Each year, it seems, more bowhunters report getting that big chance at a dream buck. And every year, these hunters are equipped with even more lethal gear than before. Combine more chances with better equipment and the result should be ever-longer lines at taxidermy shops. Yet for some reason, that doesn't seem to be the case. Making the shot remains the tipping point between sweet success and head-shaking failure, as it has since the first flint point was launched from a bent stick.
Today's best archery gear is superb. But no bow, arrow, sight, rest, release or stabilizer can help you if the broadhead is pointed in the wrong direction at the instant the shot is taken. And as all of us know, rarely will more than one shot be offered. Big whitetails don't seem to like standing broadside in bow range as you gradually "walk" a series of arrows into their vitals. Make that first one count or hope the next hunt brings a chance to redeem yourself.
Every bowhunter has missed. It happens. But why, with today's gear and solid advice on better shooting, does it still happen as often as it does?
The answer is complex. But part of it is that many shooters expect their gear to make the shot for them. They fail to accept that their own skills are the single most limiting factor in accuracy. When you refuse to acknowledge your own part in the equation, it's easy to find a scapegoat for disappointing results.
Learning to deliver a single arrow with as little error as possible, with the season's results on the line, should be every bowhunter's goal. It's what true practice is all about. If it isn't the focus of your preparation, your off-season shooting is little more than recreational exercise.
There are many ways to practice for that one big shot, and no single method works best for all of us. Some bowhunters love how off-season 3-D tournaments and league competition help them bear down on making perfect shots with trophies, prize money and bragging rights on the line. Others would rather shoot alone, minus the distractions that are part of any competitive shoot. But regardless of the environment in which you operate, the unifying factor in all bowhunting practice should be delivering one killing arrow. And it must be your first shot of the day, not your ninth.
Taking the "one arrow" concept to an extreme is at the core of avid northern Idaho whitetail bowhunter Troy Pottenger's preparation for trophy encounters.
"I'm a big advocate of real-life, one-shot-at-a-time practice," he says. "Out in the elements, from an elevated stand. No second chances. One shot . . . retrieve . . . one shot . . . retrieve, etc. Make your practice as much a real-world hunting application as possible. From clothing to the elements — and obviously, make every shot count."
I've tried just about every sort of practice routine myself, from shooting 100 arrows a day all spring and summer to doing what Troy does. In the process, over the years I've come to favor the single-arrow "session," or something close to it, over all others. And not just with a vertical bow — it also is a great way to practice with a crossbow or firearm.
If practicing on the ground, I like to walk to some spot from which I haven't shot lately, focus on drawing as cautiously as I would with a real deer in range and then shoot as quickly as I can without compromising accuracy. Sometimes I'll use a rangefinder, but often I just estimate yardage.
Many basketball coaches say, "Never end free throw practice with a miss." But whether I hit the kill zone or not, that first arrow often will be my only one of the day. Forcing myself to live with the results of a single practice shot helps drive home its importance.
Troy's point about practicing from a tree stand shouldn't be overlooked. Shoot from heights and angles that mimic what you encounter in bow season. Of course, using the type of stand you hunt from and wearing your hunting garments help, too. And finally, be just as careful as you would while hunting. Using a safety harness and lifeline when practicing also makes them easier to use during open season, especially when climbing in the dark.
Sure, it's a hassle to climb into your tree stand, shoot one arrow and then climb down to pull that shaft. But remember the goal: a good shot every time. In my experience, retrieving an arrow that hit the target's kill zone isn't nearly as tiresome as pulling one that didn't.
Shooting tight groups of course is part of tuning your setup. Start doing that now, to ensure every component of your bow setup is working right. But next fall, the outcome of your deer dream is almost certain to come down to a single arrow. If you want to save on taxidermy, practice as though it won't.