The breeze was in my face, rustling chin-high grass as I stalked. The 4x5 Sitka black-tailed buck could not see, hear or smell me. Perfect. I knew he was close, but I had no idea just how close until antler tips appeared less than 5 yards away. The heavy-racked deer and I were on a collision course along the same trail through the grass!
I drew my bow just as the buck rounded a bend 6 feet in front of me; all five of my sight pins were on his chest as I dumped the bowstring. The heavy aluminum arrow hit like a fist, knocking the deer over backward. It was a sweet conclusion to a long sneak.
A perfect stalk is rare, but not as rare as a slam-dunk shot without the need for trajectory control. During 4 decades of bowhunting, I’ve shot only one animal close enough to be covered with all my sight pins. More often, aiming must be ticklish and absolutely precise.
It’s All In The Arc
I’ve done my share of misjudging shot distance and waving goodbye on bowhunts. It started in my mid-teens as a fat California black-tailed buck fed 15 yards in front of me. I drew my recurve bow, planted my 20-yard sight pin behind the shoulder … and watched in horror as the arrow sailed 3 inches above his back. The deer dove in the brush as I wondered how I could have missed his 14-inch-deep body.
The slower the bow, the more arching the arrow flight. My old recurve shot 600-grain size 2020 aluminum shafts about 190 feet per second. If I misjudged distance by even 2 yards, I could miss a small-bodied deer.
As bows have gotten faster, trajectory control has become easier. But even the hottest modern-cam bow shoots only 50 percent faster than the stick bow I shot so many years ago. Compared to a rifle bullet, a fast arrow still arches through the air like a rainbow. If you misjudge distance by 5 yards at 40 yards, you could wound or miss a deer. For that reason, I believe that range estimation is the single most important factor in archery accuracy on game.
For a real eye-opener, you should analyze the rise and drop produced by your bow-and-arrow setup. Sight-in your bow, then aim the pins at a 9-inch-diameter paper plate from different distances. The plate approximates the depth of an average-size deer’s vital zone. You don’t even have to shoot to get a feel for arrow trajectory. The sight picture tells it all.
If you aim your 30-yard pin on a 40-yard target, where is your 40-yard sight pin? That’s how low the arrow will hit. Hold your 40-yard pin on a 20-yard target, and your 20-yard sight is where you’ll hit—considerably higher than you want.
As you experiment, you’ll quickly learn that distance estimation becomes more crucial as shooting range increases. Arrow drop accelerates as gravity tugs downward on the projectile. A 3-yard error at 20 yards might bag a buck, but the same error at 50 yards might produce a clean miss. It’s a simple matter of physics.
The best bowhunters I know shoot the same setup for several months prior to deer season. Many strive for the very same arrow speed year after year. They become intimately familiar with trajectory, and automatically know where their arrow is throughout its flight. Changing bows in the middle of deer season can completely ruin this feel for trajectory, and bad things can happen.
Take for example my friend Richard. He switched to a very fast compound bow and carbon arrows just before elk season. His old reliable compound and aluminum arrows went in the closet. On the very first day, a 6x6 bull appeared 35 yards away. A single aspen limb jutted out 15 yards in front of Richard, partly obscuring his view of the elk’s chest. He aimed just below the limb, quite sure his arrow would fly over it and arch into the elk. Wrong. The faster arrow flew flatter with a lower mid-range rise. Smack! The broadhead centered the limb and the bull galloped away untouched. With his old tried-and-true setup, Richard would probably have filled his elk tag.
Knowing your arrow trajectory is often better than having extra-flat trajectory. It’s like an old-timer I know who shoots a .30-30 Win. with open sights. That guy “lobs” 150-grain bullets into more deer, with more consistency, than anyone I know with a scope-sighted .300 Win. Mag. The old-timer knows just how high to aim based on a lifetime of distance judging and shooting. The magnum-shooters I know aim dead-on and hope for the best. The smart money in deer camp is on my old friend.
Eye estimation of distance was all archers had until old-style optical rangefinders entered the marketplace in the 1970s. Those large, dial-operated units were cumbersome and notoriously fickle about calibration. If you didn’t exactly align the double images of the target, you might be off 5-10 yards. If the temperature shifted a few degrees, readings shifted, too. If you bumped the rangefinder too hard, the unit might go completely out of whack. But dial rangefinders were better than nothing, and I took my fair share of animals thanks to their aid.
Then laser rangefinders hit the market. You pressed a button and got an instant, incredibly accurate reading. Problem solved, right?
Well, sort of. Modern laser rangefinders certainly take the guesswork out of shooting … but only if you have time to use them. Too many hunters fumble with a rangefinder when they should be shooting. Unless an animal is relaxed and stationary, it’s often best to estimate distance by eye as you draw your bow. Otherwise, you might miss the only opportunity to shoot.
Even today, I still practice distance judgment by eye. I look at things such as cars in parking lots and power poles along streets. I guess the distance and then pace off the yardage to check. I estimate by eye on less than 25 percent of my animals, but when I do need to shoot fast, the practice pays off.
The trickiest trajectory calculations occur on upward and downward shots. Like a rifle bullet, an arrow always hits higher at steep shooting angles. The range you need to aim is the true horizontal distance. It’s nearly impossible to determine the true horizontal distance by feel, because shooting angles and ranges are infinitely variable in the field.
From a treestand, you can control arrow trajectory in three reliable ways.
First, sight-in your bow from a treestand at an average height such as 20 feet. When your rangefinder says 30 yards to a point on the ground, your arrow will hit where the rangefinder says to aim because that’s how you sighted-in.
A second option is using a pendulum sight to compensate for ranges out to 30-35 yards. Such a sight swings upward on downward shots, and works quite well when properly adjusted. But a pendulum sight only works over level terrain. Above sidehills or dramatically uneven ground, the pendulum principle breaks down completely, and pendulum sights don’t work at longer shooting ranges.
I believe the best way to determine how to aim from a treestand is using an angle-compensating laser rangefinder, such as the Bushnell Scout 1000 ARC. ARC technology in such a unit automatically calculates the true horizontal distance. Sight-in your bow at ground level, aim where the rangefinder says, and you’ll hit precisely.
An angle-compensating laser rangefinder is also deadly for foot hunting in steep terrain. It tells you exactly how to aim on downhill and uphill shots with the simple press of a button. When precious game animals are the target, this is the only ethical way to go.