May 18, 2021
By Chuck Adams
The 6x6 elk drifted toward the waterhole like a ghost, but his rack tipped us off long before he arrived. The bull’s antlers floated above a ridge as he took a few steps, stopped to peer and sniff, and then eased ahead once more. He repeated this process a dozen times over the next 10 minutes. Finally, the wary animal relaxed, strolled into view, and dropped his head to drink.
My hunting companion was an excellent shot, but short on elk experience. I had agreed to help him bag a bull in the same spot where I had nailed a whopper the week before. It was hot, dry, and too early in September for much rutting activity. Waterhole hunting was the way to go.
The bull faced us as he drank, and my pal knew enough to wait for a better angle. Finally, the heat-parched elk backed up, turned broadside, and paused. At 20 yards, his 16-inch chest zone looked huge, and my friend drilled it dead-center. His 30-inch arrow buried halfway, and the bull galloped over the ridge. We high-fived and waited 30 minutes.
Trouble loomed as soon as we went after the bull. There was no blood on the ground, and we couldn’t find tracks in the thick grass. Two hours later, the sun sank, and we still had not found the animal. My buddy’s bow was set at 50 pounds — perfect for deer, but a bit light for elk. There was no blood-letting exit hole, but both lungs had clearly been penetrated.
“Let me see one of your broadheads,” I suggested, as we trudged back to the pickup for more powerful flashlights.
I was flabbergasted when I dragged a blade across my thumbnail. The edge skated like it had been greased, and it would not even dig into the skin of my thumb when I carefully applied pressure. My pal had purchased cheap, off-brand broadheads, and they were as dull as a hoe. It was a huge mistake.
Hours later, near midnight, I crossed a ridge a half-mile from the hit site and nearly stepped on the bull. He was dead but had not begun to bloat. What luck. By sunrise, the meat would’ve spoiled.
The desired outcome is a fast kill and a quick recovery. This doesn’t always happen, but following these precautions will increase the odds that it will.
Precaution #1 — Stay Sharp
Razor-keen broadheads are essential to quick, humane kills. If the edges won’t shave hair, they shouldn’t be used.
Most modern broadheads have finely honed edges. But you cannot take this for granted. Some cut-rate heads are notoriously dull, and even a topnotch head can lose its edge after sliding in and out of quiver foam several times or bumping against obstacles in the field. Of course, non-sharpened, fixed-blade heads like the Zwickey and MA-3 must be carefully filed and honed before you hunt with them.
Most bowhunters do not possess the time or skill to sharpen a broadhead from scratch, or even touch up replaceable blades. Better to hunt with brand-new heads with factory-honed blades.
A sharp broadhead penetrates better and slices tissue and blood vessels cleanly to promote non-clotting blood loss. By comparison, a dull head plows through flesh to create a mangled, slow-bleeding hole. Blood trails will be poor, and animals will travel farther before they drop.
If you doubt this, ask my friend. He now uses G5 Striker broadheads, and shoots a 65-pound bow for elk. He’s taken six more bulls since our difficult hunt, and none have traveled over 125 yards.
Precaution #2 — Drive Deep
I’ve heard it said a broadhead should stay inside the animal. The theory behind that being that the head will continue to cut as the critter runs away.
I strongly disagree. In my experience, two holes in the hide are always better than one. Complete broadhead penetration cuts more flesh and boosts the number of sliced arteries and veins. In the case of a shot through the chest, an exit hole also helps to quickly collapse the lungs. Blood loss is increased for a quicker kill and easier trailing.
For these reasons, you should use the heaviest-draw bow you can accurately shoot. For more penetration, couple this with moderately heavy arrows that absorb more power from your bow. For every 50 grains of extra arrow weight from the same bow, penetrating kinetic energy increases about 1½ percent. That’s not a lot, but it might drive your arrow the extra inch or two needed for an exit hole. It might also provide extra “oomph” to shatter a shoulder or spine if your shot goes awry. To maximize penetration, arrows must be tuned for perfect flight, so all the energy is directly behind the broadhead.
Precaution #3 — Aim Well
A well-placed arrow will kill any animal in short order. Wait for a broadside or quartering-away shot that gives you maximum access to the heart and lungs. Facing, quartering-to, or sharply quartering-away shots greatly reduce your chances of hitting the heart and/or both lungs.
Enough can go wrong, even with a perfect shooting angle at a distance you know you can easily hit. The animal may turn or step ahead, or hear your bow and crouch. In such cases, a shaving-sharp broadhead from a powerful bow might save the day, but why risk lowering the odds? Aiming well always makes sense.
Consider the 5x5 Montana mule deer I bagged just last October. I stalked the 180-class buck for nearly an hour and eased inside 40 yards as he chewed on brush.
The deer’s rump was looking me square in the face at first, and then the muley swapped ends with his chest head-on. He angled toward me for a while, and finally quartered slightly away. This waiting game went on for at least 10 minutes.
I struck the instant the quartering deer dropped his head behind a bush. My Easton arrow smashed with a solid thud…and you could have scraped my eyes off with a stick! The buck flipped upside-down on the spot, his legs windmilling in the air. He finally regained his feet and then staggered over a hill. I found him barely 30 yards away, dead as a wedge. The Striker V2 broadhead from my 75-pound Hoyt bow had sliced both lungs and broken the far shoulder.
Hats off to a razor-keen broadhead, plenty of bow power, and a center-chest hit!
Precaution #4 — Go Slow
It might sound like a contradiction, but haste makes waste when it comes to quick game recovery.
For starters, you need to remember time-tested rules about following arrow-hit animals. Unless you see the critter drop, wait 30 minutes after a chest hit. Wait three hours before following a hit in the butt, liver, or neck. Wait six hours after a hit in the stomach.
From there, go slow, so you don’t bump an animal and push it far and fast with little or no sign to follow. If you go slow, you will either find a dead animal, or be within range for a follow-up shot.
Taking extra time often results in a faster recovery!
Checking Broadhead Sharpness
There are several ways to test the sharpness of a broadhead’s blades. The first is by using the head to carefully shave a little hair from your arm. An edge that shaves is lethal. My left arm is slick as a billiard ball after hunting season, because I check broadhead sharpness on a regular basis.
You can also drag a broadhead edge across your thumbnail with a little downward pressure. A truly sharp edge will instantly dig in, rather than sliding across the nail.
A third test is stretching a rubber band between your thumb and forefinger. A keen edge will cleanly slice the band with almost no resistance. When that same edge impacts animal veins and arteries, it will slice those vessels the same way.
The cut from a sharp broadhead will bleed freely without clotting for a faster, more humane kill.
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