Much of the allure of bowhunting is the challenge it presents. Many things have to go right for a bowhunter to successfully harvest game. First, the quarry has to be at close range and unaware of the hunter’s presence. Then, the bow must be drawn without alerting the animal, and the shot has to be made accurately for a clean kill. Finally, the animal must be trailed for a successful recovery.
While each of these elements is vital to a successful outcome, one of the most important is drawing the bow unnoticed. This simple act will ultimately determine the outcome of the hunt.
Timing is crucial
Timing your draw is one of the hardest skills to learn. Think about this: A beginning bowhunter can hunt from a stand placed in the correct location by someone more experienced. After the shot, he or she can have someone else trail the animal and recover it. But at the moment of truth, when drawing the bow and making the shot, the outcome rests squarely on the bowhunter. Proper shooting form and accuracy can be learned and practiced, but learning to time your draw properly can only be practiced in real time from the stand while in the presence of game. No amount of coaching can replace experience and time in the stand when it comes to this skill.
Each species of game presents its own challenges and requires a slightly different strategy. Since a majority of bowhunters target deer, that is the focus of this article.
Whitetails are often hunted in thick cover, and shots often have to be timed to take advantage of narrow shooting lanes.
One mistake beginning bowhunters often make is drawing too early. I often hear about a hunter drawing their bow while the deer is “behind a tree,” or just before it steps into a shooting lane. Often, the deer either catches movement or hears the draw and instinctively freezes, with its vitals obscured by brush or the tree trunk.
This rarely winds up well for the hunter. The deer has no schedule and often stands still for several minutes, while the hunter is holding the full weight of the bow, as well as the holding weight of the draw. Eventually, the frustrated hunter is forced to let the draw down, and that motion often spooks the alerted deer.
A better option would be to wait until the animal’s vitals are exposed, and then slowly draw when it is looking away or has its head down feeding. This way, if it freezes, its vitals are fully exposed for a shot opportunity. Watching a deer’s front feet will also help in this situation. Just before stepping forward into a clearing, the deer will lift its front foot. This will help you to be ready to draw and shoot before the deer crosses the lane.
Deer that are walking steadily present a different challenge. It is generally best to wait for the deer to stop before taking the shot, but bucks are often on a mission and therefore steadily walking. These deer can be stopped by bleating with your mouth; however, you need to be ready to release the arrow quickly, because their focus will shift to you.
Upon hearing the bleat, a deer will naturally tense its muscles, preparing to flee until it identifies the source of the unknown noise — increasing the odds of string-jumping. A good trick is to bleat after you are already drawn and on target, and as the deer is stopping, release the shot. This way, the deer’s momentum will prevent it from reacting.
Speak a deer’s body language
It also helps to watch a whitetail’s body language before attempting to draw. For many years, whitetails were thought to be silent creatures, and although we know they make a wide variety of vocalizations, most of their communication is through posturing and body language.
For the hunter, learning to read this body language requires a lot of time in the stand observing deer. Generally, it is best not to draw when in a deer’s direct line of sight, or if its ears are cupped in your direction. This will usually result in a blown opportunity. Also, if a deer is visibly nervous or on edge, it is best to wait for the animal to relax before trying to draw. Multiple animals means more eyes and ears, and will only make drawing unnoticed even harder.
Time spent in the presence of deer will allow you to gauge the “mood” or “vibe” of the animal(s) in front of you. If they are keyed up, it is better to wait and live to fight another day. Once deer identify the location of your stand, especially catching your movement at close range, your chances for success are slim to none.
Most lessons are best learned the hard way, and I have learned far more from blown opportunities than anything else. Each missed opportunity offers a lesson. So spend as much time in the woods as you can this and every season, and learn all that you can. Bowhunting is truly an art, and nothing replaces experience when it comes to perfecting your mastery of it.