Over the years I have interviewed many champion archers, archery coaches, and successful bowhunters. And I personally have spent nearly 50 years trying to perfect my own archery and bowhunting skills. Here are four lessons I have learned from this background that have contributed in a big way to my bowhunting success.
A NOSE FOR ACCURACY
One summer, I could not shoot a tight group to save my life. Vertically my arrows were right on, but horizontally they were all over the place. No matter how carefully I released the string, my arrows inexplicably hit left or right of the bull's-eye.
In late summer, I was in a hunting camp with Randy Ulmer and did not hesitate to tap into his expertise. So at his direction, I lined up at the target butt to loose a few arrows for his viewing pleasure. But after one arrow, he said, "I see your problem, and it's easy to fix."
"Huh?" I responded. "How could you know that after a single arrow?"
"It's obvious. You're anchoring hard against your cheek, and you don't get identical pressure every shot," Randy said. "With the varied pressure, your arrows fly right and left, depending on how hard you press the string into your face."
As Randy pointed out, with a peep and a front sight, you don't necessarily need a solid anchor. As long as you have the peep, front sight pin, and target lined up, you're on target.
"You want to eliminate all string contact with your face," Randy concluded. "Simply touch the string to the tip of your nose. That should be the only point of contact between the string and your body."
Applying Randy's advice took some practice, but once I learned to touch the string to the tip of my nose, my groups instantly tightened up and my hunting accuracy improved greatly.
Conventional archery wisdom has always said, "Let the bow shoot itself," which means eliminate any tension in your body that might affect the bow's natural movement. As you aim and release, the bow must be able to go through its natural movements to ensure consistent accuracy.
To ensure that, your entire body must remain relaxed, starting with your bow hand. A tight or rigid bow hand can torque the bow, which affects arrow flight. To ensure peak accuracy, you must keep your bow hand relaxed.
And to do that, you must use a wrist sling. Some bowhunters say a wrist sling is not necessary, but I disagree. You would never see a competitive archer shooting without a wrist sling, and the principles of accuracy apply just as much in hunting as in target shooting.
Proper hand position furthers relaxation. Your hand should be turned at a 45-degree angle, as it would be if you were pointing at a distant object. As you hold at full draw, your little finger should not be in front of the handle but to the side. And the fingers should droop naturally, totally relaxed.
A high-level archery coach once told me he has his students smear Wesson Oil on the palm of their bow hand to make it slick — a good way to train students to let the bow seek its natural position. I wouldn't recommend that for hunting, but I would recommend wearing slick gloves to accomplish the same end. While hunting — and practicing for hunting — I wear a wool glove on my bow hand, which allows my bow hand to slide perfectly into the handle every shot, just as if it were coated with Wesson Oil. I don't like gloves with rubberized palms, because the bow will not slide naturally. Above all, you want to let the bow shoot itself.
KEEP IT LIGHT
Back in my 30s and 40s, I always said you should be able to hold your bow in the shooting position, sight pin on the target, and draw straight back without strain. Back then, I could easily do that with my bow set at 55 — 60 pounds draw weight.
No more. With advancing age, a person — every person — loses muscle mass and strength, and sadly I have not been immune. However, not wanting to concede to reality, for years I continued to shoot the same draw weight I'd always shot, and the results were not always good. On more than one occasion, struggling to draw my bow, I either failed to reach full draw in time, or had animals spot me struggling to draw my bow — even in a treestand. Finally, accepting reality, I have reduced my draw weight to match my physical ability, with much better results.
Shooting an excessively heavy draw weight is not unique to me. On one elk-hunting video, the hunter (a young, strong guy), while waiting for an elk to come within range, raised his bow straight over his head to pull the string — and still could not reach full draw. The incoming bull stared at him briefly, seemingly mystified, and then headed for safer parts.
That's not uncommon. Some people think they need to shoot an ultra-heavy draw weight to make clean kills, but the real question is, how much draw weight is enough? No one can answer that question with absolute certainty, of course, because the variables in hunting are so great. But I, like everyone else, can offer an opinion.
Standard advice has always been to shoot as much draw weight as you can shoot comfortably. That's okay advice as long as you keep emphasis on the key word — "comfortably." And even that isn't definitive, because the draw weight you can shoot easily at the target range in shirtsleeves by no means will be "comfortable" when you're bundled up in a treestand on a 10-degree day in December. Broadly, I would suggest dropping your draw weight five to 10 pounds below your maximum "comfortable" weight at the target range.
What if that puts your draw weight down to 50 pounds, or even 40? Isn't that too light for most big game? Again, no one can prescribe absolute minimum draw weights required for specific animals. But I will say I have shot a couple of dozen elk and several moose with bows in the 50-pound range, and I have got complete pass-throughs on most of them. And countless ladies, young people, and senior citizens like me have killed thousands of deer cleanly with bows of 40-pounds draw weight.
That's because shot placement is everything. An arrow through the lungs/heart from a 40-pound bow will produce a much quicker kill on any animal than an ill-placed arrow from an 80-pound bow. Shoot a legal draw weight you can handle easily and shoot accurately, and penetration will take care of itself.
A FIRM FOUNDATION
Some years ago, researchers studied Olympic archers to determine the major variables in accuracy. Many aspects of form contributed, of course, but the researchers determined that the single most significant variable was leg strength.
That might seem surprising, but it makes a lot of sense. After all, to hold a steady aim, you cannot be swaying like a tree branch in the wind. You must be rock solid, and that calls for a solid foundation. That's where leg strength comes into play. Strong legs provide a solid platform.
The obvious starting point would be weight training to develop powerful glutes and quads, but that's not the whole answer. In bowhunting, you may have to shoot from varied positions on uneven ground, and in these situations shooting stance could be more important than sheer strength.
In a treestand, standing can be okay if you can achieve a solid stance, but in many cases a sitting position can be a lot more stable than standing. Whenever possible, I stay seated while shooting from a treestand, because that's about as steady as you can get. The same can be said from a ground blind. A steady chair or stool provides the ultimate in shooting stability.
In stalking or still-hunting, you often have to shoot from a kneeling position. It's tempting to shoot on one knee with the other knee raised, but that can be a pretty shaky position. Much better to kneel on both knees, which builds an immovable shooting platform.