"I CHOKED," A DISHEARTENED elk hunter told me at my family’s archery pro shop. "A nice bull came in to six yards, and no matter what I tried, I could not get the string to full draw!"
Over the years I have heard many similar accounts. Frustrating! That’s the only word to describe the feeling you get after a blown shot opportunity. When you spend hours planning a hunt, driving to the destination, and then logging many hours on stand, your hard work all goes for nothing if you can’t deliver when the pressure is on.
I know countless people who practice shooting regularly, months before the season opens, and they still have trouble closing the deal when Mr. Big shows himself. Getting excited is fine — excitement is a big part of why we hunt — but there is a big difference between getting excited and falling apart. We owe it to ourselves to perform under pressure. Even more, we owe it to the game we hunt to stay calm enough to make good shots and clean kills.
If you’ve had any trouble "keeping it together" when shooting at game, right now is the time to find a cure. Below I discuss six steps that have helped me stay cool at the moment of truth, and I know they will help you, too.
1. Practice, Practice, Practice
Nearly all bowhunters practice their shooting, but many fail to practice properly. To many average bowhunters, practice means flinging 20 to 30 arrows once or twice a week. I don’t consider that practice. When preparing for a hunt, I practice every possible shot sequence, just as if I were actually hunting. That means I shoot a 3D target from every possible angle while wearing my camouflage, and I shoot from any position that might become a possibility during the hunt. I want to be prepared for all contingencies.
I also practice at distances considerably farther than I will shoot on animals. My typical whitetail shot is closer than 30 yards, but I practice regularly out to 80 and even 100 yards. That kind of practice leaves me very confident for any shots closer than 40 yards.
Lack of confidence is the biggest reason some people get shaken at the shot. They just keep thinking, I don’t know if I can make that shot. I have two things to offer those who lack confidence. One, restrict shots to your comfortable shooting range. Two, practice enough different scenarios that when an animal steps into your shooting lane, you’ll have no doubts about making the shot because you’ve already done it dozens of times in practice.
2. Run & Shoot
That sounds kind of dangerous, but I don’t mean it in a literal sense. Here’s what I mean: During practice sessions, I sprint anywhere from 60 to 100 yards, then pick up my bow and try to put a kill shot on my 3D target. This simulates the adrenaline rush you get when shooting at game. Some people may think it sounds crazy, but believe me, it builds confidence like no other drill. I don’t do this every time I practice, but I do it often enough to build confidence in my ability to shoot accurately when my heart is racing — whether from running or from watching a buck walk within range.
3. Flex Those Muscles!
I have always done something that even I thought was weird, but it always worked very well to reduce or eliminate shakiness, and now I have learned it has basis in fact. While taking marketing classes in college, I learned that individuals who get really nervous before giving presentations use the same method I have used for years on stand.
It goes like this: When you see a big buck coming down the trail and your heart rate skyrockets, tense every muscle in your body while holding your breath. Then, after five or six seconds, let your muscles relax, and exhale. Do this several times as needed.
This is especially helpful during frigid hunts, when your muscles are stiff and your circulation is poor. It helps improve blood flow, regulate body temperature, settle your heart rate, and relax your muscles, all of which will calm you down to make a good shot. This muscle-tensing tactic has helped me keep my cool on numerous animals.
4. Focus On The Sweet Spot
Once you decide to shoot an animal, you have no need to look anywhere other than the hair, scale, or feather you want to hit. Keying in on that certain spot keeps you calm and focused. I think some people miss when they focus on the headgear because they are looking with their mind’s eye at a beautiful shoulder mount gracing the wall above the fireplace. My philosophy is: Don’t worry about the headgear while the critter is alive. You will have years to stare at it — if you focus on the vitals before and during the shot.
My driver’s education instructor taught me that people tend to steer where they are looking. Obviously, it could be pretty dangerous to stare at an oncoming car instead of the lane you are in. The same applies to bowhunting. You tend to aim where you are looking. Look at those wide antlers coming your way, and you might put an arrow right through the center of them. Concentrate on the vitals, and that’s where you’ll put your arrow.
5. Close Your Eyes
This isn’t always an option, but when it is, it works. The longer some people look at an animal they want to shoot, the more stage fright they develop. If that’s you, closing your eyes or looking up at the sky will allow you to clear your mind and reorganize your thoughts. I have talked with dozens of bowhunters who have botched easy shots, simply because they had to watch animals for such long periods of time before shooting that they became nervous wrecks. Most tell me something like, "The longer the buck took to close the distance, the more I started
shaking. By the time he offered me a shot, I pretty much fell apart."
Some people can perform on a moment’s notice, and I personally have made do in certain fast-paced situations. However, I prefer to have some time to evaluate the situation to analyze every move I need to make before I actually make it. But if too much time transpires and the nerves start taking over, I often close my eyes to regain my focus before the animal gets within bow range.
6. The Inner Voices
Picture that little demon on one shoulder saying, "You can’t make that shot, you’re going to miss." Then picture that little angel on your other shoulder saying, "He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. You’ve practiced this shot hundreds of times. Piece of cake!" This is what many bowhunters go through prior to the shot.
While you might not have demons and angels on your shoulders, you certainly have inner voices that control your mind when you’re face to face with your quarry. Let those voices build you up, not tear you down. As you talk silently to yourself, say things the angel would say, like, "You can do it. Just pick a spot. Execute the shot. You’ve got him." Feeding your mind with positive thoughts will weed out the negative thoughts that flow through the minds of so many bowhunters. Doubt is where many archers fail at crunch-time. To eliminate doubt, talk to yourself — positively.
A FEW YEARS BACK, a big Wisconsin whitetail gave me the chance to put these steps to the test. On a night when I was planning to shoot a doe, a hefty Pope and Young-class buck showed up. As soon as I spotted him, I began telling myself, This is no big deal. You are going to make a perfect shot. Just focus.
Although it was tempting, I never let the headgear become my focus. In fact, I closed my eyes momentarily, knowing it would help me to stay cool. My heart was pounding, Thud, thud, thud…
When the buck cleared the brush, he was a mere 30 yards from my stand and coming closer. I brought the string to full draw, but just at that moment the buck turned and presented a poor shot angle.
Anticipating he would again turn broadside, I held at full draw for over a minute, and the longer I held back, the more numb my release hand got. I couldn’t believe this was happening! Finally, I had a big buck now standing 18 yards from me, and I just couldn’t release an arrow!
This was and still is one of the most intense moments I have experienced in the woods. Still, my mind remained cool. I had done so much practice and mental preparation for this moment, I had no doubts about my ability to make a great shot.
Wisely letting down, I used the muscle-tensing tactic to calm my nerves as I waited another minute for the buck to give me a good shot angle. When he finally turned enough to expose his vitals, I began my second draw. Although my arms were weak from holding so long the first time, I managed to get the string to full draw. I hadn’t come this far to blow the shot, and I held my composure until the arrow sliced through his side exactly where my pin had been sitting.
Sixty yards later, he was down for the count. The buck weighed 240 pounds field dressed, and he scored in the mid-140s. What a victory! My preparation before the hunt and my patience on waiting for the right angle determined the outcome of this hunt. Because I kept my cool in the heat of the moment, I reaped a big reward.
For the record, I shook like a madman after the shot. My outlook is, Shoot first, shake later! The good Lord created the animals we pursue, and we owe it to Him to prepare ourselves to make clean, humane kills. Few events are more rewarding than watching your arrow disappear right where your pin is sitting. It creates a feeling that never gets old, and you can feel it every shot on game if you learn to chill when the heat is on.
The author works in his family’s archery pro shop in Wisconsin. His first story for Bowhunter, "One Hot September Evening," appeared in the May/June 2009 issue.
Author’s Notes: My archery setup for the deer hunt included a Mathews Prestige bow set at 71 lbs., Gold Tip Pro Hunter arrow, Rocket Steelhead broadhead, and Carter release.