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.
In This Guide
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. Bowhunting is the fastest growing of all the shooting and hunting sports. The trend is especially positive among women and youth, perhaps because it’s an accessible way to hunt, and has a longer season than those who only use a gun. There is often a season both before and after firearms season.
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.
Finally, bowhunting is actually good for your health. Drawing a bowstring, even on a compound bow, works muscles all over your upper body. The practice required to aim a bow effectively increases hand/eye coordination while teaching you to focus on your target. And practicing for just half an hour burns about 140 calories while increasing strength and flexibility.
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.
- Longbow– A traditional longbow 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 longbow 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. Usually made from wood, newer models often incorporate fiberglass and carbon materials for greater durability and strength. Unlike a compound bow, traditional bows require the shooter to pull back and hold the full draw weight, or pounds required to draw the bowstring, and hold it while taking aim. This requires practice and time to build up the muscles of the arms and shoulders. Beginners should start with a lighter bow and work up to heavier draw weights. Although not as powerful as compounds or crossbows, many hunters appreciate the simplicity and heritage of a recurve bow, as well as the fact that they’re quite deadly with practice.
- Crossbow – The use of crossbows has exploded over the last decade. They are currently legal to hunt with in every state but Oregon. 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. They are much easier to use than other types of bows, and thus require less practice to be proficient, which is a boon to people with little time to spend on the range. A few hours with a crossbow can enable a hunter to shoot as accurately as someone who has spent weeks or months practicing with traditional or compound bows. They pack incredible power, with draw weights typically in the 150 to 200 pound range, and can shoot their small bolts at up to 380 feet per second. Crossbows are a welcome alternative for those who can’t use other types of bows due to injury or physical limitations.
- 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 cams on each of the bow limbs. The cams turn and once past a certain point “break” to release pressure, referred to as 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. Their design allows for the shooter to draw and hold the string at only a fraction of its total draw weight, and they have more power, which means they’ll shoot an arrow at a flatter trajectory, giving better accuracy at longer distances. There is a bit of a learning curve when learning to shoot one, especially when transitioning from a traditional bow.
To make reading this guide easier, when we say “bow” we mean any type of those four bows, unless specifically noted.
Bow Set Up For Beginners
If you buy your bow from a archery shop, they’ll probably set it up for you. If you get it from another source that probably will not be the case, and your best bet is to take it to a shop to get it done. Experienced bow hunters can easily do it themselves. It is just a matter of setting the draw length for yourself and attaching and adjusting the sights and accessories. A couple of good tutorials can be found here and here.
Learning To Shoot a Bow: The Fundamentals
There are four things you need to develop and practice when learning to shoot a bow, and some things to keep in mind when you are practicing for bowhunting.
- Stance – A proper shooting stance is critical to accurate shooting. Stand with your body sideways to the target, feet about shoulder-width apart and perpendicular to the target, with your weight evenly distributed between them. Stand erect with your back and legs straight, shoulders squared, and resist the urge to lean over when you draw. Your head should be the only thing facing the target, and the only thing that moves is your arms.
- Nocking – Arrows have three feathers, called fletching, on one end just above the nock, or the split piece that fits the string. One vane has a different color than the rest. When placing the arrow on the bow, the odd-colored one should be facing toward you. The nock will fit on the string at a designated spot marked by beads fitted to the string, and the front part of the arrow will lie on the rest on your bow.
- Aiming – The most important part of aiming is maintaining your stance as described above. With the proper draw, you will be looking directly down the arrow, and aligning it with the spot you are trying to hit. With practice, this will become instinctive.
- Drawing – Place your first three fingers on the string, with the forefinger just above the nock and the other two just below. When drawing, the arm holding the bow should be almost straight, with the arm bones supporting the weight of the draw rather than the muscles. The elbow of the draw arm should be kept high, at the level of the arrow at full draw. Pull back until your hand is anchored at a spot along your jaw and cheek just below the eyes so that you can see straight down the arrow at the target. Wherever you anchor your draw hand, just be sure it’s consistent every time you shoot.
- Release – One you’re at full draw, your hand is at the proper anchor point, and you think you have a good aim at your target, slowly relax the muscles of your string fingers until the arrow is loose. A good mechanical release aide makes this simple.
Target practice – When first starting out you might just use a regular archery target or maybe just plink at old milk jugs. However, when practicing for bowhunting you will need to vary your practice techniques.
First, start well before the hunting season. It can take up to three months of practice to acquire acceptable skills. Make holding at full draw for as long as you can a part of your routine, to build up the muscle strength necessary to hold while waiting for a good shot in the field. Invest in some 3D targets. They give you a realistic representation of the vital area you will be shooting at.
Practice shooting from your stand, because it is a lot different shooting from a height than on the ground. Do it in the same clothing and gear you will actually be wearing in the field. Practice in dusk conditions as well as daylight, and both long and short shots. It is a good idea spending some practice time using the same broadheads you plan to use in the field.
Essential Bowhunting Gear
Buying gear is half the fun of hunting, but you don’t need all the latest and greatest gadgets to be successful. Here is a list of essential bowhunting gear that is enough to get you started.
- Bow Sight – Some hunters prefer to aim at a target just using their arrow and instincts, but most use a bow sight. These range from simple fixed pins mounted to your bow and set for different ranges, to sophisticated models that even have a rangefinder built in. Simpler is probably best for the beginner, and certainly cheaper.
- Bow Release – A release takes the place of your fingers to hold the string on the draw. They use a hook-like mechanism to hold the bowstring during the draw, and a finger-triggered release. They are useful because they provide a consistent arrow release and thus arrow stability and accuracy. There are a few different kinds on the market today, but the wrist strap with a trigger is popular because it is easy to use.
- Bow Stabilizer – A stabilizer screws into the stock of the bow. It is usually 5-8 inches long, with weights on the end. The stabilizer does two things for hunters. Most obviously, it helps stabilize a hunters aim. Second, bow stabilizers have rubber dampening materials that help silence your bow on the release.
- Arrow Rest – The rest is the part of the bow that supports the arrow during the draw and release. At one time, this was simply a padded shelf built into the bow, or perhaps a small plastic arm to hold the shaft. However, like everything else, technology has created many sophisticated choices for the archer. Choose one that best fits the way you shoot, your equipment, and your style of hunting. Some are better for bow hunters, like the Whisker Biscuit, and others for target shooters. Do your homework when choosing one.
- Carbon Arrows – Obviously, along with a bow, arrows are essential equipment for the bowhunter. At one time arrows were made exclusively of wood. Then along came aluminum arrows, a big leap in performance potential, then carbon and fiberglass. Each have their strength and weakness, and best uses. Choosing the right arrows for the bow you use as far as weight, length, and balance, is very important for accuracy.
- Field Points – These are what you will use for target practice, and some types can be used for hunting small game like rabbits and squirrels, and even bowfishing. They screw into your arrow, and can be matched to the same weight as the broadheads you will be using for hunting for practice purposes.
- Broadheads – You will hunt with these deadly projectiles. They are arrowheads with razor blades attached as if wings, intended to do maximum internal damage to an animal. There are two basic types, and both have their pros and cons. Whichever type you choose, you’ll have to consider things like weight, broadhead diameter, number of blades, and blade angle and decide which you think will be most effective. Broadheads can be tuned and sharpened for maximum take down power/
- Archery Targets – A mentioned above, traditional archery targets are great for routine practice, but you’ll want to invest in some 3D targets too to realistically simulate whatever animal you’ll be hunting, be it deer, bear, turkey, or elk.
- Hunting Clothing – There are so many choices in hunting clothing these days, incorporating space-age materials and technology, that it’s really hard to go wrong. As a bowhunter you’ll want to wear clothes that are light and allow free movement, and that won’t interfere with your draw or cause much noise when you move, yet are still capable of keeping you warm, dry, and comfortable. 3D camo is an excellent way to conceal your outline when bowhunting.
- Tree Stands – There are many types of tree stands available to the bowhunter today, and the kind you choose is a matter of personal preference and the location and situation you are hunting. Choose one that you will be comfortable sitting in for long periods, that you can get into and out of quietly, and that allows enough movement to set up your shots.
- Binoculars – These are not essential, but a good pair of binoculars can be a great help to the bowhunter. Although there’s no consensus about the best kind to use, buy the best quality pair you can afford.
- Rangefinder – A good bowhunting rangefinder helps archers determine length of shot. Sitting high in a tree stand can alter the perception of range. A rangefinder is a device that returns the distance to the animal with a single click.
- Field Knife – If you are a gearhead, if not yet you will be, knives will be at the top of your list. You will probably own several. Remember that a good field knife for hunting is not the huge Bowie type. Stick with a blade of about 4”, preferably a drop point, with a handle that is comfortable in the hand and gives you a good grip.
Preparing For the Hunt
Getting ready for your first bow hunt begins long before the season in the form of getting your gear set up, practicing for proficiency, scouting, and learning about bow hunting. Then there are the last minute preparations before you head out. Here is a look at the main elements of hunt preparation.
- Scouting – Finding the places where the game are moving, feeding, and sleeping, and where the best spots to set up stands are, is a crucial part of preseason preparation. A knowledge of the land your hunting is important, and making use of topographical maps and Google Earth will be a great help in learning the terrain. If you can use them, trail cameras can be set up on different parts of the property to give you an idea when and where the game are moving.
- Gear prep – Besides having your bow set up and ready to go, you need to have your other gear organized the night before the hunt too. It really helps to make a checklist of everything you need, and then decide how you are going to pack it. Things you will be using frequently like your flashlight, binoculars, range finder, calls, etc. should be within easy reach in a pocket or at the top of your pack, where you can get them out quietly. Controlling your human scent is important, some methods you can use just before the hunt.
- Setting up your stand – If you can, it is great if you can set up your stand(s) a few weeks before the season and leave them there so the deer get used to them, but you run the risk of having them stolen. Figuring out where to put them is why you scout preseason, making use of natural funnels in the topography and taking into account prevailing wind directions. You will want to place your stand about 15-20 feet high in the tree, on the opposite side of where you expect to see the game so you can use the tree for cover, and preferably about 20 yards from trails.
- Bagging Your First Kill – Your first time out bowhunting, you are going to be nervous and excited when you spot the game. You might even experience ‘buck fever’, which makes you a bit weak, trembling when you draw, and aim on your prey. It is normal, and experience is the only cure. Once you take a kill shot, you’ll probably have to track it, following the blood trail and other signs, and then field dress it to take out the internal organs. Then, for the culmination of this entire bowhunting journey, you will want to take your prize to a local meat processor to have it made into steaks, chops, hamburger, and sausage, or if you would like, you can do it yourself. Then just enjoy some good eating!
Bowhunting is a lifelong learning process, an enjoyable and rewarding one. I hope that this guide was useful in getting you started in the right direction to bowhunting success!