How to Get the Most Out of Your Bow Practice

There are several ways to make your bowhunting practice as realistic as it would be in the woods while deer hunting. Our expert tells you how.

By Steve Bartylla

My heart crawled up my throat as I saw the 10-point buck approaching. I had first spotted him in my uncle's alfalfa field earlier that summer. I stared in awe, my eyes fixated on those velvet-coated antlers. At my age of 15 years old at the time, he was the biggest buck I had ever seen.

Once the season opened I spent every available afternoon in trees surrounding the alfalfa field. I saw him at a distance once early in the season, but many fruitless sits since then had me doubting that I'd see him again. Now, there he was, steadily closing the distance.

Closing my eyes and reminding myself to breathe, I pulled it together. With my mind reminding myself that staying calm and playing this smart would be the key, I came up with a plan for dropping an arrow on him. Stepping behind the large oak that formed one edge of my shooting lane, I carefully drew my bow.

Now, my only concerns were a large branch that cut across my lane and remembering to aim. As he stepped forward, he stopped to survey the field ahead. Nestling my 20-yard pin behind his shoulder, I was relieved to see it fell under the branch. With that, I let the string smoothly slip from my fingers, sending the arrow on its way. With a thwack, the majestic buck took off.

Everything played out to perfection. Everything, that is, except for hitting the bottom of the branch and burying my arrow harmlessly in the dirt. That was the last time I ever saw that buck. It was also my first lesson in the importance of practice techniques.

Wearing your hunting clothing while practicing will alert you to any problems the garments could cause in real hunting conditions. Photo by Steve Bartylla

What I lacked in those early years wasn't spending time shooting holes in paper plates. Flinging arrows at bales of hay was one of my favorite pastimes. After several more painful lessons, I learned that I spent far too much time practicing target shooting, but no time practicing shooting "deer."

Shooting targets set in the wide open, both feet planted 20 yards away on the ground, is great for sighting in a bow. It even helps develop the utilized muscle groups and, to an extent, can be an aid in ingraining proper form. However, it does little to prepare one to shoot a deer.

Shooting deer is completely different than drilling targets. Yardage estimation, threading openings, flight of broadheads, fit of hunting clothing, variation in form when shooting from a stand, and remaining calm are all variables that aren't accounted for in most hunters' practice routines. However, each one of them can blow your shot. The day I realized that was the day I began increasing my percentage of successful shots.


Over the years, misjudging yardage may have resulted in more missed shots than any other factor. As important as pacing distances is for sighting in, it does almost nothing to help estimate yardage. To help develop this skill, once the pins are set, shoot from random, unmarked spots. Doing so will force you to estimate the distance before shooting. Then, as you retrieve the arrow, pace the distance to test yourself.

You can even apply this to everyday life. As you go about your day, pick objects you are approaching, estimate the distance and pace it off. Before long, judging yardage at ground level will become easy.

With today's rangefinders, many believe that yardage estimation isn't an issue. However, too often there isn't enough time to range an animal and get off the shot. Furthermore, using rangefinders to mentally mark distances is helpful. I do it every time I climb into my stands. Still, it's amazing how quickly they can be forgotten when staring at a buck. Personally, I find them most beneficial for filling the dead time in a stand. Selecting an object, guessing the distance and using the rangefinder to correct me not only helps improve my skills, but it keeps me from getting bored when deer aren't moving.

Yardage estimation is also different from tree stands. Because of the physics of arrow flight, it's actually the horizontal distance that counts. Because of the angle, the target may be 30 yards from your stand, but only 20 yards from the base of the tree. In that case, using the 30-yard pin will either result in a high hit or sending the arrow over the deer's back.

With the twisted perspective that looking down can give, I find it easier and more accurate to estimate yardage to objects that are at the same horizontal plane as my stand. The trick is to find a tree at my level and estimate its distance. Assuming it's straight, I can then follow it down to the ground and know what pin I should use for the shot. By practicing yardage estimation, along with using this trick, I have become much more accurate.


If blowing yardage estimation is the No. 1 reason bowhunters miss deer, then not having a feel for slipping arrows through openings is No. 2. That was the case in the story that began this piece. I didn't understand that an arrow's trajectory rises before dropping. The slower the arrow speed, the more exaggerated that rise and fall becomes. The cost of not having this understanding isn't limited to hitting branches. Because I hit that limb, I passed other shot opportunities in later years that I could have made.

In reality, it's fairly easy for those who use sights to decide if we can sneak an arrow through. First, we must find an opening that lines up with the deer's vitals. Next, estimate the opening's distance and then the deer's distance. Place the proper pin on the deer as if the obstruction wasn't present. Lastly, see where the pin that matches the yardage of the opening falls. If that pin is in the opening, the shot is makeable.


Next on our list is maintaining proper form. This is easy from the ground, but how often does bowhunting provide a shot where twisting and contorting the body isn't required? If hunting from a tree stand, the answer is almost never. At the very least, you must bend down to shoot.

A pro shooter once shared an invaluable rule with me. "When using proper form," he said, "you should be able to draw a straight line from your bow hand through your release and out to the elbow of your release arm. As long as you keep that line straight and parallel to your chest, you can twist your body in any way and the shot will fly true. Bend that line or put it at an angle to your chest and it throws a monkey wrench into the engine." In other words, as long as all of your bend

ing and twisting occurs at the hip, you are fine. Drop, bend or twist the arms, and your shot is altered. By practicing this from sitting, kneeling, bending and twisting positions, maintaining that form becomes second nature.


Finally, you can put all of this together to really get the most out of practicing. Once you are confident you are sighted in, switch over to using hunting heads. If shooting expandable heads, a handful of shots may be all that is needed to reassure you that they are flying the same as field points. If fixed-blade heads are used, don't be alarmed if your shot is a little off. As long as you still group well, the problem is overcome by adjusting your pins.

With that done, it's time to start practicing like you hunt. That means heading into the woods and setting up a blind or tree stand, depending on what you normally hunt from. Next, place targets at random distances, with various obstructions in between, get dressed in your hunting clothes and start shooting. To help nail down form, I pretend the target is right in front of me, draw, aim, and then bend and twist only my hips to bring my pin to the real target.

Just doing those things helps yardage estimation, the ability to shoot through holes, point out problems with your clothing and reinforce proper form. To aid in battling nerves, I incorporate McKenzie targets. This helps make it as real as possible. For each shot, I pretend the deer is coming, pick my spot to draw, wait for it to step into my lane and shoot. Then, when I'm really hunting, I tell myself it is just another target. For me, it has helped greatly in keeping calm, the last factor in making the shot.


Once we stop focusing our practice on shooting targets and shift it to arrowing deer, our success climbs rapidly. Really, it's no different than spring training for a pitcher. Sure, he can throw baseballs at a wall all day long, but pitching in the minors and exhibition games is what really prepares him for the big show. By incorporating these techniques into our practice sessions, we are that much better prepared to pitch a strike to the big guy when the game is on the line.

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