All bowhunters of all experience levels make mistakes. Bowhunting, after all, is challenging. Bowhunters require lots of gear and constant practice to arrow smart, unpredictable wild animals at close range. A lot can go wrong and humans aren’t perfect, so mistakes are inevitable.
We asked four skilled bowhunters to share their worst mistakes in hopes of helping new bowhunters avoid them. Let’s review their stories, lessons and advice.
Kevin Donahue, 30, started shooting archery at 18 years old and he began bowhunting at 25. He liked hunting his family’s property in Virginia, where he knew the distances to nearly every tree from every stand. His uncle had paced off the common shots and shared those details with him.
Donahue wasn’t having much luck early in the 2019 season, so he asked and received permission to hunt a friend’s property. He accidentally entered the stand from the wrong direction, but two does still came in at dusk.
“I looked at the two does and thought, ‘Oh sure, 25 yards. Chip shot,’” he said. “(I) sent an arrow at the first doe (that was standing) broadside. She went cartwheeling off, dramatically crashing through the underbrush. I’m confident she’s down, and the next one walks right in her footsteps, confused why the first went wild. I sent another (arrow), and she follows the first.”
Donahue and his friends searched relentlessly for both deer but found neither. He soon learned he miscalculated the distance, and misplaced both shots. Crows alerted him to one doe days later. He found the second doe hung on a log in the stream a month later.
Donahue said impatience and overconfidence ruined his hunt and “wasted the lives and meat of two animals.” He was disappointed in himself and bought a rangefinder. He practiced estimating distances and verifying them with the rangefinder to ensure his arrows flew true. He redeemed himself later that season by shooting a deer at 8 yards and another at 10 yards the same evening.
The experience taught Donahue to check distances before shooting whenever possible. He also learned a lot about tracking deer because both blood trails were sporadic and hard to follow. He advises beginners to trust the learning process and not rush anything. “Create an environment where you know what success looks like, and try to hunt within that parameter,” he said.
Elija Dick started gun-hunting with his grandfather at age 11. No one in his family bowhunted, so he learned alongside his brothers when 13. Now 18, he said he likely made every mistake possible, but remains haunted by several equipment issues he ignored instead of fixing.
When hunting a bachelor group of bucks on his family’s small West Virginia property, Dick set up near a fencepost each morning as they crossed the family’s alfalfa field to the neighbor’s woodlot. A “magnificent 10-point” came within range one morning.
“I drew, I aimed, and I pulled the trigger on my quick release, (but) nothing happened,” Dick said. “My release wasn’t opening. With my heart in my mouth, I flicked the trigger back and forth several times with no result.”
When he glanced at the release, it suddenly opened. His arrow flew harmlessly past the buck’s chest, and it bounded away. After looking closer, Dick saw rust, which likely caused the malfunction. He had noticed his release was a little uncooperative while practicing, but hadn’t worried about it. After that incident, he regularly checked his equipment to ensure nothing failed.
Two years later, however, he grew careless and unwittingly bought arrows that didn’t match his setup. He missed two bucks before realizing his mistake, and contacted the Bowhunting 360 team for advice. He is back to checking his equipment daily, and recently arrowed a buck.
Dick urges new bowhunters to learn their gear’s flaws and limits. He said knowledge comes with experience, and he encourages beginners to use those experiences to push through bowhunting problems. “Be 100% positive about the performance of your gear,” he said. “Keep hunting and keep learning. I know I still am.”
Sledge Jr., 35, started bowhunting at age 14. When 26, he made a mistake that still haunts him. Sledge said he practiced a lot back then, but not while wearing his hunting clothes with all his gear and equipment.
“I went hunting and had my binoculars around my neck,” he said. “I got ready to shoot a doe. When I (shot), the bowstring caught my binoculars. It basically ripped them in half and almost pulled me out of my stand. The arrow missed the deer and ricocheted off a tree. It went up into the air and I never saw it again. It was a disaster.”
Sledge said the incident made him take a break from bowhunting. He switched to gun-hunting and spent more time with his wife and their three sons. He didn’t bowhunt for eight years, but recently resumed after his wife gave him a new bow and the COVID-19 pandemic gave him more free time.
Sledge now practices bowhunting situations when shooting. He wears all his gear and shoots from an elevated platform. He also visualizes every detail of what successful hunts look like, and works backward to ensure everything is in place.
Sledge encourages new bowhunters to set goals to help them overcome obstacles. “If you have a goal, you’ll put more time into achieving that goal,” he said. “You’ll push through the adversity of early mistakes, and you’ll keep trying even when things don’t work out.”
Crume, 39, is a pipefitter from Louisville, Kentucky. He started bowhunting in 1998. In Crume’s early years, he struggled to “seal the deal” when deer entered bow range.
“(I) moved at the wrong time, (accidentally made) noise, (let my) nerves get to me, forgot the range at full draw, and violently yanked the trigger,” Crume said. “You name it. I found a way to screw it up in the final moments.”
Those experiences frustrated and disappointed him. He said anxiety and self-doubt grew with each encounter. Advice from a mentor helped him persevere.
“(He) sat me down and said, ‘Making the shot is the easy part. It’s getting to full draw that’s hard,’” Crume said. “He explained once you get to full draw with a deer in range, the work was mostly over, and all you had to do was make a shot you practiced thousands of times. That hit home for me. I was confident in my abilities, and took my first whitetail in 2004.”
When Crume reaches full draw now, he tells himself: “The hard part is over. Now just execute the shot.” He said managing his anxiety when deer are in range is an exciting and challenging part of bowhunting. He said bowhunters need a simple shot process to calm themselves “when there’s fur behind your pin.”
Most bowhunters, if asked, will say they’ve made countless mistakes while bowhunting. If you ask what they learned from those miscues, they’ll likely share tips you can use to avoid similar mistakes.
Mistakes can be painful and memorable, but they form the foundation of better bowhunting. When you make mistakes—and you will—just remember they won’t be your last. By learning from mistakes today, you’ll boost your odds in the future.
For more information on bowhunting mistakes, read these Bowhunting 360 articles: