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Learning the Body Language of Animals

Understanding environmental factors will tell you where to put the pin when the moment of truth arrives.

I don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not, or portray an image that isn’t true. So, here’s the deal: I’m far from a perfect bowhunter. I’ve been toting a stick-and-string around the woods for over two decades, and I’m still learning. I’ve missed animals. I’ve wounded animals. I’ve taken shots that I shouldn’t have — got caught up in the moment and made some horrible decision. That’s the stone-cold truth.

I tell you this because the social-media world, for the most part, shows something else entirely. Everything is always sunshine and roses, even in the bowhunting woods. This can’t be true. How do I know? Because bowhunting is freaking hard and Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head often. One of my favorite shirts is branded with the phrase "Bowhunting Sucks." I love it because it’s the truth. Ninety percent of the time bowhunting does suck. Why do we do it then? Because the other 10 percent is so magical, you’d be a fool not to involve yourself in such a pure discipline.

After 20-plus years of bowhunting, I was certain I had it all figured out. I was coming off an incredible season. I’d taken a pronghorn, bull elk and a pair of gagger white-tailed deer. The shots were all but perfect. I was shooting my back-tension-activated release better than ever. That’s when things went downhill.

Reaction Time

The pronghorn buck was on edge. It took him an hour to walk from 80 yards to 50. My hunting buddy, Danny Farris, was worried about running out of camera battery. Finally, at 50 yards, the buck turned broadside. I hit my clicker and the arrow was on its way. The shot broke perfectly, of that I was certain, but the arrow skipped off the bucks back, making a small, superficial cut. I was blown away.

“Man did he duck,” Danny said.

I was furious. Caught up in the moment, I snapped at him and said, “Stop trying to make me feel better.”

Later, while watching the event unfold on the big screen, it was clear the buck ducked my arrow. We figured the drop to be at least six inches. I would have pinwheeled him, but he ducked. The question is: Why did he duck? Looking back, there were multiple reason to consider, none of which I took into account. First, he was nervous. The rut was a little way off and he was on pins-and-needles not raging with testosterone. Second, though he was broadside, his face was looking directly at us, which meant his ears were facing toward the direction of the screaming arrow. Combine these two factors with a shot beyond 50 yards, and you have a recipe for disaster.

We saw that buck a week later chasing does. I was actually thankful the event had taken place, and of course, vowed not to make the same mistake again.

Practice holding your pin low on the heart of a 3-D target and executing shots. This will sharpen your mental mind and the reps you put in will cause you to stop and think before shooting for center lungs.

Then, another tragedy. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and I could hear the unmistakable sound of crunching leaves in the distance. He was shooter. There was no doubt. I was nervous. Not so much because of his heavy rack, but because he was walking the exact trail I’d walked in on. My scent-control system was doing its job, but it was obvious his olfactory system was telling him something wasn’t quite right. He switched trails, still a little edgy, and took a path directly under my stand. I drew. He heard it and bounded a few yards. I held mid-body and the arrow went right over his back.

Let’s rewind to see what went wrong. Like the pronghorn, the buck was already on edge. He had caught a whiff of me. With no wind to speak of, he was on alert, and when he heard me draw, his something-is-wrong-meter peaked. Then he heard the bow, and surely the arrow, and naturally, he ducked.

Both of these encounters were hard pills to swallow, but as the case in bowhunting, there’s always something to learn. We need to become students of the moment-of-truth situations we find ourselves in, and become pros at reading animal body language. Then, we need to have the presence of mind to slow down and add these factors into our where-to-hold equation.

Stop worrying about stacking arrows in the 12-ring. You aren’t training for a podium finish. You’re teaching your body and mind where you need to hold and execute in certain bowhunting situations.

On the pronghorn, it was clear I should have held low on the heart, or slightly off the hair. Or, I simply could have stayed patient and let the buck wander a bit closer. Another option would have been to let the buck quarter away. This would position his eyes and ears away from the direction the arrow was coming from.


As for the deer, so much went wrong, and it was all my fault. Whitetails are edgy critters, but up to that point, I’d yet to have one pull a major Houdini act. Still, I knew better. First, if the wind is nil, you need to hold low. I like a stiff breeze when hunting whitetail. They hear good enough as it is, and with no wind, sound is only amplified. Another mistake was trying to draw on the buck as he walked under my stand. There is such a thing as too close, and this was a shining example of it. Had I let the buck walk 20 or 25 yards, he would’ve have been quartering-away and, again, facing away from the sound of the approaching arrow.

Maybe you’ve been lucky. For the most part, when it comes to critters ducking the string, I had been. I took my good fortune for granted and was only focusing on making a clean release. There is so much more that goes into a shot.

Also, and I don’t want to climb on a soap box here, but it’s important to remember that archery isn’t a long-range game. Yes, today’s equipment is incredible, but animals are engineered to survive, and their reaction time is second to none. By the time you arrow travels 80 yards toward an on-alert animal, that animal can easily react. Paying attention to the outside conditions and the body language of animals will help lead to shorter blood trials and fewer rodeos.

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