Here's a plan to effectively and ethically extend your effective bow range on opening day.
ESTABLISH ORIGINAL EFFECTIVE RANGE
First and foremost, it's time to be honest. To start this process, decide on what actual distance you feel is the far end of your effective range. This is the farthest distance where you could stand and fire arrow after arrow into a small bull's-eye. It's safe to assume the average whitetail hunter's magic yardage is 30. Beyond 30, groups loosen up and the occasional flier turns into a common occurrence.
This is where two different lines of thought diverge.
The first is that it's prudent to subtract a certain yardage from the distance where shooting accuracy peaks. For the 30-yard shooter, this would mean that in hunting scenarios actual effective range would be 25 or even 20 yards.
Personally, I don't subscribe to that line of reasoning.
To me, if you can shoot really well at 30 yards, then there's no reason not to shoot that far at a deer in the right circumstances. This though, comes with a caveat — if you stretch out to longer distances at the range the line between punching paper and shooting at a living animal becomes razor thin.
This step might require a few weeks of tune-up shooting in the summer. Spend time shooting at varying distances to determine your last, most-comfortable distance. Once that's established through quality practice sessions, it's time to move on.
INVENTORY YOUR SHOOTING STYLE
This phase of the process involves taking a look at equipment and shooting form to see exactly what might be causing any accuracy issues. If your shooting falls apart at 35 or 40 yards, but is rock-solid at 20 and 30, there's a good reason. It might be as simple as inconsistent shooting form. If you're shooting a sight with a bubble level on it, use it before every shot. This is a step that a lot of hunters miss, but a bubble level forces you to hold the bow level during each shot. This reinforces muscle memory and creates positive shooting habits.
If you're still experiencing difficulty shoring up your shooting, have a knowledgeable pro shop employee or other veteran archer watch you shoot. They may notice something as simple as a slight dropping of the arm or a flinch when the release goes off. Most minor bad habits will not affect close shots enough to notice, but they will become evident as shooting range increases. This is why it's so important to nail down fundamentals before trying to become lethal at longer distances.
Once you've established shooting form and built muscle memory to foster repeatability with each shot sequence, most of the hard stuff is over and it's time to think about target practice.
The first stage of practicing correctly involves knowing exactly what distance you're shooting at all times. This means employing a quality rangefinder or shooting extensively at a target range that offers multiple targets at known distances. The role of this step is to establish confidence at 5- and 10-yard increments. If your previous effective range was 30 yards, at this point most of your shooting should occur at 35, 40 and maybe even 45 yards.
It's important to note that stepping back and becoming proficient at longer shots takes time. It's human nature to shoot a decent group at say, 40 yards, and then decide it's time to move back to 50. This is a bad idea. Take a week or two of shooting almost exclusively at 35 and 40 to see if you can tighten groups up significantly. If, and only if, your groups are as lethal then as closer distances, it's time to step back farther.
This step may take a couple of weeks, or longer in some cases. If you find yourself in this situation, don't get frustrated by the results. Frustration leads to either over-shooting (firing way too many arrows during a single practice session), or the erosion of the previously established confidence. If I find myself in a rough patch of shooting I'll move close and shoot a few rounds and then quit for the day. Trying to push through a lousy day can have bad effects on overall shooting, and it's no fun.
Conversely, if you find yourself laying arrow after arrow into the sweet spot, it might be time to move back even farther. My personal goal each summer is to become confident out to as far as 80 or 90 yards. Naturally, I'm never going to shoot a deer at 80 yards, but continual practice at long distances has the tendency to make close shots seem easy. No matter where you are, if the shooting is coming together nicely, there's no reason not to add another 5 or 10 yards into your practice regimen.
It's important to note that this practice-heavy step of the process should involve two different target styles — block-style and 3D. The block-style targets almost always feature contrasting target faces with easy-to-aim-at circles, squares or diamonds. This is great for part of your practice but, too much shooting at dots and squares will not prepare you for the relatively featureless side of an actual deer. This is where 3D targets come into play.
No matter whether it's a deer target, elk target, or bear target, anything representing an actual animal will force you to concentrate much more on your aiming point. The blank-slate of a 3D target adds a bit of difficulty to practicing and most of the time groups shot at 3D targets will be a little looser than those shot at block-style targets. Take time to shoot both styles and you'll notice that over time groups on both will shrink greatly as you grow comfortable aiming.
Lastly, during this step it's time to shoot odd-range distances. This is extremely important for multi-pin sight shooters. If you need to gap, hold high or low with a certain pin, inconsistency will shine through. The idea here is to train the mind to know exactly where to hold at all odd yardages. Odd distance shooting can be an eye opener, and your accuracy at these ranges will play a big part in establishing true effective shooting range.
SET UP YOUR SHOT
The main focus of establishing or expanding your effective range is increasing shooting ability. It's not quite as simple as being able to consistently hit where you are aiming. For instance, if your effective range is up to 40 yards, that doesn't mean that you've got the green light for every whitetail that passes by within that magic range.
To truly understand effective range, consider two different scenarios. The first involves a calm deer feeding contentedly in a soybean field or a food plot. If that deer is within your effective range, and you've got quality shooting light, then there's no reason to hold off if everything feels right. Conversely, in a pinch-point stand or some other ambush site located on a travel route, the deer might also offer a 40-yard shot, but he might be walking. And it's almost a certainty that there will be more obstructions in your arrow's flight path in a travel-route situation. This means that your effective range in this situation might shrink to 30 yards or less. Also, the feeding, calm deer presents a much better opportunity to use a rangefinder to get the exact shot distance. The cruising deer in the pinch-point might not allow for rangefinder use, meaning that on top of the other variables you might have to add range estimation instead of range knowledge into the mix, which is bad news.
It's up to you to decide what ambush sites allow for the farthest shots you're capable of making. It's a common mistake to establish effective range and assume that it's okay to shoot that far no matter the situation. But, effective range is established at the practice range with conditions that don't always resemble hunting scenarios that involve a litany of variables courtesy of Mother Nature.
Because of this, it's important to set stands and ground blinds up to promote high odds shots well within your comfortable range. Even if you can shoot lights out at 40 yards, why not try for a gift 15- or 20-yard shot if possible?
TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS
The last step of the effective range equation involves trusting your gut during the moment of truth. If the shot feels right, take it. If there are some nagging doubts or something feels a bit off, hold tight. It's easy to rush a shot, especially on a big buck because panic will set in with the realization that he could walk right out of your life. But, the reality is that a lot of encounters will last longer than you think and waiting for a shot where every fiber of your being knows you can hit him in the vitals is worth it.
This is something I've struggled with for years, but I've finally started to settle down enough to truly evaluate an encounter with a deer I want to shoot. Occasionally something doesn't feel right and I'll end up never firing an arrow. More often than not I find myself waiting for the right angle or a closer shot and that's exactly what happens. In that case there is a feeling of winning the chess game going on in my mind and typically the results are positive.
It's also important to note that if your instincts tell you not to shoot, there is probably a good reason. When that happens to me I hold off and the very next chance I get to target shoot, I take it. This is why I almost always travel with a target of some sort, and why I shoot all season long. After holding off because something doesn't feel right a few arrows fired at a target can quickly rejuvenate confidence or expose something that was actually wrong.
Either way, trust your gut on each shot situation. I've regretted far more shots that I've taken when I shouldn't have, versus the shots I held off on because something didn't feel right.
There will always be a certain percentage of hunters who feel that maximum shot distance on a whitetail should be a yardage that they've determined represents the line between ethical and unethical. I don't disagree with those folks and certainly understand their argument. However, the advances made in modern archery equipment in recent years have allowed most of us the chance to shoot accurately at farther distances than previous equipment allowed. There's nothing wrong with stretching out another 10 or 15 yards through the proper process as long as you put in the time and truly work toward improved accuracy.