Practical Practice Games for Bowhunters

Try these innovative archery shooting games and be prepared for a real shot at the biggest buck of your career.

Photo by Tom Evans

by Bob Humphrey

Opening day of bow season was a balmy early autumn afternoon. I had hiked well away from the road into a state management area and hung my stand on a small bench on the side of a fairly steep slope. Thirty yards behind me the ground was at eye level, but at the same distance in front of me it was close to 30 feet below. I wasn't worried so much about the area behind me, because most of the deer trails and thick cover were below and upwind of me.

Scarcely an hour into my vigil, I heard the faint, unmistakable sounds of a deer shuffling in the leaves; however, the dense underbrush obscured the animal. I uttered a few soft grunts and the deer answered. Then, ever so slowly, the sleek gray doe stepped out of the cover and into the open below me at 25 yards - a gimme shot. I was already visualizing the easy drag downhill as I drew, held and then released.

Thwack! The arrow struck a tree just above and behind the deer. She switched ends and bolted.

How could I have missed such an easy shot? I pondered. I had been practicing almost every day for the past two weeks and could hit a tennis ball at 25 yards. Yet somehow I managed to completely miss a mature whitetail doe at the same distance.

I'll bet a lot of bowhunters have had similar experiences and wonder the same thing. I'd also wager that the more experienced among you already have a pretty good idea of what I did wrong. I'd been practicing irregularly for over a month and regularly for a couple of weeks prior to the season. But all my practice had been while standing on level ground with my sights adjusted for shooting horizontally, not at steep downward angles. Furthermore, I forgot to aim low to compensate for the deer's crouch response at the sound of the bowstring.

No one would argue the importance of practice. The more you shoot, the more accurate you become. However, most of our practice consists of flat shooting at a square target on an open range. You can be the best shot on the range, but that kind of practice can only go so far in helping you in the field. Substituting a 3-D target (imitating whatever species you're hunting) helps. But the more you can simulate actual field conditions the more useful your practice sessions will be. If you hunt from a tree stand, practice from a tree stand. If you hunt in thick cover, practice in thick cover.

It's probably fair to say most archers hunt from tree stands. I'd venture to guess that a considerable number of them don't practice from elevated stands. That's a big mistake. The trajectory of an arrow fired horizontally is quite different from one fired at a steep downward angle. On a downward shot, the effect of gravity is amplified, usually resulting in an overshot.

You need not shoot from a stand. I know plenty of guys who simply lean a ladder up against the shed or garage roof and shoot from there. If you do, it's helpful if you pair up with someone. That way one person can stay on the ground and act as an arrow retriever so you don't have to keep climbing up and down. After the first shooter is done, you trade off.

I have an ideal setup in that I have a very steep slope in my back yard. I can stand at the top, with my feet firmly on the ground, and shoot downhill at an angle similar to what I might encounter shooting from a tree. Then I simply walk down and retrieve my arrows.

Another important reminder for both stand-hunters and ground-hunters is to vary shooting position. Most hunters practice shooting from a standing position, and then they climb into their tree stand or ground blind and sit down. If game comes along quickly or unexpectedly, you could get caught sitting down. If you've practiced shooting from a sitting position, you'll know what to do. You'll also have learned to avoid positioning your bow where the limbs might strike part of the stand or a tree branch when you shoot.

One of the most difficult aspects of bowhunting for many hunters is judging distance. One way to compensate for that is shooting a faster bow. But there is an inverse relationship between bow speed and accuracy, and that difference increases exponentially with lack of experience and practice. Another remedy is a range finder. But that means one more gadget to tote around the woods with you, and they have limitations, too. The best remedy is to practice judging distances and shooting at unknown distances.

A friend of mine practices at unknown distances by having someone toss out 4-inch-square blocks of Styrofoam around his stand.

"Someone with a good arm can wing them a good 30 yards," he said. "This will give you all the practice you need, and you won't know what the exact distance is, just as you never know where that bear or deer is going to be when you get your opportunity for a shot."

Another friend uses a slightly more involved variation. He fills empty plastic milk jugs with blown foam insulation, which can be purchased by the can at most hardware stores. The handle makes them easier to toss and they tend to hold up longer.

Another bowhunter I know uses the opposite strategy in her practice sessions. To simulate hunting conditions, she shoots at 3-D targets, but instead of varying the target position, she changes her shooting position.

"I just toss my arrows all over the lawn and shoot from wherever they land. It makes things more realistic and fun at the same time," she says.

Bowhunters may encounter myriad habitat and climatic conditions. Furthermore, with longbow seasons in many states that may span three or four months, hunters may also experience radically different conditions over the course of a single season. Many kinds of different conditions require specialized clothing, such as rain gear or, for cold temperatures, heavy clothes. The problem is, every time you vary from your practice routine, you increase the odds for a mistake.

Like most of my hunting experiences, I learned this the hard way. The early bow season was warm and the days were long, so I had plenty of time to practice before I went hunting each afternoon. Later, however, the days grew shorter and the clocks changed. I barely had time to fling a couple of quick arrows between leaving work and heading for my tree stand. The afternoons were also getting much colder, and I began carrying extra clothes with me. An opportunity finally came one particularly cold afternoon.

I had

arrived at my stand wearing a light sweatshirt, but a couple of hours later I had added a coat, a pair of wool gloves and a fleece mask. I had been rattling intermittently, partly to attract a buck and partly just to warm up. It was nearing dark when a small 6-point buck suddenly trotted over the rise and headed my way. My gloved hands fumbled with the bow, and I ended up dropping my arrow. The buck stared intently at the source of the metallic sound as the arrow clanged to the ground. Then, miraculously, he picked his head up and continued toward me.

Somehow I managed to nock another arrow just as the deer came within range. As I came to full draw, a sudden panic came over me. For my anchor point, I normally nestle the first knuckle on my right thumb in the small groove of my neck just behind my earlobe. But with the heavy gloves and facemask in the way, I couldn't find my anchor point! It was like being in one of those dreams where everything around you is moving at regular speed and you're moving in slow motion. The buck stopped and stared directly up at me as I fumbled to anchor my hand. Then I saw his tail twitch and that deer-in-the-headlights look, and I knew the jig was up. My finger instinctively jerked the release trigger and the arrow sailed harmlessly off into who knows where. The very next day, though it was in the mid-60s, I was out practicing in wool gloves and a facemask.

If you'll be hunting in different clothing, practice with all of it. I've heard dozens of blown-opportunity stories from hunters who missed "Old Mossyhorns" because their bowstring slapped the sleeve of their heavy coat or any number of similar glitches. Don't let anything like this happen to you this season!

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