Off Season 101: Practice Like You Would Hunt
We bowhunters spend most of the offseason practicing archery so we can capitalize on shots that are usually few and far between. We also stress about tuning our bow so every arrow flies true and groups tightly.
Practice and well-tuned gear are important, of course, but the best way to prepare for the shot of a lifetime is by practicing the same ways you hunt. Yes, it’s OK to target-practice in your backyard while wearing your favorite sandals and T-shirt. Just remember that you’ll swap that outfit for insulated camouflage clothes in a few months. Bulky sleeves, jackets and gloves; as well as a facemask and safety harness, all affect the way you draw and shoot your bow. All those factors dictate accuracy.
To avoid discovering those issues the hard way while bowhunting, get familiar with your hunting garb long before opening day. Don’t just play dress-up for backyard shooting. Think about hunting situations you’ll encounter and do your best to replicate them. If you’re bowhunting whitetails primarily from a treestand, set up an elevated platform to practice from.
If you’ll hunt from a ground blind, set it up and practice shooting from inside it to ensure your bow limbs don’t hit the blind’s roof or inner walls when you’re at full draw. This practice also lets you know whether your bowsight is bright enough for use inside the blind’s dark confines. Likewise, spot-and-stalk bowhunters should get used to shooting while wearing a backpack, and while kneeling, standing or tucked tightly into a thick pine.
Proper practice also means swapping your standard target for a lifelike 3-D target to imitate your quarry. You’ll get used to envisioning the vitals in your sight picture, while also learning the best shot angles by placing the target at different positions.
Ideally, every shot opportunity will come at 15 yards, with the animal broadside or slightly quartering away, but most shooting opportunities aren’t ideal. To ensure you’re ready for anything, set your target at various distances and angles, such as quartering away, and adjust your aiming point. Practice shooting at random distances, and the standard 20-, 30- and 40-yard marks to learn how your arrow’s trajectory changes with distance.
Do you rely on a rangefinder? What if it breaks or its battery dies? Being able to judge the range and efficiently shoot at unknown distances prepares you for situations when you can’t use your rangefinder. Practice by walking back from your target, stopping at random intervals, and shooting while estimating the distance. Confirm your estimate by ranging the target after each shot. You’ll soon develop a sense for estimating distances offhand.
Also realize that most 3-D targets represent the average size of the species they imitate. That’s important because you’ll learn to judge distances by understanding the space the animal occupies in your bowsight’s housing. For example, if a white-tailed deer takes up most of your sight picture, the distance is likely less than 20 yards. However, if its head is smaller than the diameter of your sight pin, it’s likely past 40 yards and out of range.
Lighting conditions also affect accuracy. Game animals are most active at dawn and dusk, yet most bowhunters practice in broad daylight. Experiment by shooting at dawn and dusk. Also practice shooting with the sun in your eyes and at your back. Shot opportunities can happen anytime, anywhere, and under any condition.
Prepare for everything you can imagine. Bowhunters seldom get more than one shot per animal, so practice those one-shot opportunities by taking one shot every time you walk past your backyard target. If you’re outside doing yard work, set up your target and hang your bow nearby. Each time you walk past your bow, take a shot. If your arrow hits the vitals every time, you’re ready to hunt.
Time also affects accuracy. Sometimes your quarry will be on edge and ready to bolt, so prepare yourself for those situations. Practice with a friend and take turns using your phone’s stopwatch feature to allow 10 seconds to draw, aim and release your arrow.
Besides preparing yourself for bowhunting season, realistic practice sessions are a fun, creative way to get more out of target shooting. These tips should prepare you for most situations, but don’t wait to start. The countdown to opening day is already ticking away. By starting on this process now, you’ll be well-prepared for opening day.