Handling the Whitetail Shot

the mechanics of a whitetail shot
The difference in mechanics between an elevated whitetail shot and one taken on flat ground are immense. You may think you are more than ready for a treestand hunt after months of practicing at “ground level”. However, it is a false sense of preparedness. Factors such as shot angle and bending at the waist, which will surely dictate the outcome, are normally neglected when shooting with both feet on the ground.

As a deer hunter watches the ice cold rain drops dash through the shaft of light projecting from his headlamp, his excitement level never falters. He knows his tree stand is in a good spot; it really boils down to whether or not he wants to brave the undesirable elements on this soggy, November morning. Trusting the voice inside his head, the one that nudged me out of a warm bed despite the tell-tale sound of rain smashing against helpless shingles, he presses on. Soon, he reaches his perch and hastily tucks his face inside the hood of his jacket; praying for a break in the weather. One long, dreary hour after sun-up….his prayer is answered.

As the last few drops of rain lethargically roll off the bill of his hat, he slowly begins to peel away the shelter of clothing from around his damp face. Suddenly, without warning, he spots him approaching. He is moving like a meteorite. He quickly shuffles his feet and begins swinging his bow arm around for the potential shot. The bowhunter reaches full draw just as he comes to an abrupt halt within his shooting lane. “How lucky I am!” he thinks to himself. All he can see through his peep site is his extremely wide, chocolate colored rack. For a few seconds, he simply admires it. He senses his bow arm drop, bringing the pin somewhere near his vitals. Before he realizes it, he punches the trigger on his release-aid….and the arrow is gone.

Much to the deer hunter's amazement, it zips harmlessly over his rain soaked back and into the unknown reaches of the lonely forest. Just as quickly as he had arrived, he is gone. He watches his broad headgear sway from side to side as he makes his poignant escape. And just like that…he remembers how cold and wet he really is. Today, this bowhunter looks back on that incident with fond memories. No, not the shot itself, but the experience; specifically what it taught him. Sure, he would love to be writing about how his perfectly placed arrow passed through both lungs, resulting in a short trailing effort and plenty of smiling photos. But, he can’t. However, what he can do, is share what he learned in those moments just before launching his doomed arrow, and the days after it had found a new home somewhere in that rainy forest.

If you’ve ever struggled to live up to your expectations during the moment of truth, you’re not alone. It happens to the best of us; this deer hunter included. Every time you enter the tree stand with the intent of releasing an arrow at a living, breathing whitetail….lessons will be learned. Some are easy, and some go down like a glass of spoiled milk. Regardless, the trick is to take something from the good days, as well as the bad, and use it in order to become a better bowhunter.

pick out a small defined spot
When that buck of your dreams finally shows up its easy to loose focus on the task at hand. Especially when large antlers are involved. Avoid the common mistake of shooting at the “entire” animal by picking out a small defined “spot” to aim at. Concentrating on this location until after your arrow has driven through it. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

Applying that philosophy, lets break down this “shot in the rain”; dissecting the 3 costly errors this bowhunter made that eventually led to another birthday for a wide-horned, WV buck. This deer hunter promises that he will not make the same mistakes again. Practice Approach

You’ve probably heard the old saying “practice makes perfect”. Well, one college football coach didn’t buy into that philosophy. His motto….”perfect practice makes perfect.” Every part of the practice had a purpose; an objective. If it didn’t, it was quickly discarded and replaced with something much more effective. Consequently, you always want to be engaged in an activity that is not only going to make you better; but one that also mimicks actual game conditions. That is football. This is bowhunting. But you know what….it doesn’t matter. The same attitude still applies.

The deer hunter's “shot in the rain” is a perfect example of practice without purpose. Starting well before opening day, this deer hunter chose to prepare for the season within the comfort of his own backyard. It was a change from his usual “treestand” practice sessions from the previous year, but he figured what harm could come out of preparing on the ground as opposed to an elevated position. After all, a shot is a shot, right? Besides, practicing from the lawn was easier and much more convenient than climbing up and down tree-steps after every round just to retrieve his arrows. It wasn’t long until he eventually began placing arrow after arrow into the sweet spot of my 3-D target with machine-like accuracy. Each passing day his confidence grew until, at last, it was time to start the season. And that is when things fell apart.

Months of standing flat footed, practicing on the lawn, did little to prepare this deer hunter for the shot he would later face on that wet November morning. When that buck came rushing in, he quickly put his bow sight pin on him; expecting the best. However, in the process of aiming, he had unknowingly made his first costly mistake. When shooting from an elevated position, it is important to remember to always bend at the waist.

This simple step ensures that the angle from your peep sight to your eye remains the same (as if you were shooting straight out in front of you) while still allowing you to get your pin on a target that is actually beneath you. Simply dropping your bow arm (like he did), in order to get your sight pin on the target changes the angle between your eye, the peep sight, and the pin and usually results in a high miss. That is exactly what happened to that bowhunter that fateful morning. He hadn’t practiced “bending at the waist” that summer; therefore, it wasn’t ingrained into his shot routine….The result of his blunder? You already know the answer. Lesson learned.

Pick a Spot

live animal shot
For some, the pressure of a live animal shot forces them to hurry things along in an attempt to bring about an end to the unnerving situation. The result is usually a miss or a poorly hit animal. A better approach is learning to use words of encouragement or special slogans in order to slow the shot process down; thus eliminating the likelihood of shooting too quickly. Hunter shown wearing Mathews Lost Camo.

It sounds so easy. Yet, in the clutches of your “shot of a lifetime”, it can literally be one of the hardest things to do; sometimes impossible. A lot of archers, and this deer hunter was once one of them, tend to aim “at the deer” while under the pressure of a live shot. However, nothing will undermine your chances of success like shooting at the entire animal. That may sound weird, but if your aim is directed at the “whole” deer, then you’re really not focused on where you want your arrow to impact. And if you really don’t know exactly where your arrow is going to land, how can you logically expect to hit anything with it?

Case in point: When that buck came trotting into the deer hunter's shooting lane, he wasn’t looking at the single hair or spot he wanted to hit. He was more concerned with his headgear; “lusting” over it actually. Sure, he placed the bow sight pin “somewhere” on him, but he couldn’t tell you where. Obviously, his aim was nowhere near where it should have been, otherwise, he would be writing about something else and he would be staring down at him from his living room wall. Picking a spot takes the focus off of the antlers and puts it back where it belongs….aiming. It essentially forces your mind to work when it otherwise wands to shut down. If I would have simply concentrated on a single tuft of hair or discoloration on his chest my mind would not have turned to gravy so easily, and I likely would have made a killing shot. Sometimes the hardest lessons are also the most educational.

Understanding how important it is to pick a small aiming point on your next trophy, you may be tempted to believe that you can wait until the moment of truth arrives before actually testing that theory. Don’t. In the heat of the moment, when your mind disengages, you likely won’t even remember to do it. The solution? Picking a spot must be part of your everyday shooting routine. It should be something that is performed on every shot you take from this day forward; in practice or in the field. Simply reminding yourself to do it, verbally or perhaps by strategically attaching stickers to your bow limbs, can’t always be relied on to pull you through the throat tightening process of a live animal shot.

Slowing Things Down

prepare for the whitetail shot
Making good on the opportunities that present themselves means having a solid approach to how you prepare for the shot. In a nutshell, practice how you plan to hunt, pick a single hair to shot at, and take your time. When those three principles are applied, you can bet the blood trail is going to be a short one.

If you’ve ever seen one of the movies in the popular sci-fi trilogy “The Matrix”, then you are familiar with the visually appealing scenes where everything seems to move in slow motion. So what do those films have to do with bowhunting? Well, when looking back on this same deer hunter's successful shots over the years, the one thing that seems to stand out the most is that each of them appeared to happen in slow motion; just like one of those scenes from the movies. He sees the buck, he comes to anchor, cut the shot and suddenly, time “decelerates”. The arrow seems to literally pull its way through the air until it impacts in just the right spot. Then, everything speeds back up. Eventually, he finds himself following a very short blood trail. On the other hand, when examining shots that this deer hunter has managed to bungle, it seems the common denominator is speed. Everything seems to be happening faster than he can keep up with. As a result, there usually is no blood trail to follow….simply because dirt doesn’t bleed.

Considering these two vastly different scenarios and their eventual outcomes, this deer hunter has come to the conclusion that success indeed revolves around the ability to slow things down during the moment of truth. However, we all know that can be easier said than done. It’s simply not enough to tell yourself, “I am going to stay calm, not get nervous”. That sort of thing helps, and maybe you actually will stay calm. However, the best approach would be to have something reliable; a game plan so to speak. In his new book “Technical Bowhunting”, author Joe Bell sheds some invaluable light on the importance of slowing things down during “crunch time”. “If there is a time to slow things down, it should definitely be during the shot phase. Focus on the steps of the shot and carry them through. This will lead to keeping your cool when faced with a high pressure shot,” says Bell. Well-known Bowhunter and 3-D champion Randy Ulmer shares the same sentiment. He believes that if hunters would take an additional 10 seconds before shooting at game they would be more successful. “Inexperienced bowhunters tend to rush the shot. They finally have the opportunity to loose an arrow and can’t wait to get the shot over with,” says Ulmer.

When that rain-soaked buck happened-up on this deer hunter he had no game plan at all---nothing! He was counting on fragile emotions to pull him through the shot when he should have had a solid shooting strategy. The entire episode was over so quickly that he remember standing there thinking “what just happened?” As he mentioned, for him, slow is good, and fast is the kiss of death.

Like was mentioned above, this deer hunter has since learned that in order to have any hopes of making a successful shot while under the influence of a racing heart and knocking knees, you need an effective way to control your thoughts. But how? Well, it’s really kind of simple. As soon as the decision has been made to shoot, mentally start reciting your pre-shot check list, maybe the numbers one to ten, the alphabet, or perhaps a verse from your favorite song. Anything to take your mind off of the overwhelming excitement you are feeling. For this deer hunter, it is a Bible scripture that you can quote to yourself, over and over, until he cuts the shot. The point is find something to occupy your “mind” with, other than the thought of melt down, while your muscle memory kicks in and pulls you through the shot. If you’ve put in your time on the practice range, your sub-conscience will know how to execute a perfect shot; as long as your scrambled mind doesn’t screw things up.

Quietly speaking words to yourself in the clutches of “the moment” will indeed cause you to operate in a slow, deliberate manner; increasing the odds of making a good shot. Especially if, for instance, you decide not to shoot until you’ve said your special phrase at least twice. If you can hold it together well enough to remember all of that, the odds are good you can keep your wits about you long enough to put your arrow where it needs to be.

Shot Placement Conclusion

When it comes to bowhunting, remember, nobody is batting a thousand. You are going to miss. Everybody does. However, there are certain individuals that rarely return home with stories of disappointment and an arrow that missed its mark. What sets these bowhunters apart from everyone else is no mystery. They have a dependable plan of attack designed with one objective in mind….handling the whitetail shot. There is no better time than now to start working on your own system. One that ensures your dreams are won….. not lost.

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