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The Wall: My 2017 Archery Buck


2017–the future of hunting. Having hunted deer in Utah from top to bottom for almost 30 years, I still haven’t taken more than one trophy buck out of any one unit. Instead I’ve watched area after area dry up, forcing me to move on. As a kid, 4×4 bucks lined the trees along dirt roads at night. Now it’s just trees. Fortunately my passion for chasing mule deer has kept me agile. The best advice I offer to a newbie-hunter is to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on any one area, because eventually you’ll lose it. Deer and deer habitats are cyclical and dynamic. Big bucks are constantly adapting to us predators, so we must adapt to them.

In my endless quest for the next honey-hole, I think I’ve found one, hundreds of miles from home. In this new and unsuspecting forest I’ve come across numerous huntable bucks—not tons—but enough to put a stalk on a mature buck almost every day. The fawn crop is abundant and the herd is healthy. Best of all, there is very light hunter pressure which makes all the difference between huntable and unhuntable deer. These bucks can be patterned, even bumped around a little. Still, you won’t find a big buck near any road, so an ATV can’t help you, which is great because I don’t own one.

Southern Utah.

A few days into the hunt I spotted a giant sway-belly buck across a canyon, his sprawling antlers extending well outside his ears, then skyward. I literally ran down the mountain and up the other side, but before I could close the distance a doe snorted him out of the area. The next evening I caught up with him feeding at 60 yards. He was a real giant, an old warrior, a great wall of fur twice the size of his three- and four-point sentinels. But when he broke the tree line I paused, counting only three antler tines on one side. Not the perfect 4×4 I imagined, so I hesitated. As he turned and fed away, I panicked. The “Wall” (as I came to call him) was surely the biggest deer on the mountain; what was I thinking?! His scrawny sentinels followed faithfully behind. I began crawling towards them but was immediately picked off by a sentinel buck who quickly pushed the others into the trees. That was the last I saw of them.

Before I even got back at camp I was kicking myself. Surely I’d lost my mind! Somehow I’d convinced myself that antlers were the great measure of a deer, the end-all-be-all of trophy bucks. Foolishly I’d built up a wall between me and any buck that wasn’t perfect. As I lay in my tent that night I wondered how I could be so stupid, then cursed and squirmed myself to sleep. I vowed never to make that mistake again. Deer hunting is about the experience, and the challenge. Above all it’s the sacred meat harvested in the sacred realm of Nature, where ultimately man is measured, not the deer.

After seven days afield I drove home, dropped the wife off, resupplied, and moved back to the mountain alone. I made haste to the Wall’s domain that evening, but he was still gone.

A stagnant heat wave settled across the land that week and conditions grew increasingly hot and cruel with each passing day. The dry ground was endlessly loud, threatening success everywhere I went. Even barren ground inexplicably crunched. A whole network of micro-sticks and pine needles lay hidden in the crust like miniature mine field. A twenty yard creep into a likely deer haunt turned into a ten minute, cacophonous spectacle—a full-grown, camo-clad man twisting and contorting his legs while swinging his bow around for balance like a drunken fool. I wasn’t fooling anyone.

As August gave way to September, the squirrels grew louder and more cantankerous. The high elevation wind swirled and does snorted at the most inopportune times. Worst of all, the wise bucks seemed to vaporize two hours after first light and didn’t reappear until two hours before dark, turning entire days into hot and tired dreariness. While they lay hidden in shadows—chewing their cud and staring into space—I clambered around the mountain, sweating and searching to no avail. My mind churned and theorized, planning strategies that never panned out.

Helplessness crept in early, reminding me that I could always quit and go home, maybe be productive, curate the lonely wife… Reflexively I fought back. The challenge is the reward!, I pleaded. You don’t just hunt deer; you hunt experiences. Enjoy it! I decided to rest the area and spent the next several days exploring new places, hoping to find another buck like the Wall. But I didn’t. Instead I found a strange transformation occurring. With each passing day I cared less about deer and more about the process. I paid greater attention to the mountain and other wildlife. I sat longer, took more photos, and wrote often in my field journal. One morning I even left my bow back at camp–on purpose–just to experience the woods differently. I ran into a real toad-of-a-3×3 buck that morning, and was thankful he wasn’t bigger! Gradually, nagging desperation yielded to quiet contemplation.

The hunters moon.

Labor Day is upon us: ATVs roar below, people yell, kids scream and dogs bark. But the masses want nothing to do with this mountain; I’m confused, but grateful. Two weeks into the hunt and I still haven’t encountered another human afield. These are truly my woods. My whole being is awash in a cornucopia of gifts: space, time, beauty, etc. A continual river of fresh air envelopes me and overwhelms the senses. It carries a constant tune of birds, squirrels, and quaking leaves all singing in harmony. A variety of bright red berries—juicy and delicious—grow in abundance across the landscape. They augment my water supply, often saving me from dehydration. In two weeks I’ve seen more gorgeous sunrises than the rest of the year combined. Time stands still. Nothing has changed since the beginning of time.

Hairy current berries.

Clarity is probably the wood’s greatest gift. All these wild things coexist in a perfect balance, all working within the generous confines of carry capacity. No single plant creates more fruit than is necessary; no animal expends more energy than is needed. So oblivious is modern man to Nature’s ways, as lost as the white rocks scattered dumbly around me. Day after day ticks by without speaking to anyone. Like a stern parent, the mountain cuts off my cell signal and any communication with the modern world. Aloneness spurs strange mind chatter, spewing forth observational phrases like “Impenetrable bows of pine keeps me safe from the storm,” or “A living, breathing forest saves me from loneliness.”

The glint of an ancient arrowhead–serrated and fashioned from pale blue flint–protrudes from the dirt. It stirs the hunter spirit, reminding me that I’m hunting the same ground for the same animals as they did. Here in the future I carry on the tradition of the bow and arrow, preying for nature’s sacred meat, just as man always has. It’s likely, too, that I struggle in many of the same ways: cursing the crunchy ground, the squirrels, and the swirling winds. I feel tied to the land, relearning what it means to be self-sufficient.

I am convinced that harvesting a trophy buck with a bow is the hardest thing a person can do. Each year I set the same goal: Harvest a 200-inch muley with my bow. Rarely do I meet my goal, but I still believe there’s a 200-inch buck living in each of Utah’s deer units. Finding him is the great challenge, and arrowing him is even greater. When I was younger I thought that hunting success was 50% skill and 50% luck. But halfway through this season I realize it’s actually 33% skill, 33% time, 33% luck, and 1% destiny. In other words, given enough time afield a skillful hunter will eventually come face to face with a trophy, God willing.

Statistically, 80% of bowhunters in Utah fail each year. Most fail because they either don’t allow themselves enough time, or they don’t understand their prey. But even the veteran hunter with plenty of time on his hands runs into yet another wall: There are simply too many variables outside his control; things like doe snorts, wind changes, inadvertent movement, squirrel barks, grouse busting out of the brush, or any combination of all these. Mature deer simply won’t tolerate human intruders, so getting within bow range means everything must be perfect. And since everything is rarely perfect, you better have luck on your side. Even with the entire 28-day season scheduled off work, the best I can do is to put myself between the buck and feed or feed and bed, and then hope for the best. Persistence is the name of the game.

Three weeks into the hunt and big bucks are on the defensive, becoming more secretive, increasingly nocturnal, and less predictable. We underestimate the mighty muley buck. He’s smart and keenly adaptable. Physically speaking, he’s superior to us in every way: bigger, faster, stronger. His senses are greater too: hearing, smell and vision. He lives in the woods 365 days a year and is permanently tuned into his environment. But he’s still an animal driven by hunger, and left alone even the most admirable buck will return to best feed, sometimes even during daylight hours. Outwitting him means identifying these feeding zones and setting up ambush there. But he knows we do this and thusly alters his routine, feeding in different locations each day. Worse yet, as hunter pressure increases—even slightly so—his priority changes from food to survival. He moves by night and wiles away his days on steep slopes in hidden places we’ll never know about.

Eighteen days afield now; long, hot, and alone. Days run together. Home life is a distant memory–the mountain is my home. Summer changes to fall right in front of me; aspen leaves yellow as velvet drops from the buck’s antlers. So far I’ve had 13 close encounters with mature bucks, but none were good enough…except for the long-lost Wall buck. Failure becomes the norm, even strangely acceptable. I compare my own failure to other predators. How many stalks does a cougar get before he succeeds? Five, ten, maybe more? Why should I be any different? Each day I climb the mountain, do my best, and then trudge back to camp. My once paradise tent camp is beginning to feel like a prison, but there’s nowhere I’d rather be. Put in the time, be patient, and persevere.

My 2017 camp.

I had a decision to make this evening: hunt uphill or down. Four does appeared and made the decision for me. When the wind swirled they snorted and bounced uphill, so I hunted down. A while later two small bucks—suddenly alerted to my swirling scent—jumped out of the trees and bounded away. A third and much larger deer stayed put, mostly obscured by patchy trees. Was it the Wall buck? A deafening quiet stretched over the land as I tiptoed closer. I slowly raised my binos, desperately trying to identify him. To my surprise, the two smaller bucks came sneaking back in to join him. Perhaps the big buck had grown weary of fleeing his favorite feed, and the small bucks, once separated from their master, felt purposeless. Nonetheless, the air swirled and the three bucks just stared in my direction. I stood like a statue, pinned down with only thirty minutes of light left.

Puffy clouds painted pink and yellow suddenly cast the world in a brilliant amber glow. I lifted my face and basked in the beauty of the moment. Enjoy it, I demanded, this is why you’re here. Just another night; just another failed stalk. The stare-down continued, minutes passed, and darkness loomed.

I was jolted from the tranquil scene by a scuffling sound growing louder behind me. A couple does coming to wreck my night, I figured. I slowly rotated my head to see four bucks filtering out of the deep woods and onto a flat twenty yards away. My heart jumped. The first two were small, but the rear ones were real bruisers with heavy racks. Heads bobbed and shifted side to side. In extreme slow motion I simultaneously lowered my binos, raised my bow, and rotated my body 180-degrees all while crouching to a kneeling position. These new bucks spied the other bucks across the way and paused, staring right through me. I pressed my trembling bow tightly against my leg.

Sensing danger, the bucks began shifting nervously to the left. The first three passed behind a clump of trees, and when the fourth lowered his head I loaded an arrow. He was a huge buck with tall, symmetric 5×5 antlers. I hadn’t seen him before; somehow he’d been living out a secret life right under my nose. When he passed behind the trees I drew my bow. It sounded like a train wreck—the scrape of the arrow, the rustle of my clothes. All four bucks froze and whipped their heads in my direction. A fortuitous tangle of trees at my rear broke up my outline, but the tip of my arrow danced crazily ahead of my taut bow. I squinted to hide my watering eyes. They’re too close. How can they not see me? I begged myself to calm down. A minute passed. The first buck started walking again, then the second and third followed. The biggest buck held tight momentarily before following after the others.

As he came into view I belched out a me’ya sound. He ignored it. As he quartered away I split his shoulder with my 20 and 30 yard pins and hit the release. My shaky arrow was off, streaking through grey light. With the crack of the arrow all four bucks exploded into the woods, shattering the silence with crashing timber and pounding hooves. Several minutes later, in the cloak of darkness, I crept forward. The ground was torn up where he’d stood, and a few yards away was my broken arrow covered with blood. I followed the blood trail for about twenty yards, and then it vanished. I tried following the dug-in tracks, but they intermingled with all the others, heading into the thick brush and up a steep slope. No more blood; my heart sank. A bad hit? I wondered. Over and over I returned to the blood trail and walked in circles.

An hour later I was on my hands and knees with my flashlight, carefully crawling from track to track. What I hadn’t noticed earlier was a set of tracks suddenly veering away from the rest. Gradually these tracks were accompanied by pin-head-size blood specks. Several yards later the blood increased and I stood up. I rounded a tree and there he was, big and beautiful, lying peacefully on a bed of pine needles; a perfect hit and a short run. I touched his tall rack, then dropped to my knees and sobbed.

It never gets easier—this process–the mind, body and spirit, all focused, all invested in this primal chess match with God’s majestic creature. The game plays out in a familiar way: The buck magically materializes amidst certain failure, the cold steel of my arrow cuts the distance between us, and then cuts his life short. There are rules, too: I only win if he dies; honor him or lose your humanity.

The mountain was shrouded in cool clouds as I hiked in the next morning to retrieve my trophy, a complete reversal of the last eighteen sweltering days. My body glided effortlessly up the quiet trail, falling forward into a surreal familiarity, soft and inviting, like the embrace of a long lost friend.

Deer retrieval route.

Heading home on three hours of sleep, my truck feels unnaturally fast, blasting down the freeway, cutting through a putrid wall of brown smog. Signs and billboards stacked infinitely on my periphery beg for attention. I’m boxed in by cars and trucks cutting in and out of the six-lane road like a swarm of bees, frantic and dangerous. But I hardly notice. I’m still on the mountain and will remain there long after returning home. So much raw beauty cannot be shaken so easily. I’m at peace and completely untouchable.

This is our sacred tradition. This is true freedom and the ticket to perpetual youth. The mountain is alive and breathing, buzzing with energy. It calls to us all year long, just as it has throughout the ages. We return each season with renewed hope and vigor, only to find the woods holding back its secrets. The buck busts out and beats us relentlessly with cunning and agility. In despair we lash out and curse, then trudge on. It’s a necessary purification process that separates the weak from the strong. The human experience is broken down to its basic elements and the trash is removed so that we might see ourselves clearly. We see that failure and success are two parts of the same whole, neither good nor bad, and all part of a greater experience. And finally, in the end–if we can endure that long–we see that we’re not really hunting deer so much as we’re hunting for ourselves.

Try again tomorrow—pound the trail and fight ahead. With enough time, skill, and luck, the human spirit perseveres, and the wall crumbles.

The Archery Advantage

Hunting big game with archery tackle is one of the greatest challenges a person can face, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Stalking close to unsuspecting prey, and then harvesting that animal with a stick-and-string stirs the primal spirit and reconnects us with nature in a way that gun hunting can’t. But did you know that bow hunting also has several advantages over the gun? Let’s look at a few:

1) Early Seasons/ Late Seasons: In most western states, the archery seasons occurs before the rifle season. In Utah for example, the archery hunt begins in mid-August when deer are still in their relaxed summer routines which makes them more predictable and easier to stalk. They are also velvet-clad which keeps them out of the thick timber.

By the October rifle hunt these same bucks become hard-horned and tend to stick to thick timber, making them harder to locate.

States like Idaho and Utah also have archery-only, late season rut-hunts which allows archers to take advantage of giant, rut-crazed bucks which are much easier to locate after the rifle season ends.

2) Longer Seasons: Most western states have much longer archery seasons than rifle. In Utah for example the general archery season is 28 days long compared to the 9-day rifle hunt. It certainly helps to have time on your side, and having a season that’s three times longer will allow many more opportunities.

3) Warmer Weather: Early season means warmer weather, and warmer temperatures means more time afield. You’re also less likely to get snowed out of your hunt.

Cold weather wears on your overall attitude, thus compromising mental toughness. It’s far much easier to get discouraged when you’re cold and wet.

And finally, warm weather affords lighter clothing and less gear to pack around, making you quieter and more mobile.

4) Easier to Spot: Summer bucks wear a reddish-orange coat throughout August which makes them much easier to spot against green vegetation. They also run in bachelor herds well into September, and since there’s more of them, they’re easier to spot. By October most big bucks are running solo and holding tight to heavy timber during daylight hours.

5) Better Draw Odds: Probably the greatest advantage of archery is ease of drawing a tag. In the unit where I deer hunt, I’m guaranteed an archery tag every year. But gun hunters are only able to draw every other year due to high demand. This is an important archery advantage, because if you can’t get a tag you’re not going hunting!

The same advantage applies to limited entry and other high demand tags. In Utah it takes an average of two years longer to draw a limited rifle tag than a limited archery tag.

6) Quiet Weaponry Means More Opportunities: As any archer can attest, it’s just a matter of time before you sail an arrow over some unsuspecting buck that you’ve spent hours stalking. But if you have a quiet bow–as most bows are–you’ll likely get a second chance. This happened to me last year, and fortunately my second arrow got the job done.

Probably the worst disadvantage of rifle hunting is that all the deer on the mountain are alerted after the first rifle shot. After that, any deer with any sense goes into deep hiding and becomes extremely difficult to find.

7) Archery Makes You a More Skillful Hunter: Sure, there are many skillful rifle hunters out there, but shooting accurately is only half the battle, for both rifle and bow. When the deer are holding tight to timber, you’ll need to have some decent stalking and locating skills. That’s what the bow affords: it forces you to be quiet and patient, to slow down, and to learn everything you can about your prey in terms of behavior and habits. Inevitably, the byproduct of all of this extra effort leads to a deeper connection to nature and a richer hunting experience.

Conclusion

When I made the transition from rifle to bow, I was blown away by how little I knew about deer behavior, much less my ability to stalk close to them. I burned many tags while building these skills, but in the end I’ve become a far more effective hunter.

Above all, archery hunting makes the whole experience far richer than simply sniping deer with a long-range rifle. Long after the meat is gone and the antlers are nailed to the wall, that experience will linger on. And isn’t that what we’re really hunting for?

Whatever it Takes Bowhunting

rooftop_archery1

During last year’s bowhunt I missed a 50-yard shot at a pretty decent buck. Since then, I’ve pondered the miss hundreds of times in effort to pin-point exactly what went wrong.

There were many factors to consider: steepness of angle, a crappy rangefinder, holding the wrong pin, buck fever, etc.

By the time I patterned the buck, the season was over and the buck had disappeared. In order to avoid making the same mistake(s), I’ve addressed every possible variable:

1. I replaced my old rangefinder with one that calculates angles AND can actually see through brush to avoid false readings.

2. I switched to a single pin sight in order to eliminate wrong pin selection and pin-gapping issues under pressure.

3. I dialed up my bow poundage in order to get a flatter arrow trajectory.

4. I began shooting steeper angles.

My summer schedule is a consummate nightmare, so rarely can I go to the mountains and shoot angles. So I found the highest point in my yard (my rooftop) and began shooting from there.

There’s an old saying: “What a fool does in the end, the wise man does in the beginning.” At this point, I implore you to anticipate the worst possible shot scenario and practice for it. Do whatever it takes, because big bucks rarely give you a second chance.

Ultimate Archery Instructional Video

I’ve been collaborating with my videographer friend, Shane Thompson, on an awesome archery instructional video. The content for this video is based on lessons I’ve put together and used to teach hundreds of people over the years.

The first instructional video will be out within a few weeks and I will post the link here.

Below is the intro video. Pretty cool, huh?!

Archery Effective Range

range Spring is in the air and that means one thing: archery! It’s time to dust off that old bow and drag your pasty, out-of-shape, winterized carcass outside and do some shooting. Today we’re going to talk about effective range. Effective range? Yes, effective range. In this post we’ll answer the following questions: At what range are you an effective bowhunter? How do you find out? And why does it matter? Question #1:  What is effective range? Answer: Effective range–or effective distance–is the distance at which you can get all your arrows within a “kill-zone” size area of a target every time. Question #2: How do you find out? Answer: The kill-zone on an average big game animal–like a deer or elk–is a circle 8-10 inches in diameter. This circle encompasses the heart/lungs area known as the vitals. The easiest way to learn your effective range is to shoot four arrows at a paper plate. A standard size paper plate is nine inches, so it makes a perfect kill-zone target. Starting at close range (say 20 yards), shoot four arrows. If all arrows hit within the paper plate, move back ten yards and repeat. Continue doing this until you miss one arrow. WHEN you finally miss a shot, you will know your effective range: It’s the last place you shot where you didn’t miss! So if you miss at 40 yards, then your effective range is 30 yards. At this point, you should begin working on your form and follow-through until you can consistently get every single arrow in the plate at farther distances. Until then, you should never take shots at game over 30 yards. Question #3:  Why is it important? Answer: When you don’t know your effective range, you will end up shooting beyond your abilities and injuring an animal, and this will be a horrible experience for you and the animal. Shooting at animals is a lot harder than shooting at a paper plate. There are many psychological factors involved–primarily buck fever–which will cause you to miss. For this reason, you should also practice shooting in adverse conditions such as wind and steep elevation, as well as different body positions like kneeling and crouching–anything that will simulate an actual hunting scenario. Knowing and sticking to your effective range is the most important first step you should take before going bowhunting. Not only is this a fun exercise, but a valuable measure of your skills. Expanding your effective range will force you to set goals and hone your skills. Happy shooting!

7 Tips for Better Archery

Advanced shooters make archery look effortless, but it’s only because they’ve put in countless hours mastering the basics. Over time, the many components of form become one single subconscious step that simply happens in the background of the mind. Here are some key tips for improving your shot.

#1:  Keep both eyes open

Keeping both eyes open gives you a better sight picture. This is especially important for traditional bows. Because there aren’t any sights on a traditional bow, your focus should be on the target. To acquire a more accurate target, try keeping both eyes open. I still do this on the compound bow, especially if I’m unsure of the exact distance. Keeping both eyes open gives me more dimensionality to the target. Everything you do all day requires you to keep both eyes open, so why would you close one eye when shooting?

Try shooting with both eyes open.
Try shooting with both eyes open.

If you close one eye, you are viewing the world in 2D, not 3D. This is not something your brain is used to doing. Because I don’t view the world in two dimensions, I don’t aim at the target in two dimensions either.

#2: Don’t Aim

Proper archery form begins with feet placement, gripping the bow, and drawing the string to your anchor point. It ends with aiming, releasing, and following through. Of all these fundamentals, aiming is the easiest and least important.

In traditional archery, aiming is accomplished by simply pointing the tip of the arrow at a spot on the target. In the time it takes to master the other fundamentals of form, aiming will have become “instinctive.” Therefore, your main focus should really be on consistent form and follow through. If your form is correct, the arrow will eventually find the bull’s-eye.

Note: Correct aiming happens by aligning the string with your right eye (if you’re right-handed). This can only be done by touching the string to the side or tip of your nose. I won’t even loose an arrow unless I feel the string on the side of my nose. And no, it doesn’t hurt at all.

#3: Touch your ear

What am I talking about, ‘touching your ear?’ After each shot your release hand should brush past your face and end up touching your ear. If you make this a habit on every shot, I guarantee your accuracy will improve immediately. That’s because your release hand needs to continue in a straight line backwards from the string. If you allow your release hand to move outwards, upwards, or downwards, then the string will be pulled, or plucked, out of alignment. This will cause the arrow to wobble or deflect side to side.

Follow through by touching your ear after each shot.
Follow through by touching your ear after each shot.

#4: Don’t flinch

Where the bow goes, the arrow goes. Flinching is a major no-no in proper follow through. Flinching will cause the arrow to miss high or low. The two biggest indicators of flinching are a) you dropping or raising your bow arm at the shot, or b) lifting your head to see where the arrow hits.

Neither your head nor your bow arm should move up or down until the arrow hits the target. It’s normal for the bow to rock forward or back upon release, but your arm should still hold perfectly straight and pointed at the target until the arrow hits. Your head—which is slightly cocked to the side—should remain solid as well.

The best way to avoid flinching is to have a surprise release. A common mistake is anticipating the shot by concentrating on the release hand instead of follow through. All your focus should be on form! As you reach your anchor point, the arrow and string will simply pull free as you relax your release hand. If you concentrate on your release hand, the string will jerk out of your hand and the arrow will miss the target.

#5: Use your back muscles

All the power used to draw the bow comes from your back, not your arms. I often refer to the arms as “deadposts” because they serve one function: holding the bow. The real power comes from your back muscles. This power is simply transferred to the bow and arrow through your arms. Think of you arms as electric power lines which hang loosely in the air. The lines don’t create the tremendous power that surges through them, the power plant does.

The best way to transfer power from your back is to stand as erect as possible and concentrate on squeeze your shoulder blades together. Upon release, your shoulder blades will continue pulling together—almost touching—while your arms pull away from each other in opposite directions. This is the only way to load the bow with the necessary power for proper shot execution.

#6: Don’t pinch the string (Doesn’t apply to compound bows.)

In beginning archery the most common problem is simply keeping the arrow from falling off the shelf/arrow rest. At least 50% of my students have a hard time getting the arrow to stay on the bow long enough to shoot.

Leave a slight gap between your fingers.
Leave a slight gap between your fingers.

This is caused by over-gripping or pinching the string. The string is gripped with three fingers: index, middle, and ring. As you draw the bow, the fingers pinch tighter together. If they pinch too much, it puts pressure on the nock and causes the arrow to pull off the shelf. To keep this from happening, simply leave a slight, eighth-inch gap between your fingers as you draw the bow. This problem will fix itself rather quickly with a little practice. As frustrating as it might be at first, your hand will eventually figure out how to keep the arrow on the shelf.

#7: Missing left and right

Missing left or right is caused by torquing, or over-gripping, the bow with your bow arm. I call it the “death grip.” People death-grip the bow because they feel like they need to control the tremendous energy they’ve loaded into the bow at full draw. Heavy bows have so much power that we think they might fly back into our face if we don’t grasp them tightly. But if you grip the bow too tightly, you’ll force the bow left or right, and where the bow goes, the arrow goes.

Use a loose grip on the bow to avoid torque.
Use a loose grip on the bow to avoid torque.

In reality, all that force you’re holding simply leaves with the arrow and the bow falls limply into your hand. To avoid torquing the bow, you must let the bow sit loosely in your palm while resting your fingertips lightly on the front of the grip. This will allow the bow to settle into its natural alignment.

Conclusion

Over time, anyone can master the art of archery. Remember, hitting the bulls-eye is a long-term goal. The short-term goal should be flawless execution. I promise you, hitting the bullseye will come with time. My best students—the ones I call Naturals—are the ones that implement the basics quickly and move on to the easiest step: aiming.

Archery is a valuable and rewarding skill. Most importantly, it’s a ton of fun! Don’t get discouraged. If you have any questions at all, please leave a comment and I will respond quickly.

Happy Shooting!

 

Step #4: Releasing the Arrow

In this lesson you will learn how to properly release an arrow.

Nocking an Arrow

The end of the arrow has a notch in it called a nock. The nock attaches to the string just below a “nocking point.” The nocking  point is a fixed point on the string that aligns the arrow with the bow for every shot. On most bows, the nocking point is a small brass bead clamped onto the string. The arrow nocks–or locks–onto the string right below the nocking point.

nock

 

With traditional archery (longbows and recurves), the arrow has three feathers, and one of the feathers is a different color. This is called the cock feather. When you nock an arrow, be sure the cock feather always points out. This keeps the arrow from deflecting off the bow.

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Odd-colored feather always points out.

With compound bows, the orientation of the cock “vane” (compound bows have plastic vanes, not feathers) depends on your arrow rest. The most common arrow rest for compound bows is the drop-away rest. With drop-away rests, the cock vane isn’t important as there is no contact with the bow. With other types of rests like the one I use, called the Whisker Biscuit (see photo below), the cock vane must point up. The Whisker Biscuit has stiff bristles on the bottom side which help support the arrow, and the vanes must clear these.

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Compound bow with a Whisker Biscuit arrow rest. Notice how the cock vane points up.

Anchor Point

The last step is to acquire an anchor point. The anchor point is two or more spots on your face where some part of your release hand, arrow, string, or release aid contacts your face. Anchor points are vitally important to consistent shooting and accuracy. Therefore you must establish consistent anchor points from the get-go.

Anchor points are different for everyone, but the most common are:

  • string on the tip of your nose
  • a finger touching the corner of your mouth
  • side of thumb touching your jaw bone
  • arrow fletching touching the face

When shooting any bow, I make sure the string touches the tip of my nose and the side of my thumb touches the back of my jaw.

 

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My compound bow anchor points: tip of nose on string and thumb at back of jaw.
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Traditional recurves bow anchor points: side of nose, back of jaw, and corner of mouth.

Note: In beginning archery, many of my students are afraid to have string contact with their face. This is totally unwarranted. Remember, when you release the arrow, all that energy leaves your face unscathed.

Finally, we’re ready to shoot an arrow!

Here are my quick steps to releasing an arrow:

  1. Nock an arrow on the string below the nocking point. You should hear a soft “click” as it locks onto the string.
  2. Grasp the string with three fingers. Your three fingers will hook onto the string somewhere between your first and second finger joints. If you are shooting a compound, ignore this step and simply attach your release aid to the D-loop.
  3. Pull the string across your chest, not towards it, and align the string with your eye. In essence, you should split the target with the string and look down the arrow to aim, but keeping your focus on the target, not the arrow.
  4. Back tension release: As you draw the bow, your back muscles are doing all the work. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bring the string to your face.
  5. Establish your anchor points.
  6. Release the arrow. Release happens as you simply open your hand. With a compound bow, you simply touch the trigger.
  7. Aim with the point of your arrow while looking through the string. With a compound bow, place the appropriate sight pin on the target.
  8. Follow through.  Without proper follow-through, you’re dead in the water. Follow through means that both arms (bow arm and release arm) continue in opposite directions at the shot. This is called “finishing the shot.” Your release hand should continue backwards (not up or out) towards your ear. The last thing you should feel is your release hand brushing past your face and touching your ear. This will reduce oscillation and increase accuracy.
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Anchor, release, and follow through.
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Traditional bow follow-through: Hand brushes face and stops at your ear.

 Final Thought

Archery is a complex skill that cannot be mastered in a day, any more than other muscle-memory skills such as golf or skiing. In the movies they make it look easy, and many of my students have the misconception that they can pick up a bow and start shooting simply by mimicking what they’ve observed. But without spending a lot of  time on the basics, you’ll immediately develop bad habits which take a long time to break.

Accuracy comes from focusing on each step, one at a time. After many hours–maybe even months–these steps will gradually become one subconscious step called FORM. Once proper form is established, your only focus will be on aiming. This is should be your goal.

Step #1: Proper Archery Stance

Step #2: Gripping the Bow

Step #3: The Release

Step #3: The Release Arm

The release arm, (aka the string arm or shooting arm), is the arm/hand that holds the string while drawing the bow. If you are right handed, then it’s your right hand.

In traditional archery you have the option of wearing a shooting glove or finger tab to protect your first three fingers (index, middle, and ring finger). Although it is perfectly fine to shoot with bare fingers on a light-poundage bow, it can be very painful with a heavier-poundage bow.

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Glove-style release aid.
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Finger tab release aid.

 All modern compound bows should be shot with a mechanical release aid.  Unlike traditional bows (longbows and recurves), compound bows are designed to be shot in-line. With traditional bows, the string will oscillate side to side as it rolls off your fingers. This is normal, and the arrow will correct itself in flight. With compound bows, the arrow leaves the bow at a much higher speed and therefore, oscillation will cause the arrow to shed speed and energy as it tries to re-adjust itself in flight. Therefore, the arrow should be shot with minimal or no oscillation. In order to accomplish this, the arrow connects to the string in a D-loop tied onto the string and the release aid attaches to the D-loop. This keeps the shooters arm, release, and the arrow pinch point in perfect line with the arrow and reduces oscillation.

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Compound bow D-Loop.
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Mechanical release aid for compound bows.

As an aside, my person favorite release is the Fletcher .44 Caliper Release. This is the smoothest, most reliable, and least expensive release I’ve used.

With traditional archery, you have two options for grasping the string: a) one finger above/two below the arrow nock, or b) three fingers below the nock. The advantage to having three fingers below is that it brings the arrow closer to your eye which helps with aiming. I’ve personally found that three fingers below dramatically increases my accuracy. Try both and see what works best.

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One finger above and two below.
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Three fingers below. This brings the string closer to your eye.

Click here for the next lesson: Step #4: Releasing an Arrow

Part 1: Overcoming Adversity

Part 1 of a 4 part series on life, hunting, and overcoming adversity.

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Adverse Conditions = Success

In teaching advanced archery, one of my lessons revolves around ‘adverse conditions.’ What I mean by adverse conditions is that when you’re shooting arrows in your backyard, you are generally shooting at a large target, on a flat surface, at a known yardage, and in fair weather.

But the inexperienced bowhunter quickly figures out that in the mountains, everything changes. Now you are shooting kneeling down on a steep hill, through some brush and limbs, at an unknown distance, with a fly buzzing around your eye, and aiming into the sun. No wonder so many bowhunters have such poor success! In the real world, whether fighting the mountain or fighting the rat race of life, we are constantly battling adverse—or at least unpleasant—conditions. We must learn to welcome adversity and use it to our advantage.

The secret to successful shooting, then, is to practice in adverse conditions. Place as many mental and physical obstacles between you and the target. Have your shooting partner yell or poke you right before you shoot. Shoot at unknown distances. Shoot with a strong crosswind. Shoot through heavy cover or around obstacles. Do whatever you can do to make practice harder and it will pay off in the woods.

From years of real-life hunting experience, I’ve learned that the biggest obstacle is yourself. Even if you shoot 10,000 arrows in the preseason, you’re never really ready for that buck-of-a-lifetime to step out in front of you. And when it happens, I guarantee you’ll come unglued! My brother, Russell, relates a story of this happening to him many years ago when he was still new to bowhunting. A small, two-point buck stepped out right in front of him at only fifteen yards. Sure enough, the instant pressure caused him to send his arrow plowing into the dirt at the buck’s feet!

So how do you prepare for that kind of pressure? The following are some of the best ways I’ve found to create high-pressure practice:

  1. Don’t shoot square targets; shoot realistic 3D targets. If you don’t have a 3D target, you can always dangle small balloons from a string in front of your target. You’ll be surprised at how difficult it is to hit them as they dance around in the breeze. Not only will this prepare your mind for realistic situations, but it’s a lot more fun.
  2. Compete! At least once or twice a year, sign up for a 3D tournament, even if you aren’t that good. Competitions–especially ones with lots of money on the line–always raise adrenaline levels. If you aren’t up for a formal competition, you can create competitions by practicing with a couple friends. Put a couple bucks on the line and watch the competition soar.
  3. Sprint to and from your target to get your heart rate up, shoot quickly, and repeat. I admit, it’s not a fun way to practice, but it helps.

Remember, overcoming adversity is how we grow stronger in life and bowhunting. Anticipate it–even welcome it–and you’ll be better for it.

Click here for Part 2:  The Steely Claws