By Steve FloresJune 1, 2012

LAST UPDATED: May 8th, 2015

Pre-season practice in the backyard is a favored pastime for many archers. Launching arrow after arrow in preparation of opening day, not only strengthens shooting muscles and refines form, it also builds confidence. Indeed it is a good starting point. However, if your goal is to become deadly accurate while attempting shots at big-game, or, if you are simply looking for a little more fun with the “stick and string” before the season arrives, it’s time to break away from your usual routine and discover the countless benefits found only at the local 3-D course. Get ready to elevate your game.

The Problem
Indeed, there is no crime involved with taking aim at a life like 3-D target, or hay bale for that matter, while in the comfort of your own backyard. If that is your primary style of practice, then by all means, go for it. However, do so knowing there are limitations regarding just how far this type of “pre-season” shot-prep can take you. Beneath the surface of traditional practice routines lie inherent problems that could cost you that trophy you’ve worked so hard for. Comparing shots taken in the “backyard” to shots taken in the field is like comparing George Strait to Metallica. Other than making music, they have little in common with one another. Likewise, smashing the 12 ring on the lawn is one thing. Placing an arrow through the lungs of an unsuspecting buck wondering somewhere downrange…. is another. The mere act of shooting the bow is where the similarities end.

Although this type of practice is good for strengthening muscles and building confidence, it does little to prepare you for the vast assortment of shooting scenarios you are likely to face in the field.

Also, I think it’s safe to assume that the distance to the “backyard” target is well known, long before we ever step outside the front door. Once exact ranges are established, it’s easy to fall into the habit of taking shots exclusively from these same locations. What I mean, is that we know exactly where the 10, 20, and 30 yard marks are located, and rarely do we step outside these known variables during practice; it’s food for our ego. I will admit it’s comforting to hear the clashing of arrows during this type of pre-season practice. However, it is a misleading comfort. In the real world, the distance to game is not usually laid out in such a predictable manner.

Shots in the field happen fast. Even with the aid of a laser rangefinder, it’s rare that we know the exact distance to our quarry before hauling back the bowstring. No more boosting our ego here. Wary game animals such as whitetail deer, pronghorn, and big mulie bucks, usually don’t hang around long enough for modern technology to lend us a hand. Even when “pre-ranging” certain land marks, there are no guarantees that our trophy will pause next to any of them; or even give us adequate time in order to take a second reading–provided they show up at all. Unlike the lawn practice from a few months prior, the “real world” variables are now endless, and unknown. The ability to precisely judge distance is vital if we are to improve our accuracy in the field. I hate to say it, but rarely can we hone these skills if we never leave the security of the back lawn.

They may be great at stopping arrows and helping you sight in your pins, but targets such as these will not condition you for the certain change in scenery when you finally draw down on a live game animal. Prepare your “mind’s eye” for the real thing by practicing on a realistic target.

An additional downfall associated with traditional practice, is that no matter how vivid the imagination, it’s difficult to picture our 3-D target in its natural environment as it stands conveniently on a fresh cut lawn; especially if that target is a mind-numbing block of foam. Imagine the shock to the nervous system, if after months of staring through the peep sight at a dull square mass, you’re suddenly resting your pin on the chest of a trophy bull elk. Wet noodles come to mind.
Now you might be thinking, “yeah, but I practice with a 3-d target, so what’s the big deal”? Maybe you’re right. But again, the distance has almost certainly been established, and the target is more than likely set up in an environment that bears no resemblance to what you can expect to face in the field. There’s also a good chance there are no hidden limbs or foliage to shoot around, the terrain is probably flat, and the target is standing in a broadside position. The odds are even better that you have several arrows in which to launch downrange before retrieving them for the next round, and you’re probably shooting alone with no type of pressure to contend with. Realistic, you say? Not even close.

The Solution
Now that we understand the problems associated with “back lawn” shooting, it’s time to find a better way to prepare for the upcoming season. The absolute best way to accomplish this goal is by practicing on a 3-D course. There you will find targets of all shapes and sizes, ranging from bull elk to javelina; all of which stand in varying positions, at unknown distances, across ever changing terrain. Realistic, you ask? Absolutely! Remember, the goal is to find a better way to practice, one that will mimic the situations we are prone to encounter in the field. Therefore, forget about chasing trophies or posting high scores. Instead, focus on the abundant “bowhunting” benefits acquired by practicing in such a realistic environment.

3-D Gear
Visit any 3-D course and you are likely to see bow rig’s that are outfitted with accessories ranging from common, to never seen before. While these gadgets may lend a hand in raising your overall score, they are meaningless unless you plan to use them while hunting. Despite what others may be using, don’t be intimidated or feel as though you are not properly equipped to participate. Your current bowhunting setup is more than adequate to get the job done.

No special equipment is needed in order to enjoy a day on the 3-D course. In fact, you will get the most out of your time spent there by using your current hunting bow setup. Use the rig you plan to hunt with.

What to Expect
It’s true, we can never really emulate an actual hunting experience during practice, but a 3-D course is about as close as you can get. Why? Because the course will demand that you consider shot placement, body angle, and distance…… on every target, on every shot. Toss in a couple of your closest friends, or better yet, complete strangers, and the pressure to perform begins to intensify. Learning to shoot accurately while in a stressful environment is a key factor in becoming a better bowhunter. It’s much tougher than shooting in the backyard, but it will make you an efficient killing machine.
One of the greatest benefits derived from 3-D practice is improved range estimation skills. Let’s face it; a miscalculation in yardage is usually the culprit when trying to close the deal on live game. Sure, there are other variables at work, but if you are unable to accurately judge the distance to that feeding buck or that “once in a life time” mountain goat, how can you logically expect to drive a broadhead through their vitals. Shooting form, release, and follow through may be impeccable, but if you misjudge the range, all other factors are irrelevant.
Also, consider that no two shots in the field are ever the same. Today, you are in your treestand, facing a 23 yard uphill attempt at a rut crazed whitetail, that pauses just long enough for you to release the string. Tomorrow, you are on your knees, attempting to slip a prayer through a volleyball sized hole and into the chest of a big mulie buck, quartering away at 42 paces. Unless you have rehearsed this scenario during practice, your odds of pulling off a successful shot are…..well, you can imagine the likely outcome. The 3-D course will put you in real world situations, and condition you to act accordingly; long before you encounter the actual thing.

Size Matters
As you learn to judge distance on the 3-D range, you will quickly discover that the overall “size” of the animal can play tricks on your mind’s eye. For example, a small target, such as the javelina, will cause you to think the distance is greater than it actually is, while a much larger caribou will have the opposite effect. Even if you never get the opportunity to hunt such animals, it doesn’t matter. The incentive lies in what they can teach you about accurately judging the gap between you and your prey.

The size of the target plays a major role when attempting to accurately judge distance. Smaller targets tend to appear further away than they actually are, while larger targets have the opposite effect; appearing closer to the shooter. Even the amount of shadows cast over a target can complicate your ability to measure true distance.

Alternative Measures
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want to be on the course practicing at least 8 days a week. I enjoy it that much. Of course in the real world, that isn’t always possible. Other options do exist however; you just have to get a little creative with what you’ve got. If you do not have access to a 3-D course, or, if you’re like me and simply don’t have the time or the money to hit the range like a man possessed, you can still achieve a quality practice session using a 3-D target at home. If a foam block is all you have, don’t fret. Simply cover it with a quality big-game target face to add the touch of realism you’re searching for.
If your primary method of hunting is done from the ground, whether in a blind or spot and stalk, you should strive to replicate the conditions you will face once opening day has arrived. It makes no sense to practice in an upright position all summer, only to sit crouched in a ground blind come November. Set up that blind and take your shots from inside. The view will be unfamiliar, as will your shooting positions. Take the time to acquaint yourself with these differences before the season begins. Shooting while seated, or on your knees, requires the use of different muscles than those utilized while standing flat footed.

Specialized, or “situational” practice will better enable you to deliver a lethal arrow when the moment of truth arrives…..for real.

The same principles apply to the spot and stalk hunter. As opposed to simply setting up a target at a known range and firing away, try stalking that 3-D target. Your neighbors may laugh when they spy you belly crawling across the front lawn, but who cares. You will be the one smiling when your broadhead lands exactly where it should at the moment of truth. Better yet, if you happen to live near a small woodlot, you may want to consider moving your target into that area for the ultimate in “realistic atmosphere“. What’s more, don’t wait until you have set yourself up with the stereotypical broadside shot before drawing back your bow; rarely does that situation mirror the real McCoy. Instead, take your shots at various quartering away angles, over uneven terrain, on bended knees, from behind the wife’s shrubs; standing in the stream that borders your property……you get the idea.

If you want to be successful in the field, you can’t afford to simply draw back and shoot with little thought of the situation at hand. The 3-d course will condition you to consider, and ultimately, shoot through various distractions (limbs, foliage, abrupt changes in terrain, watchful eyes of bystanders) in order to make a clean kill. The lessons learned are invaluable.

Treestand Hunters
For years, my father practiced strictly from the ground in preparation for whitetail season; and he was very accurate. The only problem was he hunted exclusively from a treestand. His success rate in those days was nil. He could never figure out why he kept striking out on live game. For the longest time he attributed his lack of success to “buck fever”. That may have been a small part of the problem, but in reality, it was his practice routine, not his nerves, that was the real culprit. It wasn’t until he began to practice solely from a treestand that he found success. Today, instead of filling his quiver with additional arrows, he consistently fills his freezer with tasty venison. Remember, we are looking for realism.
Elevated bow shots present a multitude of challenges for even the most experienced archers. Don’t set yourself up for failure by waiting until that trophy is under your feet before attempting such a shot. If you hunt primarily from a treestand, practice from elevated angles long before the season arrives. It will make a world of difference in your success rate. More importantly, your chosen quarry deserves nothing less than your absolute best effort.

If you want to get the most out of your “lawn sessions”, break away from your normal routine and push the envelope. Try your best to imitate the exact field conditions you will likely face when opening day arrives.

The purpose of this article is not to label your current practice routine as “ineffective”, but rather expose the pitfalls commonly associated with “ordinary” pre-season shot preparation. Certainly you can spend your days shooting at a target in the back yard and “maybe” get the job done. I know a few archers that do just that. However, if you’re looking for a way to raise the bar and become more proficient at driving an arrow into the sweet spot of your next trophy, it’s time to get out of the backyard. Journey to where the targets are many and the lessons are endless…….. the 3-D course. You’ll be glad you did.

Steve Flores
Steve Flores is a passionate hunter who enjoys chasing mountain whitetails in his native southern WV. Steve credits his love of hunting to his Dad who took the time to introduce him to what has become a life-long obsession....bowhunting for whitetail deer.
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