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in: Hunting, Manly Skills, Outdoors

September 5, 2019

A Primer on Bowhunting

Editor’s note: This is a guest article from Eric Voris

If you have taken a glimpse into the world of hunting, you’ve noticed that there are still people out there heading into the wilderness in pursuit of an animal with a bow and arrow. Upon that discovery, you probably reacted in one of three ways: 1) total indifference, 2) “What year is it?!”, or 3) “That is amazing. How can I get in on this?”

If you’re in the first camp, perhaps this primer will at least give you a peek into the why of the whole matter. If you’re in the second, I will admit bowhunting seems extremely primitive given the superior weaponry we have at our disposal today, but there are actually several advantages that make this style of hunting appealing. (Plus, as we’ll discuss below, modern bows are to their older counterparts what surface-to-air missiles are to slingshots.) If you find yourself somewhere closer to camp number three, then hopefully this gives you all the information you need to get out there and fling an arrow at something.

But, before we dive into the how-to, it’s worth taking a brief look into that first “why” question. The answer includes three primary reasons:

3 Reasons to Hunt With a Bow

1. More Opportunities

Virtually anywhere in the country you want to hunt, you will find greater opportunities available to you during bow season. In states where you have to put your name into a lottery to draw a rifle license (most states in the West, for instance), there are often several opportunities that are still “over the counter” for bowhunters, meaning you can simply buy your tag without a lottery. That means while your buddies sit at home bemoaning the fact they didn’t draw a tag this year, you’ll be heading to the woods with your bow. Even for states with very generous license allocations for rifle hunters, bowhunters usually get to hunt the best times of year. The amazing few weeks when game animals hit the peak of their breeding season — and consequently are the most active and most likely to let their guard down since they’re, well, distracted — is when bowhunters are allowed to get out there and chase them down.

Why do bowhunters get such special treatment from the nation’s fish and game departments? It’s simply a matter of numbers. Statistically speaking, a bowhunter is significantly less likely to successfully harvest an animal than if he had a rifle in his hands. For the average person, an ethical shot with a bow requires him to be within 50-60 yards of the animal — a remarkably difficult task with a wild animal on high-alert. On the other hand, most hunters with a decent rifle and magnified scope are more than comfortable at 300+ yards. Roughly speaking, the average success rate for bowhunters nationwide hovers around 10%. Not to say that rifle hunting is easy (it’s not), but bowhunters get preferential treatment when it comes to licenses and seasons because they choose to accept lower odds of success.

2. The Feeling of Safety

While we’ll talk in a minute about the major upside to an intentionally more difficult hunt, one of the added benefits many bowhunters enjoy is increased safety in the field. From a purely statistical standpoint, hunting is a remarkably safe endeavor. The U.S. and Canada combined see about 1,000 shooting-related injuries from hunting each year, and only 10% of those prove fatal. That may sound like an awful lot, but bear in mind that recent data places annual hunter numbers at 11.5 million. Some basic math would then indicate that a person has a near-microscopic chance of sustaining a firearm-related injury while hunting. If you somehow find yourself in that percentile, you should also buy a lottery ticket.

All that aside, any hunter who has been in the field when “the orange army” descends into the woods on opening day of rifle season knows how unsafe it can feel when it seems like you’re surrounded on all sides by rifle blasts. If you happen to be in a very popular area or sharing a small plot of land with several other hunters, it is simply unsettling to be out there never fully sure of where everybody is, if they know where you are, and if you’re going to hear a bullet whizzing by your ear. Bowhunters don’t have to worry about that! Even an errant shot with an arrow will lose momentum and hit the ground within 100 yards in most cases. Also, the close-range nature of bowhunting means people are much more aware of their target and what is or could be around it simply because they’re closer to the action. When it comes to issues of safety, I fully believe that facts are more important than feelings, but I won’t deny that it definitely feels safer to be in the field during bow season.

That said, the primal act of hunting your own food in the wild is not something we embark on for the safety of it in the first place. There is a much deeper drive that fuels most bowhunters.

3. Greater Challenge = Greater Satisfaction

Hunting is hard, period. Whatever the weapon, whatever the animal, whatever the particular situation, there is nothing easy about successfully procuring your own meat. However, certain methods of hunting are inherently more difficult than others, and bowhunting definitely falls in that “more difficult” category. And yet, this is the very fact that drives us to keep trying during a hunt when you could have been successful 12 animals ago had you been rifle hunting. In any area of life, the most satisfying things are often the most challenging.

I have yet to meet a hunter who has harvested animals with both a rifle and a bow who didn’t say that the ones he got with a bow meant more to him. When you are forced to get that close to your prey, the experience is so much more intimate (for lack of a better word). This is not an antlered figure on the other end of a scope several hundred yards away — this is an animal you’ve been watching and sneaking in on for hours in many cases. You’ve been spitting distance from him waiting for him to take one more step or stand up and present a shot, knowing that at any second a shift in the wind or snap of a twig could destroy the entire opportunity. There is an intensity to bowhunting that is hard to match with other weapons.

None of that is to say that rifle hunting is not a noble pursuit, and anyone who harvests an animal by those means should find immense satisfaction because, as previously stated, hunting is hard. But, if after all of that you find yourself intrigued and wondering where to begin, below is what you need to know to get started. 

How to Get Started With Bowhunting

Selecting a Bow

If you walk into a sporting goods store or start poking around online, you will quickly discover that there is quite the variety of bows available. Most will look like something out of Mad Max: they’ll have wheels and strings and will in no way resemble what you probably picture when you think of a bow and arrow. You will, however, find a few options hanging around (and still used by a small percentage of hunters) that would be considered traditional bows or long bows.

Hunting with a traditional bow (no wheels or sights, just some curved wood and a string across the back) is still done and is perfectly legal, but it shortens the effective range considerably (most traditional bowhunters keep their shots within 20 yards). In short, it’s even harder than bowhunting with modern weaponry, and is often an endeavor someone gets into after they’ve become extremely effective hunting with a compound bow and begins looking for a new challenge.

For the purpose of the rest of this article, let’s assume you’re in the market for a compound bow (which is highly recommended for a new bowhunter). The advantages are numerous, but the main ones are:

  • increased effective range (usually 50+ yards)
  • more accurate
  • easier to hold in the drawn position (giving you time to wait for the perfect shot)
  • faster arrow speeds/greater kinetic energy (resulting in a quicker and more ethical kill)

If you’re overwhelmed at the prospect of making such a complicated purchase, check out Brett’s primer on the compound bow.

This is also where a local bow shop will prove invaluable. Much has been made of the benefits of “shopping local” and supporting the mom-and-pop shops still among us; if there is one place to always put that into practice, it’s in the archery world. A small and specialized archery shop will have better inventory, will know what they’re talking about, will have trained bow technicians who can make personalized adjustments, and will be a resource you can keep returning to for advice, instruction, or future adjustments on your bow if things just aren’t working right. They will also take the time to answer your questions and hear your needs, and will often let you shoot a few different bows to get a feel for what you do and do not like. A good bow shop is simply invaluable. Sure, online retailers or big box stores can often get you a great deal, but they will never match the personal service and quality of advice you can find in a bona fide archery shop.

Beginner Tactics

Okay, so you’ve purchased a bow, it’s been set up for you, and you’ve spent some time dialing it in and practicing like a madman. It’s opening day of archery season, you have a tag in your pocket, now what? Well, that will depend largely on what you’re hunting and where in the country you find yourself.

If you are chasing whitetail deer in the Midwest or the East, you will have a few considerations. Often, these animals are hunted on private land (farms or leased sections of undeveloped forest), and in many cases baiting is allowed. Much of the work of hunting in this style is done pre-season in keeping track of the deer on the land, stocking feeders, setting up blinds or tree stands, and fine-tuning your strategy of where to hunt given that day’s wind situation and where you’ve been seeing deer activity. Often you see these hunters sneaking into their stand pre-dawn or late afternoon, and waiting there all morning or evening hoping that perfect big buck walks by or comes into the feeder while they’re there.

If you don’t have access to private land, you are now looking for accessible public land, and you may be limited in how much you can do pre-season to direct the deer where you want them to be. At this point, your best bet is probably to find a well-used game-trail (the visible trails the animals use to move through the forest), and set up a blind or tree stand within shooting distance of it. In the dense woods of this terrain, creeping silently within bow range of a creature as jumpy as a whitetail is nearly impossible. It’s best to try and determine where they are likely to cross your path, and post up there waiting with your fingers crossed.

If, however, you live or plan to travel to the vast terrain of the American West, things will be a bit different. Let’s say you want to hunt elk with a bow in Colorado (which is a license you can purchase over the counter — no lottery/draw), you will probably be much more mobile throughout the hunt. Elk are a bit different in that they can often be called in (which can be highly effective, but takes years to master), but many hunters have success using what is called the “spot and stalk” method. You find a high vantage point overlooking a large basin or some mountains, spend hours behind a pair of binoculars visually picking apart every square inch of countryside, and upon spotting an elk you want to chase, you formulate a plan and attempt to stalk within bow range of said animal. Often, you can pick up their movement early in the morning, moving from the open meadows they’ve been feeding in to where they intend to lie down for the rest of the morning in some thicker woods. Most hunters watch them all the way into their beds, then plan the best approach to try and sneak up on them while they’re lying down and resting. Once in position, you wait for the animal to get up from his bed and present a shot. Similar tactics are used for deer, antelope, bear . . . virtually any big game out West.

Wherever you are hunting and whatever animal you are chasing, remember this: bowhunters live and die by the wind. With effective camouflage, you can fool an animal’s eyes. In many cases, you can even get away with some noise and fool their ears. But you will NEVER fool an animal’s nose. You can do absolutely everything else right stalking in on a deer, but if the wind blows the slightest bit of your predator scent in their direction, you will hear the woods erupt in a flurry of activity and see nothing but deer butts fleeing in the opposite direction. That is why every successful bowhunter compulsively uses a bottle of wind detector whenever they are formulating a plan or moving in on an animal. It’s a simple bottle of talcum powder; a quick squeeze sends a little puff into the air which will clearly show you which direction even the slightest breeze is moving. Always keep the animal upwind of you!

Shot Placement

One last key to effective bowhunting is where exactly on the animal to send that arrow. High-powered rifles use pure force to disrupt the nervous system. Yes, the official cause of the animal’s heart stopping may be any number of internal injuries, but it’s the 2,000-3,000 ft-lbs. of energy upon impact that knock it down in the first place. Arrows do not pack that same kind of punch, and so they kill by causing severe tissue damage. When hunting large game, all states require some sort of broadhead to be used at the arrow’s tip. Depending on the arrow style, these cut a hole usually 1-2” in diameter as they move through the animal. A perfectly placed shot will go through both lungs of the animal, and result in a very quick and humane death.

To accomplish this, wait for an opportunity when the animal is broadside to you (his side is facing you), then aim for the crease right behind his front shoulder, and place the arrow roughly mid-body on the vertical axis. For an even better chance at the quickest kill (if the situation allows for it) wait for his front leg (the one facing you) to step forward — this will expose even more of his vital organs, dispatching the animal quickly and humanely.

Get Going!

There are a thousand other things to learn and figure out along the way, but with the information you now possess, you could be hunting this upcoming fall if you really set your mind to it. Find a bow shop close to you, get yourself set up with the basics, and practice, practice, practice; then buy your tag and head out to the field. You’ll quickly discover why so many hunters have left superior firepower at home for the incredible experience bowhunting offers.

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Eric Voris is a husband, father, and passionate outdoorsman. He firmly believes that hunting is one of the healthiest things a man can do for his soul, and runs a website called Late to the Game Outdoors which is designed to help guys become better men through hunting and the outdoors. You can find more resources to help you get outdoors on his website, on Instagram, and on his YouTube Channel.