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Taking The Shot
Archery is a game of precision. It requires great coordination and concentration to get your bow arm, drawing arm, release hand and aiming eye all in sync to send an arrow down range and score a bull’s-eye. If there’s a breakdown in any facet – your bow arm drops a fraction of an inch or your release hand twitches – then the arrow is likely to be errant. The best target archers in the world are like machines in the way they replicate the same shooting form time after time after time to consistently score bull’s-eyes.
Now let’s take the act of shooting a bow and move it into the woods, 15 feet up a tree, in failing light. Let’s crank up your heart rate and send adrenaline streaming through your body, causing your knees and arms to shake. On top of all that, let’s give the target the ability to move any time, any way and anywhere it wants.
Given those conditions, it’s frankly amazing that bowhunters kill any deer. But every year, hundreds of thousands punch their tags, scoring racks for their walls and meat for their freezers.
How do they do it? To be brutally honest, some are flat-out lucky. Others, however, have mastered the art of taking the shot. They have trained their minds and bodies to act instinctively so that, when they finally decide it’s time to shoot, nothing can make them crack.
From 1979-83, Rob Kaufhold of Lancaster, Pa., was an All-American archer shooting for James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 1984, he was ranked fourth in the nation, earning him a spot as the first alternate on the U.S. Olympic team that competed at the summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He also shot for U.S. World teams in 1984 and 1988.
For the last 20 years, Kaufhold has coached competitive archers and taught the basics of shooting a bow and arrow to new target archers and bowhunters alike. He is the owner of Lancaster Archery Supply, which is one of the largest target archery and bowhunting equipment suppliers in the country, and his bowhunting adventures have taken him all over the world. Suffice it to say, this guy knows archery and he knows how to shoot.
According to Kaufhold, being able to make a killing shot on a whitetail with a bow and arrow is a skill that starts, naturally, on the practice range. That’s where you’ll develop your shooting form.
“Perfect form is the foundation for the perfect shot,” Kaufhold said. “Any flaws in your form will come out when the pressure is on – whether that’s taking the last shot in a tournament to win $10,000 or when there’s a 200-inch buck that looks like a picket fence in front of you.”
Start by planting your feet shoulder-width apart and parallel to the target face. Place the bow in the pocket of your hand between your thumb and forefinger, and make sure that hand stays relaxed as you draw and shoot. Raise your bow arm so it’s perpendicular to your body and parallel to the ground, and draw back the string with your other arm.
Whether you’re holding the string with your fingers or a mechanical release, it’s imperative you find an anchor point on your face – some spot that you can find time and again to ensure your string always ends up in the same position at full draw. Some bowhunters shoot a trigger release that straps to their wrist and they lock their thumb on the back of their neck and put the center of their nose on the bowstring, just below their peep sight.
When you reach full draw and you’re centering the appropriate bow sight pin on the target, slowly start to squeeze your shoulder blades together. This gradually increases the tension in your arms until your mechanical release goes off or your fingers have to let go of the string because they can’t stretch any further.
Most likely, your aiming pin is going to be dancing across the target a bit. Don’t fight the moving pin, Kaufhold cautioned. The more you try to control it, the more it’s going to hop.
“Focus on the tension in your arms,” he said. “If all you’re thinking about is putting the pin on the target, you’re going to release some of that tension and that’s going to make things worse.”
The more you focus on increasing the tension in your arms by squeezing your shoulder blades together, the more the pin will settle down. “That building tension acts as a stabilizer for the pin,” Kaufhold said. The goal is for the pin to lock on the bull’s-eye the instant you reach the peak tension in your arms that triggers the release of the string. Practice will help develop that timing.
If you feel like there’s a flaw in your form you just can’t figure out, Kaufhold recommends taking a few lessons from a shooting instructor.
“You have to get the proper form down,” he said. “That’s the basic building block for taking the shot.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Once you’ve established good shooting form, you need to shoot, shoot, shoot and shoot some more. You’re not just practicing to make sure your bow is sighted in, you’re training your body to know what it needs to do to make a good shot whether your mind is at the control switch or not.
“Spend time practicing so that everything is automatic,” Kaufhold said. “You want everything to become subconscious because you have to reserve your conscious thought for the moment of the shot – for making the shot.
“Your practice and training enable you to put all those systems on autopilot and remain consistent during a pressure situation.”
You don’t have to practice shooting at 20 yards every day. If all you can do is spend 20 or 30 minutes shooting in your basement at a target that’s 6 yards away, that’s okay. You’re still training your body, which will help you when your mind is racing because Big Daddy is walking toward your tree stand.
Eventually, of course, you’re going to want to spend time outside shooting at longer distances. When you are on the range, you want to shoot a lot of arrows at 50 yards. It is doubtful that you’d ever take a shot at a deer at that distance, but when you are drilling the bull’s-eye at 50 yards, the 30-yard shots – which are common in the deer woods – feel like gimmes.
Kaufhold stresses the need to practice in hunting situations – shooting from tree stands or ground blinds in the woods early in the morning or at dusk, while wearing the clothes you’ll have on in hunting season. The goal, once again, is to prepare the mind and body for the moment that big buck walks past your tree stand during the rut.
“If all you do is practice in a T-shirt, standing on a flat range out in the middle of a field in the middle of the day, then in November out in the woods with your insulated jacket on, you’re going to feel uncomfortable,” Kaufhold said.
And if your mind is worrying about bulky clothing or poor light, then it’s not focused on taking the shot.
“That’s when things go wrong,” Kaufhold said.
Practicing with a bull’s-eye target helps develop precision aiming, but there are no bull’s-eyes on whitetails. This is where 3-D deer targets come in handy. Shooting at them will teach you to pick a spot to aim at and hold steady on it. Also, you can use them to learn where you need to aim to score a killing shot on a deer that’s quartering away and how to adjust your aiming point to kill deer from a tree stand – two shots we’ll cover in a minute.
The Predator Within
As a buck approaches Kaufhold’s tree stand, he studies its rack to determine if it’s worth shooting. If he decides to pass, he just sits back and enjoys the show.
“But once I make a decision to shoot, I stop being a spectator and I go into predator mode,” he said. “After that, I don’t look at the rack anymore because it’s irrelevant. I’m thinking about finding a shooting lane, figuring out how far my shot will be and where I want to aim on the deer.”
When the moment of truth draws near, put aside the emotions associated with tagging a trophy buck. There will be plenty of time for that after you shoot. For now, turn this adrenaline-charged moment into a clinical operation. Think about what you need to do to make a good shot, not about how your buddies will be so jealous when they see this gacker.
Don’t rush or force the shot. Wait for the right opportunity. Hopefully you’ve calculated the distance to a series of landmarks around your tree stand, either mentally or with a rangefinder. Wait until the deer steps inside your effective range, is clear of any limbs or brush and is broadside or quartering away.
“Every deer I’ve shot at when I knew the opportunity was perfect, I’ve killed clean,” Kaufhold said. “The ones that have gotten away from me are the ones when I tried to force something. The opportunity wasn’t quite perfect, but I figured I could make it work. Sometimes it has, but other times, it hasn’t.”
Visualize where you want your arrow to strike the deer. For broadside shots from the ground, that’s roughly one-third the way up the deer from the bottom of its chest, right behind the front shoulder. Move your aiming point back as the deer quarters away.
“If you aim for the center of the front leg on the opposite side of a quartering deer, you’re right on the money,” Kaufhold said.
Tree-stand hunters need to shift their aiming point higher on a deer’s body, because the arrow will be traveling downward. The higher your tree stand is and the closer the deer is to your tree, the sharper the angle needs to be.
Read the deer’s body language. If it’s relaxed – ears twitching, nose to the ground, muscles loose – make no adjustments to your aiming point. But if the deer is alert – ears locked forward, head erect, legs stiff – odds are it’s going to drop low and away from you at the “thwack” of your bowstring. Aim lower than normal to account for the deer ducking.
Shooting at an alert deer is something Kaufhold prefers not to do, because you never can tell how sharply the deer is going to react at the shot.
“I’d rather shoot at a deer that’s 30 yards out and relaxed than a deer that’s 10 yards away and alert,” he said. “They can turn end to end in a flash.”
One of the best ways Kaufhold knows for bowhunters to become proficient at shooting deer with a bow and arrow is to shoot lots of deer with a bow and arrow.
“If you’ve got doe tags, use them,” he said. “If you have never killed a buck with a bow, don’t pass up every deer you see waiting for a Booner. The more deer you shoot with a bow, the more you’ll learn about what to do, and how deer react, in different situations.”
Physically, shooting a deer with a bow and arrow is the same as shooting a target with a bow and arrow. Convince yourself of that at the moment of truth, and your collection of sob stories will shrink while your collection of racks grows.