It could be a October, November or December morning as you settle into your perch to wait in ambush for that buck that has been eluding you. While waiting for dawn to crack, you think this is the day!
Of course that very same thought went through your mind on every other hunt as well. The eastern skyline slowly mutates from shades of grey to indescribable color phases of orange that can’t be found in the largest Crayola box. To nature’s daytime creatures, this is their alarm clock. I feel sorry for those who politically argue about nature yet never witness it to any depth, or know anything about it other than what they see on TV or read in a book. Life simply doesn’t get any better than it is at this moment and at this moment it is not about the destination, but rather the journey.
The sounds of cawing crows are broken by rustling leaves on the forest floor. Could it be? Nope, no such luck, just another squirrel searching for food. You chuckle; mumble a few choice words at the squirrel for faking you out, and think OK, no more false adrenaline rushes from a damn squirrel.
Your plan is to sit until noon but by 11:15, due to a lack of deer activity you consider abandoning your plan. The screeching sounds of a distant blue jay changes your mind. Something has its attention and within moments an image is moving towards you through the transition security cover.
A doe appears and is rapidly moving as if pursued. As she nears you notice she has no fawns with her, her mouth is open as if gasping for air and there are several patches of hair on top of her rear flanks that are ruffed up. With the rut in full swing these signs can only mean one thing, she will have a follower. With anticipation you focus behind her for the pursuant buck. She passes through your lane within your wheelhouse range as you remain focused on her back-trail. Within moments another image appears with its nose tightly affixed to the ground. This one has headgear and as he approaches is identified as the buck you have been so patiently waiting for.
Knowing the buck is taking the exact path of the female and that a shot is imminent, an adrenaline rush begins to take its toll as a slight uncontrollable shake takes over your entire body. Your eyes remain glued to every step as you ready your bow. He closes the distance and as you have done a thousand times while practicing in the yard, you slide the arrow back to the full draw position.
As the bucks chest passes the last obstacle and into your shooting lane, you perform a vocal doe matt to stop his rapid forward progress. He abruptly stops for a moment and offers a broadside shot. His muscles are noticeably tense as your pin quickly searches his body for the perfect shot placement.
This is it; the last twelve months, and maybe several years, have been spent in preparation for this one split moment that is about to take place.
Are you ready? Have you done the necessary preparation leading up to this moment to make a clean, vitals shot?
To me, hunting a mature whitetail buck in a heavily pressured area within Michigan is the most challenging activity there is. My five kids were raised on table fare consisting of walleye, salmon, steelhead, lake trout, brown trout, creek trout, catfish, bass, pan-fish, pike, elk, mule deer, turkey, rabbits, squirrel, pheasant, quail, and whitetail. While pursuing all of those wild species of game and fish was challenging and exciting, nothing ever came close to giving me the adrenaline rush of drawing back on a mature Michigan whitetail buck.
I doubt anyone can correctly answer the question of whether the fabled “buck fever” reaction is from anticipation, adrenaline, or a fear of having to actually perform during what is to most, a very rare in your face archery opportunity. After 49 years of chasing whitetails I still get adrenaline rushes that make me question my inner ability to get the job done.
Many whitetail bowhunters are dedicated and spend much of their off-season thinking, talking and reading about it. While I personally struggle with how unrealistic most hunting shows and videos are, many hunters watch them. For many, bowhunting for whitetails is simply put, a lifestyle.
However, all the planning and preparation in the world might not prepare you for the adrenaline rush and anxiety attacks that can happen when a trophy whitetail is standing broadside, up close and personal while you are at full draw. The question is not how to get rid of the rush, but rather how to best prepare for and mentally handle the anxiety? While the words “auto pilot” is usually synonymous with motorized mechanisms, those words can also apply to bowhunting during a shot opportunity.
Without question, with a vertical bow, proper practice is required to capitalize on every facet of a shot opportunity. Once your brain, muscles, form, release, and follow through are trained through proper repetitive practice the “auto pilot” process is as close to being achieved as possible. The result is more confidence in your concentration, mental toughness, shooting ability, and aim point, all of which are critical at crunch time.
Here’s What I Do
Many hunters shoot bows with draw weights they struggle with and that should never happen. Advancements in compound bow, arrow, and broadhead technology have made it possible to shoot arrows with sufficient speeds and energies for whitetails with draw weights as low as 45 pounds.
A few years back, for my Archery Mechanics DVD, Bryan Schupbach of Schupbach’s Sporting Goods and Russ Clark (both professional instructors and bow technicians) performed a chronograph speed and energy test. Using the same weight arrow they tested a moderately priced, non-radical cam compound bow set at 60 pounds draw weight against a 25 year old 70 pound draw weight compound. Even though the older 70 pound bow had a 31 inch draw length which gave it a 3 inch longer speed stroke and a 50% let-off cam, the 60 pound bow with a 28 inch draw length and 80% let-off cam outperformed it by over 25 feet per second. The foot pounds of energy were also staggeringly better from the 60 pound bow.
I have shot a 60 pound draw weight compound since 1975, but in 2008 due to reconstructive shoulder surgery I hunted with a 30 to 40 pound draw weight Mathews Conquest bow with a 65% soft cam, Carbon Express 150 Maxima Hunter arrows, and a 100 grain G-5 Stryker broadhead. At 35 pounds draw weight I took a mature doe with a complete pass through. By late December I was shooting at 40 pounds and on public land in Illinois took a huge 12 point, again with a total pass through. Neither deer made it 50 yards before expiring.
That 40 pound bow set-up shot about 30 feet per second faster that my 1975 Bear Polar II compound set at 60 pounds and about 80 feet per second faster than the 45 pound Bear stick bow I used in the 60s and early 70s. In no way am I advocating a low poundage if the user were capable of easily drawing 45 to 60 pounds, but that is an example of how much energy is generated from new technology compounds.
If you don’t practice all year, and I am definitely guilty of that, before you begin for the upcoming season, lower your bow poundage until you can comfortably shoot a couple dozen shots. As your muscles strengthen, raise it a few pounds at a time until you can comfortably shoot several dozen shots at the weight you plan on hunting at. Fighting a heavy poundage bow is not conducive to achieving good form.
Unfortunately, standing in a perfectly upright stance, squared shoulders perpendicular to the target, consistently perfect triangle between eyes, anchor point and bow hand when at full draw, and shooting 25 to 50 arrows a day, is not the only required practice.
While keeping your feet planted in their original position, practice twisting at the waist and shooting behind you, in front of you, and a little to the opposite side. Shooting in awkward positions tends to slightly make you lengthen or shorten your draw length either of which can cause accuracy issues and they should be known and dealt with prior to season.
“If you practice from the ground, at any time you should be able to sit in a chair and easily draw your bow back from your left side (if right handed) or straight in front of you with your legs spread. By hunting season you should never have to struggle drawing your bow in any awkward position or when in bulky clothes due to cold weather.”
Until deer start climbing neighboring trees and offer perfectly horizontal shot opportunities similar to how you shoot at targets from the ground, your perfect practicing ground form will never be replicated in an elevated hunting situation. Practicing from the ground is very convenient, but as the season approaches it is advised to practice and possibly re-sight from a height similar to your average hunting height. There is also a segment in the Archery Mechanics DVD on how to properly shoot from an elevated position if all you do is practice and sight in from the ground.
Since 95% of my hunts are from trees, the majority of my practice time is spent shooting from a tree in my yard at a similar height to my typical hunting height. Practicing from a similar height replicates; consistent upper body alignment and form, awkward shooting positions, severe angles of trajectory, and required shot placement on a much narrower target. When replicating awkward hunting shot positions it is also much easier to notice if you are going to struggle drawing your bow.
Sighting in from the ground and then using improper form (not properly bending at the waist) from elevations will alter head alignment which will cause you to shoot high. Practicing from similar elevations prior to season can’t be overstressed. Make sure to range each target from your elevated practice perch to simulate similar angles of trajectory when range-finding distances from your stands.
Since deer don’t have targets printed on their sides, something I do that is a bit out of the norm is only practice at deer silhouette targets without bullseyes, vitals, or other marks on them.
When practicing at a marked target you always have a defined aiming point, so you don’t think about where to aim, other than at that mark or bullseye. When shooting at an unmarked deer silhouette you actually have to think about exactly where you need to aim in conjunction with broadside or quartering shot angles. You will be basically practicing on a target facing replicating the blank side of a deer. I believe this practice aids in picking a spot and eliminating what seems to be a common center body mass aiming point.
On several occasions, hunters told me they were not able to draw their bows because they were wearing bulky clothing or were cold, both of which can affect the drawing process. When it starts getting cold, practice at least once with all your hunting clothes on to insure it doesn’t restrict your drawing process.
If your life style doesn’t allow enough practice time, or during season when practicing opportunities seem to be limited, carry a Saunders Power Pull or similar product with you to replicate the drawing process, form, and maintain strength. This inexpensive practice tool can be used while doing just about anything.
Every bowhunter wants adequate cut diameter broadheads for good blood trails and quick expirations, but it is imperative they fly like your practice tips and with modern bow speeds that is often difficult to obtain.
For over 20 years I used 1 1/8 -inch fixed blade heads and never had issues with arrow flight or penetration. However, as technology advanced and my bow upgrades started reaching 250 feet per second speeds with hunting arrows, accuracy with fixed blades became an issue. Keep in mind that all the speed, energy, and penetration in the world are meaningless if you can’t hit where you are aiming.
In 1996, I reluctantly switched to a well-designed 100 grain, 1½ cut, deploy from the front mechanical head and it flew exactly like my same weight field tips. I have switched several times since and now use a 1½ inch cut rear deploy mechanical head because it loses less energy in the blade opening process (only loses about 3%). Whether fixed or mechanical, you should have at least one head set aside and whenever practicing shoot it last to insure it flies consistently and exactly as your practice points.
Aluminum arrows can get visually undetectable dents and bends in them that will affect accuracy. When I used aluminum arrows, I numbered each arrow and used the most consistent shooting ones for hunting. Eventually I could afford a separate set of arrows kept strictly for hunting.
I switched to Carbon Express arrows in 1998 and they have performed beyond expectations. Carbon arrows (no aluminum cores) are either straight or broke, there’s no middle ground, so any inconsistent flight is caused by incorrect shaft size, faulty form, poor release, or improper follow through.
Using correct sized carbon arrows, they are faster, more consistently accurate, recover their straightness quicker out of the bow and after impact, and penetrate better than their aluminum counterparts. An eye opening slow motion visual showing how aluminum and carbon arrows recover their straightness when shot is in the Archery Mechanics DVD. The reason professional spot shooters use carbon arrows is because they are simply more consistent and accurate.
By season opener you should be extremely confident with your form and accuracy from elevations. Once on stand, range landmarks and runways, then draw your bow in every possible position that a shot could take place to insure limb clearance and how you need to move for that particular shot. If a shot presents itself you will know exactly what to do and not make unwanted body movements that could spook your prey.
When a targeted whitetail comes within range, take the first good shot that becomes available if it is within your wheelhouse shooting zone. Mature bucks have a way of foiling a perfectly good hunt. On two occasions in the 1980s I passed up good 25-yard opportunities thinking the bucks would continue on the same path and offer me 15-yard chip shots. Needless to say they had their own agenda’s and took off after does back in the cover that I had not seen. I could have easily taken both of those bucks with the original shots they offered. That is the beauty of the learning process and those mistakes have never been made since.
Knowing when to draw your bow is an art in itself. If a deer is alone, draw your bow while their head is down, turned, or behind some cover, this will hide your drawing process. A deer is a prey species with outstanding peripheral vision, so if his head is down but facing you, wait, because he can still pick-up your movements. When there is more than one deer they all must be treated as equals. Never draw if any are looking in your direction unless you have no alternative.
In 1974, a hunting buddy vocally matted (some call it a blatt but it sounds more like a slurred matt) to stop an eight point buck that was rapidly moving past him, and the buck stopped so suddenly that he left skid marks on the ground. He shot the buck in a standing position as opposed to moving, and I have been doing the same ever since without a single failure.
You can perform a vocal matt by placing your tongue against the back of your front teeth and up against the roof of your mouth and then slurring the word matt. The call should be very short and punctual and not performed until the target whitetail is exactly where you want it to stop and only after you have come to full draw. If not at full draw when performed, once he stops, he may notice your drawing motion, and spook.
Pick the right spot! The target area on a broadside shot should always be the center of the lungs. While most 3-D and projection screen targets give you the maximum points for heart shots, the lungs are much bigger leaving a greater margin for slight error, and they are not protected by the shoulder blade like the heart is. On quartering or severe trajectory shots, take into account where you must aim to slide your arrow through the vitals.
“Auto Pilot” at crunch time will become routine once the confidence in your ability and equipment is achieved.
John Eberhart is an accomplished bow-hunter from Michigan that specializes in heavy consequential hunting pressure areas. To enrich your bowhunting skills John Eberhart produced a 3 volume instructional DVD series titled “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails” and an instructional archery DVD titled “Archery Mechanics.” He has also authored the books “Bowhunting Pressured Whitetails,” “Precision Bowhunting” and “Bowhunting Whitetails The Eberhart Way.” They are available at: www.deer-john.net