My heart sank at 7:08 a.m. Mountain time on a recent September dawn when my arrow rattled through sagebrush beneath a bull elk’s brisket 40 yards away. The Easton FMJ shaft and 4-blade Wac-Em broadhead then struck dirt and rock, and ricocheted to parts unknown, never to be seen again.
The startled 5-by-5 bull, clearly untouched, jumped sideways and trotted across the meadow’s bone-dry grass. About 100 yards later it stopped, looked back, and then trotted into the national forest of eastern Idaho. I never saw him again, either.
Talk about failing bowhunting’s one-shot challenge. I had prowled that area 10 years, so I knew bowhunters must hunt long and hard to get one shot per week. Yes, I earned two opportunities some years, but that was the exception. Seeing or hearing elk is seldom a problem. But getting one within range and in the clear? That’s far more difficult in this steep terrain, thick, unforgiving cover.
So there I was, barely 15 minutes into the first morning of my annual two-week do-it-yourself elk hunt, and I’d blown what was likely my one chance. But at least I had an excuse, even though I accept blame for that, too. Something had felt and sounded wrong when I released the arrow, which hit roughly 30 inches below my aiming point.
What the heck had happened? To confirm my suspicions, I nocked another arrow and drew my bow again. Yep. As I feared, my bow’s upper limb pressed lightly into an overhead limb I hadn’t noticed when aiming at the bull. When I released that arrow, my bow’s top limb must have smacked into the branch. In effect, my shot blew up on the launch pad.
Anatomy of a Miss
Had I wasted all those months of backyard practice with field tips and broadheads? No. Shooting archery is always time well-spent. It also helped me pull my bow to full draw that morning with strength and confidence. All that practice also helped me hold the bowstring’s kisser button to my mouth for over a minute while waiting for the bull to step into the clear for a broadside shot.
So what went wrong? I simply hadn’t noticed that stout tree limb in front of my upper bow limb. Maybe my inexperience as a ground-based bowhunter left me unprepared. Or maybe my lifetime of hunting white-tailed deer from treestands played a role. Those setups let you clear possible obstructions in advance with a saw.
In previous shooting opportunities on elk, I was usually lucky enough to have adequate clearance for my bow, or somehow noticed trouble soon enough to slide backward or sideways before shooting. Now I know not to take bow clearance for granted. Assuming I don’t forget the next time I encounter an elk, I’ll glance above before drawing my bow.
Still, I felt grateful I missed the bull cleanly. Humans are nature’s only predator possessing a conscience. When we shoot bullets or arrows at deer, elk or other quarry, we intend to kill cleanly and quickly to prevent suffering. Anything less brings guilt, second-guessing and endless instant replays by our conscience.
In contrast, winged and four-legged predators shed no tears and lose no rest when rabbits or squirrels escape into holes with wounds inflicted by claws or teeth. Nor do flying or running predators feel guilty when elk, deer, moose or their fawns or calves outrun them after suffering wounds to their legs, necks or abdomen.
Only humans care about such matters. How many bow-shots end with a short blood trail and tracking job? I’m not aware of any research on arrow-wounded elk, but four studies during the 1990s to early 2000s reported wounding rates averaged about 17 percent on white-tailed deer.
The first study, conducted in 1992 and 1993 at the Camp Ripley military base in Minnesota, reported that bowhunters failed to recover 28 percent of deer they wounded. However, the net wounding rate was 13 percent because other bowhunters recovered some of the deer hit by other archers.
Further, researchers at the Naval Support Facility at Indian Head, Maryland, studied data from the 1989 to 2006 hunting seasons. They found that 104 bowhunters failed to recover 162 of 908 deer hit by arrows from compound bows and crossbows, for an 18 percent wounding rate. Likewise, a 1999 study of a suburban bowhunt in a Connecticut neighborhood reported a 17 percent wounding rate over a two-year period; and a 2002 study of bowhunting in an Iowa urban area reported a 14 percent wounding rate during a four-year period.
Studies of wounding rates with firearms aren’t as common, possibly because it’s often difficult for gun-hunters to determine if their shots connected, especially at longer ranges. A South Carolina study from the 1990s, however, found that of 493 deer hit and found by hunters, 85 (17 percent) probably wouldn’t have been recovered without help from trained tracking dogs used by the research team. In addition, 15 other deer escaped with superficial wounds. Therefore, the wounding rate was 19.7 percent for the 508 confirmed bullet hits.
The South Carolina researchers also reported the gun-hunters fired 603 shots in the process, which means they missed a maximum of 95 shots. It’s possible some of those shots also hit deer but didn’t leave enough evidence for the dogs to detect.
In other words, scientific research reports similar wounding rates by bowhunters and gun-hunter. Even so, no hunter should be satisfied with anything less than a 100 percent rating. That means everyone must restrict their shots to ranges where they feel deadly confident. That range varies by individual, but most experienced bowhunters report their effective range is 40 yards and closer.
Making deadly shots, however, involves more than bull’s-eye accuracy on paper targets. Bowhunters should practice on 3-D animal targets whenever possible, and hold out for broadside or quartering-away shots to ensure their broadheads pass through the animal’s chest cavity to inflict fatal wounds. They must also use razor-sharp broadheads, and make sure their sights are adjusted to the broadheads’ flight traits.
By combining shooting proficiency, quality equipment and detailed knowledge of game animals’ anatomy, bowhunters can further reduce wounding rates and leave the woods with a cleaner conscience.