Practical Advice on How to Maintain Your Composure When the Moment of Truth Comes
By Lon E. Lauber
The most severe pressure I’ve ever felt while bowhunting occurred in Africa when hunting on camera for a national TV show. Not only did I feel immense pressure having a professional videographer standing over my shoulder “filming” my every move, also realize on the Dark Continent, you must pay for every animal you kill and pay for every animal you wound. This strict rule is true even if they find a single drop of blood!
Imagine being at full draw with a $1,000 animal in your sights and a skilled cameraman documenting everything. This is the moment I call crunch time. By the way, on that hunt I made nine one-shot kills and only had one miss. That one missed shot was on a spot-and-stalk impala that, in spite of having no clue of my presences, ducked at the sound of the shot and my arrow just shaved hair off of his side. Now, here’s how I’ve learned to maintain my composure at crunch time.
Crunch time is the moment of truth when the culmination of the entire hunt is riding on a few moments. You have to make quick, confident and precise decisions. Furthermore, the mind must sufficiently control your body to perform the task at hand—slowly drawing a bow and shooting accurately. This may sound easy while reading this article, but any bowhunter who’s been close to big game knows how emotionally overwhelming crunch time can be.
EQUIPMENT READINESS: The first step to performing well at the moment of truth is to be super familiar with your archery tackle. Those archers who spend extensive time tuning, sighting in and then most importantly, shooting in all kinds of positions and in different weather conditions are the folks that have a better chance of making the shot.
MIMIC HUNTING SCENARIO PRESSURE: Understand there is nothing in the world like making the choice to take an animal’s life with a bow and arrow. However, there are a few things you can do to mimic a real-life bowhunting scenario.
Archery tournament pressure is not the same as coming to full draw at crunch time on a big game animal but it’s pretty similar. At least early on, enter as many archery tournaments as you can manage. Of course, aiming at animal targets at unmarked yardages is the closest to the real deal but shooting in spot-target tournaments will help you too.
Challenge yourself and your buddies to become better archers. Don’t just have a friendly competition while practicing, make it awesome if you when and sting if you lose. What I’m saying is make a bet with your buddy on one arrow at say, 80 yards. The person who loses doesn’t by just one beer—make it a case! Don’t bet for a burger. Make it a steak dinner! The more at risk, the more pressure.
ANIMAL TARGETS ARE BEST: Of course, using bull’s-eye targets to sight in is very wise to make sure your sight pins or sighting tape for a moveable-style sight is “spot on” is absolutely required. However, once you are dialed in, make sure most of your practice time is shooting at 3D animal targets or at least targets with a picture of an animal. I know it’s an old cliché, but picking a spot to aim at while shooting big game is still one of the most challenging things to do. I remember one summer when I was shooting grapefruit-sized groups or smaller out to 80 yards at spot targets. As soon as I switched to animal targets my groups opened up to basketball-sized groups. I had to really bare down for several days and pick a spot on those animal targets to get back to my more proficient groups. Please don’t just shoot at the front half of animal. I know from firsthand experience this doesn’t work. Focus on a tuft of hair, a muscle bulge, or an imaginary quarter. Remember, aim small, miss small!
WHEN TO SHOOT: Take one of my bowhunting faux pauxs as an example. While hunting cougar-skittish Columbian black-tailed deer in the remote wilderness of Northern California, my buddy and I located a few mature bucks. One was a stud buck whose antlers were big enough that any mule deer would’ve looked natural with these thick, tall tines. The next morning found me sneaking my way into bow range on three other dandy bucks. Super Stud wasn’t around—or so I thought.
Having an arrow nocked and ready while easing down on the unsuspecting threesome, I inadvertently jumped Mr. Big from his brushy bed. He scampered down between the giant evergreens and stopped in the wide open. Pine branches blocked my shooting lane so I carefully sidestepped three times. With the buck slightly quartering away, and looking back up at me, I drew slowly and then, unfortunately for me, cut a quick shot. The arrow harmlessly whizzed by the buck. He vanished with his life and huge velvet-adorned antlers intact.
Instantly, I knew my mistake. “You shot way too fast and punched the shot. That’s why you shot to the right. If he stood there long enough for me to side step three times and draw a bow, you had time to execute good form too!” In hindsight, it’s obvious the buck wasn’t overly alarmed. Taking a few extra seconds during the shot sequence to really concentrate certainly was in order.
I’m still chapped about missing that trophy buck. However, it re-solidified an important aspect of my crunch time philosophy: If an animal isn’t going to stand long enough to execute good shooting form, then I shouldn’t be shooting anyway.
I’ve beat myself up over this one plenty. But, critically analyzing each mistake and then moving on to the successes has helped me grow as a bowhunter.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY: Animal-like targets don’t move so we should be methodical in practice. However, when a real, live critter presents even the slightest opportunity, we often take the shot in haste. Perhaps you wait for the best scenario and then shoot too quickly as I did with that giant blacktail. That wastes a summer’s worth of practice. Learning when to draw and shoot during that window of opportunity is the key.
To unlock that window, it’s important to realize each species and for that matter, each individual animal has its own tolerance to human presence or movement. On a broad spectrum, whitetails are not very tolerant of movement. Those whitetails that stood around after picking up strange movement are dead. At the other end, moose are mostly wilderness creatures with little human predator experience. And they are the largest animals around. So, they are more likely to gawk before running. Learning your target animal’s survival tactics will help determine when to shoot.
The closer you are, the more likely an animal will spook from movement and sound. You have to determine an appropriate time and distance to shoot. Of course, if you can draw and shoot when the animal is totally unaware, this is ideal. Wait for them to feed, turn and look away, or their eyes become obstructed. Beware though, even with their head down, most herbivores have eyes on the sides of the head and can pick up movement almost behind them. If you can see any part of their eye, they can probably see you.
I was painfully reminded of this while hunting Dall sheep some years back. I had spent six days trying to get a shot. Each day resulted in an “almost”. Then one evening three rams fed over a steep, bench-like ridge. I circled up and around the mountain and made a blind stalk. I fully expected to see the sheep just over each ledge. Finally, I caught a glimpse; a rocky ledge obstructed the white ram’s vision. It was almost perfect, but due to the steepness, I had precarious footing. Since the ram was unaware, I eased forward to more secure footing. Once, the ram visually scanned for danger. I froze. He then continued feeding. My trophy ram was slightly quartering away at 25 yards. However, he bolted while I was drawing my bow.
Later, I realized, he’d sensed something wrong when scanning but continued feeding while watching out of the “corner of his eye”. Had I waited ten or fifteen seconds after he put his head back down, I probably would have been okay. Fortunately, two days later, I had another opportunity on a Dall ram. This time, I stalked and waited for the perfect time to draw. When his thick horns blocked his vision, I drew in slow motion, picked a spot and hit within an inch of my aiming spot at 35 yards while shooting off my knees during a sleet storm. The next day I was packing out a top-ranked Pope & Young ram. Once again, timing and minimal movement proved necessary to succeed.
KNOW WHEN NOT TO SHOOT: Like a card shark, a bowhunter must analyze his actions, but more importantly, read and predict the quarry’s next move. I’m convinced those people who are most familiar with wildlife behavior are more successful bowhunters. Of course, field experience is the best teacher—hands down. However, you can study photos. Determine what the animal was doing at the time of exposure. Better yet, watch nature documentaries, hunting shows, or go to a national park with lots of big game. The idea is to anticipate the creature’s next move. Ask, “When could I draw my bow without being detected?” For me, photographing wildlife has been a tremendous help. Even with a telephoto lens, camera range and bow range are similar. Furthermore, anticipating what a mammal will do next enables me to capture a variety of big game behavior on my digital camera. Knowing when not to draw and shoot is just as important as knowing when to shoot.
DISTRACTIONS: Sometimes you are more likely to get away with sound or movement than others. Animals are usually spookier on windy days. However, it’s harder for them to discern your sound or movement from that of wind-blown vegetation. Also, animals miss some details when moving. This is why retrievers are trained to sit until the bird is down before fetching. Dogs can visually locate a downed bird much more precisely when sitting still. They aren’t as effective if they take off when the bird is falling. In many bowhunting scenarios, I’ve been able to slowly rearrange and draw my bow when an animal is approaching. Still it’s best not to move unless you can’t see their eyes.
The most lenient time for movement is when rattling, calling and/or decoying. You have to consider the animal’s mindset when using these tactics. If a rutting buck hears antlers clacking together and he comes to investigate, his eyes are fully expecting to find two bucks sparring. Thus, some movement would be totally natural. Learning to draw a bow slowly pays off. With a snail-like motion, you can sometimes shoot before the buck determines the movement’s origin.
Another type of distraction to consider is sound. You must fully understand that sound travels at about 1,100 FPS and your arrow is likely to be traveling 3.5 to 4 times slower so the sound of the bow is going to reach the target animal a lot faster. Try releasing your arrow in synchronization with some distracting sound. Frequently, this will beat the string-jumping problem. These sounds could be rustling leaves caused by the wind or another animal approaching. Try shooting when the animal is eating or bugling for example. When hunting in suburbia, consider manmade sounds like cars, trains or even barking dogs to muffle your shot.
One more distraction is “invisible brush”. Small twigs and branches tend to disappear when concentrating on your quarry. Participating in 3-D shoots has helped me look for these shot spoilers. Now, out of habit, I automatically check for arrow deflecting twigs before I even think about drawing.
WHERE TO SHOOT: Determining when to shoot is a lifetime learning process. Where to shoot is simple. If you can’t make a razor-sharp broadhead penetrate the vitals, don’t shoot. A heart shot is great but too small of an organ to intentionally shoot for. Liver hits are lethal but may take longer for the animal to succumb. A double lung hit is best. They expire in mere seconds.
Remember, we frequently choose archery tackle to make success difficult. It’s okay not to kill every time an animal is in bow range. I like myself better when passing up marginal shots than taking iffy shots and spending all day blood trailing a poorly hit animal. I hope you do too. Let’s not kid anyone here, I don’t always make a perfect double lung hit. However, I never shoot an arrow without fully intending on hitting both lungs. Sometimes things do go wrong. Maybe I’ve misjudged distance and hit a little high or low. Perhaps the animal takes a step just as I release. Regardless, my intent is to always sever both lungs.
ANGLES: In my opinion, problems occur when bowhunters force a situation by taking angled shots of low percentage. There are many angles appropriate for a rifle shot but not for a bow. Even if you shoot like Levi Morgan it’s just not wise to take frontal or steep angled shots unless you are super close. With frontal shots, there are too many bones and too small of a window into the vitals. On front-quartering shots, an arrow risks hitting heavy shoulder bones and only one lung. Hitting one lung is usually lethal but the run time is much longer. This could reduce the chance of recovery. Steep, rear-quartering shots greatly increase the odds of an arrow deflecting off ribs. This puts the broadhead into the animal’s armpit and not vital tissue. Furthermore, an arrow shot from a steep rear-quartering angle may only catch one lung or lose momentum before reaching the vitals.
There are anatomical charts and models available for you to study. The National Bowhunter Education Foundation has the best ones I’ve seen. It’s your responsibility to know where a particular animal’s bone structure lies in comparison to their vitals. For most all broadside shots, shoot close to the shoulder crease and about one-third the way up from the brisket.
CALLING THE SHOT: Similar to billiards, I find it challenging and educational to call the shot. After shooting an animal and before recovery, predict where and what the arrow hit. In just a few minutes, upon recovery, you can perform a necropsy and see where the arrow entered, what tissue damage occurred and where the arrow exited. A few extra minutes here can provide valuable knowledge when recovering future animals. Over the years I’ve learned what we think we saw and what really happened are two entirely different scenarios. Calling the shot can help reduce this discrepancy.
CRUNCH TIME: Even if you properly choose when and where to shoot, you’re only half way to success. It’s easy to do everything correctly up to crunch time then mentally fall apart when shooting. Although I have 52 Pope & Young class animals to my credit, I still struggle, at times, when it comes to the moment of truth. The key is controlling emotions. If I ever reach a point when I no longer get excited when shooting at game, I’ll quit bowhunting. In the meantime, here’s what has helped and hindered me.
Early on, I shot at every legal big game animal that presented a good shot opportunity. By shooting small bucks, does and “non-trophy” animals, I gained valuable experience and bolstered confidence. Any newcomer holding out for a giant buck is initially lessening their chance of success. In my opinion, you have to connect many times before you can expect to maintain composure on a record-class animal.
Shooting confidence plays a large role in success too. If you think, “maybe I can make the shot”, you’re likely to fail. You must know “I will make the shot”. Dedicated practice and past success are all you have to rely on. Also, in practice, I draw and shoot every arrow in slow motion. That way, deliberate motion is second nature at crunch time. Furthermore, I mentally coach myself during the shot. “Wait, wait, okay, nice and slow, pick a spot, aim small and follow through,” is a typical litany for me.
Hoyt Pro Staff shooter and world-class bowhunter, Randy Ulmer, told me his litany at crunch time. He intentionally says, “Think, be smart, what should I do next?” Then when shooting, he constantly reminds himself, “Aim, aim, aim.” Regardless of what words you choose, have a mental coaching plan in mind long before Mr. Big walks out in front of you.
Here are some things that have hindered me from maintaining control at crunch time. One, if an animal knows I’m nearby I tend to panic more than when an animal is totally unaware. Two, on really skittish game like whitetails and turkeys, I have to really be patient with the shot selection so as not to blow the chance. Three, feeling pressed for time, like on a short hunt, I can get anxious. Four, after busting my ass for two weeks, I can get anxious too. Finally, big antlers have, at times, caused me to fall apart. For this, I concentrate on the animal’s eyes until drawing then I switch my focus to an aiming spot behind the shoulder without looking at those big antlers. When you do it right you can admire his headgear for the rest of your life.
Remember, no one makes the right choices all the time, especially me. So just do your best. Analyze the mistakes and learn from them but mostly concentrate on everything you did right to get the chance. Holding your composure at crunch time is truly a lifelong process.