How to keep your shooting skills up in the backcountry
My father taught me several important lessons about keeping my skills sharp as a bowhunter when I was a kid. One lesson that still holds true for me today is keeping my shooting skills honed in for when they matter most. While bowhunting in the backcountry I keep my shooting fresh by finding targets in my natural surroundings to help build confidence during the hunt and to ensure that my bow setup is always sighted in correctly. I have found that shooting your bow in the same environment that you are hunting in only builds upon the confidence you need to make the shot when it matters. Also, accidents can happen... so being prepared with the right tools and some practice arrows can save your hunt.
Technology has evolved, yet the foundation of my shooting regiment has remained the same no matter where I am hunting. Most of the hunting I did during my teenage years and throughout college was with a traditional bow. During this time, I depended on stump shooting in the backcountry to help refine my instinctive shooting skills. I always carried a couple of flu-flu arrows in my quiver for stump shooting or the occasional blue grouse I might stumble upon.
My dad also showed me an amazing trick that converts my field points on my traditional cedar shafts into stump shooting machines. By removing the field points I carried for small game, I instead adhered .38 caliber casings to the end of my shafts. With the new blunt tips attached to my arrows I was able to shoot stumps without sinking my shafts too far and losing them.
Compound bow practice in the backcountry?
While I used to use a traditional bow, these days I typically depend on a compound bow for my high country expeditions. As compound bows have become increasingly faster, archery target manufacturers have had to meet the demand and increase the durability of their targets. Archery targets come in all shapes and sizes, but I have not been able to find a target small or light enough to carry into the backcountry to my spike camp. As weight is always a factor in backcountry hunting, an archery target is obviously not a practical tool for spike camp. WIth many of my hunting days spent miles away from any road, it is still a priority for me to find opportunities to shoot while I am off the grid.
Using .38 caliber casings was a great fix for my traditional cedar shafts during my college years. Once I started depending on a compound bow for most of my hunts, I adapted to bludgeon tips for the carbon arrows I use. Most bludgeon tips that you find for carbon arrows are designed for bird hunting. In fact, the bludgeon tips I shoot are perfect for headshots on birds like grouse. While I use these tips for small game, I have also found that they can stand up to a beating when used for target practice.
Shooting stumps with a traditional bow is perfect practice for hunting because the height of a stump often resembles the height of a big game animal. Be careful shooting stumps with a compound bow because the speed and kinetic energy transferring through a carbon arrow is often too much when hitting a dense object like a tree stump.
Other options for compound shooters to practice on
Once my brother and I started looking for other inanimate objects around our spike camps to shoot that were more forgiving on impact, we discovered a solution that was both simple and abundant, especially near or above the tree line. Between all of the pocket gophers, ground squirrels and voles, there happens to be a plethora of dens found in or around the tree line. When these critters dig their dens they leave a pile of loose dirt that makes the perfect backstop especially when found on the upside of a slope. We quickly learned that the lightest target for these dens is a piece of orange flagging. In fact, I find myself packing a few extra strips of flagging in my pocket so I can set up targets and shoot while moving from camp to my hunting zones.
Shooting a carbon arrow at speeds near 300 fps at a piece of dirt definitely has its inherent risks. It is important to always investigate the area you are shooting at and remove any rocks found around your target. Additionally, it is just as important after each shot to diligently inspect your arrow for any cracks in the carbon. It is truly amazing how resilient blunt tips are when hitting a target that is somewhat forgiving and they do a great job protecting the integrity of the arrow.
I always leave room in my quiver for at least two arrows with bludgeon tips. As I mentioned earlier, I am extremely weight conscious when packing in gear to the backcountry. Yet, having the opportunity to practice my shot and pick up some dinner easily trumps a few extra ounces in weight. Remember, as archers, it is our responsibility to be prepared and make the most ethical shots possible. Boost your confidence while in the backcountry or check to make sure your sight and rest did not get bumped out of position by sneaking in some practice shooting on your next archery hunt.