More than any other hunting method, bowhunting pits you directly against your prey. Bowhunting is a thrilling way to hunt, requiring you to get in close range to take a shot. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with learning the basic archery skills, honing them to a fine edge, and harvesting an animal.
If you are just starting out with bowhunting, it’s understandable to be intimidated by all the terminology and gear involved in the sport. In fact, the mission of Advanced Hunter is to provide easy to follow and actionable hunting tips for beginners and experienced hunters alike. This guide aims to teach you all the basic skills a new bow hunter will need.
Bowhunting is the fastest growing of all the shooting and hunting sports. The trend is especially positive among women and youth. Ask most bowhunters why they pick up the “stick and string” to hunt and the most common answer is “the challenge”. Bowhunting is a close-in sport. It requires plenty of practice and understanding the animal you hunt; that’s part of the challenge.
Eli Screven told Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine that it’s all about getting as basic as possible. He said it has an instinctual aspect to it. Successful hunters are attuned to nature and our primitive “caveman” ancestors, he said. When you are sitting in a stand and you see your own reflection in the animal’s eye, that’s a rush that no hunter can get when staring at an animal 200 yards away through the scope of a .30-06.
All bows in their most basic form are just a spring, string, and a projectile. The spring is the bow itself; the limbs with a hand grip or stock. The string is how the spring transfers energy to the projectile, which is the arrow or bolt. Bows can be further classified into four types.
Traditional – A traditional bow is a straight length of wood. The only time it curves is when the string is attached. It can be a single piece of wood or laminate. There is a whole subculture of traditional bowhunting, and bow making. Here’s a primer on making a traditional bow from a single piece of wood. The traditional bow can be compact at only a few feet long, or a longbow taller than the archer. Some “traditional” bows today are made from composite materials with Fiberglas being part of the mix.
Recurve – The recurve bow is the evolution of the longbow, and goes back more than 2500 years. A recurve bow has curves at each end. These bows are a few feet long and very rarely reach the length of a longbow. The recurve stores and delivers more power than a longbow of the same draw length. Draw length is how far back you pull the string.
Crossbow – The crossbow is at least as old as the recurve, and is the easiest of all bows to shoot. It’s basically a small bow mounted to a gun stock. It even has a trigger that holds the string in place, so once cocked; you are not drawing on anything. A crossbow can have straight, recurve, or compound limbs. Crossbows are now legal for big game in every US state except Oregon, however the regulations vary widely across the states. Check your local regulations here.
Compound – The compound bow is actually the newcomer to bowhunting, not the crossbow. The modern compound was invented in 1966 by Holless Wilbur Allen, Jr. In place of limb tips, the compound has wheels on each of the bow limbs. These wheels turn and once past a certain point “break” to release pressure, referred to the back wall. In this way, an archer with a 70-pound compound at full draw may only be holding 20 pounds instead of the full 70. In a recurve or traditional bow, at full draw the archer is holding 70 pounds.
To make reading this guide easier, when we say “bow” we mean any type of those four bows, unless specifically noted.
Learning to Bowhunt
Your starter bow depends on what you want to hunt, where and why (already covered) you want to hunt. Bowhunting expands your hunting season in some states and gives you access to more land. Some states, such as Georgia, have archery-only seasons, extended archery seasons, and archery-only hunts on public land. It’s important to know you states archery regulations before going out.
What to Hunt – Every game animal on the planet has been taken with a bow, including elephant, lion, Cape Buffalo and Kodiak bear. However, if you intend to hunt dangerous game with a bow, your guide is going to want proof you know what you are doing. He’s also going to back you up with a large-bore firearm. Beginning bow hunters should learn while hunting deer, turkey, and small game.
Where to Hunt – Check the hunting regulations for where you will be hunting. That will tell you what bows are legal and which are not. The regulations will also tell you if you can even hunt with a bow.
Practice – Practice is essential for success as well as safety. Chuck Adams is one of the best bow hunters in the world, and he has said the average bow hunter needs three months of daily practice to be ready to hunt elk. Elk, wild mountain goats and mountain sheep are the most elusive animals to hunt with a bow. If you can take an elk with a bow, you can be considered to have mastered bowhunting.
Picking a Bow – When it’s time for picking a bow, pick one you can shoot.
The easiest is the crossbow. The hardest is the traditional bow. The recurve is just about as hard and the compound less so because of the let-off created by the wheels. Part of choosing a bow has to include the hunting regulations where you will be hunting. If you can’t legally use a crossbow to hunt, get a compound, recurve or longbow. The learning curve is longest on the traditional bow without sights and shortest for a crossbow with a telescopic sight. Learn to shoot a longbow with no sights and you’ll quickly master recurves and compounds with and without sights.
Find someone who knows about bows and bowhunting to help you select the right bow. You have to get one that matches your draw length. Draw length is how far you naturally cock your arms as if you are holding an arrow in place. A good bow shop can match you to a bow and then match arrows to that bow. Getting the right setup to start with is going to make practice and hunting far more enjoyable. This is why getting a real bow shop to help is important.
Before you hunt you need to sling some arrows down range. With the right backstops, you can do this in your backyard.
Bowhunting begins with the stance. Bowhunting 360 says your stance has to be the same shot to shot. The website suggests putting tape on the floor. Position your feet on the tape. Each time you shoot, put your feet in the same place. You use your whole body to aim the arrow. So if your stance changes from shot to shot, then your aim has to change too. Once you get a specific stance down, then get a chair and learn to shoot sitting down, as if you are in a stand.
Pull the arrow smoothly. If you “sky draw,” that is point the arrow up high as you pull the string, the bow is too powerful for you. If it can be adjusted down, do so. Ideally, you draw the arrow keep the target fully in sight and the arrow aimed at target center the entire time. In hunting situations, some archers will begin their draw as they raise the bow. Practice this. Never “dry fire” your bow. Either have an arrow on the string when you release it or let the string back to rest while holding it.
Aiming is integral to your stance. You are triangulating when you aim. You have your line of sight which is completely straight. Then you have the arrow trajectory, a curve, to target impact. Then, you have the distance between your eye and the arrow on the bow. The key part of aiming is the anchor point. This has to be consistent. John Dudley takes about anchor points in this video.
Releasing the arrow is done with bare fingers, fingers in an archery glove or finger tab or with a mechanical release. The mechanical release is the easiest to use and has the shortest learning curve. Try a few and pick the one which best fits your grip and stance.
Get out there and shoot. Then shoot more. Keep shooting. Start close, maybe 10 yards. When you can group the arrows tightly, back up 10 yards and shoot more. Work your way out to 60 yards. You may never shoot at 60 yards, but if you can hold a tight group that far, shooting something closer is going to be even easier. You need to practice from an elevated stand to simulate hunting from a tree. Shoot from a chair to simulate a ground blind.
Bowhunting ranges from just you, a bow and arrows sitting under a tree to a composite compound with laser sights and carbon arrows perched in a scent-killing blind. You can spend as much as you want to or get into this sport for less than $200.
Here’s a list of equipment for a beginner, assuming you have a correctly fitted bow and the proper arrows, hunting clothes, a stand, knife and binoculars.
- An arrow rest. A great rest for beginners is the Whisker Biscuit. Nothing else holds an arrow so securely. After you have some experience you can move to a drop-away rest.
- A sight. Sights range from a single pin mounted above the arrow to a peep ring in the string and a series of high-visibility pins mounted over the arrow to a laser sight. When sighting in your bow “chase the arrow.” Adjust the sight to where the arrow hit. If you hit left and low, adjust down and left.
- Arrow heads. Get field points for practice. Get broadheads for hunting. Until you become familiar with and comfortable shooting fixed-blade broadheads. Save the mechanicals, broadheads that expand on impact, for later.
- A target. Hay bales are one of the most common targets. They can be large and heavy and have to stay outdoors. If you plan to hunt, the best target is a 3-D life size target. You learn where to put the arrow and you can position the target for angled shots.
- An arm guard. Not everyone needs an armguard. But if that string ever slaps your bare arm, you’ll wish you had one.
Preparing for a Hunt
When you decide what to hunt, it’s time to find a place. Start looking for the target animals before the hunting season opens. If you want to hunt turkey, get in the woods in the early morning and early evening. Listen and look for roosting birds. When you find birds in an area, you know where to go to start hunting. Field and Stream has the “10 Most Important Deer Scouting Skills” article. Every outdoors magazine or website is going to have scouting articles for whatever you want to hunt, including fish.
Trail cameras are excellent tools. They can help you pattern all kinds of animals.
Pick your stand based on the animals’ habits. For big and medium game, find where they bed. Find their food source. Put your stand between the two. If you can find a game trail even better. Don’t set up right on the trail. Back off a bit, 10-20 yards is good if you can keep a clear shooting lane.
Know the lay of the land. Bowhunting medium and big game means you will be tracking the animal. A bowshot animal is going to generally head to bedding areas of thick brush. The most important thing to do when tracking big game is to wait and to know how to follow a blood trail, says James D. Moore in an article at Bowhunter. The guide says “deer” but the advice is solid for any big game animal.
All your work boils down to this. Get out there and hunt.
When you get your first animal, it’s going to be a major adrenalin rush. The urge to rush out and find the kill, especially if it is a big game animal, has to be restrained. As Moore says, rushing to find the animal may cause it to flush and run even further. Give it time to lay down and die. Get someone to help track if you can. Having a partner also means you don’t have to haul the animal out of the woods by yourself. Small game folds up on the spot or drops within sight. Sit and relive the hunt while you wait.
Field dress the carcass in the woods if you can. This lightens the load; the guts weigh a lot. It also cools the carcass and prevents meat contamination from the viscera. Pack some rubber gloves to protect yourself. Don’t worry about dumping the guts in the woods. Other animals will take care of that.
Process the meat as soon as you can or get it to a processing shop.