Bowhunting ain't easy. The success rate across most western hunts is around 10-12% — meaning that about 90% of bowhunters don't fill their tags. I remember a time when I didn’t know another hunter who had been successful on an archery hunt. These bowhunters were just going on a “bow hike.”
Creating consistent success as an archery hunter requires true dedication. Focused effort is required to develop shooting proficiency, knowing how and where to locate animals, and then understanding animal behavior and patterns. When you do find the animal, closing the distance and getting into bow range is one heck of a feat in its own right. Once in range, there is still a lot that is required of the archer to release a perfectly placed, lethal arrow.
The hunt rarely gives us second chances. We get one shot and one shot only. So, it’s on us to make good of these opportunities. Our shooting preparation for the hunt should mirror that reality. Even in practice, have the mindset that only the first shot counts.
ONE ARROW & ONE BROADHEAD
During my archery practice sessions, I started noticing a pattern. There always seemed to be a few warm-up shots before I started feeling good behind my bow. That’s all fine and dandy for back home or at the range with buddies, but it doesn’t cut it out on a hunt. An animal isn’t going to stand there and let us warm up before making a good shot. In light of that, I started changing my practice routine as opening day approached. Instead of shooting for 20-30 minutes straight each day, I started shooting one arrow, and one arrow only. I’d do this a few times throughout the day. And if I needed to get more practice in, I’d add extra reps on my last shooting session of the day. This single-shot routine puts things in perspective for hunting, because you’ve gotta make that one shot count. This strategy will also reveal any inconsistencies or tendencies you may have when "shooting cold". With that knowledge, you can adapt accordingly. Knowing those details will help nail down issues and ultimately elevate your performance in the field.
There was a point in time when I, and everyone I knew, wouldn’t screw on broadheads until right before we left for a hunt. Well, that doesn’t make good for perfect practice. So, on top of shooting just one arrow, I also started shooting that one arrow with a broadhead. Shooting broadheads for weeks and months before your hunt will bring to light any tuning or form issues that need to be addressed, and once corrected, will build extreme confidence when you know that your broadheads are hitting right where you’re aiming. Don’t shoot field points all summer and assume your broadheads will end up at the same spot down-range. Do the work and gain the confidence you need. Confidence kills.
DRESS THE PART
There are countless variables at play during an archery hunt, but there is a limited number that we have control over. If you dress the part during shooting practice, you are controlling variables that can affect your shot. What I mean by "dressing the part" is wearing the clothing in practice that you’ll be wearing on your hunt. Beyond clothing, this also applies to wearing your backpack, bino harness, and other accessories while practicing. You’ve gotta put yourself in the moment as best you can and know what it feels like to shoot with all of this stuff on.
Several years ago I noticed that I occasionally missed left of center. I banged my head on the wall for quite a while, wondering what was going on. This caused me to question my bow tune, form, etc. It was pretty frustrating as a new bowhunter. After having someone else watch me shoot, we figured it out. My bowstring was contacting the sleeve of my jacket and causing my arrow to kick left. I bought an arm guard to wear in conjunction with that jacket and it quickly fixed the issue. That is one example of something that could cost a hunter an opportunity in the field.
If you don’t practice as you'll hunt, you are maybe overlooking issues that would otherwise be discovered only in the moment of truth. Don’t take that chance.
GET IN POSITION
At home, most of us stand with perfect footing, as comfortable as can be, and shoot our bows without a care in the world in the backyard. That’s all good and gravy for life at home. In the mountains though, things are rarely perfect. Which brings up another variable we should add to our archery practice, and that is shooting from imperfect positions. Examples would be shooting from a kneeling position, or with one leg up on a chair while the other is planted on the ground. These are realistic for in the field shots. We are almost never standing on perfectly flat ground when drawing back on an animal — so, we should practice for just that. When your balance is compromised in awkward positions, it can have an effect on aiming, anchor points, shot execution, etc. Less than perfect positions can even have ill effects on your draw cycle, which could actually shed light on the fact that you may be drawing too much weight, or that your draw length isn’t quite right. Practicing in this way exposes things that may reveal necessary adjustments for the field. It’s imperfect practice now for perfection later.
FEEL THE RUSH
The thrilling encounters we have the pleasure of experiencing as bowhunters are no doubt impactful and stick with us through time. Time slows down, noises are amplified, and our hearts beat so hard that it feels it may bust out of our chests. That thrill though can have a way of altering our performance in the field. And while we can’t exactly replicate the heart-pounding feeling of a bull elk coming in for a fight, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Just like knowing what it feels like to shoot with all of our gear on, it’s equally important for us to know what it feels like to shoot with an elevated heart rate and during physical exhaustion.
Purposefully elevating our heart rates through physical exertion before and during our shooting is a great pre-season exercise that’ll get you closer to success in the field. I’ll often shoot my bow right after snagging some miles off of the bike at home. You could also try repping some pushups before taking a shot. From there, sprint to your target to pull arrows from your shooting position. Now sprint back to your shooting position and repeat the whole thing. Between the fatigue in your arms and your heart pounding, this will more align with what you’ll experience in the field, minus the uncontrollable shakes that sometimes pop up when that drooling bull elk is in front of you of course.
While bowhunting may not be the easiest thing out there, I can assure you it is one of the most rewarding pursuits. There is nothing like being full draw when you are a stone’s throw away from an animal. To watch a perfectly released arrow disappear through its mark leaves a lasting imprint on a hunter. Once you do that, you'll never be the same. At least I wasn’t. Suddenly, I was more addicted than ever, knowing that this archery hunting thing wasn’t the pipe dream I once thought it was. These special opportunities only come around so often, which is why being as prepared as possible for that first shot should be at the forefront of your mind. It doesn’t matter if you shoot a great group after warming up in your backyard, while wearing flip flops, and being as relaxed as possible. Remember that the First Shot Counts, and it always will.
Josh Kirchner is the author of the book, Becoming a Backpack Hunter, as well as the voice behind Dialed in Hunter, a blog that not only documents his own journey, but provides gear reviews, tips/tactics for western hunting, and encourages other hunters to chase and achieve their goals. Josh is a passionate bowhunter that has been hunting with his family since he was a small boy. When he is not chasing elk, deer, bear, and javelina through the diverse Arizona terrain, he is spending time with his wife, daughter, and two herding dogs.