After 13 hours of searching, I finally ran out of options. The scant blood trail had vanished, I'd scoured every inch of the property and he was nowhere to be seen. Feeling rather sick about the ordeal, to make matters worse, it had been a straightforward 21-yard shot. I'd done it a thousand times before on 3D targets and many different bucks.
But this one was different. In retrospect, several things went wrong. Stopping behind a huge aspen, I had only two options; let down and hope for another opportunity as the buck moved through the woods or lean out from my stand and attempt the shot. Knowing it's best to take a broadside or quartering away shot, I must admit the buck was ever-so-slightly quartering toward. Even still, I was confident ... perhaps too confident. At full draw for nearly two minutes, I decided to shoot. Upon releasing, I heard the unmistakable "whack" that could mean just one thing ... I'd struck bone! When I leaned out to bypass the tree, my anchor point was distorted sending the arrow slightly off target. Striking the deer square in the shoulder, I'd made a bad hit. There was no point in dwelling on it, I'd failed to cover all my bases and now I had a wounded deer to deal with. The truth is, I really thought I heard the buck go down some 50 yards away, but after waiting an hour and then looking around it quickly became obvious that my buck was still on the move. Let's face it, rarely do writers speak of wounded animals; considered politically incorrect, it's just not something you read about much these days. Be assured, if you hunt long enough, it will happen to you. I hope that by sharing a few of my own lessons learned, you can possibly avoid the most common mistakes made by bowhunters.
Experienced archers know that there's always more to the story. So, to fill in the blanks, here are a few background notes. I was shooting a Muzzy 4-blade Phantom broadhead. From a Hoyt Vipertec with 64 lbs. of pull, it certainly had the juice to do the job. I managed to get six-inches of penetration and retrieved the rest of the arrow where it snapped off. This buck was no slouch. Estimated to score around the 160-inch mark, he was a true Alberta monarch that probably weighed in at around 300 lbs. Bottom line - he had enough to keep going.
This brings us to the topic at hand. We can learn from our mistakes. Granted, no matter how precise we are, human error is a reality with bowhunting. As I contemplate my last two decades of bowhunting, several incidents come to mind. The following outlines 10 mistakes virtually every bowhunter makes over time, along with a few suggestions as to how we can avoid them.
Mistake #1 - Misjudging Distance
Misjudging distance is the number one reason archers miss their mark. Archery is a precision sport, and estimating or even better yet, measuring distance is the key to success! With most major optics manufacturers producing some type of rangefinding device, calculating distances is easier than ever. Aside from cost, there is really no reason for bowhunters not to use a rangefinder these days.
Some bowhunters like to mark yardages with something natural like a broken branch or a stick standing upright in the ground. Alternatively whenever possible, I use my Bushnell laser rangefinder to take a reading on nearby rocks, trees, or other structures to predetermine distances under my stand or near my ground blind.
Mistake #2 - Missing the Kill Zone(s)
Put the arrow in the wrong place and your hunt will become a nightmare in a hurry! Any bowhunter that has wounded and lost an animal knows the sick feeling. As bowhunters, we have an ethical obligation to know and understand the kill zone(s) of game we're after. Deer are anatomically straightforward at a broadside view. Put them quartering away, facing head on, straight away, or even lying down, and it's a different story.
Vitals on a deer are not large, barely exceeding the circumference of a pie plate in fact. But given accurate arrow placement, a double-lung shot will result in a quick kill. Hemorrhaging alternative organs such as the liver, a major artery, or even placing a debilitating shot in the spine can bring down game, but these are NOT recommended as targeted areas for shot placement.
3D targets offer the most realistic simulation for field shooting scenarios. I personally use a Mackenzie standing deer target as it gives me the option of shooting at a life-sized target at variable distances and from different positions. By studying 3D targets and their identified kill zones, you can get a better understanding of where to aim on that animal.
Learning to recognize the shot opportunity goes hand in hand with arrow placement. This involves not only the release, but knowing when to take that proactive step of going to full-draw. This requires movement and can in fact spook animals if detected. Draw when the animal is facing you or even worse, when it is looking at you and, you may as well go home. Wait until the animal is looking the other way, preoccupied with feeding or even better yet, when their head is behind a tree or other cover, and your chances of getting to full-draw undetected increase exponentially.
Thoughts of a bowhunter I guided a few years ago come to mind. This individual boasted over his ability to shoot tight groups at 30 yards with his traditional bow; but when a trophy whitetail walked under his stand he didn't want to risk drawing his bow ... go figure that one out! The result - he passed on a 165-inch buck at just five paces below his stand. His lack of understanding when to draw and release cost him what may have been his 'buck of a lifetime'.
Mistake #3 - Equipment in Poor Repair
Nothing deteriorates self-confidence more than discovering your bow is out of tune when you're in the field. You can only shoot as well as your equipment is able. If its not sighted in properly, it won't work for you ... it's as simple as that! Confidence in your bow and accessories is absolutely critical to success. The only way we can have full confidence in our equipment is by doing a routine inspection and making necessary adjustments on a regular basis. With the new Solo Cam and Cam-and-a-half technology tuning has become much simpler, but that's only part of the deal. String stretch is one of the most common reasons for bows shooting inaccurately. By giving your gear the once-over prior to every outing, you will minimize problems afield. To ensure consistent shooting, you should confirm that center shot is true, double check all screws, limb bolts and cables, wax your string, check sight pins and sharpen broadheads regularly.
Equally important is ensuring that your arrows are matched to your bow weight. Mismatched arrows will never fly consistently. I made this mistake myself a few years back when a manufacturer sent some new arrows for me to field test. Somehow I'd received the wrong shafts and with a quick turnaround time in preparation for an antelope hunt I only had a few hours to site them in. Well, long story short, I found out very quickly during the hunt that my arrows were performing inconsistently at longer distances. Upon returning home, I double-checked and discovered they were the wrong arrows. Absolutely a lesson learned!
Mistake #4 - Drawing Too Much Weight
Far too many bowhunters are obsessed with speed. Don't get me wrong, kinetic energy is important but its not the be all and end all. Accuracy is far more critical than poundage. My wife shoots 47 lbs. and takes more great deer than many high-speed heavy weight shooters I know. By setting your draw weight beyond your comfort level, you literally handicap yourself. Believe me, the few feet per second (fps) you stand to gain is not worth the discomfort and probable misses or poor shots. Remember too, that drawing your bow is relatively easy when standing. It becomes more difficult from a treestand. Compound this with cold temperatures and layers of clothing and all of a sudden your bow becomes nearly impossible to draw. Too often I've seen archers at the range that can barely get their bow drawn. I can't help but wonder what happens when they are hunting.
Mistake #5 - Over-hunting an Area
We all have our favorite places to hunt. Some are better than others, but none will remain that way if they get too much pressure. By pounding the same location day after day, you're asking for trouble. With deer hunting for instance, it's important to establish at several different stand locations or areas to still hunt or spot and stalk. Every time you set foot on a buck's home range, he knows it. Even the most 'scent free' cover up and 'cleanest' camouflage is still drenched in human odor. By over-hunting an area, you are saturating it with your smell. Trails to and from your stands become laced with your scent. The best chance a bowhunter has is often the first day he or she sits that stand. In a perfect world, try not to sit any one stand for more than two consecutive days.
Mistake #6 - Overconfidence and Shooting Too Quickly
I can't count the number of times I've watched bowhunters practically running to their stands. To me, this presents a compromise, for if they know what they're doing, stands will be right in the heart of the deer's living room. If you were asleep on your sofa, and some moron came blistering through, decked out in full camouflage, you'd probably be inclined to get the heck out of there as well!
The point is, to succeed as a bowhunter, slow and easy is the way to do it. Remember the idea is to ghost in and out of your stand with as little impact as possible. The same applies to still hunting and the spot and stalk approach. Guaranteed, you'll see and take home far more game taking it easy than by racing to cover the most ground possible!
Likewise, be conscious of your shooting form and don't rush the shot. Be sure you're on your mark. Take careful aim and follow-through with your shooting form until after impact.
Mistake #7 - Following Up Too Soon
Bow-killed animals often die immediately, but that's not to say they expire quickly with every shot. Many a deer has been lost because hunters followed up to quickly and bumped them. As a rule, always wait to allow the animal to expire undisturbed. A perfect shot will usually knock down the game quickly, inside of 50 yards. A poor shot on the other hand is a different story. By allowing the animal to settle, bed down and eventually bleed out, you increase your odds of retrieving it many times over.
Mistake #8 - Poor Stand Placement
Mounting your stand in the wrong place, at the wrong height and then hunting at the wrong time can guarantee a poor hunt. In my early years of bowhunting, I recall getting caught red-handed by bucks skulking through the woods on a trail I was watching. I couldn't figure out why they were always spooking, until one day a friend pointed out the painfully obvious. My tree stand was too low, with no limb cover. Ironically, I did arrow a rut-crazed buck out of that stand, but to this day, I know it was a gift!
Some folks like their stands high, others prefer them low, and reasons vary. Consider proximity to the trail you're watching, the backdrop, and visibility relative to surrounding cover before anticipating how high to mount a stand. Remember, the goal is to focus on transition zones; those areas between bedding and feeding locations.
As a rule, I mount stands between 14 and 18 feet. This range allows sufficient freedom just out of a deer's line of sight and reduces shooting angle. Whenever possible, my preference is to place a stand in evergreens with lots of surrounding foliage. Positioning the stand to allow maximum trail coverage is just as important as trimming intrusive limbs and interfering branches.
It is equally important to understand when to hunt a stand. Learn to distinguish between morning, mid-day and evening ambush sites. Many hours can be wasted sitting great locations at the wrong time of day.
Mistake #9 - Too Much Movement
I once sat a stand along with a cameraman. He wasn't a hunter and had no idea what was required. Constantly fidgeting, it came as no surprise that we didn't see a single deer on that outing. Deer detect movement with amazing precision. Remember, you're an uninvited guest in their living room. Relying on their senses for survival, deer are always keeping a keen eye out for unfamiliar shapes and movement.
It's generally a good idea to keep an arrow knocked and your bow easily accessible while on stand or in a blind. Sudden appearances can keep you from adjusting position. By doing everything possible to prepare for the shot prior to your close encounter, movement is minimized.
Mistake #10 - Failing to Acknowledge Your Limitations
Bowhunting is an individual activity; individual in many ways, but most of all in pushing us to test our capabilities. Understanding limitations and our ability to work within and around them, moves us toward proficiency.
Gaining an awareness of our technical skill, physical fitness and mental concentration will improve focus in the field. Know your effective shooting range and how long you are capable of sitting on stand before your ability to draw, aim and release is distorted. I know of many instances in which outfitters will place a hunter on stand, forcing them to stay put for 10 hours without a break. While a lot of bowhunters are capable of this, many are not. Unfortunate, but true, too often the result is wounded or lost game.
In conclusion, don't get stressed over your mistakes. The key is to figure out what you did wrong and try to improve on it each time you go out. Understanding the mistakes you could make and doing what you can do to avoid them will inevitably make you a better bowhunter.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.