One thing that new bowhunters often focus solely on when shooting at a deer from an elevated position is where they think the arrow needs to hit, just like when target shooting. This seems like a pretty logical way to do things, but in reality doesn’t take into account the entirety of what makes a shot truly lethal.
Treestand shot selection has to be tied to the path of the arrow in relation to the angle of the deer’s body and how steep the shot angle is. Where your arrow needs to pass through a deer — and hopefully exit — matters, which means that simply settling your pin a few inches behind the shoulder and executing a shot isn’t the best route to a grip-and-grin photo session. This reality can be tricky enough from ground level, but demands a bit more from a bowhunter who chooses to use elevated stands.
One of the reasons I believe so many bowhunters screw up their chance at big bucks is because they don’t have enough experience aiming at, and correctly shooting, deer in general — let alone a deer they desperately want to possess. When you watch a whitetail feed its way past you in a beanfield or pick its way along browsing through the woods, just watch the body position from step to step.
It’s constantly changing, and while that’s easy enough to notice on a spike you don’t intend to skewer, it’s not so easy to acknowledge when a 135-inch buck cruises past your stand with his nose down and lust in his heart.
Every leg that moves repositions a deer’s body ever-so-slightly, just as their head positioning and whatever they are focusing on at the moment can alter your shot placement. From a treestand, you’ll also have serious considerations because the angle will be further affected not only by the deer’s body, but you’re height over it. And the higher you get, the tighter your margin-for-error will grow in relation to point of impact and arrow path.
This is one of the reasons I’m an advocate for folks following a lower-standard route to becoming a veteran bowhunter. Starting on 150 inchers is your prerogative as an individual, but unless you spend the holidays at your Uncle Drury’s, you’ll probably fire very, very few arrows every season. And inexperience in the realm of understanding how to make a shot is a big deal. So big, in fact, that plenty of rookie(ish) bowhunters give up the pursuit because it’s too hard.
Understand The Angles
We all know that a quartered-away deer is going to necessitate an aim point that creeps farther back as the angle increases. A quartered-to deer is going to force you to work the other way, bringing the dreaded shoulder closer to your point-of-impact with every degree.
When either of those shots present themselves and you’re 16 feet above the deer, now you’ve got to factor in the downward trajectory. This might mean aiming high lung or near-liver on a quartered-away shot — probably something you’ve never even considered practicing on a target.
In fact, most bowhunters probably never practice from an elevated position at all. Instead, we’re more likely to creep back to 80 yards and work on our long game than we are to set up a stand or find a safe deck to shoot from. If you think about that, it's kind of crazy — why wouldn’t we work on the shots we're almost guaranteed to be presented with in the deer woods? It takes a little more consideration for this style of practice, of course, but it's worth it. It’s also worth it to think about just how jumpy deer really are, and what that means to the elevated shooter.
Drop It Like It's...
About 10 years ago I shot at a buck in Wisconsin on film. The relaxed deer was cruising through when I put my pin behind his shoulder and touched one off. My arrow passed through his backstraps and we watched in amazement on the camera screen at how much the buck dropped at the shot.
This is a wild card, but alert deer — and sometimes relaxed ones — will usually drop some at the shot. It might not be enough to matter, but occasionally it is. If you already need to hold your pin high to drive your arrow down through due to a steep angle, you’re going to be flirting with a bad situation if the deer is on edge. It’s a very hard thing to factor this into the shot equation when your adrenaline is running hot and everything is unfolding at warp speed, but you’ve got to be cognizant of the possibility and adjust accordingly.
This won’t mean changing your point of impact so much that if the deer doesn’t drop, you’re going to screw things up. It’ll mean cheating to a happy medium place where maybe your aiming point is two inches lower than what would be necessary on a calm, unaware buck.
Sounds complicated, right? Well, kind of. You’re trying to take out the heart or both lungs with the perfect shot, but you won’t know what the perfect shot is until a few seconds before you take it. And you might draw thinking the perfect aiming point is in one spot and the deer could make one slight move and necessitate a total realignment. This might happen five times in 20 seconds, which sends inexperienced bowhunters into a bad place.
But there is hope.
How To Get Better
Elevated practice on a 3D target is a game changer. Figure out a way to do it if it’s at all possible.
Then watch as many live deer as possible and instead of taking a few pics with your iPhone when a doe feeds by, use that encounter to study her movements. Ask yourself where to aim now, and now, and now. And when you do shoot a deer and recover it, take a long look not only at entrance and exit wounds, but the internal organs and the path your arrow took through the body cavity. This is often an eye-opener, and can provide some real insight on how to be a better shot on live game.
Combine all of these things together and you’ll start to understand treestand shot angles on a higher level, and that’ll make the process of executing a lethal treestand shot so much easier.