Like most bow hunters, I practice shooting year round. In those sessions, my objective is to ingrain correct shooting form, build archery muscles and increase confidence. The ultimate goal is better accuracy.
But, when hunting season approaches, my focus turns to making the first arrow count. That's because, somewhere along the line, I learned that accuracy at the range will only get you so far in a hunting situation. To ensure that your arrow hits an animal's vitals, you need to practice with hunt in mind.
Why? Because there is a world of difference between shooting at the range and arrowing a deer or other game animal as it meanders towards you.
That deer is moving — sometimes in the open; sometimes behind cover. It's continually increasing or decreasing the yardage and shot angles and, most importantly, making your heart rate increase, sometimes substantially. And while no one ever looks at a target at the range and wonders if it's the last opportunity they'll get for a clean shot, game animals constantly cause hunters to make those guesses.
All this is why realistic hunting practice is worthwhile.
Dress for Success
The first step is donning and assessing your hunting clothes. Obviously, they should be quiet, warm and comfortable. But they will also probably feel a little different from your street clothes and, if you are not used to shooting in them, might distract you during your shot sequence.
That's why you need to practice shooting while wearing them at least a few times. Try different shooting positions to confirm that they permit you to draw your bow with ease. Ensure that the clothing doesn't interfere with the bow string on draw or release. You don't want to discover this for the first time when an animal shows.
Practice With Broadheads
After that, you should get to know your broadhead. As strange as it sounds, many hunters hardly ever shoot their broadhead-tipped arrows before the hunt. Instead, they just take it on faith that they'll fly well out of the bow. This is a huge mistake that could cause a miss, or even worse, a bad hit on a game animal.
To minimize that possibility, shoot them a lot — if not exclusively — in the weeks prior to the hunt. This extensive familiarization allows you to carefully implement minor tuning adjustments that make them fly correctly and penetrate better. It also teaches you their trajectories, which is helpful when you are visualizing how a shot will pass through an opening in the underbrush, for instance.
All of this builds confidence. And that's a critical component in making that first shot count. So, pick one out of the pack, designate it your practice broadhead, shoot it as often as possible, and get to know its characteristics inside out.
The Right Elevation
You also need to consider where you are going to be hunting from. If you plan to hunt out of a tree stand or ground blind, now is the time to make sure that the bow you use can be shot from them without restriction. Sometimes the roof and window configuration of a ground blinds can hamper the use of some archery equipment. The rails of tree stands can also cause issues for some bows. Find out now.
Of course, sitting in either alters your sight picture peripherally, which takes some getting used to as well. And your point of aim shifts depending on the height and shot angle from a tree stand.
Learn these things well prior to the season so they come as no surprise on the day of the hunt.
Once you've got these technical aspects under control, it's time to add a bit of pressure to the mix. After all, that's what the presence of game does, so you might as well get used to it. One of the things I do to simulate that pressure is run on the spot for a minute or two before taking a shot. This gets my heart pumping a little faster.
During that time, I also tell myself that the target is the deer or bear I want and this will be my one and only shot. I tell myself a lot is riding on this one arrow. This adds a bit of mental pressure, too.
Having done all that, I then pick a spot on the target, try to calm myself and concentrate on the shot sequence that I have been practicing throughout the year. But more than that, I try to raise my bow fluidly and with no sudden movements, just as I would in a hunting situation. Sometimes I'll freeze in mid-sequence, in an effort to simulate what I would do if an animal suddenly moved or looked towards me.
Do this enough times and you will, eventually, be a little more prepared for shooting under pressure. Then, if you want to increase that stimulus, have a friend count down from 5 while you try to get an accurate shot out in that time.
Admittedly, none of this will provide the same pressure that game will, but it certainly helps.
Practice the Unfamiliar
At one time or another, all of us get caught in a practice routine. You step up to the same ranges and shoot the same number or arrows from the same standard positions.
When hunting season approaches, however, it's time to mix up the routine. One of the best ways to do this is to change settings. Set up targets in the woods or fields; alternate shooting between known and unknown yardages; slip arrows through the brush at a target on the other side; place targets low or high; and generally mix it up so that each shot is no longer routine.
In doing this you'll get a better sense of what your effective range looks like in different types of terrain — 20 yards looks vastly different in the fields than woods, for instance.
Lastly, if you haven't already, you need to memorize correct shot placement for the animal you are hunting. There are plenty of good references but the National Bowhunters Education Foundation's Hunter Responsibility Series of Anatomy and Shot Placement Guides, which can be found on their website, are among the best.
Once you know where the vitals are you need to visualize where to aim from a variety of angles to place an arrow into them. If a deer is angled away from you, for instance, you should aim so that your arrow is in line with the far front leg. On a bear, it's best not to shoot until the near leg is extended forward in order to avoid bone and heavy muscles. And so it goes. Learn these things cold, so that you don't have to give it second thought when the time comes.
These things, and anything else you can do to make your practice simulate the pressures of the hunt, are worthwhile. After all, for the bow hunter, hunting is merely a culmination of long hours of practice. And, in the end, it all comes down to just one arrow. Practice well. Make it count.