Long before the advent of 3-D targets and laser range finders, bow hunters honed their archery skills in much simpler ways. For the most part, they'd loose arrows at target butts from predetermined ranges. But, if they were really serious about improving their field skills, they would string their favorite hunting bow, grab a quiver, and go roving.
Roving, also known as stump shooting, is a time-honoured form of practice in which archers hike through the countryside, stopping along the way to launch arrows at small natural targets such as decaying stumps and rotting logs, clumps of moss, tufts of grass, conspicuous shrubs, or overturned clods of dirt. A target can be as simple as a fallen leaf that stands out against the soft forest floor. It really doesn't matter as long it provides a challenge, is within practical hunting distance, and is situated in front of a backstop that is safe and, preferably, easy on an arrow.
How to Play
Everyone adds their own twist to stump shooting and you will too. Some folks make it competitive and keep score. Others want it to be a relaxing day afield. Make it as serious or light-hearted as you want, it's great practice either way.
My bow hunting friends and I consider it a nice walk made better by archery equipment. We stump shoot through the country that we hunt in. Our routes generally cross fields, climb hills, and weave through hardwoods, creek bottoms, and evergreen stands. We find targets all along the way.
The game begins with one person calling out a target of the type previously described. It could be very close or it might border on the edge of effective range. Maybe the target is at the base of the hill we are on; then again, it could be somewhere above us on a slope or even across a gully. We might have to shoot through a thicket or, perhaps, loose an arrow from a kneeling position because the target is far beneath a canopy of low-limbed spruce. You get the idea; anything is possible - just like in a real hunt. The point is to add variety and challenge to every shot situation.
When calling a target, the caller should ensure that he is very specific. Don't just say "that rotted stump over there," or "that standing dead tree." Instead call out "that knothole on the rotted stump" or "the debarked spot on that standing dead tree." This reminds you to aim small and pick a specific point within the target.
Also, use your imagination and tell the other shooters what the target represents - that debarked spot is the vital area on a standing bear; the knothole is the eye of a rabbit. This adds to the adventure and reminds you that the name of the game is to simulate hunting situations. Young bow hunters, particularly, love this.
With the target called, the shooters line up and loose one arrow each. The archer whose arrow hits closest to the mark gets to be the next caller and leads the group to the next target of his choice. That's really all there is to it. But, don't be fooled. Roving is addictive and a session planned to span the morning often stretches out past dinner.
Bull's eye! To some that's just a rotten stump. To a roving archer, however, it represents a bedded deer.
Home on the Range
Of course, in every outing, targets will appear at a variety of ranges. This is the most beneficial part of roving. Each archer is continually forced to put his or her range estimation skills to the test. Guess wrong, and your arrow will surely be off the mark.
The good news is the more you estimate range, the better you get at it.
Also, one of the things you quickly learn is that your ranging skill varies with terrain. Some of us, for example, are excellent at estimating range in the woods, where we can break distance down, tree to tree. Put those same folks in a situation where they have to guess the range across an open meadow, however, and you might find that they are way off. It goes without saying that good stump shooters work hard to improve upon these weaknesses.
Since the point of roving is to keep an archer keen for the hunting season, it also makes sense to concentrate on targets within reasonable hunting ranges. Sure, it's fun to hit that little spruce sixty yards down the trail, but it's not a shot most of us would ever attempt on a nervous whitetail.
And don't forget to practice at close ranges too. There's nothing more embarrassing than messing up a ten yard shot by sailing an arrow over a deer's back.
Making Every Shot Count
As previously mentioned, each archer should only release one arrow per target. When doing so, he or she should be as stealthy as if he were shooting at the real thing. If nothing else, being restricted to a lone arrow drives home the fact that, most times, you only get one chance at game. Moreover, when you know that success or failure will be measured with that one shot, you tend to focus even harder. Focus and the quality of each shot are the hallmarks of good practice.
In other words, when you are coming to full draw, with the only arrow you are allotted, on that old cedar stump 20-something yards away, you are more apt to remember to take your time, pick a spot, aim small, maintain good form, release smoothly, and follow through - habits that are essential to any hunt.
Veteran stump shooters know their limitations and quickly learn when and when not to shoot during hunting situations. They've seen arrows get deflected off of overhanging branches. They know if a thicket is too thick to thread an arrow through and are aware of how low to hold on a steep downhill shot. They understand the importance of one good shot and know that second shots rarely occur in the field.
Know Your Target
As with any shooting sport, safety is the number one priority. Essentially, at each stop you are setting up an impromptu archery range, so the same rules and common sense should apply - make sure no one is downrange from the shooter or behind the target. Avoid launching arrows towards frozen ground or over the crests of hills too.
Those who aren't shooting should watch the shot, paying close attention to the arrow's trajectory and marking where it hits. This way, arrow recovery is easier and wild arrow flights caused by ricochets or poor releases might also be explained.
As for the targets themselves, you'll soon become skilled enough to judge, even at a distance, whether a log is punky enough to stop an arrow without damaging it or holding it too tight for easy removal. Likewise, you'll keep an eye out for stones near ground targets.
Pick the right stump and arrow recovery is easy.
Make no mistake, however. You will lose, bend, and break arrows when you go roving. But these casualties will be surprisingly few if you choose your targets carefully, mark where misses landed, and be diligent in your recovery efforts.
Old Ways, Modern Gear
Though roving began with traditional archery, that's not where it has to end. I have roved, at one time or another, with my Osage flat bow, bamboo and fiberglass longbow, compound bow, and, most recently, crossbow. And I've learned something about my gear and had fun each time.
The basic lessons of range estimation and trajectory are timeless. They apply to every piece of archery equipment from the slowest flat bow to the fastest crossbow. Though flat-shooting rigs might minimize the effects of a bad guess, there's really no getting around it.
Whatever piece of archery equipment you take afield, I think it's prudent to fit your arrows with judo points and, if possible bright fluorescent vanes or feathers. These will save you a lot of arrows that might otherwise be lost, especially when shooting at distant targets that are near to the forest floor or in meadows. The spring metal hooks of a judo point catch grass and save the arrow from burying - the brightly colored vanes or feathers make the arrow easier to track in flight and on the ground. I personally prefer unnatural, fluorescent vane and feather colors.
Field points are certainly cheaper than judo points but, unless you are an excellent shot, they might be false economy.
Judo points are an essential item when roving.
Traditional archers generally use wooden arrows. Shafts made of Sitka spruce or Port Orford cedar are tougher than most people give them credit for and can handle the rigor of the field. Compound and crossbow shooters, on the other had, must choose between carbon arrows, which are expensive but tough, and aluminum arrows, which are prone to bend but cheaper. I say use the ones that you hunt with. After all, this is all about gearing up for the hunt.
The bottom line is that an experienced roving archer is generally a good shot in field and hunting situations. That's because a competent stump shooter is invariably excellent at range estimation, not only on flat open ground, but also on uneven terrain or in the deep woods. He or she also has trained to make that single shot count. And lastly, he knows his equipment and has long ago rid himself of the gadgets that do not provide clear benefit and reliability in the field.
There are other advantages as well. Roving also provides an excellent opportunity to scout for deer sign, look for new stand locations, pick up sheds, follow game trails, and explore new territory. Because of this we always take a map and GPS with us. Some of our best hunting spots have been found while roving.
Call it a poor man's version of 3-D shooting if you like. But never forget that this was the practice that developed some of the most legendary hunting archers in history - Howard Hill, Saxton Pope, and Art Young to name a few.
That's good enough for me. Hey, those old legends sure knew how to have fun!
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.