The white-tailed deer is the world’s most popular big-game animal, and also one of the most challenging to hunt. One reason for the challenge is because of the whitetail’s acute senses of sight, smell and hearing. That latter sense has helped many deer escape from proficient archers who have seemingly executed perfect shots.
How is this possible?
A deer’s natural reaction when alarmed is to flee. To do that, the deer crouches before springing into a run for safety. Meanwhile, the whitetail’s sense of hearing is so remarkable that a deer sometimes hears the sound of the bow and arrow shooting and reacts before the arrow reaches it. When the deer crouches reflexively, an otherwise accurate arrow passes right over the intended target, sometimes missing the animal cleanly or, in the worst case, resulting in a wounding shot. Bowhunters call it “jumping the string.”
The math helps explain this phenomenon. An arrow shot from a modern compound bow set to average hunting specs leaves the string at 275 to 300 feet per second. If the target is 20 yards away, the arrow would hit it in about one-fifth of a second, absent gravity and drag — both of which exist in the real world and begin slowing the arrow down immediately after it leaves the string.
In contrast, sound travels at 1,125 fps at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s almost four times faster than the arrow! A deer can hear the bow shoot and react before the arrow arrives, all in a fraction of a second.
How can bowhunters counteract such amazing reflexes? One solution is to aim a little low. A sharp broadhead through the vital heart-and-lung area of a deer kills within seconds. Generally, the lungs are about the size of a pie plate, and the top of them is about even with the centerline of a deer’s chest. The heart is fist-sized, and it sits low in the deer’s body cavity, between the forward lobes of the lungs and just below and behind the shoulder blades. By aiming a little low, at the heart, you give yourself some room for error if the deer jumps the string.
It’s critical to know where that aiming point is, and to pick the exact spot before shooting. Many archers like to follow the front leg about a third of the way up the chest on a broadside deer and aim slightly behind it, right on the crease. That’s about 3 inches behind the “V” created by a deer’s front-leg bones. If the deer ducks a little, you’ll still get the lungs. If it doesn’t, you’ll hit the heart. Either way, you’ll get your deer and have some leeway if the animal crouches at the sound of your shot. Ideally, bowhunters should wait until the deer steps forward with its near-side leg, which clears the heavy leg bones and offers an unobstructed angle at the heart.
Obviously, the farther the shot, the more time it takes for the arrow to reach the deer and the more time the deer has to react. Therefore, jumping the string is less of an issue at 20 yards, but it can be a big concern at 40. In addition, alert deer that have already scented or spotted you are much likelier to duck than calm deer that are oblivious to your presence.
Besides aiming low, a quiet bow helps. Making sure your bow is in tune, using a good stabilizer, adding string silencers and taking other sound-dampening measures will ensure your bow shoots quietly, reducing the sound a deer is able to react to.
Even a perfectly placed shot can result in a miss or a wounded animal if the deer ducks the string when you release. Get the drop on them by anticipating that move, and holding a little low.