Closing The Distance

For bowhunters, a magical world exists between 100 yards and 25 yards. To be successful in this world, you have to play by its rules.

Regardless of how long you've been bowhunting, it's a safe bet that at one time or another, you've stared across a field and wished -- if only for a split second -- that you had a rifle in your hands instead of a bow. Sitting there, caught up on some invisible barrier 100 yards off, is the trophy of a lifetime. With a rifle, it would be an easy shot, a sure hit. But with a bow, it might as well be a world away.

Very few veteran hunters will argue that animals seem to know the limitations of their pursuers. And when you're packing a bow in pursuit of big game, the distance between 100 yards and 25 yards is infinitely greater than 75 long steps. Like the dash on a headstone, what happens between these two numbers is what defines a bowhunter. To close that critical distance -- and make the most of that dash -- you have to know how to play by the rules.

RULE NO. 1: Know When to Say When

It should come as no surprise that when it comes to making deer and elk traverse that magical distance between 100 yards and 25 yards, the first and most important rule relates to calling. Contrary to popular belief, however, the most crucial aspect of calling isn't necessarily making the right sound. It's knowing when not to make a sound.

"I see a lot of hunters who keep calling when they shouldn't," said Wayne Carlton, of CamoWest. Carlton is one of the most recognized names in big-game calling. His calls continue to be some of the most popular on the market. "Knowing when to call is just as important as knowing how to call," he said.

Big-game calling has a specific purpose, and a specific time. As a general rule, it's most effective before you have a visual on the animal. If you can't see him, then chances are he can't see you. If he can't see you and he's interested, he'll keep moving closer to the sound to try and see what's making it.

To get him interested enough to make that commitment, you have to find out what he wants to hear. Bucks and bulls are just like us: Some are lovers, and some are fighters. The key to calling them closer is knowing the personality of the animals you're working.

"If you find out what they're responding to, stay with it," said Glen Berry, of Berry Game Calls in Washington. "If a bull bugles off a cow call, there's no need for you to bugle anymore. He's trying to call that cow to him. So that's what you want to do -- go to him."

When you find the call that he's interested in, avoid the temptation to overwhelm him with it. Whether it's bugling, mewing, grunting or rattling, in the game of calling deer and elk, you should always abide by one rule-- less is most definitely more.

"I'll use a sequence of bugles and cow calls, then completely stop for 30 minutes," Berry said. "When you're doing it right, they're calling you, and they're coming in search of you."

To increase the odds of this happening, concentrate your calling efforts during the time of day when bulls and bucks are most receptive to it. When the females are bedded and content to stay put, a male is more apt to respond to cow or doe calls that are relatively close to him. But you can almost guarantee that he won't move too far away from them to go looking for a fight.

"When a bull loses control, that's when he's most callable," Berry said. "A lot of times, that happens when they're moving from feeding to bedding areas. The cows tend to wander, and he gets worked up looking for them. He starts worrying about a satellite bull stealing the cows, and he'll go after any of them that pose a threat."

That tactic can also be reversed. By playing the role of the lead bull that's lost control of his herd, you can often attract satellite bulls to your position. Use deep, strong bugles and multiple cow calls from different positions to locate the satellite bulls.

Then it's time to play hard to get.

"Once he's 100 yards away, and he's coming, lay off it," Carlton said. "If you're trying to get him to come closer, and he's not moving, 90 percent of the time it's because you're calling too much."

The closer the animal is to you, the more likely that over-calling will translate into a spoiled hunt. Frequent calls when the deer or elk is within sight allow him to pinpoint exactly where your calls are coming from. By his nature, he'll hang up where he can see the source of the call. The female he's looking for wouldn't be hiding from him, so if he doesn't see or smell what he's expecting to, he won't come in.

As with every rule, however, there are exceptions.

"If I've got a bull 100 yards away, and I keep quiet, but he still won't move, I'll give him a little cow call," Carlton said. "If he cuts me off on a cow call, I'll hit it hard for 30 seconds. Then I won't say another word."

In such a situation, however, Carlton says he always hedges his bets.

"When you have a unique-sounding call, you want to save that one for killing," he said. "If you're using it throughout the day, they'll get bored with it, and you're losing your advantage."

RULE NO. 2: Position Is Everything

Whether you're using a stand, ground blind or natural vegetation, before you try and pull an animal within bow range, there are several considerations you should take into account.

"I always look for a spot where I can plant myself in heavy cover with a few different shooting lanes," said Chuck Adams, a world-renowned archer whose name is linked to more record-book animals than any other bowhunter.

In addition to multiple options for shooting lanes, Adams looks for areas with openings that allow him to see 100 yards away and watch the animal come in. "Between the opening and the shooting lanes, make sure that there's some thick cover," he said. "That will allow you to change position and draw when the animal can't see you move."

When you're scouting, spend time to look for potential setups -- and bring a saw with you. Oftentimes, a little trimming before the season can turn an unusable spot into the ideal setup for an ambush.

"Position your stand so that the animals' natural travel path will bring them within range," offers Dale Denny of Bear Paw Outfitters in Washington. "Set up along trails, waterholes or feed sources, and your chances of getting a shot will be much better."

In addition to looking for areas

that the animals frequently use, you must also be cognizant of the terrain that leads to your setup. The immediate area around you isn't all that's important for drawing elk and deer in close.

To bring them in, look farther out.

"Look for places where you would come in if you wanted to smell around and find out what was going on," Carlton said. "If there are long, wide open areas in front of you, they're going to be hesitant to cross it. Don't give them a reason to hang up. Make it comfortable for them to come right up to you."

The most important consideration for setups is options. The more you have from where you sit, the more you can adapt to what an animal does.

"Try to anticipate the animal's movements and prepare for them," Adams said. "Be able to move horizontally or vertically, not just in one direction. I pick a spot that gives me the most latitude to move. Then I'll kick away as much debris as possible so that when I do have to move, I can do it quietly."

Although movement is limited in tree stands, the ability to reposition within your space limitations is paramount to proper stand placement. Position your stand so that your best shooting lane is perpendicular to the place where you think the animal will most likely come from. That way, you'll have a good quartering shot if you're right. But what if you're not? Don't forget to look at the other visible angles from your stand and remove any obstacles that could possibly get in your way

Before you start calling, visualize the animal coming in from every conceivable opening, and practice moving to that shot. Know where you have a shot, and where you don't. If he comes in from the angle where there's no opening, don't push it. It's better to be patient and hope that he'll work his way into one of your shooting lanes than to force a shot where you've already determined you don't have one.

RULE NO. 3: Be Prepared

"Once I start calling, I have to assume that the animal is going to be coming in, and prepare for it," Carlton said. "They don't always make noise when they approach. And despite your best-laid plans, they will come in from where you least expect, and you'll have to react to that."

To react, you must be prepared. Because most preparations require movement -- and because when an animal is close, every movement you make increases the odds of spooking it -- make as many preparations as you can before calling.

"Nocking an arrow is a fairly movement-rich thing to do. You have to assume that when a bull comes in, there could be a half-dozen cows around as well. And if you wait until then to nock the arrow, they're going to see you," Adams said. "I like to have my bow in my hand whenever possible. And if I'm in a stand, my arrow's nocked all the time."

Even with your bow in hand and an arrow nocked, lifting and drawing the bow are necessary movements that you can't make until the animal is relatively close. How close depends on your strength, your let-off, and your ability to keep a steady aim with a shaky arm. The only way to judge that with any accuracy is to practice it. Every time you shoot your bow, end your practice session with three or four extended holds. This will not only let you judge more confidently how far in advance you should draw. It will also help strengthen seldom-used muscles you'll need when you have to hold out for that trophy a minute or two longer than you anticipated.

RULE NO. 4: Know When To Move

There are times when every calling tactic will fail. Every preparation will be in vain, every setup will be worthless. Despite your best efforts, there are times when the animals will simply refuse to come any closer. At such times, the best way to close the distance is to take the fight to them.

"I always say a good foot hunter is like a cruise missile," said Adams. "He moves at whatever speed is necessary and adjusts his path according to the movements of the target."

The only way to do that successfully is first, to be aware of where the target is.

"Keep track of where the animal is, so you can move up and not get caught," Berry said. "I'll call after I move in 30 to 40 yards and sit down. Hopefully, he'll get excited and come looking for you."

Once you make the decision to move on an animal, don't second-guess it. If he doesn't respond to your call, move up again. And again.

"The most common mistake foot hunters make is not being aggressive enough. When you see it, go after it," Adams said. "I win a higher percentage of the time by being aggressive, rather than passive. Sometimes I blow it. But if I'm going to blow it, I'm going to blow it by pushing the situation."

Adams says there's a big difference between being aggressive and being foolhardy. When you decide to move on an animal, don't throw out all your stationary tactics. Your preparations, your final shot setup, and calling tactics all play important roles in your ability to successfully move closer to your quarry. Keep your stalking tactics honed, keep the wind in your face, and work the angles of the terrain, but don't hesitate -- especially when it comes to crunch time.

"If you're going slow when you're drawing, you run the risk that he's going to catch you in the middle of a move. Then you're stuck," Adams said. "Every situation is different, and you have to base your move on the animal's body language as he's coming in. But I like to get in position as quickly as possible and take the first good shot that presents itself."

That shot is going to present itself more often than not, if you continually practice techniques for closing the distance between you and your quarry. As with every other aspect of hunting, however, getting past that magical 100-yard barrier -- whether you're crossing it, or trying to get the animal to cross it -- takes more than skill and tactics. It requires that you immerse yourself in the natural world and become a part of it.

"You have to feel and live what you're saying," Carlton said. "You talk about closing the distance. That's what gets it done."

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