He had me. I’d failed to trim a single, small branch. Rookie mistake. My elbow snapped the twig as I hit full draw. The evening wind had died, and the sound seemed to boom through the woods. The buck quartered-to, snapped his head up and fixed his gaze on me.
I wasn’t moving, but it didn’t matter. His stare was firm. Rotating my hand inward to take pressure off the hinge, I held, and held, and held some more. Never in my life have I been so thankful to have performed so many hold-at-full-draw exercises.
I don’t know how long my bow was back, but it was a while. When the staredown ended and the buck calmed, he took a single step forward and turned broadside. I was shaking but trusted my pin float. When the bow broke, the SEVR-tipped Easton found its mark.
Holding at full draw takes a toll on the muscles and the mind. The longer you hold, the more you shake. The more you shake, the more negative psyche starts to creep in. You feel the need to let down or slam the trigger and take a poor shot. Of course, you can’t hold forever, but you can prepare for those times in the woods when getting a shot at the buck of a lifetime requires you to keep the bowstring back a little longer.
The Right Rig
Stick-and-string whitetail hunting is a close-range game. Shots are typically between 10 and 40 yards. For this reason, when selecting a bow for hunting whitetails, I’ll take smoothness over speed any day of the week.
A bow that promises radar-busting speed often comes with a price. I’ve shot speed bows — lots of them — and the cams are itching to release all that energy. If you creep forward at all, the cams will usually go, causing you to jerk back and create extra movement. I want a bow with a valley. If my rig has a valley, I can creep a little and the bow won’t pull my arm through the riser and ruin my hold.
Plus, focusing on the shot can be difficult if you’re worried about keeping the bow back. The pin will be bobbing and weaving all over the target in no time, which creates anxiety, which leads to bad things.
Letoff is also something to consider. Bows with letoff ratings over 80 percent can cause you to lose discipline and actually break down your form if you’re not careful. You won’t be pulling as hard into your back wall, which can cause your bow arm to drop. There’s a reason most competition shooters prefer a letoff between 65 and 80 percent.
Letoff of course directly affects holding weight. I like a holding weight between 12 and 14 pounds. This is different for everyone, and you need to spend some time tinkering.
First, though, you need to know your bow’s peak weight and holding weight. Invest in a scale. I like the HS3 from Last Chance Archery. It’s small, compact, safe and accurate.
After determining your bow’s holding weight, you can do some testing. Dropping letoff will create more holding weight, which often requires a module change. Bow poundage is another way to tinker with holding weight. Turning poundage up will increase holding weight slightly, while dropping weight will reduce it.
I’m not a big fan of ultralight bows loaded with airy accessories. A heavier bow will hold and balance better at full draw. A lightweight bow will often create more pin movement, which, again, leads to shooting anxiety. If you’re of the lightweight bow camp and this resonates with you, don’t fret. You can add mass weight to your bow with the addition of a bow-worthy stabilizer.
If you’re shooting a bow with a stabilizer less than eight inches long, all you have is an extra vibration dampener. Short stabilizers do nothing for balance. Fitting your bow with a front stabilizer longer than eight inches allows you to add mass weight to it. Experiment with different weights until you find what feels right. My finished bow weight is always between eight and nine pounds.
Draw. Hold. Let Down.
It can be annoying. I like to send carbon through the air as much as anyone else does. However, training your muscles to hold at full draw and letting your pin float on a target is paramount for every archer. It trains your muscles and mind to deal with stress.
Stand 20 yards from a 3-D whitetail target. (Is a 3-D target essential? In my opinion, yes. The goal is to simulate a real-world hunting scenario.) Draw your bow, relax and put your pin where you want the arrow to impact the target. Now hold. Keep holding until you’re shaking so badly you have to let down.
Don’t fire an arrow. Hold to exhaustion. Have your significant other, kid or friend time you. Have them start the timer the second you hit full draw and stop it when you let down. Record the time. The goal is to improve upon that time in the coming weeks and months. If I can’t hold my bow back for 2 1/2 minutes and execute a good shot, I’m not happy.
It’s also a good idea to have them video you on a smartphone. Nothing will show where your form starts to break down after minutes at full draw the way video does. If you learn where your form starts to break down, you can take steps to prevent it.
Holding until exhaustion and not firing a shot is also a great way to help with target panic. Let that pin float. Your subconscious mind is constantly dragging the pin across the spot you want it to hit. As you start to build your holding stamina, hold until exhaustion and then execute a shot. Do this at ranges between 10 and 40 yards. This is great physical and mental training. Your mind learns what if feels like to let that pin float.
As you practice and learn to hold longer, pay attention to how your bow feels. Don’t be afraid to change something if you feel it will benefit you when it comes to keeping that bow back longer.
Last but not least, hang a set. If you have a tree in your yard, hang a stand. If not, find a tree and haul a target into the woods. You need to practice from an elevated perch in your full hunting attire. Learn what it feels like to hold for a long time at full draw from a tree stand. Going the extra mile will make a big difference in the fall woods.
Don’t Do It
You’ve done the work. You can hold your bow back longer and execute good shots. Don’t falter in the woods. If you get caught at full draw, trust your practice and keep the faith. Don’t rush it. Keep holding, and keep breathing. If you have to let down and the buck runs off, it wasn’t meant to be. Never take a shot because you can’t hold any more. That’s a recipe for disaster and can lead to bad hits on game.