Fred is an excellent hunter, but he's the first to admit he doesn't always pay attention to his shooting gear. So it was no large surprise when two things happened to him last whitetail season.
The first buck to wander into bow range presented Fred with a perfect shot. He drew, aimed downward at a steep angle . . . and nearly dropped his teeth when the bowsight fell off his bow! To hear him tell it, that deer might still be running in terror. You can bet Fred tightened the dovetail sight mount immediately after he climbed down and retrieved the sight.
Three days later, event No. 2 clinched an already frustrating hunt for Fred. The only other buck he saw came traipsing by—a larger 5x5—and he missed by a half-mile, placing his arrow well above the deer.
When Fred told me about the troubles he'd endured, I asked to see his bow. The bow looked OK at first glance, but then I noticed that the top two bowsight pins were completely broken off. It was obvious my friend had shot at the second buck with his 40-yard sight pin—more than twice the distance to the deer. No wonder he missed. When the sight fell from the tree, the impact undoubtedly broke the pins.
Fred hadn't checked his sights on a target between encounters with the bucks, and he paid the price. I'll bet he doesn't make that mistake again.
Practicing With A Plan
Target practice before and during a bowhunt can pretty well cancel the possibility of such problems. Practice accomplishes four important things: First, it strengthens your shooting muscles. Second, it helps perfect your shooting form. Third, it sharpens your aiming ability in a wide variety of hunting situations. And fourth, it makes you intimately familiar with your archery gear. If your bow feels odd, the sights seem strange or the setup sounds different, you know it immediately.
Practical target practice takes a number of forms. The week-in, week-out baseline should be shooting at bull's-eyes over level ground. Many enthusiastic archers shoot year-round and during bad weather, and there's nothing better than 20-yard indoor practice. For maximum fun, however, you cannot beat a winter competition league organized by your local archery store or archery club. In a pinch, even 10-yard practice in a basement or garage can suffice.
Most bowhunters use a 3-inch-diameter bull's-eye for 20-yard practice. I often make my own bull's-eye targets from white printer paper and cardboard. Simply draw round spots of whatever size you wish with a compass, cut them out and glue them to cardboard with photo-mount adhesive or glue. For 10-yard shooting, I make 11/2-inch bull's-eyes. To prevent arrow damage, I glue five bull's-eyes with some separation between them to a single cardboard rectangle. By shooting one arrow at each spot, I don't break nocks, cut fletchings or smash shafts.
The best bowhunters can keep almost all their arrows inside 11/2 inches at 10 yards and 3 inches at 20 yards. For outdoor practice at longer ranges, I fashion homemade bull's-eyes that conform to this ever-enlarging target progression: 41/2-inch bull's-eyes at 30 yards; 6-inchers at 40 yards; 71/2-inchers at 50 yards; and 9-inchers at 60 yards.
Interestingly, it's common for archers to shoot well close up, but fall apart farther away. This is all between the ears. If you can hit a 3-inch bull's-eye at 20 yards, the same level of shooting ability will hit a 9-incher at 60 yards.
Here's one advantage of shooting progressively larger bull's-eyes at longer range: All the aforementioned bull's-eye sizes look exactly the same at their corresponding range. In other words, a 20-yard shot at a 3-inch bull's-eye feels very much like a 60-yard shot at a 9-incher, with the same statistical chance of hitting the bull's-eye. Such shooting helps eliminate the tendency to flip your bow or lose confidence on longer shots, because all those shots present you with a similar visual aiming image.
If you're really into a challenge, try shooting 1-inch bull's-eyes at 10 yards, 2-inchers at 20 yards, 4-inchers at 40 yards, 6-inchers at 60 yards, etc. All these bull's-eyes will appear to be the same size, and this practice tip will help you tighten your basic shooting ability.
Regular, week-in and week-out shooting will make you a well-oiled machine. You won't have equipment surprises during the hunting season, and no doubts about how well you can shoot. Practice once or twice per week—30-80 arrows each session—and you'll become a good shot. More practice than this can wear down your muscles and degrade your mental concentration, and less shooting might not keep you fit or sharp.
A realistic practice setup is a must. You should do most of your practice shooting at ranges you expect to encounter on real animals. In woodland whitetail habitat typical of the East and Midwest, shots are seldom beyond 30-35 yards. Practicing out to 45 or 50 yards can be valuable, because it makes a 30-yard attempt seem like a chip-shot, but 75 percent of your practice should be at less than 40 yards.
Out West and up North, shots tend to be longer. According to official statistics from the Pope and Young Club, a high percentage of archery mule deer are taken from 40-60 yards. Pronghorns, elk, caribou, mountain goats and other Western species also require longer shooting for the best chances of success.
Target practice should duplicate other expected conditions. If you plan to hunt from a tree, you must practice from a tree. Buy a target that shows a deer's vital organs as seen from above. If you plan to foot-hunt in mountain terrain, shoot at a portable foam target on a slope. Arrows hit higher than normal on uphill and downhill shots, and tend to hit right or left of center when launched along side hills. Only practice in such situations can teach you to hit where you aim.
If you plan to carry a laser rangefinder—and I believe every archer with a bowsight should—then you must learn to use it quickly and quietly. But you must also learn to estimate distance by eye. In one study by the U.S. Army, even trained observers misjudged distance by an average of 17 percent. That's enough to miss or wound a deer beyond 25 yards, even with a fast compound bow. Despite the incredible accuracy of laser archery rangefinders, a bowhunter cannot depend on them in fast-developing shot situations. Accurate yardage estimation at a glance is especially important in stalking and still-hunting wary game. Shots often require split-second distance doping by eye.
Perhaps the best bow-shooting practice of all for foot-hunters is roaming the woods with blunt-tipped or Judo-tipped arrows. By picking natural targets like rotten stumps, grass clumps, pine cones and dirt clods, you can master uphill, downhill and side hill shots. You'll quickly learn to gauge distance by eye, and also learn the unique trajectory characteristics of your archery setup. You'll develop a fine feel for shooting above and below obstacles—things like overhanging branches and waist-high brush—to hit a distant target.
As a final polish on your skills, try bowhunting for small game. Nothing can teach you to concentrate like shooting at a ground squirrel, woodchuck or rabbit. Bowhunting little critters is fun and adds an element of reality that no static target can. Animals duck, dive and appear in unexpected places. They hone your equipment awareness to a razor's edge—your bowsight won't rattle loose or your bowsight pins won't break off without you being fully aware before the shot.
With enough practical shooting practice, you can concentrate on hunting with high confidence that your hard-earned shots will count.