One of the great things about bowhunting is that it provides an excuse to practice archery all year long. There is just something so fun and therapeutic about shooting a few arrows into a block. Rough day at work? Come home and send a quiver of arrows downrange...you’ll instantly feel better. Now, if you’re like most hunters, you probably don’t shoot your bow as often as you wish you did. You know you should, but life gets in the way. So, a few weeks before season opens, you find yourself frantically trying to cram a bunch of archery range sessions into your schedule. It’s okay...no judgment.
But, whatever your annual archery schedule is, one thing we’re often guilty of is failing to practice the way we’ll hunt. Anyone can stand at even 10-yard intervals with a textbook stance and slowly send arrows downrange. But, how often is that the way a real hunting scenario plays out? How often are you forced to shoot from your knees, or lean back to get a clean shooting lane, or blow on a call to stop the animal right before you release the arrow? These are all things we know happen in the bowhunting woods, but many of us find ourselves trying these shots for the very first time when there’s an animal in range and it’s go-time. Let’s make the most of our precious range time and start practicing the way we’ll hunt!
Positions and Distance
If you took the time to get some lessons or basic instruction when you first got into archery, then surely you spent some time working on your stance. Where to place your feet, how to distribute your weight...all great things to consider when mastering the challenging sport of archery. But, so many of the animals we hunt live in terrain where it’s really hard to find a spot to get the perfect stance. More than that, so many shot opportunities come at times or places where we don’t expect them, and we’re forced to make a shot from some weird angle or position.
Now, if we only took a shot when we were able to have the perfect footing, standing still, breathing slowly...we’d have a lot less shot opportunities. So, why not spend a little range time working on all these different scenarios? How do you shoot from your knees? What about sitting down? What if you’re standing but you have to crouch down to clear a branch? Spending some time working on all these different shots won’t prepare you for the Olympics, but it will certainly help when that bull of a lifetime walks in on you in a less-than-perfect setup.
While we’re talking about less than perfect situations, have you noticed that animals seem to refuse to walk by at perfect 10-yard intervals? It’s true! So, don’t make that shot opportunity on an animal the first time you attempt a gap-shot. If you’re using a single-pin slider or an electronic red-dot sight, this doesn’t really apply to you. But for all you multi-pin hunters out there, spend some time standing at odd distances. Practice those in-between yardages, and get comfortable with what it’s like to shoot in-between the pins.
Of all the things we can try to recreate at the range, the surge of adrenaline that accompanies a real-life shot opportunity is the hardest. Other than being chased by wild animals during a practice session, it’s just hard to simulate the intensity of that moment. The best attempt we can make is to get that heart-rate elevated. So, try things like jumping jacks, burpees, a quick sprint...any exercise you can do to jack that heart-rate up and then grab your bow. Trying to draw, steady yourself, and make a good shot when your heart is thumping in your ears and your hands are shaky is really, really hard. But, that’s what makes it such great practice for hunting, because that’s exactly what you’re dealing with when a buck is in your sights.
Along those same lines, try to mentally walk through an actual hunting scenario when you’re at the range. Basically, you’re tapping into your pretending skills you had when you were five-years-old, but it can really help you envision and rehearse the kinds of situations you’ll encounter in the field. Even though you’re just staring at a practice block or 3-D target, try to play out the scenario in your head: “Okay, he’s walking in from my right. When he steps behind that tree I’ll draw. Two more steps...wait for that near-side leg to step forward. RELEASE!” It may feel kind of silly, but it’s the same concept professional athletes use all the time to visualize success.
Similar to our discussion on shooting from various hunting positions, we need to consider our gear setup when we’re in the field. Odds are, you aren’t bowhunting in the jeans and t-shirt you wore to the range. I’m not saying you need to suit-up for every practice session, but at least run some trials with the gear you do plan to use. Do you wear a binocular harness on your chest? Make sure you’re comfortable drawing with that. Are you backpacking or at least hunting with a day-pack on? Spend some time shooting while wearing it. Even checking things like your hunting jacket for noises or restrictions in your range of motion can be helpful. I must confess, I discovered the hard way that a camera rig I kept clipped to one of my pack’s shoulder straps got in the way of my draw-cycle while trying to draw on an animal. That critter got away, and it’s a mistake I’ll never make again!
Also on the gear front, make sure you give yourself adequate time to feel really confident with your broadheads. If you practice all year with field points and then swap-in broadheads right before leaving your truck on opening day, you’re just asking for trouble. Start incorporating broadheads into your practice sessions well in advance (I’d recommend months, not weeks or days). If you’re shooting quality broadheads, you can re-sharpen them right before season. Or, the simple method: Have a practice set and then an identical game-time set, preserving those unused, razor-sharp ones for when it really counts.
Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Listen, archery should be fun, so don’t give up on the leisurely afternoons at the range just flinging arrows and having fun. But, if that’s the only practice you do heading into hunting season, you’re setting yourself up for some missed shots and frustration. Spend some time practicing as close to the real-life hunting scenarios you expect to face as possible, and when that moment appears in the field, you’ll be so much more comfortable and confident to execute the perfect shot.
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