Keys to making the shot count!
Mechanical or fixed blade? It doesn’t matter as long as you hit the spot you are aiming at; however, all too often, it seems we do not practice due diligence in sighting in and shooting with broadheads. Broadheads are pricey and it’s somewhat understandable that hunters screw on a broadhead to their best hunting arrow and then shoot it to confirm their pin(s).
Arrow and broadhead combos can vary and I’d suggest you shoot every arrow you plan to hunt with, with the broadheads you are using. Even if you use the same practice broadhead on each arrow, it’s better than only shooting one arrow with one broadhead. Ideally, you should shoot every arrow with its broadhead to confirm it’s hitting the middle. You may have to resharpen or replace the blades to hunt, but the confidence of knowing that every arrow is accurate is worth it. Broadheads change the flight of the arrow — no matter what the packaging states — make sure to allow yourself plenty of time at the range with broadhead tipped arrows to make sure they are sighting in.
Knowing the range is paramount to making the shot and in a lot of cases, the primary reason bowhunters miss — myself included. I missed a great 6x7 bull on a late Arizona elk hunt a few years ago that still haunts me today. I snuck into range of the bedded bull midday and waited several hours for him to stand and offer a shot. When he eventually did, he took a route back to my left and as he moved through the brush toward a shooting lane I was ranging rocks and brush to ensure I would be ready when he stepped out. He finally stepped out, a little lower on the steep hill than I anticipated and I took a final range before I drew and anchored. The only issue, I had taken the range, but had not waited for the calculated angle compensation range and shot him for the first reading. I watched the arrow arc in, perfectly left to right, but missed him just over his back. I couldn’t believe I had missed. After running the scenario through my head several times, I realized my mistake. The shot was angled downhill, but it was not so steep that I should have missed due to a bad reading. I had failed to maintain my nerves and follow through with the process of getting the range I need. Long story short: range is so critical. If you do not have a rangefinder, buy one. If you have one, use it always. Practice with it all summer and get familiar with it to the point that the entire process is second nature. In addition, practice estimating range all summer long. Guess the range to a rock, tree, target — anything you can — and then confirm that range with your rangefinder. Often, you do not have time to range an animal in the exact moment so having a good baseline skill of estimating range will help you make the most shots.
Shot process (stance, grip, sight picture, level, release)
I’ve hunted with people that have missed and when asked about the shot and what happened, they can’t recall many of the details. They can’t recall if the pin was on the spot they wanted to hit or if they even had picked and aimed at a spot. They can’t remember leveling the bubble or if the shot felt good. They haven’t seen the arrow in flight and have no idea on whether they followed through or not. It’s relatively common for bowhunters in the moment of truth to be so overcome with adrenaline that the entire process goes out the window.
To combat that, I believe every bowhunter needs an established shot process and they should practice it so often throughout the summer months so that it’s ingrained and happens with every single arrow released. The shot process can vary from one hunter to the next. For me, I have a process that I consider with every shot. First, stance. If I have time, I clear a piece of ground to comfortably get my feet set. If there are branches or rocks that make my stance uncomfortable and uneven and I have the time, I clear it. If I am on my knees, knee pads help and I do the same thing…clear any debris that makes it unbearable. If I am likely to get an angled up or downhill shot, I find balance and stable footing. Think about your stance with every shot and be consistent and as comfortable as possible. Second, as I draw I say to myself, "smooth draw.” I try to smoothly draw the bow with slow and consistent motion. Movement can stop an animal in a spot you do not want so try to draw smoothly. Third, anchor. I check my anchors as I arrive at full draw. Nose to the tip of the string, string to the corner of my mouth, jawline splitting the first and second knuckle on my release hand. Four, align the peep to the housing. Five, level the bubble. Having your third axis on your sight set and then leveling it for angled shots is critical. Six, correct pin for the range. I mentally check that the pin I am aiming with matches the distance to the animal. Seven, focus on the spot I want to hit and proceed with the motion to execute the shot while running the phrase, “here we go,” through my mind over and over. Eight, follow through. Maintain your form. Don’t jerk your head to see where you hit or drop your arm. Allow the bow to naturally jump forward, wrist extending as you watch your arrow smash the center of your intended target.
Some people shoot a few arrows a day to practice and some shoot hundreds. I’ve heard explanations from both sides and I’m not going to suggest that the logic for one or the other is correct. For me, I err on the side of getting as many repetitions as I can each summer. I shoot around a hundred arrows a day and I rarely miss a day shooting from March to August. I like shooting my bow, but more importantly, I believe that at the moment of truth, the entire process has to be almost automatic. I think of it as conscious decision making with the muscle memory and repetition to take over when I need it the most.
Pick the spot — Aim at that spot
When I say pick a spot, there are two meanings. The first I am referring to is picking a shooting lane. Pick the spots you are likely to get a shot and be ready to stop the animal in that window. This is key for elk hunting. As a bull is coming into range and moving through vegetation, there will be windows when you will be able to execute a shot. If you have not identified those or you are not looking for and anticipating as the opportunity is approaching, he is likely to walk out of your life or you will rush it and try to make a moving shot. I do not recommend taking moving shots.
I recall an elk hunt in New Mexico where I had been shadowing a herd for several hours one morning. The herd bull was constantly working to maintain his harem while fending off a couple smaller satellite bulls. I worked close to the herd, never making a sound and watched as the big bull pushed a smaller bull past me at just 45 yards. As he walked behind a large burned snag I drew and slowly swung with him as he worked his way through the jackstraw deadfall. I saw a gap between two trees and as soon as he stepped inside it, I cow called, stopping the bull broadside. His head snapped as he looked my way, the arrow cutting loose at almost the same instant. He piled up approximately 100 yards from the shot and I had taken one of my best bulls. Anticipate your lane, pick your shot, stop the animal and execute the shot.
The second meaning has to do with picking a spot on the aiminal to aim at. A lot of us practice all summer aiming at a dot on a target. Often, we do not practice shooting at the silhouette of an animal or a 3D target. Certainly a 3D target or the cut out silhouette is a great option for practicing and I hear people say that it’s a must. Once again, I will not suggest that shooting a 3D is better than a dot; however, for me, I actually prefer dot shooting in preparation for hunting. The reason why is whether I am hunting or practicing, I am focused and aiming at a spot. I am not shooting at an animal. I am shooting at a spot on an animal or a target. When hunting, I am looking for a tuft of hair, a shadow, anything I can clearly reference within the animal's vitals that I can focus on and aim at. That spot is all that matters to me.
Managing buck fever is a significant factor in making the shot count. You can have the range, pick the shooting lane and have everything fall into place, but if you are so emotionally wound up that you cannot make the shot, you will miss more times than not. I still get buck fever. I still feel the adrenaline spike when I am at full draw on an animal and I hope that never changes. I love that feeling, but I have to be able to manage it to find success.
There are a few tools I use to help those during those stressful situations. One is repetition. As I already noted above, I believe that muscle memory is key to being able to make the shot. The muscle memory gained through hours of summer shooting is key to allowing me to still execute, even when I am nervous. The second is visualization. If you draw back with the thought in your mind, “I hope I don’t miss,” you are probably going to. The more familiar we are with a hunting situation — even if we are visualizing it in our mind — the more comfortable we will be when it’s reality. While you are practicing, visualize the buck or bull. Visualize the entire situation unfolding. And visualize making the perfect shot. When the hunt is on and the trophy of a lifetime is approaching, visualize the shot and visualize no other outcome besides a perfectly placed arrow that kills quickly.
The third technique I use is a breathing exercise. In anxious situations, our heart rate quickens and our breathing becomes more rapid and shallow and, generally, we become more shaky. I use deep breathing techniques to help calm my nerves. There are many established techniques and I think you can make it your own, but for me, I use a deep matched breathing method. I inhale deeply through my nose for five seconds and then exhale for five seconds. I repeat that process several times. While I am inhaling, I repeat in my mind, “I breathe in calm.” When I exhale, I repeat, “I breathe out tension.” It might sound silly, but I have found deep breathing to calm my nerves and improve my focus. You might not always have time to use a breathing technique, but in many cases, you can. For example, if you are spot and stalk mule deer hunting and are waiting for a buck to stand up, you can use it. When you are in an elk hunting/calling situation and you are waiting for a bull to appear, deep focused breathing will help.
I practice both methods during my summer shooting sessions. I visualize the hunting situation, work through a deep breathing exercise, then I draw, anchor and visualize my arrow hitting the center of the spot on the animal I am imagining and then execute the shot. This has helped me immensely. Hopefully, it can help you as well.
Bowhunting is extremely difficult and everything has to go right in order to find success. There are factors to the process that are out of your control, but most of the reasons that bowhunters miss can be chalked up to the hunter not being prepared and able to execute. Before the season and during the season can be spent working on yourself and your equipment to make sure you have the best season yet. If you have questions, drop them in the comments below. Also, if you have strategies or tricks of the trade that have helped you, please drop those as well. Good luck in 2022!