Making Bowhunting'™s Impossible Shots

Don't expect to see every deer standing broadside at 20 yards this season. Prepare for the worst by practicing unusual shots at odd angles before you go! (August 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Mosquitoes buzzed in and out of my ear incessantly as I waited for the sun to go down on this early October evening. It was hot. It was humid. If it weren't the second day of my state's archery deer season, I would have been sitting in my air-conditioned house. Instead, there I was perched in my tree stand on the side of a hill in a suburban wood lot.

Nothing moved until just before quitting time. That's when I saw a doe come barreling past me, heading from a thicket on my right to a stream downhill to my left. Within a few seconds after the doe had passed, a buck came plodding along her trail with his nose to the ground. And it was a good buck -- a wide-racked 9-pointer.

I stood up in my stand, grabbed my bow off a hook in the tree, and readied myself for a shot. When the buck was 30 yards out, he turned off the doe's trail and began walking directly toward me.

As the buck drew nearer, I hoped he would turn off to one side or the other so I could get a broadside shot, but he didn't. He walked directly to the base of my tree and then began sniffing around. In that heat, I knew he was picking up my scent, left on the ground when I climbed into my stand.

The buck started to tense and I felt certain he was going to bolt. I drew back my bow, leaned out at a hard angle over my stand and drilled him right between the shoulder blades, severing his spinal cord. The buck fell where he stood.

Had I not regularly practiced that shot over the preceding months, I don't think I ever would have taken it. However, I knew I could make it. I knew where to aim. In addition, I knew what the results would be.

UNPREDICTABLE SHOTS

Play the bowhunting game long enough and you're sure to encounter some funky shots. What do I mean by that? Well, ones that aren't 20 yards broadside, with perfect light and no obstructions between you and the deer. Sure, this is what you're supposed to wait for, but in real life, such shots aren't always offered.

Was I going to pass on my straight down shot at a Pope and Young 9-pointer just because it wasn't the "perfect" bowhunting shot? No way! If you're prepared, you can make bowhunting's impossible shots. Let's take a look at some of those shots.

STRAIGHT DOWN

Since I opened this article with it, we might as well start out by mentioning the straight down shot. There's no doubt that this is a tricky shot. And unless you practice it, you shouldn't take it. Why?

When you're shooting straight down, the only vital organ that's really exposed is the heart. You'll be shooting between the lungs at this angle. You might catch one lung, but that's a slow-kill hit. Slice through one lung, and you better let that deer go for a minimum of four hours before taking up the trail.

So, you have a direct line to the heart, which is positioned low but in the center of the chest cavity. The problem is, there's a lot of bone guarding it from directly overhead. You really have to thread the needle to get an arrow past the shoulder blades, ribs and spine.

This brings us to the main target of this shot -- the spine. Just nick a deer's spinal cord and he's going down on the spot. No tracking required. Hitting a deer in the spine is a bowhunter's dream because it eliminates the need for tracking, but the only shot angle that makes the spine a legitimate target is when you're shooting straight down. That's because you can tell exactly where your target is -- dead center between the shoulder blades.

It's not a big target, mind you. A deer's spine only measures about 3 inches across. However, the good news is, if you're shooting straight down at a deer's spine, you're pretty close to it. However high your stand is, that's how far away you are. So, it's not too difficult to precisely locate an arrow when you're shooting a target that's 20 feet or less away.

The best scenario is to have the deer facing directly at you. When you draw, you want the deer's head and hindquarters to be in perfect north-south alignment in your sight picture, with the head pointed south. This way, all you have to worry about is being precise with your left-right shot placement. If you shoot an inch high or low, you'll still hit the spine.

How do you master this shot? Practice, practice, practice! Take a 3-D deer target into the woods, climb up in your stand with your bow and arrows and shoot over and over again. If you've never taken this shot, expect it to feel uncomfortable at first. Keep practicing, however, and you'll get used to it.

TOO DARK

The most deer movement during fall archery seasons tends to occur at first and last light of the day. Low light, however, is not the best condition for shooting a bow.

"I couldn't see him through my peep sight," has been uttered by more than one bowhunter who encountered a buck early or late in the day but failed to score.

There are several ways to improve your ability to see to aim in low-light conditions. Low light is going to most affect archers who use peep sights attached to their bowstrings. When you look through the peep, things are going to be darker than when you're not looking through the peep. So, what do you do?

Well, you can opt not to use a peep sight. Try tying two lengths of dental floss onto your string at what would be the top and bottom of a peep sight. When you draw, line up your sight pin between the pieces of floss, just like you would center your pin when looking through a peep.

Or, you can learn to use a peep, but shoot with both eyes open. If you've always been a one-eye shooter, this will take a lot of practice on the range to learn. But when you master it, you'll find it easier to see than if you just used one eye to aim while looking through your peep.

If you're like me and you want to use a peep, but you just can't master that both-eyes-open trick, make sure you use the largest peep you can find. Peep sights don't all come with the same opening. Look at yours and compare it with others at your local archery pro shop. If you see one that's bigger, make the switch. Or, you can take a drill bit and drill yours to make it bigger. Just be careful you don't slice the string.

Make sure you're using fiber-optic pins on your sigh

t. If you have solid metal pins, you're really going to have trouble seeing them in low light. The fiber optics collect available light to make the end you use to aim glow under low-light conditions.

Stay away from battery-powered, lighted pins. When it's dark, the light will act like a spotlight shining right into your eye and you'll have trouble seeing anything beyond the pin. If it's legal where you live, you can add a light to your sight-frame that shines down on your pins to make them brighter.

BEHIND THE TREE

Ideally, you've done sufficient scouting ahead of time and positioned your tree stand so that deer will pass in front of you. Practically speaking, however, deer invariably will approach from behind your set. It's just the way of the woods. When that happens, you've got the tree your stand is attached to contend with, not to mention any gear that's hanging from the tree and your safety harness, all serving as potential shot blockers.

One of the first things I do when I get into my stand each day is check to see how I need to arrange my gear in order to shoot behind my stand, if it's at all possible. Obviously, if you have many limbs and brush behind you, it might not be possible.

We all have backpacks and binoculars and other gear that we carry with us into our stands. I put screw-in hooks into the tree to hang all my gear. And I strategically place my hooks in areas where I know I can't shoot. If I have limbs on one side of my tree, I'll hang my gear there. If I'm in a tree that allows me to shoot anywhere behind me, I'll hang my gear at the height of my seat on both sides of my stand. With this setup, my only blind spots are just about straight down behind my stand. I should have a shot somewhere along the way if a buck gets into that zone.

One thing you must do when you get into your stand is draw and aim straight behind your tree. You need to do this to see how the tether that attaches your safety harness to the tree might affect your shot. Maybe you need to move your tether higher or lower so that you know it will be out of your way if the moment of truth arrives.

Expect the greatest problems when you're shooting to the side of the tree that's the opposite of your string hand: righties shooting left and lefties shooting right. In these positions, your tether is likely to come in contact with your string hand. You might have to lower your tether just a bit to make sure there's enough slack in it to give you room to get into the anchor position at full draw.

No matter how big a buck is, never lean out of your stand to shoot behind you. First of all, you'll probably be unsteady when you try to aim, and second of all -- and most important -- it's just not safe.

IT'S THICK IN THERE

So, you've found the mother lode of buck rubs. You've found big trees stripped bare from the ground up a good 4 feet, scattered along a trail that's beaten into the earth by all the deer traffic. There are several good trees adjacent to the trail that could hold your stand. The only problem is, the area is extremely thick -- so thick you can't walk upright in a straight line for more than three steps.

The question hits you like a ton of bricks. How am I going to get an arrow through this stuff?

We've all gone out blindly into the woods and set up a stand in an area to our liking, even though we've never been there before. Try that when you're bowhunting in heavy cover and you're bound to fail.

You have to plan ahead. When you find a good spot in heavy cover, pick the tree you want to put your stand in and then go to the trail where you expect to see a buck. Look from that spot back toward your tree and cut any branches that might block your arrow. Remember, you'll be hunting from an elevated position, so don't worry about clearing away ground-level brush. You want a clear flight path for your arrow from your stand to the trail.

Don't overdo it. I have a friend who located a stand site in a beautiful thicket of mountain laurel where we always saw deer. When he put up his stand, he cut down 80 percent of the laurel branches around his tree. Guess what? We don't see deer in that nonexistent thicket anymore. Choose two or three shooting lanes around your stand to clear and leave the rest of the cover alone.

The reason there's so much deer traffic in that area most likely is that the deer feel secure there. If you clear cut the thicket, you're eliminating the very reason the deer are drawn to it.

Something else you might want to consider is using a ground blind in heavy cover. It's not unusual to find an area where you have plenty of brush to shoot through if you're up in a tree, but the foliage is much thinner at ground level. Hunting a stand of pines is a perfect example. Don't be afraid to go eye-to-eye with deer if that will give you the best chance for success. Just make sure you're always downwind of the area where you most expect to encounter a buck.

WINDY CONDITIONS

Few conditions rattle me more while I'm bowhunting than wind. It's loud. It tosses branches and brush around, which makes it tough to pick out deer movement. And it can even move me around if the tree I'm hunting in is swaying.

If you're going bowhunting on a windy day, plan to put your stand in the fattest tree the stand can handle. It takes more wind to move a fat tree than a skinny one. And when you do hunt from such a tree, shoot from a seated position. You'll feel much more stable as you take aim than you will if you're standing up in a swaying tree.

For this reason, windy days are perfect for hunting from the ground. When it's extremely windy, the air typically is very predictable, which means you can easily figure out where you need to set up to be downwind from a hot trail. Also, if all the brush around you is moving because of the wind, it's going to be harder for a deer to peg you as you draw your bow. It will also be harder for that deer to hear you.

A common mistake bowhunters make when hunting in high winds is to think they have to adjust their aiming point to account for the wind. If the wind is blowing right to left, they think they have to aim to the right of where they would under normal conditions, because they believe the wind will blow their arrow to the left. If you were shooting 60 to 70 yards, this would be the case. But under normal bowhunting conditions, where shots are typically less than 30 yards, this is not necessary. Always aim dead on. The wind will not affect your point of impact.

There's no doubt bowhunting is a sport that can present archers with some very difficult shooting situations. With a little practice, a little forethought, and even a little luck, eventually you'll find yourself making some impossible shots.

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