Quick decisions are the rule when bowhunters shoot at big game. These mind-bending moments are tough enough with fully functional gray matter, but they are nearly impossible when that gray matter melts from a jolt of white-hot adrenaline.
Sorting through the factors influencing this crucial decision is tough at any time, especially if you face it for the first time standing at full draw over a big buck. Have a shot-selection plan in place, think your way through each possible shot, and rehearse the tough decisions before you face them in the wild. On stand, you may have only a couple of seconds to act decisively -- or not at all.
The goal for every bowhunter should be to make a clean, fast kill with every shot, and the most effective way is to put a razor-sharp broadhead through the thoracic (chest) cavity. Below, I have compiled the most common shot challenges you will face while hunting from treestands. My suggestions following each scenario are based on my education and practice as a veterinarian and my 25 years of bowhunting experience.
Straight-on shots offer nothing but heartache. Beyond the prospect of poor penetration and the likelihood of a glancing hit, you have a very low-odds target. Even for an elk hunter, this is a low-percentage shot. At a whitetail from a treestand, this shot definitely gets the red flag. Don't shoot!
The good news: The deer will eventually move to give you other shot options. Be patient; but be ready. Wait for the deer to offer one of its sides. If the deer keeps moving toward you, it will soon be straight down -- another tough shot. Stay patient. Wait for a better angle.
Straight-down shots are very tempting. The deer is right there -- you're nearly standing on it. The need to release the arrow is almost overwhelming. Although this may seem like a great shot, it's one of the worst in bowhunting. This angle is more likely than any other to produce a fatally hit but unrecovered deer. I would rather see a bowhunter take a 40-yard shot at a broadside deer than a straight-down shot.
Too often, straight-down shots produce single-lung hits. Such a hit may deflate the lung and kill the deer, but not for many hours. You may not even get a pass-through, yielding a poor blood trail and a tough tracking job.
You might be tempted to try a straight-down spine shot. The spine on a whitetail is only two inches wide, and the spinal cord itself is only three-quarters of an inch wide. If you miss the spine, you'll likely get poor penetration due to the bone and muscle surrounding the cord. The risk of a poor hit is too high, making the spine shot a poor choice.
As with straight-on shots, be patient. If you simply wait, the deer will move away from your stand at some point, and as long as it remains calm, the deer is likely to offer a better shot before it walks out of range.
If conditions prevent your waiting (if the buck is getting spooky and appears ready to bolt), you do have one shot in this situation: You can aim for the liver and diaphragm. The liver is a vital organ, and slicing it with a broadhead will produce a humane kill. This shot requires a very good understanding of deer anatomy -- better than most bowhunters possess (see graphic below). Inexperienced bowhunters should not take this shot. Do not shoot unless you have field-dressed many deer, studied their anatomy, and know exactly where to aim.
Aiming point: If you elect to take this shot, don't aim too far forward. That produces the dreaded single lung hit. Instead, pick a spot just in front of the halfway point between the front leg and the rear ham (white dotted lines). Aim to the side of the backbone (yellow dot). Your arrow will hit the liver, diaphragm, and possibly one lung for a quick kill.
Patience will improve the quartering-toward shot angle, so you don't need to rush. The quartering deer will quickly become broadside as it passes your stand. However, at times you may not have the luxury of waiting. I have taken three shots at deer quartering toward me. In all cases, the deer were headed straight for my scent stream or would soon be shielded by brush.
All of those shots produced quick kills, but I have passed up dozens of such shots that did not meet my criteria. The quartering-toward shot must pass a very restrictive test before it qualifies as ethical. You must be able to judge when the angle is too sharp, so inexperienced bowhunters should automatically pass on this shot.
This shot is ethical only when the angle is slight, and when the range and your mental state allow you to be extremely accurate. Assess your skills. Because of the angle, your margin for error is almost nonexistent. If you are not positive you can hit within an inch of your intended target at the given shot distance, do not shoot. Most bowhunters should pass on this shot at distances past 15 yards.
Aiming point: Hit as close to the nearside front leg as possible. In fact, aim just above what some call the elbow joint. Wait until the deer moves the leg forward to take a step and then shoot. This exposes the vitals. If you don't think your arrow will pass through one lung and the liver, pass on the shot. This unforgiving shot requires a good understanding of anatomy -- and exactly where your bow is shooting.
Broadside shots clearly get the green light. However, you still need to make adjustments for treestand height. You can't simply aim at the same place on the deer as you do on a 3-D target when shooting from the ground.
Aiming point: Rather than trying to explain the best angle for every stand height, I will give you a better method for deciding how high to aim. Visualize the path of the arrow through the deer. Aim at a point that will cause the arrow to pass through the center of the body cavity. Subconsciously, I even feel as if I aim for the exit hole when shooting from a treestand in order to assure that my entry point is perfect. This will require that yo
u aim slightly higher than you would from ground level.
Like the broadside shot, the quartering-away shot gets the green light. Take it immediately.
Aiming point: The tendency here is to aim too far forward. The ideal exit hole on any quartering-away shot is the offside front leg. Choose an aiming point that will produce this exit hole. Aim right through the animal to the exit hole you want to make, and the entry point will automatically compensate for body angle.
THE HEAD SHOT
I was in a camp a few years ago where one of the other hunters intentionally took a head shot at a doe. He made a good shot and killed her cleanly. It got me thinking about the ethics involved in head shots with a bow and arrow. Only a very small target on the head will result in an immediate kill and not a deflection.
My decision: This is not an ethical shot. Deer do not hold their heads still long enough to make this shot reasonable. When a deer jumps the string at the sound of the release, the head moves first. If brush hides a deer's vitals, wait for the deer to step clear. Do not take a head shot.
THE TEXAS HEART SHOT
My apologies to you Texans -- I didn't name this shot. Here is another unpleasant story. I sat in camp seven years ago with a somewhat successful bowhunter. He was telling everyone around the table that he would shoot deer and elk in the ham if that were the only shot available. When questioned, he said that by getting on the animal and pushing hard right after the hit, he could cause it to bleed and weaken so he could eventually finish it with a second arrow.
Many eyes rolled around that dinner table. This is an irresponsible attitude and bad advice. On rare occasions, this shot will work, but it will produce many more wounded deer than quick kills.
The Texas heart shot -- the straightaway shot taken at the back of the rear legs -- at times can produce a very quick kill. The femoral artery that runs down the inside of both legs carries a tremendous amount of blood. Hitting it will drop even the most tenacious buck within 150 yards. But the target is minuscule, and the odds of missing the artery and causing a serious flesh wound and slow death are too high to consider this a legitimate target.
Where to aim and why:
A different perspective
When shooting at an animal standing broadside, the traditional aiming point for bowhunters would be just behind the front shoulder and a third of the way up from the brisket. This is the sweet spot. If you hit that spot, you will pierce the heart and make a quick kill.
I argue that the sweet spot is a great place to shoot a big game animal, but not always the best place to aim. When aiming for the sweet spot, you are aiming for the narrow portion of the thoracic cavity, and your margin for error is very small.
On a deer, if you aim at the sweet spot and miss your target by four inches high, low, or forward, you merely wound the deer. A high shot hits the spine or shoulder blade, a low shot clips the brisket; and a forward shot hits the shoulder or leg bone. Unless you're 100-percent sure of your shot, you should pick a target with a much larger margin of error.
It may sound like heresy, but I think the better aiming point is four inches behind the shoulder. When viewed from above or the side, the chest cavity of most game animals is shaped like a funnel, with the narrow portion of the funnel at the front (see graphic on page 60). If you aim four inches behind the sweet spot and miss four inches in any direction, you still have a kill.
The liver shot, four inches back from the sweet spot, is lethal and highly underrated. I have never lost a liver-hit animal, but I regretfully cannot say the same about a lung shot. The liver is a highly vascular organ. A liver shot won't cause instant collapse of the organ like a lung shot, but the animal will drop, usually within a few hundred yards. Still, recognizing a liver shot and giving the animal plenty of time to go down are extremely important. If pushed, the animal may travel a long distance. Undisturbed, most liver-shot animals bed and die quickly.
An aiming point farther back in the cone provides a larger and thicker target, with the arrow penetrating more tissue. In heavily muscled animals like moose or elk, aiming farther back becomes even more important than traditional thought would dictate. The latissimus and triceps muscles on these animals are thicker toward the front of the thoracic cavity. An arrow passing through the lungs farther back penetrates much less muscle and often proves more lethal.
Let me explain how the lungs work. The lungs of an animal have no capacity to fill with air on their own. They inflate only because they are in a sealed environment. Muscles surrounding the chest cavity force the lungs to expand with air, filling the vacuum. An arrow passing through the chest breaks this seal. When the chest expands after a shot, air enters from the outside into the space surrounding the lungs, forcing the lungs to collapse, depriving the animal of oxygen.
A double-lung shot is important. Ruminants (deer, sheep, etc.) have a membrane separating the lungs called a non-patent mediastinum, which is complete and airtight. This membrane allows one lung to remain fully functional, even if the other collapses.
Even so, shooting an animal through both lungs is not a guaranteed kill. The arrow passes through many layers of tissue on its way through the animal. It pierces the skin, subcutaneous tissue, muscle, and finally the intercostal muscles and pleura. When these layers slide on each other, the holes no longer line up, and the tissues seal the hole.
Take this lesson from my anatomy and physiology lecture: Aim for the big part of the cone and you will most likely have a clean, quick kill.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SHOT SELECTION
Forget the creative angles and stick with the bread and butter -- broadside and quartering-away shots. If you draw your bow as soon as a deer gets within range, and then remain ready and patient, you will generally get at least one ideal shot angle before the deer moves out of range.
When you see an opportunity, be aggressive but not reckless. If you're not 100-percent sure of what you are doing, or confident you have the skill to pull it off, don't shoot. The shots you do not take better indicate your maturity as a bowhunter than the number of deer you shoot.