By Darron McDougal
The handsome pronghorn buck disappeared behind a hay bale as I readied my bow and shifted into shooting position from within my ground blind. He soon reappeared from behind the bale as my brother, Brad McDougal, simultaneously zapped rangefinder readings. The buck was 50 yards and broadside – a shot I’d made hundreds of times during my summer practice.
I drew my bow, floated my pin on the white-and-tan intersection, and took the shot. Everything felt great, but my arrow flew harmlessly over the buck’s back. I scratched my head in disbelief without even the slightest idea of what caused the miss. Still, I shook the dust off and kept hunting.
Two days later, another nice buck walked within 40 yards of our blind. As before, I drew and shot with confidence since I’d aced this shot repeatedly during the summer. Again, my arrow sailed over the buck. I never got another opportunity, and I left South Dakota with an unfilled antelope tag.
I pulled out my bow to practice once I was back home in Wisconsin. My first shot at 20 yards hit about 15 inches above the bull’s-eye. No wonder I missed two antelope; my bow was obviously out of whack! If I’d practiced during my hunt, I would’ve identified the problem well before it robbed my hard-earned shot opportunities.
All of this happened 12 seasons ago, and at the time it hurt. After all, I went from hero to zero twice in a row within a matter of days. Today, I thank God for the lessons learned. Those two misses helped me realize summer practice must carry on throughout the entire fall in order to avoid painful outcomes.
As we arrive at the much-anticipated whitetail rut, I’m reflecting on the fact that we wait all year for one magical week in the deer woods. Who wants to wait all year just to blow the shot when an opportunity finally unfolds? Not me.
You and I can capitalize at crunch time by staying in tip-top shooting shape all season long. Here’s how:
Maintain Muscle Memory and Equipment Familiarity
Average bowhunters don’t realize repetition’s value to consistent shooting. In fact, I know many bowhunters who sight-in their bow during summer, but never shoot it the rest of the year besides at deer. Often, they make marginal shots.
Repetition helps archers stay on top of their game in two specific ways. First, it creates muscle memory, which helps shooters maintain consistent form – a key element to making shots from awkward positions while dressed in heavy clothing. Secondly, repetition builds equipment familiarity. Operating your bow literally becomes second nature the more you shoot, which substantially boosts confidence.
However, repetition alone doesn’t fix everything. Form and mechanics are equally as important. In other words, shoot five arrows daily with proper form and mechanics rather than 50 arrows sloppily.
Identify Equipment Hitches
Bowhunters who don’t shoot during season are far less likely to identify equipment problems before it’s too late. In contrast, handling and shooting your bow rig daily helps to ensure everything is working properly before heading afield.
Here are a few common equipment hitches to look for: bumped sight, frayed bowstrings and/or cables, broken drop-away cords, limb cracks or splinters, peeled fletching, broken arrow nocks, loose screws or bolts, release-aid malfunctions and more.
I carry a small target in my pickup so I can shoot each day during a hunt. When a big buck is on the line, the last thing I want to do is question my equipment. Find and fix problems before they cause a miss or marginal shot.
Check Arrows and Broadheads for Accuracy
I never leave broadhead flight to chance. I shoot each arrow/broadhead combination at a target before I shoot it at game. I do this several times throughout the season to make sure I’m deadly. I often find variances in flight – yes, even with expandable broadheads – from one arrow to the next. Most of this is due to straightness and broadhead-to-insert alignment. And though I build my arrows for consistency, perfection is impossible. I shoot only my truest-flying arrows at game.
I fought the effects of mental and physical burnout during a recent elk hunt. I’d hunted 16 days straight, rising early to hunt the mornings, then returning to camp for lunch before hunting the afternoons. I walked anywhere from 5 to 10 miles each morning through rigorous terrain, then sat a treestand overlooking a wallow during the afternoons. I’m not a daytime napper, and after more than two weeks of continuous hunting, I was worn.
I began doubting I could close the deal if I was presented with a shot opportunity. Mental and physical exhaustion had whittled away my confidence. And on day 17, I blew a chip shot on a beautiful bull. I’m still kicking myself for not taking some time to rejuvenate.
Mental burnout dwindles confidence, and physical burnout causes sloppy performance. Combined, the two make it nearly impossible to be deadly. Recognize when you’ve reached your mental and physical limits, then take a day or two off. Rest rebuilds confidence so you can perform when it counts.
The rut is finally here! Stay in tip-top shooting shape all season long so you’re prepared when the moment arrives.