Bowhunters pursuing whitetails face different challenges than those who hunt open country game out west and in parts of Canada. Ideally, the bow you select should take these challenges into account. First you have to understand the hunting conditions. To understand the true nature of shots at whitetails, I recently conducted a survey of a dozen serious deer hunters. The goal was to learn the distances at which they are actually killing their bucks. After tallying up more than 100 bucks and looking at the statistics, I found out what I had already guessed: the average shot was right around 20 yards - 19.5 yards to be exact. The total spread of successful shots ran from 2 yards out to 52 yards, with the bulk being close to the middle.
When hunting in open settings, it is common to face long shots. The bow you carry will help you to make the most of this situation.
Shots over 25 yards and under 15 yards made up roughly 40% of the total. The other 60% of the shots ranged between 15 and 25 yards.
The perfect whitetail bow doesn’t have to be a long-range bomber.
In western settings and Canadian big game hunting situations, shot distances will tend to run longer than those faced by whitetail hunters. As a result, a faster bow can improve accuracy by reducing the affects of misjudged distance.
We already know the other challenges that whitetail hunters face: quick shots at potentially moving game, awkward shooting angles, small shooting lanes and the need for maximum penetration to produce an exit hole on downward shots. When you consider all these factors and combine them with that fact that standard shots are less than 25 yards, you come to a certain set of conclusions about the best bows for whitetail hunting.
Next, I need to spell out the typical western hunt. I have been on plenty of them and my shooting distance has certainly been longer on mule deer, elk and antelope than on whitetails. As a result, range estimation errors can and do become more influential in the outcome of the hunt. Arrow speed becomes an issue. Also, because most western hunts take place with your feet on the ground, it is less likely that you will have to fight through heavy tissue to get to the vitals of the game you hunt. Penetration is still important, especially on elk, but in many cases, it is not the most important factor contributing to whether you make a clean kill – range estimation and a fast arrow are a much bigger deal. So when you compare the western hunter’s challenges to those of a eastern whitetail hunter, you can see a big difference. There bows should reflect this difference.
Who practices shots like this? Not many bowhunters. For that reason, you need a forgiving bow when hunting from a tree stand because you will face awkward shots all the time.
Regardless of shot distance, one thing is constant with deer: the aiming point and the downward shot angle. The aiming point is a pocket bordered tightly on one side by shoulder and leg and above by heavy muscle, ribs and cartilage. One doesn’t have to miss the sweet spot by more than a few inches to be into heavy tissue - a situation where penetration becomes critical. Further, the need for an exit hole is obvious to improve blood trailing and to produce the maximum internal damage for a quick kill.
To me it makes sense for a whitetail hunter to shoot the heaviest draw weight he or she can handle. I hear many experts say that the biggest mistake bowhunters make when buying a new bow is getting one with a draw weight that’s too heavy. As a result, bowhunters often seek a bow that is too far within their limits – in my opinion. You probably have your own thoughts on this, but I will always shoot the heaviest bow I can handle.
Don’t tell the bowhunter who strikes a deer in the front leg that heavier isn’t better. In determining maximum comfortable draw weight, draw and hold the bow back for at least a minute without shaking. If you can’t, the draw weight is too high. You can also draw the bow while sitting on a chair without raising the bow way over their head to gain leverage. If they can’t, the draw weight is again too high.
Draw weight is important. As a general rule of thumb, shoot the heaviest weight you can handle accurately. Of course, the way define “handle accurately” is important.
When hunting western game, I see no real difference. Because the typical western hunt is more active than a tree stand hunt, the bowhunter is probably looser and his muscles are warmed up. He should be able to handle a heavier draw weight easier. Again, shooting the maximum draw weight that he can handle accurately makes a lot of sense. He can turn draw weight into arrow speed, whereas the whitetail hunter tries to turn it into penetration by selecting a heavier arrow.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT BRACE HEIGHT
Potential energy is simply force multiplied by distance. Increasing the distance (reducing the brace height), increases the energy stored. So a lower brace height results in more energy being stored in the bow. On release, this extra energy goes into the arrow to increase its kinetic energy.
Super low brace heights are awesome when the bow is attached to a shooting machine. Unfortunately, we aren’t machines. A low brace height has a downside. The longer the arrow is attached to the string during its forward travel, the greater is its opportunity to be influenced by poor shooting form. The most forgiving possible bow is the one that loses all contact with the arrow as quickly as possible.
When you consider that most shots at whitetails will not be longer than 25 yards, the range estimation error forgiveness that comes from raw speed is not the most important factor in the shot. However, many shots will be taken at somewhat awkward angles from a tree stand (at least they will be different angles from those practiced in the backyard for most of the summer). A reasonably forgiving bow is more beneficial than a super fast bow under these conditions.
I already presented a strong case for generating maximum penetration so we don’t want a bow that is too wimpy either. The best compromise in brace height for most whitetail deer hunters is one that is 6 1/2 to 7 inches.
However, today’s bows are easier to shoot accurately at low brace heights than those we shot only five years ago. This is due to improvements in cam alignment (they don’t lean) and vertical nock travel. The bows simply produce better arrow flight so they don’t need to be as forgiving. Also, with parallel limbs and string suppressors, low braced bows don’t feel nearly as harsh during the shot. The western hunter can take advantage of these design improvements to push the envelope on bow design and select bows with brace heights under 7 inches in order to gain more speed.
So, if you are a veteran hunter, the current class of bows with 6 to 6 1/2 inch brace heights are definitely realistic. Those who don’t practice often, however, should stick with bows having brace heights of 7 inches, or more.
One bow company executive told me candidly that his research showed the market wanted a short, light bow with high letoff. No surprise there. (I hope he didn’t pay too much for the research.) The marketing manager himself didn’t agree that such a bow was best for accuracy, but he is offering a full line of short bows anyway. Hey, give the public what it wants, right?
The stability of a bow is related to its size and its weight distribution. Long, heavy bows are more stable and more accurate than short, light bows. It is physics, not opinion. But lets get back to the shooting challenges at hand.
Typically, whitetail hunters need to be ready for quick shots and awkward angles much more than they need to be ready for long shots. Worrying about an inch or two of axle-to-axle length when it comes to stability is counterproductive. Whitetail hunters will do just fine with short micro-bows. Personally, I don’t like them, but from a practical standpoint, they will bring home tons of venison this year.
Western hunters who have to carry bows long distances each day appreciate the lighter weight of these pocket bows and thus they have also become very popular with the foot hunting set – and rightly so. Short, light bows may not be for everyone, but if you find that you can shoot them well – and you probably can – they are more maneuverable in a tree and lighter to carry across the ground.
Downward shot angles require maximum penetration to produce an exit hole, especially if you hit heavy tissue such as the back of the leg muscle or the bone, cartilage and muscle along both sides of a big buck’s backbone.
CHOOSING A CAM SYSTEM
For the same reason that a moderately heavy draw weight is advantageous in producing maximum penetration, it makes sense to pack as much energy into the draw cycle as possible without affecting accuracy. Some archers simply can’t relax while aiming after drawing an aggressive cam. Others find it difficult to aim comfortably when the bow’s letoff valley is short. Accuracy has to come first; both of these individuals should avoid an aggressive cam.
However, when you find a bow that has a reasonable valley, an aggressive cam makes a lot of sense. I would rather shoot a fast cam with an ample valley and solid back wall than a much softer one with a spongy back wall – even if they are the same speed. In other words, the actual feel of the draw is much less important to me than the feel of the valley.
Even slight changes in the distance you draw a bow can have a significant affect on where the arrow hits at 20 and 30 yards and beyond. Not all bows are forgiving of inconsistent draw length. Having a solid back wall makes it a lot easier to hit the same anchor point and the same draw length on every shot regardless of comfort.
So I personally want a fast, reasonably smooth (no need for silky smooth) cam. If it draws a bit hard right off the get-go, so what. The extra energy this draw cycle imparts to the arrow is worth the work.
There is no advantage that I can see between single-cam or hybrid cam bows. With the advent of stretch-resistant synthetics and custom string shops that know how to make great strings and harnesses, the stretch issue and the timing issue is pretty well a thing of the past.
Many archers feel that high letoff bows are actually more accurate and more enjoyable to shoot than lower letoff models. The archers feel they can hold the string back with less strain while aiming. I agree. I love high letoff bows even though lower letoff bows are faster (all else being equal) I still want high letoff. I shoot them more accurately, and I think most everyone else does too.
One of the most important intangible of any bow you purchase is the grip. Make sure your hand is very comfortable in the grip because you will never be able to relax as fully as needed to shoot well if you are uncomfortable.
I listed the grip last but it is a very important consideration when stocking the ultimate bow for any kind of bowhunting. How the grip feels will ultimately determine the sale. Everything else can be perfect but if the grip feels like (you know what) I’m not buying the bow. There are too many out there with the right specs and a great grip to be stuck with one that feels bad.
I once tried to tune a bow with a grip that I really didn’t like. It never tuned for me. Conversely, the grip is one of the main reasons that some bowhunters can shoot the bows from one company better than those from any other manufacturer. They have simply gotten used to that particular grip style.
Since we are talking about grips, we should also consider the material it is made out of. Spongy, soft and tacky grips will make it harder to achieve a torque-free shot, but many bowhunters still prefer them because they feel “warmer” on a cold stand. I can’t argue that fact, but they are definitely less accurate.
Anything that can catch your hand and cause the skin or glove material to stretch during the draw will make the bow twist during the release as this tension is relieved. This is why I like slick grips and wear jersey gloves even when I practice. The grip material is a tradeoff. I personally prefer “cold” grips that my gloved hand can slide into without catching. I know when I hit full draw I haven’t introduced any torque to the grip that will haunt me when the release clicks open.
Those are my thoughts on the qualities that make up the ideal hunting bow. There are literally dozens of great bows on the market. If you start your search by first considering the demands of your hunting situation, you will quickly sort through them until you have found the perfect one for you.
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