Archery Talk: Decisions & Limitations

Successful bow hunters capitalize on opportunities but they also know that understanding limits and critical decisions are part of the game.

Bow hunting is an activity fraught with decisions. We all pick up a bow because of the challenge, but along with our newfound pastime come responsibilities. Those responsibilities demand that we make decisions based on an understanding of our limits and how best to capitalize on opportunities to ensure the most ethical and expedient kill possible. Culminating in the release of an arrow, the ultimate decision we bow hunters make rests in how we interpret the shot and go about retrieving downed game.

Forecast Possible Scenarios

Archery hunting requires unique skills and the ability to make wise decisions based on, in part, inference and interpretation. It forces us to exercise a process of evaluating a shot opportunity, determining whether or not that opportunity is within our effective shooting range and if it is indeed viable, managing our equipment, progressing through a series of physical motions, concentrating on the aiming process and maintaining form to execute an accurate shot.

In turn, experienced bow hunters learn to visualize prior to, and during, each hunt. We learn to think through the possible scenarios as the hunt progresses. Most often we envision the ideal situation where game steps into range, but rarely does an encounter happen exactly as we planned. Veteran archers learn to consider every possibility as the hunt unfolds, i.e.: will the animal walk to the left, right or head on? They ask themselves: “What will I do to stop the animal for a shot?” “Have I identified distances of nearby reference points such as trees and rocks?” “What will my farthest shot opportunity be?” “What will I do if a buck is chasing a doe under my stand — how will I stop him?” Possibilities are endless, but by visualizing and rehearsing scenarios in your mind, you will be that much closer to closing the deal when the rare and often fleeting opportunity arises.

Likewise, consider how and when you will draw your bow and take the shot. Experienced archers invariably practice drawing and aiming from each stand to ensure there are no physical barriers. Think for a moment; I bet you can remember a time when a surprise branch, safety belt, or other physical feature hindered your ability to draw and execute when a shot opportunity finally presented itself. By forecasting potential problems, we can often avoid them. Deciding to take these proactive steps can mean the difference between a successful hunt and a disappointing close encounter.

Understanding Our Limits

We all possess a personal level of competence with bow and arrow in hand. Some of us can effectively shoot longer ranges and others are best limiting themselves to less than 20 metres. I’ve heard it said that if you can hit a pie plate 20 times at 20 metres, you’re good to go. I disagree. Archery is a precision shooting sport. An infinite number of variables affect how shot game reacts. My personal belief is that no one should be hunting unless they can consistently place those same 20 arrows (tipped with broadheads) in a minimum 10-centimetre group at 20 metres. Too many of us fail to acknowledge the “other” variables. Shot angles, distances, buck fever, poundage, type and size of broadhead, and more, all work in sync to affect shot placement and ultimately determine how game reacts after impact.

Consider kids’ bows, or women’s bows, for instance. In my home province the archer must be pulling at least 40 pounds in order to lawfully hunt with their bow. My wife pulls 47 pounds. She’s a proficient shot out to 50 metres and she’s an accomplished bow hunter. As she has progressed as a bow hunter, she continues to learn what her effective shooting range is, what her limits are, and most importantly what shots she can and cannot take given the poundage she is shooting. With limited poundage, for instance, she knows that her shots must be restricted to broadside double-lung aiming points where she is most likely to achieve a complete pass through on game.

Decisions Dictate Outcome

Last fall I was reminded of the importance of decisions afield. I initially reluctant to share this but I’m all about keeping it real, so here it is. Every sportsman understands the risks associated with waiting to follow up on shot game. We should adhere to the 45-minute rule before retrieving downed game, but what about those situations when we’re uncertain of the hit? The dilemma becomes more critical when we take a shot during the waning minutes of last shooting light. Do we follow-up immediately or wait? Should we leave the game overnight? With the burgeoning coyote population, not to mention other predators, this is risky business. On the flip side, if we are uncertain of where our arrow penetrated the body, and we begin tracking too soon, we risk bumping the game and losing it altogether.

The hard truth is that our decisions dictate the outcome of our hunts. Last November it happened to me. On the morning of November 19, I shot an antlerless whitetail on an extra tag in Edmonton’s bow zone. I’d made a great shot and the deer piled up 60 metres from the point of impact. Able to retrieve the deer quickly and quietly, I exited the woods with minimal disturbance so I sat the same stand in the afternoon. With only 10 minutes of legal light remaining several does emerged from the heavy cover followed by two bucks. Using a doe bleat, I enticed the bigger one to within 22 metres of my stand. I drew back, aimed, and released. The shot felt good but concentrating on follow-through I couldn’t see where, or even if, I’d actually hit the buck. Truth is, based on the sound I heard and how the buck reacted, I thought I’d missed. Perplexed, I watched as the buck bolted forward 15 metres and then slowly walked into cover. It looked to be unscathed. In turn, I figured it was just temporarily startled by the subtle disturbance and that I had missed.

Confused, I waited a few minutes and then climbed down from the stand to retrieve my arrow. To my surprise it had blood on it. Scouring the trail a short distance, in the low light I couldn’t find any blood on the ground at all. At that pivotal moment I had a decision to make; follow up immediately, wait a few hours and then follow up, or wait until morning when the light would be good and I could see what was going on. Most often we know, at least vaguely, where on the body our arrow penetrates game, but I honestly had no idea with this one. Normally we hear a “whack” for bone, “thump” for chest, or even a mushy sound if for some reason we hit too far back. I didn’t hear either. Acknowledging the risk, after much deliberation, I opted to wait until morning.

So often we watch hunting shows where the bow hunters do the same and retrieve their game the following day, but in many jurisdictions they don’t have the predator problem we do. In short, my shot placement was excellent. Even though the blood trail was almost non-existent, my buck lay only 50 metres away. The unfortunate result of waiting was that within those few short overnight hours the coyotes beat me to it. Disappointed and frustrated, I closed my tag.

Decisions dictate outcome. I know of bow hunters who have taken marginal shots and spent days attempting to retrieve their animal. Sometimes they get lucky, other times they don’t. It really comes down to understanding our limits, learning to capitalize on viable opportunities, and then making the right decisions about shot placement and follow up. Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of waiting even 45 minutes before tracking shot game. Heavy snowfall, rain, remaining daylight, and plenty of other variables enter the equation when we consider our decisions. To say that there is a fast rule would be erroneous, it comes down to understanding our limits and making wise decisions based on implications.

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