BOWHUNTING: Pre-Season Practice Tips
by Chuck Adams
You can’t just grab a bow and go. You’ve got to practice. On average, it takes a bowhunter two or three months of shooting before elk season to reach peak accuracy potential. The time to start your serious target practice is now.
Practice should begin with the basics. You must either learn these or brush up on what you already know.
Good shooting depends on the following:
- Stand with your toes slightly toward the target.
- Grip the bow loosely in a relaxed hand.
- Lift the bow and draw the string straight back to your face.
- Anchor solidly to the side of your face with the string in line with your aiming eye.
- Move smoothly on target and aim solidly.
- Release the bowstring smoothly.
- Follow through the shot by continuing to aim until the arrow actually hits.
If you don’t practice these time-tested steps, you are likely to not shoot well. And in the process of not shooting well, you will certainly develop bad shooting habits. The result will be a downward spiral and little hope of filling your elk tag in September.
To begin with, shoot close. Twenty yards is the old standby distance for most backyard target practice. Anywhere between 15 and 25 yards is okay.
Archery stores sell a variety of commercial bull’s-eye targets. To save money, I prefer to make my own. Here’s how. Draw circles on plain, white computer paper. Three or four inches in diameter is about right. You can use an inexpensive compass and pencil, or trace around the mouth of a drinking glass or cup.
Cut out the circles with scissors and glue them to 8”x 8” squares of cardboard with white school glue or photo mount spray. Presto. You have a pile of targets easily attached to a good commercial target butt like the Block. A target like the Block has black aiming spots on it already, but these tend to chew up and fade over time. I prefer new, fresh targets to allow clear aiming.
Don’t overdo your practice. Overly enthusiastic shooting can wear down muscles and cause you to lose mental focus. Both lead to poor shooting.
Take a tip from national bow champions and Olympic archery competitors. Shoot no more than every other day, and shoot no more than 30 to 60 arrows per session. Shoot slowly. Rest a minute or two between shots and think about your shooting form. Don’t fling a whole bunch of arrows fast. Quality is the key, not quantity. As is the case in many things, less is more in archery. Fewer shots, carefully taken, mean better accuracy on targets and elk.
How good is good enough? Top bowhunters can consistently keep almost all their arrows in a 2- or 3-inch bull’s-eye at 20 yards. If you aren’t shooting that well, there is room for improvement.
According to official statistics from bowhunting organization like the Pope and Young Record Club, about half of all archery elk are shot beyond 30 yards. If you aren’t proficient with your bow out to at least 40 yards, you will dramatically reduce your chances of success.
Some bowhunters insist that shots with a bow beyond 20 or 25 yards are unethical. But statistics don’t lie. Consider two facts. First, a bowhunter with a rangefinder and bowsights on a modern compound bow can consistently group arrows inside 6 or 8 inches at 50 yards. Second, a mature bull elk’s chest cavity is almost twice the size of a mature buck deer. If you can hit a whitetail’s 8-inch chest at 25 yards, you should be able to do the same on an elk’s 16-inch chest at 50 yards. It’s a matter of math. Double the size of the target and you can double the shooting distance with exactly the same result.
Theory and practice are not always the same. I’ve observed that many bowhunters psyche themselves out at longer shooting range. They can hit a tennis ball most of the time at 20 yards but cannot hit a basketball at 40 yards. This is not a matter of skill. It is a problem between your ears.
Here is a great way to bolster your longer-distance ability. Make up four sets of white paper bull’s-eyes—3” for 20 yards, 4½” for 30 yards, 6” for 40 yards, and 7½” for 50 yards. On your backyard range, all four aiming spots will look exactly the same from these four distances. If you aim solidly on the bull’s-eye and continue to aim until the arrow hits, you should score a similar percentage of hits at all four ranges.
If your spot-hitting ability falls off at longer distance, while using bigger spots like I just described, you aren’t concentrating with the same degree of confidence on the longer shots. Practice, practice and practice some more.
On average, I can personally hit 28 or 29 3-inch bull’s-eyes out of 30 shots from 20 yards. I can hit the same 28 or 29 7½-inch bull’s-eyes out of 30 shots from 50 yards. This multi-distance consistency is what you should strive for. Geometrically larger bull’s-eyes help a lot with the mental aspect of shooting farther away.
Please don’t get me wrong. Elk are incredibly tough animals. Hunters wound and lose hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bulls each fall. Getting close to the vital zone isn’t good enough. Nobody should shoot beyond their own personal sure-kill distance. If you cannot hit a bull elk’s 16-inch chest zone every time beyond 15, 20 or 25 yards, with a couple of inches on all sides to spare, don’t try. You owe it to the animals you hunt to shoot within your personal sure-kill limits.
What I’ve just described is bow-shooting 101. It’s basic. But before you actually bowhunt elk, you should practice creative, advanced shooting moves.
Shooting at a real animal requires you to pick a small spot to aim at in the vital zone. On a broadside bull, this spot is about 7 inches directly above the “elbow” of the front leg. No amount of bull’s-eye practice can teach you to pick a spot, because elk never run around with targets on their hides.
You can buy a 3-D foam elk target for realistic practice, but such a target is super-expensive. Instead, I recommend practice on a much less costly, full-size 3-D deer target like the GlenDel Full Rut Buck. Although half the dimensions of an elk, such a target provides realistic aiming practice at the correct imaginary spot.
The GlenDel and similar modern deer targets show heart, lungs and liver lightly etched in the foam surface, but you cannot see these organs at shooting ranges beyond 10 or 15 yards. The center section on the GlenDel pulls out and rotates to show vital organ placement from broadside, quartering or tree-stand shooting angles. Shooting at such a target teaches anatomy and forces you to pick an aiming spot on an animal. An elk is much larger, but that’s really beside the point. The things you need to master are easily learned on the smaller target.
If you plan to ambush elk from a tree stand or ground blind, you should set up such a stand and practice shooting from it. Shots from a tree require lower aiming because arrows fly flatter and higher at downward angles. Shooting from a ground blind might require you to sit and shoot from a chair or stool. Without practice, you aren’t likely to do this well.
Shots at elk from ground level do not always duplicate classic, upright target form. I have taken more than half my elk from one or both knees, and some of my shots have been severely twisted as well. You should try to anticipate shots before they happen, and practice until you are good.
The very best preseason practice for elk is roaming the hills with your bow and blunt-tipped arrows. Make sure blunt arrowheads, either steel or rubber, match the weight of your target points to ensure similar point of impact.
As you wander, pick out grass clumps, dirt clods, rotten stumps and other natural targets at unknown range. Estimate the distance by eye and take the shot. Try kneeling, twisted and other awkward body positions. Shoot uphill and down. You won’t always have the luxury to use a laser rangefinder on an elk. Field practice sharpens your ability to hit precisely at unknown distance. It also teaches you to aim in a variety of realistic elk situations.
My favorite sport—aside from hunting elk—is playing follow-the-leader with one or more bow-shooting buddies. We head for the hills and take turns picking particular shots. I’ll point out a pine cone about 40 yards away and shoot while kneeling with a left body twist. Everybody else must duplicate the shot. Closest to the mark gets one point. Then the next person in rotation picks his target and type of shot. It’s fun, and it makes you a better elk archer.
The final step in pre-season practice is being accurate with broadheads. If you understand bow tuning, or shoot a first-rate mechanical broadhead like the Rage, your broadheads and target points will probably hit the same place. But many bowhunters get a reality check when they first shoot a broadhead beyond point-blank range. If it doesn’t veer dramatically off course—a sign you need some bow tuning—then it is likely to hit at least a bit high, low or to one side. This means you must sight-in your bow for broadheads on the backyard range before you hunt.
The most successful elk archers are usually the ones who shoot a lot before hunting season. This increases confidence and leaves less to random chance. When you know you can hit your target in a variety of situations, you usually notch your tag.
Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.