I have had only one opportunity in my life at an animal I would say was truly world class. It was in California, a little over 13 years ago. I had switched arrows just before that hunt and I didn't have time to bare shaft or paper tune. I wasn't too worried though, because my arrows seemed like they were flying well.
It was pouring rain when I spotted the buck, and my guide said he thought he knew where the buck was going. We sprinted to a small ravine where my guide crouched a few yards behind me and whispered that he thought the buck would come our way. When I saw the buck coming through the downpour following a doe, I couldn't believe how big he looked up close. He was barely 20 yards when I drew. I didn't hope I was going to shoot him, I knew it.
I watched in shock as my arrow barrel-rolled and stuck in the dirt beneath the giant deer. The only thing worse than my horror in missing that buck was the disgusted look on my guide's face when he said that it was one of the biggest deer he'd ever seen.
My feathers were soaked and sticking to the shaft so I shot another arrow to see what went wrong. I had the same result. We headed back to camp and I shot another arrow with dry fletching. It kicked a little but still went where it was supposed to go. The good news is that the next day, with dry feathers, I double-lunged a 2x2. More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson. My arrows were not tuned properly. Once they were wet, the poorly spined arrow did its own thing. I now consider arrow tuning to be one of the most important factors in having a successful hunt.
So why is poor arrow flight such a serious malady? For starters, it makes you less accurate. Second, the wind drag created by a poorly flying arrow robs it of its kinetic energy, thus impeding penetration, often significantly. Wind drag also makes the arrow noisier in flight.
So how do we fix the problem? The first thing to do is use the right arrow. A pro shop is a great place to start. If you don't know of a dealer in your area, you can go to www.archerysearch.com and click on "Archery Shops." It will give you the name and location of the archery dealer closest to you.
If there aren't any shops nearby, you can look the information up yourself online. For carbon and aluminum arrows, just go to the arrow manufacturer of your choice and check their website for charts listing the arrows that should work for your setup. For wood arrows, I would either go to a local pro shop or to one of the large traditional retailers like Three Rivers Archery or Kustom King. Woods are sold in 5-lb. increments (the spine range matches the weight on your bow) so if you're shooting a 50-lb. longbow you would try wood arrows spined at 50-55 lbs. or 45-50 lbs.
Depending on your arrow length and point weight, you may have to go up or down in spine to find the perfect shaft. Bear in mind all arrows are not created equal. Whether you shoot wood, carbon or aluminum, buy quality arrows. Make sure you're working with arrows that are matched in spine, weight, and length if you're going to properly tune an arrow. For fletching, I prefer feathers. I use three 4" feathers, but I have also used three 5" feathers as well as four 4" feathers and even four 5" feathers over the years.
Now, grab a fletched arrow that is cut to your arrow length. I like a good inch of clearance past my riser on my arrows. Screw on a fieldpoint that matches the broadhead weight you want to shoot.
Next, shoot through a piece of paper. You can buy paper tuners, but it's very easy to make your own. The simplest way is to tape a piece of newspaper or butcher paper firmly over a wooden picture frame. Give yourself a good 30" square to shoot through. Stand six feet away and shoot on a level plane through the paper (make sure you have a safe backstop). You're looking for a perfect hole showing only three small cuts where the fletching went through. If that didn't happen, you need to start adjusting. If your arrow kicked up, leaving a small hole on the bottom of the paper with a larger tear high, it means your nock set is too high. If your tear went down, it means your nock set is too low.
Now things start to get a little trickier. If your arrow is kicking left, it means your arrow spine is too weak. To fix a left tear, you have some options. You can go up to the next heavier spined arrow or you can use a lighter point. A reduction in point weight will cause your arrow to flex less, effectively making it stiffer. Another option is to shorten your arrow, making it stiffer. If your tear is to the right, your arrow is too stiff. To remedy this you can go to a weaker spined arrow, shoot a heavier point, or lengthen your arrow, all of which will cause your arrow to flex more.
The above spine assessment is based on a right-handed shooter. If you are left-handed, you must reverse the procedure. For up and down tears the nock adjustment remedy remains the same. When lengthening or shortening your arrow to adjust spine, I usually go in half-inch increments. If you have an arrow kicking anything other than horizontally or vertically, it is usually a combination of spine and nock set. In this case, fix one problem at a time.
Bear in mind that these tear solutions are based on a shooter holding the bow perfectly straight up and down (Olympic style). If you cant your bow a lot, it changes your solution based on your degree of cant. I cant my bow about 45 degrees, so I have to take that into consideration when evaluating my arrow hole through the paper. It is important to realize that all arrows flex as they leave the bow. What we want to achieve is the right amount of flex so that after the arrow flexes it straightens out and continues in a straight path.
Once you get a perfect hole at six feet, move back to 12 feet and check it again. After paper tuning, I like to shoot a bare shaft with no feathers at a target. Once my arrow is tuned properly, I can shoot a bare shaft with a fieldpoint as accurately as a feathered arrow out to 20 yards.
If only I had taken the time to tune my arrows before that ill-fated day 13 years ago...