The muffled sound of a snapped twig disrupts your midafternoon daydream. A nice buck materializes out of the hardwoods, and he’s heading your way. Your adrenaline skyrockets as you reach for your bow. Release connected to the D-loop, you put tension on the string as you anxiously await the perfect moment to draw, settle your aim and release an arrow. A bowhunter’s ability to be patient in situations like this is typically the difference between celebrating success and experiencing agonizing regret.
Confidence is key if you want to put more meat in your freezer. A consistent pre-shot checklist is a great way to keep your mind focused on steps needed to execute a perfect shot that hits its mark, rather than being distracted by antlers or an overwhelming feeling of excitement. There isn’t a right or wrong way to create a mental checklist, but it should be easy to remember and something you consider every time you draw your bow — regardless of whether you’re shooting targets or a live animal.
My personal checklist is broken down into each phase of the shot, from drawing to aiming and, finally, release. It goes like this:
1. Constant pressure: This refers to the draw cycle, and specifically the importance of applying constant pressure to the bow’s back wall once you reach full draw. Modern compounds typically have at least 80% let-off, which can make it easy to get lazy at full draw if you’re not consciously thinking about pulling into the back wall. I apply constant pressure to the palm of my hand against the back of the grip and between my shoulder blades to stay locked at full draw.
2. Hold: This refers to aiming. When I first started bowhunting, I struggled to hold my pin on a deer’s vitals. Instead, I typically punched the release as soon as the deer appeared in my sight housing. This led to lots of misses, poor hits and frustration. When you consciously consider holding your pin on the vitals, you’re more focused on placing your arrow directly behind the pin once it’s released.
3. Squeeze: This refers to the shot. Once I’ve mentally rehearsed “constant pressure” and “hold” in my head, with my shoulder blades pulling into the back wall and pin burned into a target the size of a golf ball over the vitals, now I can start to squeeze. I shorten the stem of my wrist strap release so it lies on the palm of my hand and tighten the trigger so it doesn’t fire like a hair trigger (which is opposite of how you’d tune your trigger on a precision rifle). Setting up my release in this manner allows me to squeeze through the shot, knowing I’m in complete control and can stop my shot process at any time. Eventually, as I squeeze through the shot, the arrow will be released.
It can be difficult to know when to draw your bow, especially when you’re just starting out. If you draw too early, you’ll get fatigued as you fight the draw weight as the deer slowly approaches. Too late, and you risk getting spotted. Be mindful of cover and the body language exhibited by the approaching deer. Thick brush or a nearby tree offer plenty of cover for you to reach full draw undetected. Calm deer approach slowly, typically as they browse or use their nose to scent check the area. They might stop to scratch an itch or flick their tail, all of which means the deer is calm and unsuspecting of any potential threat.
On the other hand, a nervous deer’s ears will be upright and alert, and it’ll act anxious as it looks for or attempts to smell a suspected threat. Nervous deer can react quickly and even jump the string as they load their legs and lower their body at the sound of a shot. It’s best to limit your shots to inside 30 yards and aim lower, typically at the heart, when shooting at a deer that’s on edge.
Be mindful of other variables like wind speed and cover noise before you draw your bow. It can be hard to draw your bow undetected on calm days without any wind. Lack of wind means there’s likely minimal cover noise, such as rustling leaves or a gusting breeze to help conceal the inevitable sound associated with drawing your bow.
Finally, don’t forget your rangefinder. Rather than waiting until the shot to anxiously pull it out, start your hunt by ranging prominent landmarks like downed trees, stumps, or nearby sign such as rubs or scrapes. Make mental notes of the distances associated with these landmarks, and repeatedly range them until you remember their distances offhand. This pre-work with your rangefinder will reduce unnecessary movement when you should be focused on making a good shot at the approaching deer.
It’s normal to get excited after the shot. You might shake uncontrollably and your heart might feel like it’s going to beat out of your chest, but you’re not done yet. Resist the urge to get excited. Instead, watch and listen for any final clues as the deer runs away. Make a mental note of the trail the fleeing deer used, prominent trees it ran past and the last spot where you saw it. Immediately after, pull out your cellphone and film a video, using your finger to physically point at any known locations where you saw the deer. Everything looks different as soon as you’re down from the treestand or blind, so this video will be helpful to reference when picking up the blood trail.
Once the deer is out of sight, listen for any sounds that could be helpful in identifying its whereabouts. Did you hear a splash of water, suggesting it crossed the nearby creek? Perhaps you heard the rustling of thick CRP grasses rather than breaking limbs, suggesting the deer veered toward the overgrown grass field rather than staying in the hardwoods. Or, best of all, you might hear the classic sound of the deer crashing as it piles up just out of sight, followed by silence, suggesting your blood trail will be short and you’ll soon be celebrating with fresh backstraps.
Patience is a virtue, as they say, and that certainly applies to bowhunting. Rehearse your pre-shot checklist and play out mental scenarios during your practice regimen to gain confidence. A shot at a buck of a lifetime doesn’t come often, but when it does, you’ll be ready for it.