Learning How to Bow Hunt
Hey archery fans – so you want to learn how to bow hunt, right? That’s awesome, but first, let’s make sure we’re all caught up before we move on…
In this last part of the series, you are going to learn the hunting-related side of bow hunting.
It discusses how to start bow hunting, where to aim, shot angles, shooting procedures, recovering, and several bow hunting tips for beginners. Ready?
How to Bow Hunt: Where to Aim with a Bow
The first thing you’re going to realize when shooting at a real animal versus a target is that you need to change your aiming point. There’s no neat little bullseye (as with archery targets) to guide your arrow shot placement. And a game animal may be facing a different direction, rather than perfectly broadside. You need to be intimately familiar with their vital area and how to hit it.
We’ll focus on where to aim for a deer in this article, given that they are the most popular animal to hunt with a bow. Deer shot placement is pretty easy. Simply trace the back edge of the front leg up until about the middle of the body cavity (right behind the shoulder). With a deer’s anatomy, a broadside shot there will result in a double lung shot (very lethal). If you shoot a little low, it will hit the heart (again, obviously lethal). If you hit a little further back, you will hit the lungs and liver (third strike). It gives you the largest margin of error for the little things that affect your arrow trajectory. That being said, there’s a phrase, “Aim small, miss small.” You should always aim for a specific point for the most accurate shot.
Aim for the red circle, but anything within the yellow circle will be a lethal shot too.
You can use this same bow hunting shot placement for most big game animals (e.g., elk, moose, antelope, sheep, hogs, etc.). But there’s a caveat below…
How to Bow Hunt: Shot Angles
When discussing bow hunting for beginners, this is what can trip people up a bit, especially during a hunt. The best archery shot placement will change depending on which direction the animal is facing. For example, the shot placement above is based on a perfect broadside shot. But what if a deer doesn’t present that perfect shot? In the video below, Aaron Warbritton discusses various shot angles and where you should aim based on a deer’s anatomy.
As you can see, if the deer is quartering away from you (slightly facing away), aiming at that same broadside spot would put the arrow too far forward, and you may only get one lung. Instead, try aiming for the leg on the opposite side. This means you will hit the deer further back on the side towards you, but it will come out further forward on the opposite side. This is a great shot angle for deer because it opens the vital area towards you and you can avoid hitting the shoulder blade.
Quartering to You
I’d strongly recommend not taking a shot at an animal quartering to you (partially facing you) with a bow. In most cases, getting the shot forward enough to hit the vital area would mean you could also hit the shoulder blade or shoulder bone. Surprisingly, some broadheads and arrows can punch through bone, but it should not be relied on. Ethically, you should always try to kill an animal as quickly as possible. Some experienced archers can pull it off, but pass on it if you’re just learning how to bow hunt.
Tree Stand/Elevated Shots
What if you’re bow hunting whitetails from a tree stand? As you guessed, that changes the bow hunting shot angle too. You’ll need to aim higher on a deer (generally towards the top third of the body cavity) to hit the vitals. This is beneficial because the arrow exit point is lower on the other side, which leaves a good blood trail for tracking purposes. Obviously, the closer a deer is to you, the steeper the shot angle becomes and the higher you would have to aim. In general, try to have your arrow go through the center of the deer’s body, regardless of which height you are at. However, don’t take shots if a deer is almost underneath you. You will likely only hit one lung and it may take a long time for them to expire.
How to Bow Hunt: Preparing for the Shot
Now let’s imagine on how things might play out while bow hunting for whitetail deer.
Short Range and Stand Selection
The biggest obstacle in bow hunting for deer is that your maximum range is pretty short. Most people limit themselves to 30 or 40 yards. When you think about it, that’s not very far. The challenge then is getting a deer that close to you. The best way to do that is to position your hunting blind or tree stand near a well-used deer trail. Better yet, put it downwind of the intersection of two deer trails. You don’t want to be right on the trail, but about 20 yards away. If you’re well-camouflaged (see below) and downwind, you should be able to get some deer within shooting range.
Visualization and Staying Hidden
For many people (especially new hunters), getting any deer that close can produce a massive adrenaline rush and cause your body to shake. Being able to calm yourself down and master the mental game is a big part of archery hunting. While you’re sitting there, visualize yourself getting ready to shoot a deer, and actually picture the arrow flying true. It sounds pretty mystical and weird, but it does give you more confidence when the time comes – at least, it’s worked for me.
For the remaining undetected part, there are two critical things you need. Good camouflage clothing that blends into your surroundings will help you fade into the background. But more importantly, keep your movement to a minimum. Deer vision is literally made to pick up movement, and they will hit the brakes if you are shuffling around. If a deer looks your direction, don’t move a muscle until they calm down and start walking in a different direction. You can often fool a deer’s eyes this way.
Bow Hunting Tips
As for first time bow hunting tips, there are a few things that people forget about during the rush of their first hunt. First, if you’re in a tree stand, remember to always use a safety harness and pull rope for your bow and backpack. Keep your bow in an easy position so that you can grab it without much movement. I prefer it resting on my lap or hanging on my left side (I am right-eye dominant). Make sure you have an arrow already nocked too. It’s a good idea to have your quiver of arrows either attached to your bow or within easy reach if you need another arrow quickly.
Ideally, you should also generally know the distance to different objects around you. You can use a rangefinder or pace it off on the ground to mark a few landmarks so you know where your maximum range is. For example, remember that a deer that comes in near the bent-over tree is at your maximum shooting distance, and a deer stopped near the large boulder is about 20 yards away. In the heat of the moment, it’s nice to have a few distances pre-ranged so you can focus only on making the shot count.
How to Bow Hunt: Taking the Shot
As you notice a deer approaching you, immediately start the process of getting your hunting bow ready and clipping your release to the string or loop. Because you’ll usually have to move very slowly, you need to start right away. If possible, you should wait to draw your bow until the deer is behind something (such as a tree or some brush) or looking the opposite direction. Even then, try to draw your bow very slowly so you don’t make any noise.
Assessing the Situation
If the deer appears very nervous (e.g., stomping their feet, blowing, white tails raised, etc.), you may want to adjust your shot placement a little lower. Have you ever heard the hunting expression, “jumping the string”? Amazingly, deer are able to drop their bodies so fast that they can duck right under your arrow, thus causing you to miss. If you aim a little lower than normal (the bottom third of the deer), you will hit the heart if they stand still. But if they duck, you will likely still get a double lung shot instead of missing.
Aiming a Bow at a Deer
Part 2 of this series covers how to aim a compound bow, but there are other nuances when shooting at a real deer.
After drawing your bow, settle the pin sights behind the shoulder. Pick the most appropriate pin for the estimated distance. If the deer is moving, either wait for it to stop or give a gentle grunt or whistle with your mouth, which will usually stop them in their tracks. Allow the pins to gently drift around your aiming point and gently squeeze the release. Remember to hold your bow steady after the shot so you don’t affect the arrow flight. Keep your eyes on the deer and watch how they react.
I Missed…What Now?!
In the event you miss – and it will eventually happen – don’t kick yourself. In many cases, deer (especially younger deer) will stick around looking for whatever made the noise, allowing you the opportunity to make another shot. I shot right over the top of my first deer, but she quickly calmed down, maybe presuming it was a tree branch that fell. I slowly and quietly nocked another arrow, drew my bow, and ended up making a great follow-up shot. The point is that you shouldn’t immediately give up if you miss. They may offer another chance, and learning opportunities like that make you a better bow hunter.
How to Bow Hunt: After the Shot
Immediately after the shot, really pay attention to what the deer does. How did the shot feel? Could you see where the arrow hit? How did the deer react? All of those things will influence your next move. If you start blood trailing too soon, you could risk pushing the deer away and your chance of recovering it could shrink. Unless you see a deer drop within sight, just wait in your tree stand or blind at least 30 minutes. This is more than enough time for most deer to expire if it was a decent shot. Plus, it gives you time to settle down and collect yourself. Once you get down, quietly sneak over to where you shot the deer to inspect the arrow and look for blood.
If you’re just learning how to bow hunt, here are some of the common blood types you’ll see. These will help you determine where you hit the deer, and guide what you should do next.
GRAPHIC PICTURE BELOW
- A heart or double lung shot can make the deer jump into the air or drop its head, and they will usually drop within sight. If it’s a densely vegetated area, you might not see them fall. The blood will usually be bright red and frothy (air bubbles). If you felt good about the shot and see that bright frothy blood, you should be able to take up the blood trail right after your mandatory 30 minute wait.
- A liver shot will usually make a deer hunch it’s back and will produce a dark red blood trail. This is almost always a lethal shot too, but you should quietly sneak back to your tree stand or out of the woods and give them at least an hour or two to expire.
- A gut shot is something we all dread, but it does happen. Usually, deer will hunch up their backs and walk away, producing a foul-smelling, watery, reddish/green blood trail. Although this is also lethal in most cases, you should give them plenty of time to expire. Back out and let them sit the night if possible, or 8 to 12 hours. If you pursue them too soon, they will often use their adrenaline burst to put some miles between you. Often, they don’t leave much of a blood trail, which means it will die but you won’t be able to find it.
Bow Hunting Ethics
Everyone has their own code of ethics to live by, but I personally will never give up on a deer I’ve shot at until I have exhausted every possibility. I will keep tracking as long as I can find blood or tracks to follow. Even when I lose them, I start doing a grid search around that area.
I’ve shot deer through both lungs before that didn’t bleed a single drop for 75 yards. I’ve also shot deer that ran close to a mile, leaving only small drops every few feet. But I keep following tracks, upturned leaves, and broken branches until I find them. Deer are very strong animals, and can surprise you. You owe it to the animal to put in the time to track and recover it.
Ready to Start Bow Hunting?
Learning to hunt is often overwhelming, and learning to bow hunt is no different. The learning curve is pretty steep and it can be tough to get a deer within shooting range. But when you finally make a good shot on a deer, you’ll be hooked. Hunting with a bow is such a primal activity, and you can’t help but feel connected to the natural world. It’s so different from hunting with a firearm. Not that one is better than the other – just different.
Anyway, I hope this “Archery for Beginners” series has been helpful for you to learn how to bow hunt. If you have any questions or comments, reach out to me or leave a comment below.