Photo credits: Josh Kirchner
For some of you, your hunting season may have already started and, for most, they are right around the corner. As our tags begin to arrive in the mail, we start to prepare. Maps line our countertops, new gear is tested, and Google Earth becomes a part of our everyday lives. The hope for a bright fall hunting season is potent to say the least. And, before we know it, we will be taking our gear and dreams afield with a common goal. I think it is safe to say that, along with making great memories with family and friends, in the end, we all want to make a great shot and seize the opportunity should it present itself. We fantasize all year about that one moment being at full draw with our sight pin settling on a certain tuft of hair. Even though you can't predict when a cross-eyed and drooling bull elk will come screaming into a shooting lane, that doesn't mean that we can't prepare for it.
Most of us practice shooting our bows at some type of small target with specific aiming points, or bullseyes, marked throughout it. This is a phenomenal way to make sure your sight is dialed in because it gives you something notable to focus your pin on. Here's the thing though: animals don't have conveniently placed orange dots marked on their vitals. Once you know that your bow is sighted in properly, it's time to step it up a bit. Instead of aiming at those bullseye marks on your target, start aiming at completely blank areas. This is going to mimic actually having to pick a spot on an animal and translate into a more practical approach to your shooting sessions. It gets more and more difficult the farther you move back from the target, so don't just practice at the ever familiar 20 yard mark.
A similar approach to the exercise above is to start attending 3D shoots in your area. Not only is this a great way to mimic shooting a life-size animal, but it also puts some more pressure if you are competing formally or alongside your buddies. If you don't have access to any 3D shoots, then consider investing in a 3D target. This is going to help you along the same lines as what I've outlined above with picking a spot. Most of the 3D targets that I have seen do not have the bullseyes marked on them. This means that you will be aiming at this target exactly how you would aim at the buck of your dreams.
I started doing this next exercise about a year ago and I think it has really paid off with my shooting. When we are in the mountains, we are most likely not going to be presented with a second and third shooting opportunity—especially with our bows. And, to be honest, I personally don't want to be thinking of that second or third shot anyway. If the situation calls for it, so be it, but I want to be relying on that first arrow to do its job. To mentally prepare this way, I started going into my backyard a few times a day with only one arrow. That's it. I go outside, shoot one arrow, and come back inside. You make one shot and you make it count because that is likely going to be the situation in the field. I feel that this exercise especially helps with accuracy because every time I shoot this way, I am fresh and ready. I wouldn't start doing this exercise until your shooting form is mechanically sound and your bow is completely sighted in. Once that stuff is taken care of, though, give it a try. We want to be confident and know that our arrows are going to go right where we want them to go on game day.
Not every situation is perfect during archery hunts. Sometimes, we may have to wait at full draw in upwards of a minute or more for an animal to emerge from behind brush. Maybe we even have to let down from full draw to wait for a better opportunity. My thoughts on this are why not introduce this into our archery practice? The more prepared we are, then the better and this is no exception.
Start by drawing your bow back and holding for 30 seconds. Now, let down. Try to let down as controlled as you can as well. You don't want that animal to see any erratic movement from you. Draw again and this time actually follow through and shoot. You could also hold for an additional 30 seconds on your second draw before following up with the shot at the end of that time. From here, you can obviously bump this up to a minute or more. You can really go in any direction you want with this.
There is also the complete flip side. In conjunction with "the long draw," try introducing "the quick draw." Why not, right? There are also those times where we might have to get a shot off fairly quickly instead of sitting at full draw for longer than desirable. So, instead of holding back for 30 seconds and shooting, try holding for only three to five seconds before shooting.
I mentioned earlier about not being able to completely replicate when a screaming bull was coming into one of your shooting lanes. I think this next exercise directly reflects that moment—at least the best that something can. Manually increasing your heart rate is a tried and true method of simulating "that moment." With that idea, though, I am going to introduce muscle fatigue into the mix. Hopefully, with this increase in heart rate combined with tired muscles, we will be able to better prepare for the coming season.
Let's start out by doing 10 to 20 push-ups. From here, grab your bow and shoot an arrow. Now, I want you to put your bow down and sprint to your target, retrieve your arrow, sprint back and repeat the process. You could also do this with three arrows if you want, but I like the idea of "one arrow to rule them all" as I mentioned earlier. Do this exercise a dozen times or to your own comfort level, whether that is more or less repetitions. This is fun and all at 20 yards, but it's even better at 50 yards and up. The farther you are from the target, the longer the distance you have to sprint, meaning more physical excursion. If you want to push it more, do 10 to 20 burpees before you pull your arrow and sprint back to your bow.
We have all probably heard the phrase "perfect practice makes perfect;" however, I like the saying "imperfect practice makes perfect." I think this is more applicable to hunting situations because, like we've addressed, not all situations are, in fact, perfect. For instance, you are not always going to have level ground to stand on when presented with a shot opportunity. Sounds pretty minimal, but how are you going to know if you can make a shot like that if you've never tried? In light of this, I believe it is vitally important to practice shooting your bow not only in your hunting attire and backpack, but in unfavorable positions and settings as well.
Weather is a big one. While having favorable weather happens, a lot of our hunts during the fall months also bring rain, wind, and even snow. I try to take advantage when adverse weather comes through at my house or at the range. For example, I hear a lot of folks that shy away from going to the range when it is windy. In my eyes, that is a great opportunity to practice shooting your bow in the wind. If you've never done that, try it. It's another practical way to shoot and I can almost guarantee that you aren't going to shoot as well without the wind being absent. Rain, wind, hot or cold, get out there and try your hand at these different weather conditions. It will make you a better archery hunter in the end—even if you aren't hitting as many Xs as you might be used to.
To bring everything full circle, it is our responsibility as hunters to make the best shots that we can and to be prepared for a wide array of situations. I know there is no way for us to completely simulate the moments we dream about, but we can damn sure try. Developing muscle memory in the off season is crucial so that when our hunts come about, you can "act like you've been there," if you catch my drift. Maybe you try some of these tips out; maybe you don't. The whole point of this article is to get you to put yourself in situations the best that you can. With familiarity comes comfort and with comfort comes confidence. Confidence is exactly what we are after and, with it, we can achieve new heights.