Executing a Shot — Archery Bull Elk

Executing a Shot - Archery Bull Elk

Originally published on Mathews for their August 2020 elk week. Find the article herePhoto credit: Chris Neville

To be completely honest, the amount of effort required to get within range of a bull elk with your bow in hand is significant.

In my experience, those opportunities are so rare and the sinking feeling of a failed shot — or even worse a wounded bull — is devastating. So my answer to that...just don’t miss! Here’s how I tackle that challenge.


I make sure that my bow is well tuned and I know my equipment inside and out. I know that my pins are sighted in. I know that my sight’s second and third axis are dead-nuts dialed and level. I know that my arrows are straight and that they spin true with broadheads. Practice with all your gear. For example, pulling, ranging and putting your rangefinder back into the case seems easy—and it is—but make sure you've done it enough that it's a seamless act with no noise, no interference with clothes or anything else. Most importantly, I know where my broadheads are going to hit because I have shot every arrow with a broadhead out to my effective range. Nothing builds confidence like knowing your equipment on a very detailed level. 

Knowing the range

If you do not know the range, it’s easy to misjudge the distance to a screaming bull elk and whiff on a shot. Bull elk are big animals and they cover ground rapidly. Several times I have had a bull come in and go from 60 yards to 20 yards and back out to 45 before offering the window for a shot. That scenario is a nightmare to process when you are rattled already, but there are things you can do to handle it better. One, always carry a rangefinder and use it to pre-range rocks, trees, a wallow or anything to give yourself some reference beforehand. Once that bull walks in, it’s often very difficult to actually get a range on the bull itself, which makes pre-ranging critical. Two, practice, practice, practice...as you are practicing and hunting, estimate the distance to an object and then truth it with your rangefinder. Over time, you will get much more comfortable and accurate with estimating range. Three, remove as much of the guesswork from your setup as you can. For that reason alone, I hunt elk with a five-pin sight. I do not have to wonder where I should hold a single pin on an approaching bull and hope it’s close. I’m also an advocate of shooting an arrow configuration/weight to offer ample penetration that is still in the 280 to 290 FPS range to provide some cushion if I misjudge the distance by a few yards. 

Picking a shot

Picking a specific spot on the animal itself to aim at is key, but I would also state that picking your window to take a shot is equally important. I see a lot of shots taken on bulls that are walking or shots that are taken through trees or vegetation or even at distances that might tempt us beyond our comfort zone. The point is that you almost always have more time than you think. Don’t rush it and exercise some patience. If a bull is coming in and he’s unaware of your presence, it's worth passing up a decent shot at 60 yards for a sure shot at 30. Also, anticipate the windows of opportunity. As he is approaching, anticipate his direction and pick out those moments where you will have cover to draw and use a cow call to stop him precisely in that perfect shooting lane. The more you can control that moment, the more successful you will be. We have all heard the saying “take the first good shot.” I’d alter that a bit and suggest that you take the first sure shot. Pick your spots, then pick a spot. 

Nerves...i.e...bugling bull fever

I’ve been bowhunting elk for 20 years and, even still, I get “the fever.” I have been able to find success though by adhering to a series of steps. It goes without saying, but the more you practice, the more muscle memory and mental confidence you develop. In order to execute under pressure, it has to be almost subconscious and you only get that from repetition. So, shoot every single day. Even if you haven’t been, start now! 

The second tip to keeping it together is to build a shot sequence and build a habit of going through it every single shot. It’s essentially a mental checklist that I go through: stance, grip, bow arm up/draw smoothly, anchor points (nose, corner of my lip, hand to jaw bone), relaxed bow hand, peep alignment, bubble level, build rhomboid tension, stare at the spot, stare at the spot. A shot sequence will build the habitat of checking off all the steps to making an accurate shot.


I have a 16-year-old boy who loves basketball and when he is at the foul line you will regularly hear me in the stands reminding him to “see it.” What I mean by that is that I am a firm believer in visualization and there is science to back up the fact that visualizing the full sequence and outcome is beneficial in executing. I also find that I feel less anxiety when I visualize the shot and outcome. When you find yourself in tight quarters here in a few weeks with an 800 lb screaming bull elk, “see it” before you even drawback. 

Hopefully, something here will help you capitalize this September. I can’t wait for my favorite 10 days of the year. They’re approaching and I’ll be ready...will you?



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