The serene sound of fresh, high-mountain air was all around me as I hiked through the Nevada forest. I was all alone, on a solo backpacking trip.
I was moving along slowly in cat-like mode, taking one cautious footstep at a time and feeling the ground through my snug-fitting Oboz hiking shoes and slip-on Safari Stalker booties. I had spotted deer in these woods the evening before, so I knew game was nearby.
Suddenly, I caught a flash. It was a bachelor group of 12 or more bucks, about 120 yards distant. I froze, then orchestrated a quick plan to move from one aspen tree to the next until I was within comfortable bow range.
The deer were unaware as I closed to 42 yards. I picked out the lead buck and began focusing intently on his chest. I knew I'd have to time the shot just as he stood between two tree trunks. Finally, the moment came and I hit full draw. I somehow gained tunnel vision on the spot I wanted to hit, despite heavy doses of adrenaline surging through my body. The next thing I knew, the arrow was off.
I didn't see the impact but I did hear a loud crack, and then I thought I saw some blood on the buck's lower shoulder region as he moved quickly through the trees. I waited 30 minutes, then eased over the edge in the terrain to look for blood and to scan downslope for the deer.
Minutes later, I had the buck in my binoculars. He was down, and relaxation soon came over me. Then I saw his head bob. Uh, oh, I thought. Quickly, I nocked another arrow and tiptoed into shooting range, but his vitals were covered up by sticks and limbs. I finally found a small hole that I thought I could slip an arrow through. I found my anchor, and tightened my back until the shot was gone. However, the arrow clattered off a few branches and missed the buck's vitals, striking the buck far back. The deer rose and bolted farther downhill. I was horrified.
Frantically I grabbed another arrow, and just as the buck hobbled 30 yards downrange, I swiveled the rangefinder on the deer's side, snapped a reading, and then hit full draw once again. A few seconds later, the broadhead-tipped shaft slammed into the buck's chest. With a sigh of relief, I knew the the animal would be down for good.
Bowhunting Is Not an Exact Science
You can practice archery 300 days a year and still not claim perfection while shooting at game. Even the best bowhunting shots I know tell stories about how a well-executed arrow went astray and glanced off a branch, or somehow impacted the animal marginally. Also, extreme downhill/uphill attempts present additional problems and impact errors. Animals notoriously jump the string as well. I've seen these factors cause less-than-desirable hits on animals time and again. As a result, we sometimes have to clean up bad shots. This means reacting quickly with a fast, fatal follow-up shot.
By no means am I saying you should shoot a first arrow at an animal, then "push" it around in an attempt to send off a second insurance shot. No. Never. I am only saying that if you suspect a marginal arrow strike and the animal is still out in the open where a second shooting opportunity exists, then it's wise and ethical to shoot the animal once again in hopes of preventing a long, drawn-out recovery effort.
With that in mind, here are three things you can do to better prepare for such follow-up shooting scenarios.
Plan for Quick Shots
When shooting at game, I tend to become engulfed with a blend of adrenaline and focus. I often find myself in a trance as I hit full draw and shoot the arrow. However, it's smart to snap out of such a mindset as soon as the arrow is off. This way you can grab a second arrow and begin setting up for another shot, as it's needed. In most cases, you might only have a few seconds to react, aim, and shoot, or you'll miss the crucial opportunity that could likely save you lots of agony and time searching later.
Like anything else in life, if we don't practice and run through certain mental scenarios well ahead of time, we won't do well, particularly when the pressure is on.
There are two ways you can practice this sort of thing. You can shoot at a 3-D target, pretend you have a poorly hit, fleeing animal on your hands, and then draw another arrow as quickly as you can and shoot again. Or, you can rove the flats or foothills while hunting small game like ground squirrels, rabbits, or prairie dogs, training yourself to shoot a fast, second arrow as quickly as you can.
I grew up bowhunting ground squirrels, cottontails, jackrabbits, and valley quail in the deserts, and I believe this is the best way to train yourself to deliver fast, effective follow-up shots. If you mainly hunt from a treestand, then be sure to practice at a 3-D target in a similar fashion. In this case, I'd recommend taking your initial shot on a close-up, 20-yard target, then shooting again at a much farther 3-D target situated deep in the woods.
You should time yourself, too. Try to locate the target, achieve the distance using your rangefinder, pick a spot and release the second arrow, all in 30 seconds or less.
Practice at Long Range
Feathers often get ruffled when mentioning long-range shots at big game. However, I have a completely different viewpoint on this subject than most people. The way I see it, learning long-range shooting is important for two reasons. First, it helps you work out the bugs in your shooting form (in addition to keeping the sport challenging and fun). Second, it makes you deadlier in a follow-up scenario.
In many cases, when a marginal hit occurs, especially in open country, animals run some distance initially, then they either stop and hunch up or they hobble along while stopping frequently. This is your opportunity to shoot again. In this context, I see long-range shooting as nothing but ethical, and humane. Why not do everything you can to speed up the recovery and at least attempt a second shot?
This means taking those 70, 80, and even 90-yard shots on 3-D targets, just to see how accurate you are with your setup, and how you should aim on longer shots. I typically use a six-pin fixed sight, which means my bottom pin is sighted in for 70 yards. However, I often add a seventh pin at the very bottom of the sight guard, adjusting it to 85 or 90 yards. This way I can extend my follow-up shooting distance even further. With setups that don't allow more vertical movement inside the guard, I'll use a strip of fiber optic with a bead of glue over the top of it (positioned along the inner guard area), or cut a notch on the inside of the sight guard (both of which are lined up horizontally with my other pins), and use this element as an additional aiming "bead." I practice occasionally using such secondary sights, just in case I need them. I never use them for initial shooting attempts — only for back-up shots.
Be Fast With Your Rangefinder
I alluded to this earlier, but to make a fast, back-up shot count, you must know the precise distance to the target. Practice using your rangefinder until you can achieve readings in about five seconds or less. In order to do this, you must keep your rangefinder quick at hand. I like to tether my rangefinder around my neck using a short strap. This way I can grab it and click in a blink. A loose-fitting hip-belt pocket can work as well, but I do feel it's a bit slower. Choose what works best for you and your style of hunting.
Bowhunting isn't always black and white, where arrows either land perfectly in the sweet spot or miss completely. Sometimes well-executed shots fly off course into a marginal area on the animal, whether it's due to simple aiming error, excitement, arrow obstruction, or because the animal moves at the shot. No matter, it pays to prepare for a fast, follow-up shooting situation. By following these simple tips, you can improve your bowhunting results in such unexpected situations and become a more effective, consistently successful bowhunter.