Show me a bowhunter that says they have never made a mistake and I will show you a liar. From top to bottom, bowhunting is filled with opportunities for us to fall short of our goals. Whether we get anxious and push too quickly on a stalk or fail to pay attention to the wind; sometimes we just plain mess up. That's OK, though, because with every mess up comes a lesson, and with every lesson comes an opportunity for us to get better. The ball is entirely in our court; whether we decide to pay attention to that is up to us. This is a game of inches many times and if things aren't properly lined up, tag soup might be waiting for you back at camp. I like soup, but prefer venison stew.
Before I ever even shot a bow, my dad was teaching me how to stalk and still hunt through the mountains. I would beg him to take me out while on camping trips and, most of the time, he did. My training as a bowhunter began before I even realized it. He taught me how to move slow, where to step, and how to step in order to sneak up on deer. He got us so close at times that I actually feared the deer running into us. After these nature walks, I remember how sore my leg muscles were from moving as slowly and controlled as possible. Going through those motions as a kid not only gave me some very fond memories, but taught me patience.
Most folks I see move way too fast, whether stalking or still hunting. This is only natural for us because that is the pace of the civilized world we live in. We are used to convenience and things happening quickly for us. Something that needs to click with us as bowhunters is that a deer—or any animal for that matter—doesn't have anywhere to be. They don't have to be at a their mom's house at 3 p.m. to pick up their child. They have all the time in the world. The principle can be applied to the forest in general. Everything moves slower out there and it is up to us to move with it, not ahead of it.
A great way to make yourself slow down is to remove your boots on stalks. I don't do this all of the time, but when I do, slowing down is the only option. I'll keep an extra thick pair of wool socks in my pack for this very purpose; they help cushion my steps a bit when I throw them on over the socks I am already wearing.
Ah, yes! The dreaded wind! This can both be your best friend as well as your worst enemy. You can do everything right on a stalk or setup, but if the wind is bad, all is lost. For that reason, it is super important that you pay attention to it. Even though I say that, I can recall many times where I failed to pay attention. A theory I have is as you grow more desperate, your likeliness of considering the wind might tend to shrink in order to try and make something happen.
I've had quite a few instances where I have three-quarters of a stalk under my belt and then the wind decides to shift. I tell myself, "I've already made it this far. I just need to move up to that bush and I will get a shot." You can probably guess what happened after that. I'll put it to you this way; my quiver was still full. While it might not be what you want to hear or do, backing out and either changing your stalking path or waiting for a better opportunity might be in your best interest. No, you won't get the shot you were hoping for at that moment, but you are putting the odds in your favor of getting another opportunity later.
This is a big one and one that I think many hunters overlook. It is really easy to pick up your bow and fling a few arrows in your backyard at 10 to 20 yards. For some reason, though, a lot of folks don't do it. They think they have the 20 yard mastered and there is no reason to keep proving this to themselves. I was like that, too, at a time. I'd pick my bow up a month before the season and start shooting. I missed a lot because of this on actual hunts. The key here isn't the distance you are shooting. It's building muscle memory. If you have never actually been at full draw on a live animal, you might find this hard to believe, but it is a completely different experience than doing so in your yard. Your adrenaline is through the roof and you suddenly forget how to do things. Building muscle memory for this exact moment is critical so you don't have to think as much about a shot. Even if you are only shooting one arrow a day for practice, you are helping yourself. Don't get complacent with your shooting at 20 yards. You will start to develop bad habits and once bad habits are developed, it is very hard to realize they are even there. Treat that measly 20 yards exactly as you would 60 and execute a great shot. You will be happy you did when your hunt rolls around.
As bowhunters, we have the privilege and added challenge of getting close to our quarry in order to have shot opportunities. Nothing makes my heart race like the feeling of an unwary animal at spitting distance. These are moments that I cherish and tell tales about on brisk nights around a crackling fire. The closer we get, the more the intensity grows, as does our love for those moments. There is such thing as too close though. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it's the truth. As we cut the distance, we are also cutting our room for error in terms of movement and noise. In order to shoot our bows, we have to move and, when we shoot our bows, there is a noise. There is no way of getting around that. By staying back a bit—say around the 30 to 40-yard mark if you can—we are increasing our room for error and the likeliness of shooting at an unaware animal versus a possibly on edge one. An unaware animal is more likely to give you more time to aim and shoot as well. I would way rather shoot at an animal that has no idea I am there than one that does. Then there is the intensity that comes with the close quarters that we talked about. As I expressed, I love this intensity, but it comes at a price and that price is keeping a level head, which brings me to my next topic.
This is way easier said than done and something that drives me actually. I never want my heart to stop pounding or the excitement of bowhunting to go away, but in order to make good shots and decisions, we need to try and maintain a level head while in the woods. I think this all comes back to slowing down. Things can get frantic in a hurry, but I think that is where a lot of mistakes are made. Sometimes, we just need to pause and take in a situation. In these awesome moments, a lot of us simply aren't thinking straight and I am no doubt one of them. That makes me think of a recent bear hunt I was on this past August. I had a beautiful black bear at 18 yards, straight below me working a bluff. When it came time to draw my bow and go through my shot sequence, it was as if my memory was wiped clean. I completely forgot to level my bubble before aiming at the steep angle and straight missed this bear twice! I think back on that and ask myself, "What in the world were you thinking?" I didn't keep a level head for fear of the unaware bear walking out of my life and, as a result, didn't keep a level bubble and missed left on both shots. In the end, that was an amazing experience and one that I no doubt learned from. The shadow walkers win again, as they should.
By choosing to hunt with a bow, we are choosing to stack the odds against us and be challenged. Because of that, there is never a time when I am not trying to learn on my hunts. Something my father has always told me is, "Don't ever think you have it all sewn up." That rings in my head often during bow season and humbles me alongside the critters I chase. It reminds me that there is always room for improvement—no matter the activity. So I say, keep your eyes and ears open. You never know when that next "ah ha" moment is going to present itself or the hidden doe that you failed to spot is going to blow your whole operation. Time in the field is our greatest teacher; let’s strive to be great students. Eventually, you will get that A+ you've been working towards.