never dream is possible, and each success will boost your confidence even more.
Once you know you can hit a deer with an arrow, you'll quit trying not to miss. At that point, archery hunting becomes fun.