BOWHUNTING: Six Steps to Improve Accuracy
By Chuck Adams
It’s easy to shoot with classic form in your backyard, but wild elk are seldom so obliging.
Standing in front of a stationary target is easy. You face the target slightly, with toes pointing 45 to 80 degrees away from the direction you intend to aim. However, shooting at elk seldom lets you stand upright in classic form.
At least half of my elk have required me to shoot from one or both knees. For example, I tagged my last bull by shooting sharply upward with one knee buried in the dirt on the uphill side of my body. This was the only way I could keep my upper body level as I aimed and released the arrow.
Even on my feet, I’ve usually needed to crouch to squeeze an arrow below tree limbs or evergreen boughs. More often than not, I have also been forced to twist my body as I tracked a moving bull with my bowsight before he stopped, allowing me to shoot.
Establish a Solid Upper-Body Base
No matter how your lower body ends up at the time you shoot, you must establish a solid upper-body base to ensure accuracy. Regardless of what your legs are doing—bent, twisted, or doubled at one or both knees—your body above the waist should approximate how you shoot at a target in your backyard. Your chest should angle slightly toward the target, and your head should be upright to ensure a solid and consistent aim.
Practice makes perfect in the field. Shooting thousands of arrows into your backyard target from a comfortable standing position pales in value compared to getting out and shooting at natural targets like dirt clods, fallen pine cones, and tufts of grass. Try shooting from one or both knees, sitting on the ground (only works with a short compound bow), crouching with knees bent, and twisting your legs to shoot at targets to left and right.
Nobody perfects these moves immediately, but most shooters learn quickly. When a real elk puts you in an awkward position, you need to be ready to shoot with confidence and accuracy.
Do Not Manhandle the Bow
It is all too easy to grab or squeeze your bow as you aim at an elk. Excitement and adrenaline often ruin a relaxed, loose grip. This can spell shooting disaster.
The best archery accuracy comes when your bow rattles inside the circle formed by your thumb and forefinger. This is made easy if you are shooting a modern compound bow with a small, ultra-strong aluminum or carbon handle. Fat, older-style bow handles invite a white-knuckle grip as you shoot at game. Tense bow-hand muscles jump and jerk in unpredictable ways. This in turn throws arrows wild.
In cold elk weather, I commonly wear a thin wool shooting glove on my bow hand. This bulks up my grip a bit, but my hand is warm and also more slippery and less likely to flip my bow in odd directions during the shot. A thin fabric glove on the bow hand actually helps most cold-country bowhunters shoot better in the heat of the action.
Most bows come with small hand straps to keep the bow attached to your wrist after let-off. This allows you to keep your hand relaxed through the entire shot without fear of dropping your bow.
Vary Your Drawing Practice
Archery manuals tell you to point your bow at the target and draw the bowstring straight back to your face. This is great advice when the target is a block or fake deer. But elk do not always cooperate.
It doesn’t matter how sneaky you are. Drawing your bow creates a lot of elk-spooking movement. The upper limb rises at least a foot above your head, and your bowstring hand moves backwards at least 18 inches before you reach full draw. To avoid being seen, you sometimes need to draw in unconventional ways.
A few years ago, I stalked a nice bull behind a knife-edged ridge of rock. When I peeked over the top, the elk was broadside less than 30 yards away. I could not stand up and draw normally without scaring that elk into the next county. I pointed my bow at my toes, drew the bowstring upward to my face, and slowly rose for the shot. The rocky ridge completely covered my draw, and I completed my aim before the bull spotted me. I drilled him through both lungs..
Another time, I was forced to hold my bow horizontal to the ground to keep my drawing movement below the top of a bush. I slowly rotateed the fully drawn bow to normal position and shot the elk at 38 yards. If I had tried a stand-up draw, I am sure that animal would have seen me and fled.
Drawing low or severely canting your bow requires muscles you normally do not use. Practice such variations so they are smooth and deadly. You never know when offbeat drawing might pay off!
A Consistent Anchor Kills
The way you anchor your bowstring hand can make or break hunting bow accuracy. Consistency is the key.
Most archers know they must press the string hand against their face in the same place every time. The anchor is like the back sight of a rifle. Without it, arrows will spray all over the place and elk will escape.
One way to anchor consistently is using a peep on the bowstring. Shut your aiming eye, draw to your anchor, open your eye, and slide the peep up or down the string until you are looking directly through it. Once the peep is exactly right, lash it in place with thread above and below.
Some archers tilt their compound bow to left or right as they aim. This causes the head and anchoring position to move, which in turn ruins accuracy..
Beating the canting problem is simple. Purchase a bowsight with a leveling bubble near the aiming pins. Center the bubble each time you anchor to prevent bow cant as you aim. This anchor-check device will prevent arrows from hitting to left or right when you shoot at elk.
Play Games with Your Aim
Aiming with a bowsight is not as simple as you might think. Bowhunters should experiment with aiming direction and eye focus to decide which method is most accurate for them.
By “aiming direction,” I mean how you move your sight pin onto the target. Some shooters come up from below. Others come down from above. A few move on target by swinging left or right.
You should experiment to decide which direction feels best for you. All else being equal, coming up from below or moving in from right to left (for a right-hand shooter) makes the most sense, because both methods give you a superior view of your target. Swinging from left to right or coming down on the target both tend to block out an elk with the bow handle or the bowsight and arrow just before you aim.
You should experiment, settle into the most comfortable routine for you, and teach yourself to aim from the same direction every time. I always draw slightly below my target and slowly lift the bow as I aim. This works well for me.
Should you focus your aiming eye on the target or on the bowsight pin? Both techniques have their fans. Most shooters I know focus on the target with the sight pin slightly out of focus in the foreground. But some archers focus on the pin itself.
If you are prone to getting really excited in the presence of elk, focusing on the bowsight might help you overcome bull fever. This mind game puts the target elk slightly out of focus as you aim, and tends to reduce the adrenaline rush that comes from locking your eye directly on the super-exciting target. Pin-focusing is a time-tested way to shoot at animals without being so emotionally ramped up that you miss.
Keep Aiming After You Release the Arrow
If you maintain your line of sight after you release the bowstring, you will probably hit close to where you have aimed—even if you make other slight mistakes during the shot. In other words, keep aiming at the target until the arrow actually hits.
The best archers have tunnel vision once they release the arrow. They continue to hold the sight on the target, actually “thinking” the projectile into the elk. They do not drop or flip the bow, shut their eyes or look away as the arrow leaves. They visually burn a hole in the bowsight and the elk, until they actually see and hear the broadhead smash home.
Top athletes do this same thing regardless of the sport. A basketball player rivets his eye on the rim of the basket, and a football quarterback keeps his eye on the receiver after the throw. This intense concentration is often called “follow-through.” It is one huge key to accuracy with any projectile, be it ball or arrow. Keep your eye on the target, and you will probably hit it. Drop your bow or look away, and you will probably muff the shot.
Of all the skills an elk archer should practice, continuing to aim as the arrow flies is number one. There is still plenty of time to practice these techniques before the season begins. But don’t wait; start now.
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.