Archery Talk: Judging Distances

DEPT_archerytalkYour technical archery skill may be second to none, but misjudge the distance, and your arrow will surely miss its mark

I know some incredible archers, several of whom are also outstanding bow hunters. As I strive each year to improve my own skills, I look to these folks for tips and advice. Shooting both traditional and compound bows for over 20 years now, I’d like to believe my own archery skills are reasonably advanced, but when I contemplate the things that make exceptional bow hunters consistently successful, it comes down to one thing — their uncanny ability to accurately judge distance in all archery situations.

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When it comes to archery, I’m one of those folks that learn things the hard way. What I lack in skill, I more than make up for in tenacity. In the end, I succeed in archery because I rarely give up. With that on the table I can tell you I’ve missed plenty of game over the years, mostly because I misjudged the shot distance. Among my misguided arrows were an honest 190-class whitetail, several 180-class mule deer, countless record-book pronghorn antelope, a heavy-horned bighorn ram, and more. Believe it or not, most of those misses involved ranges of between 26 and 45 yards. Heartbreaking indeed, they were at least character building and skill-building experiences. A few of those shots I relive constantly in my mind, knowing full well that if I had only determined the distance accurately, the outcome would have been altogether different. Thankfully, despite my periodic errors in judgment, along the way I have managed to let the air out of my fair share of game bringing home meat for the freezer and antlers for the wall.

Think about each species and several variables influence a bow hunter’s ability to judge distance; namely their size and their surroundings, not to mention light conditions. The truly exceptional archers among us are able to accurately judge distance and shoot with pinpoint accuracy regardless of circumstance.

Judge in Increments

Accurately determining archery distance can make or break a hunt. You might be the most technically sound archer on the planet, but it doesn’t matter much if you shoot the wrong yardage. Precisely determining distance is the first step toward proper shot placement. Instinctive or calculated, bow hunters often rely on estimation to determine distances, typically considering 10-yard (or metre) increments.

I remember one of my most frustrating archery hunts. Nearly two decades ago as a new archer, I had drawn a pronghorn antelope permit for a management unit in southern Alberta. I’d practiced in excess and felt confident with my technical shooting ability. I quickly learned that my shooting wasn’t the problem… but judging distance was! I’m not sure how many opportunities I messed up, but after several stalks and more released arrows than I care to admit I was exasperated. On one stalk I emptied my quiver and I’m embarrassed to say the buck stood less than 40 yards away staring at me without a concern in the world.

Since then, I’ve learned to judge archery distances with some degree of accuracy but whenever possible, I use a laser rangefinding device. For those instances where a rangefinder isn’t available, I’ve learned to use topographic features to assist in calculating distance. Manmade or natural features in the terrain can be used to help estimate distances. Regardless of where you are hunting features like trees, rocks, fence posts, and power poles can be used to aid in estimating distances. As an archer I’ve learned to make a mental note of physical land-based objects at 10-yard (or metre) increments out to 60 yards (or metres). If you’re sitting in a tree stand or ground blind you usually have the option to set out non-intrusive distance markers at desirable increments. These can serve as valuable reference points.

Laser Rangefinders

Most archery hunters today use a laser rangefinder. Today’s portable units are lightweight and easy to use. In turn, they have literally revolutionized bow hunting. Simply look through the viewfinder, acquire the target, hit the button and, there you have it — distance is displayed on the LCD. With yardage confirmed, all that remains is the shot. For the hunting archer, these little beauties literally eliminate the biggest problem bow hunters face in making the shot.

Thanks to innovation, laser rangefinders are readily available and affordable. Today there is no reason not to use a rangefinder. Many archery manufacturers have their own versions, but one of my favourites is Bushnell’s compact and lightweight Legend 1200 Arc. The ARC stands for Angle Range Compensation. In other words, ARC accounts for the terrain when calculating distance. While traditional rangefinders are precision optical instruments designed to be used on a level plain, Bushnell’s ARC rangefinders compensate for angles from a tree stand for instance, or up or down a vertical slope. Using digital technology, it has a built-in inclinometer that displays the exact slope angle from +/- 60 degrees of elevation with +/- 1.0 degree accuracy. Bow hunters have always struggled with extreme uphill and downhill angles. These severe angles alter true horizontal distance to the target. Bushnell’s ARC technology solves this problem. It has three primary settings: bow mode, rifle mode, and a regular mode (for line of sight distance calculation only). It has a bow mode that displays line of site distance, degree of elevation, and true horizontal distance from five to 99 yards (or metres). I can honestly accredit several of my own bow kills to this ARC technology.

Practice & Repetition

Laser rangefinding technology is invaluable, but what if we don’t have one? To my way of thinking, much like having the ability to calculate mathematical equations without a calculator, it is likewise imperative that every bow hunter learn distance judgment skills, and this comes down to practice.

For most of us, learning to judge archery distance takes consistent practice. Understanding arrow trajectory, not to mention the kinetic energy of your arrow down range, and interpreting the size of the downrange target animal relative to the terrain can only be learned through firsthand repetitive experience. So how do we get all this supposed experience? The answer is simple — visit the range and launch a lot of arrows.

As I’ve said before, nothing beats practice on the 3-D archery course. Today’s 3-D archery targets are made to scale and can be strategically placed in any range situation to simulate realistic hunting scenarios. Some are set at long distances over 60 yards through wide open clearings while others are placed in the trees, often with very small shooting windows at closer distances like 20 or 30 yards. Most 3-D ranges have a good assortment of field scenarios to allow practicing archers to hone skills. The more variable the shot opportunities, the better our skill becomes at judging distances through trees, across open landscapes, or up and down hills. One of my own considerations when I shoot the 3-D course is to go at different times of the day to ensure that I practice under different light conditions as well. From my own perspective, I find it more difficult to accurately judge distances under low dawn and dusk light. Practicing at these times helps me to gain the skills needed during hunting season.

Likewise, practicing archery skills from different positions is equally important. Hunting is an open skill. This means we are often required to make the shot from sitting, standing, or crouching positions. The best illustration I can use goes back to decoying pronghorn antelope. Crouching behind a decoy, shooting at a smaller-than-average big game animal, in an open environment can wreak havoc on the archer’s judgment. I’ve sent more than one arrow high over the top of a buck.

Be as Precise as Possible

In the end, it’s all about knowing the distance to your downrange target and delivering your arrow with precision. I know some archery experts who bracket their shots, i.e.: if they think the distance is somewhere between 35 and 40 yards, they put their 40-yard pin high on the target. While this may work for some, as a rule, I am a firm believer in determining precise yardage. Too many things can go wrong when an arrow is released. Shoot for an exact distance and you’re sure to put meat in the freezer and antlers on the wall. It’s all about proficient archery!

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