Surviving The Bowhunting Learning Curve

The reality of bowhunting for whitetail bucks is that it's anything but easy, and the learning curve can be steep. Read on for the tips and tactics you need to become a more proficient bowhunter.

Although many, if not most, bowhunting articles in sporting magazines deal with how to kill big bucks, in reality, the success rate for bowhunters in most states is under 30 percent. That is, less than three out of every 10 archers kill a deer of either sex in any given season. Many bowhunters even struggle to tag a whitetail every three or four years.

A realistic assessment of your archery skills -- and plenty of practice -- can vastly improve your odds of connecting when opportunity knocks.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Surviving the bowhuntingg learning curve is a major challenge, and reaching a desired level of competence can be difficult.

During an October outing last season, I had the opportunity to converse and bowhunt with Bob Errett, president of Parker Compound Bows, Paul Vaicunas, vice-president of the company, and Robert Mason, chief financial officer. The three individuals are each at different stages of bowhunting. Errett, who learned the art of archery from the legendary Fred Bear, has killed numerous quality bucks and now enjoys creating and improving wildlife habitat, taking does to improve the health of the herd and teaching others. Vaicunas relishes the challenge of pursuing mature does and bucks that are 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 years old, and Mason has the goal of killing his first whitetail with a bow. Here are their thoughts -- and some of mine -- on surviving the bowhunting learning curve.

Not until my fourth year as a bowhunter did I tag my first deer. When I came home in midmorning after that first kill, my wife, Elaine, asked, "What are you doing home?" I replied that I had killed a doe and was through for the day. Her response: "No, really, why are you home?"

When even our devoted spouses have given up all hope of us ever be ing successful at something, then the situation is, indeed, dire. During those first three years of misery, however, I did learn how to deal with failure, and although the following may sound like a cliché, it is true that failure can develop strength of character and a desire to succeed.

For example, after my first three years without success, I became determined that my fourth year would be the one in which I would finally bring a whitetail to a check station. In the past, I had often depended on friends to help me select general stand sites and find specific trees on which to hang stands. Many times before the season started, I would go afield with a veteran bowhunter and let him interpret sign.

But during the month before the season began that fourth year, I immersed myself in the topography and other characteristics of the properties where I planned to hunt. With my past failures always in mind, I carefully studied trails, food sources, bedding areas and, very importantly, specific trees where I visualized deer might pass by within shooting range.

A week before the season began, a friend contacted me and said he would help me pick a stand site on the property where I planned to hunt on opening day. I refused his assistance and said that I would do the choosing myself and live with the consequences. The next day, I selected a hardwood that overlooked a trail where droppings and footprints were abundant. Five minutes after legal shooting time on opening day, I drew back on a doe and sent an arrow into her vitals. After 10 minutes of following the blood trail, I found the doe and screamed with joy and relief.

Ironically, two days before the assignment for this story came in, I encountered Mason at a sporting show. He told me that he had failed to arrow his first deer during his initial season of bowhunting, but he was determined to learn from his failures and snafus and would kill a deer this season. I bet he will, too.

EUREKA MOMENT NO. 1: Develop A Scent-Control Regimen
Surviving the bowhunting learning curve involves a series of things that one has to learn, the so-called "eureka moments." My first revelation was that I had to develop a scent-control regimen. As a rifle and muzzleloader hunter, I had never seriously bothered doing so. But after three years of watching deer bolt when they detected a whiff of me, I finally decided to follow a set process of eliminating odor as much as possible. Yes, doing so involves time, but the effort is extremely worthwhile.

For example, to hearken back to that initial bow-killed doe, the morning I went afield, the doe first passed by my stand at a distance of just a few yards. When the deer finally paused and turned broadside, she was only 10 yards away and had no inkling that a predator -- me -- was in the woods. Thus, it was easy to make the perfect shot at a perfectly relaxed animal. It was a real eureka moment for me.

Before going into the woods that day, for the first time I had taken every precaution that I could think of to make myself scent-free. Here is a solid regimen to follow:

  • Wash all clothes -- both outer- and underwear, as well as hats, socks and masks -- with a scent-control detergent or at least baking soda.
  • Store clothes, and especially rubber boots, in a hard-plastic container with a tight seal. A heavy-duty plastic bag with a sealing apparatus will also work well, but a trash bag with a twist tie will not.
  • Put an earth scent wafer of some sort within the container.
  • Wear carbon-based clothing or spray your body with a scent eliminator or cover scent that is based on indigenous plants or deer foods in your area.
  • Spray your bow, release and tree stand with a scent eliminator.

EUREKA MOMENT NO. 2: Learn To Control Your Nerves
When I first began bowhunting, my knees used to buckle as soon as I glimpsed a whitetail. Paul Vaicunas offers tips on avoiding the shakes.

"I grew up competing in hockey and other sports, as well as competing in archery," he says. "Performing under stress in those activities and my being used to being excited during them was a big help in being able to remain calm when a deer walked up.

"To calm your nerves, I think any bowhunter when a big buck or doe approaches should recall similar situations in life or in the woods when he had to perform under pressure, and then remind himself that he succeeded that time and will succeed this time.

"Another thing to have done beforehand is to have a very mechanical process that you go through before shooting. That is, find your shot window, then concentrate on drawing, anchoring, aiming and releasing. Also, remember that it's OK to become excited after the shot."

EUREKA MOMENT NO. 3: Recognizing Your Realistic Skills
When I first began bowhunting, I thought I could shoot a bow at 60 or more pounds, like my friends. Physically, I could not. I also thought I could learn how to kill deer 30 yards away. I could not. When I finally had the eureka moment about my limitations, my success rate soared. Now, with my bow set at 55 pounds, I have become quite proficient at the 20-yard shot.

Vaicunas emphasized that the best way to ascertain what our realistic skills are is to develop a successful ongoing practice routine.

"I believe in that old saying 'practice makes perfect' and the importance of shooting 12 months a year," he maintains. "I also feel that bow­hunters should strive for quality practice sessions. By that I mean it is better to shoot 30 perfect arrows than 100 good ones. It is also better to practice perfect shooting than to practice shooting."

EUREKA MOMENT NO. 4: Enhance Your Shooting Skills
Another error I made as a novice bowhunter was thinking that I didn't need all the little gizmos that can be added to a bow. My first season, I even resisted obtaining a release. Another eureka moment was learning that releases and other doodads can be added to our repertoire to enhance our shooting skills. Vaicunas lists four other items in particular as being worthwhile purchases.

"Many individuals simply aren't good at estimating distances beyond 15 yards or so," he says. "That's why I think buying a range finder is such a good idea. A range finder takes away all the guesswork about a deer's distance and which aim point to use.

"Another smart purchase is a peep sight and kisser button. They enable us to maintain the same anchor point time after time, which leads to more consistent shooting. And, last, I would recommend purchasing a 10- to 12-inch stabilizer. A stabilizer of that length will perform better in damping vibrations, which results in better shot accuracy."

EUREKA MOMENT NO. 5: Persistence And Time Afield
The first three years I bowhunted, I would only venture afield on Saturdays and once a week or so after work. It was not until I experienced the eureka moment that such a half-hearted game plan was never going to let me achieve my goal of becoming a competent bowhunter that I began to consistently kill whitetails.

Now, unless it is raining, I go bowhunting every day after work throughout the season. The hard- and soft-mast foods the deer are consuming, deer travel patterns and the stage of the rut may not change from day to day, but these factors often do change several times every week and definitely do so on a weekly basis. The only way to keep abreast of what is happening in the woods is to be in the woods. I still make many mistakes every bow season and squander too many chances to arrow a whitetail. But one thing I have learned is that if I go bowhunting every evening after work and every Saturday, I will experience success.

Bob Errett agrees and strongly believes that one of the virtues many ultra successful bowhunters have in common is the willingness to spend a great deal of time in the woods. Yes, we have many family and work commitments, not to mention taking care of the grinding details that characterize mundane life, he says. But, again, allotting plenty of time to bowhunting can really increase our chances for success.

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