Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, and just because your grandpappy didn’t show you the ropes doesn’t mean you can’t start bowhunting. If you follow these steps, you can be hitting bullseyes in a few days, and preparing to hunt in a few weeks. Just remember, bowhunting is a huge responsibility; done right it’s an efficient way to take game animals, but done wrong—without adequate practicing or study of the art of bowhunting—it can be disastrous. So it’s your duty as a soon-to-be bowhunter to start out right. Here’s how to go about the entire process.
Of course you’ll need a bow, but that doesn’t mean you need the most expensive one on the market. It does, however, mean you’ll need one that fits you. No matter how tempting it is to buy a used bow from Craigslist if the price is right, do not buy any bow that doesn’t fit you perfectly. With that said, you first need to know about bow fit so that you can properly test bows before buy one.
The best thing you can do is to visit your local archery shop. Be honest with them if you haven’t shot more than a few times back in boy’s camp. Most pros at archery shops love helping beginners, provided you come willing to listen and learn. Know, though, that they also want to sell you a bow, so communicate that you want to get measured and shop around. If they deliver good service, then strongly consider buying from them; that’s how the whole thing goes ‘round.
First, they’ll measure your draw length, then they’ll have you pull a few bows to find your draw weight. Don’t try to be macho; go with a bow that you can pull back without giving yourself a hernia, but also keep in mind that you’ll quickly build up your muscles as you start practicing, so going with a bow that is not “maxed out” for you is best. That way, you’ll be able to increase the poundage a little as you get stronger and your technique improves. Bows typically come in 10-pound increments with the number listed being its maximum. For example, a “60-pound” bow requires 60 pounds of draw force to pull it back, but it can often be adjusted down to 50. In order to hunt ethically, bowhunters need a draw weight of at least 40 pounds.
Also, know that drawing a bow requires specific technique; if you initially have trouble drawing bows that other people your size can easily draw—and it frequently happens with beginners—skip down to the “Fundamentals of Archery” section and start there.
Try a few bows and see what fits and feels best, but it’s likely that all of them will feel good. Just don’t feel obligated to buy one until you go to another shop and try some of their brands.
After purchasing a bow, the bow shop will try to sell you accessories for it. There are a few that you must have, several that are optional and some that you don’t need. For the musts; you’ll need arrows, field points, an arrow rest, a mechanical release aid, a bow sight, a peep sight and a quiver. Optional accessories include a stabilizer, a case and a target. You probably don’t need a wrist sling or additional sound-absorbing devices.
Arrows: Your archery pro will advise you of the correct spine weight (stiffness) arrows for your draw weight and length. An arrow must flex as it begins its flight, but it shouldn’t over-flex. Easton Archery offers a sizing chart on its website. I suggest carbon-fiber arrows, such as those from Carbon Express, Easton, Bloodsport, Gold Tip and plenty of others. Don’t think you must have the very best and straightest; all modern arrows from reputable companies are as straight as the average bowhunter needs them to be. Next, ask you dealer to set you up with three-inch vanes (collectively called fletching) rather than smaller target vanes that are very popular right now; they’ll help your broadheads fly truer when you get to that stage.
Arrow Rest: Drop away-style rests are all the rage right now, but personally I like full-capture/Whisker-Biscuit-style rests for their simplicity and durability, and they’re plenty accurate.
Release Aid: Target style (back-tension) release aids are popular and have their place, but for learning to bowhunt, go with a caliber-style wrist strap release. For more on how to find a release aid that works for you, click here.
Bow Sight: There are many styles of bow sights, and a good sight is important, but you don’t have to pay $300 for a top-of-the-line target sight. I would recommend buying a five-pin hunting-style sight with “micro-adjustments.” While sights without click-style micro-adjustment knobs are less expensive and will do just fine for bowhunting, the micro-adjustments will be worth it on down the road for the time they save when zeroing your sight.
Your dealer will install all of these things as well as a peep sight--it’s like the rear sight of a gun, and necessary for accuracy. Go with a ¼-inch hunting peep sight and not a tiny target peep. Finally, choose a quiver that will keep your arrows protected and handy. Learn to shoot with your quiver on an off of your bow.
Fundamentals of Archery
Shooting a bow expertly requires years of practice and repetition, but most people with even an average level of athletic ability can shoot a bow reasonably well after a few trips to the range. If your bow is set up properly for you at the bow shop, you might even begin hitting the bullseye after a few shots. But there are a few critical things you should know before you ever pick up a bow.
First, bows should never be dry-fired (or drawn and released) without an arrow “nocked” on the string. Doing so can—and often will—damage or destroy the bow. After your bow is set up to fit you perfectly, work on the following fundamentals.
Stance: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, facing 90-degrees to the target so that the shoulder of the arm with which you grip the bow points to it.
Grip: Use the web of your hand to support the bow, not your palm or fingers, and grip the bow loosely. While at full draw, wiggle your fingers so you know they are relaxed. Some shooters choose to let them dangle, while others very gently place them on the grip. Let the rearward force of the draw weight hold the bow to your hand rather than squeezing the grip. The point is to relax your hand and wrist so it cannot induce “bow torque” and twist the bow as the string is released, doing so will ruin accuracy. Your goal is to have as little contact with the actual bow as possible, but just enough to hold it up and steady it for aiming.
The Draw: Push your grip hand (called your bow arm) toward the target, but do not fully lock your elbow; you want some bend. Then, with your release hand, pull the string back across your chest—not into it. Your release hand elbow should point back and up toward the sky as you draw. Try to use your back muscles to help draw the bow, not just your shoulder.
Anchor Point: Come to a solid and consistent place on your face—most people choose the corner of the mouth or the point of the jaw—that feels natural so that you can duplicate that spot each and every time the bow is drawn. This is the place from which you’ll release the arrow each and every shot, so it must be comfortable and familiar. A consistent anchor point is vital for accuracy.
Aim: Try to keep both eyes open as you place the ring of your bow sight into the ring formed by your peep sight, then focus on the sight pin as you see the target in the distance, albeit slightly blurry. Try to pick an exact, tiny point of aim, rather than the whole target. On a bullseye, for example, aim at the very center of it. On an animal, focus on a tiny target such as a hair or ruffled piece of fur rather than more general aiming points like simply “behind the shoulder.” Just before the shot, think to yourself: Pick a spot, squeeze, follow through.
The Release: Just like a rifle’s trigger, the release of a bow should come as a mini-surprise to help the body avoid anticipating the shot and flinching. Take a deep breath, let a quarter of it out, then slowly squeeze the trigger while holding the sight on your target until the string is released.
Follow-Through: Proper follow-through in archery means doing nothing at all for a second after the shot. Keep the bow just as it was when you were aiming, and do not drop the bow until the arrow strikes the target.
Before you go bowhunting, there are a few accessories you’ll need.
Broadheads: There are too many broadheads available to discuss here, but consider using a 125-grain broadhead (100-grain heads are more popular, but often inferior for hunting) that is razor sharp; do not skimp by choosing cheap broadheads. After all, when you lose an arrow, everything rides on your aim and your broadhead. Research what is best for you based on the game you intend to hunt.
Arm Guard: If you plan to hunt in cold weather, buy an arm guard. It will keep your jacket or bulky clothing from getting in the way of the bowstring’s path—something that will cause you to miss your target.
Treestand/Safety Harness: If you plan to hunt from a tree, you’ll need a treestand and a safety harness. You’ll also need a pull-up rope to pull your bow into the treestand after you climb to it.
While not mandatory, you should also consider purchasing a laser rangefinder. They make judging the range to your target easy and precise, thereby increasing your chance of delivering a perfect shot.
For ethical hunting, you should be able to hit a pie plate at 30 yards four out of five times—preferably five out of five. If you can’t, practice more until you can. Never shoot farther than the maximum distance at which you have practiced and are confident of hitting where you aim.
Practice How You'll Hunt
Before actually going hunting, perform a dress rehearsal by using everything you plan to hunt with, including your jacket, safety harness, hat, facemask (if you choose to wear one), gloves, etc. You’ll likely find that your jacket’s collar makes shooting feel different, or your gloves affect the way your release aid fits. Even small things like that can affect accuracy. The time to figure out all of this stuff is before the hunt, not during it.
Next, sacrifice one of your broadheads and practice with it. This is very important, even if you choose mechanical broadheads that are touted to fly the same as field points—often they will not. If they impact your target differently, you must adjust your sights for your broadheads before you go hunting. Finally, practice shooting from various field positions, including kneeling and from your treestand at awkward angles. A 3D animal target is beneficial, though expensive.
Study Animal Anatomy: You’ll need to know precisely where an animal’s heart and lungs are located so you’ll know where to aim, and don’t think in two dimensions. For example, if a deer is broadside to you, the best place to aim is just behind the shoulder, ⅓ of the way up its body. But if you’re in a treestand and the animal is facing away from you, simply “behind the shoulder” is no longer the best place to aim. You should aim slightly higher and slightly further back. Try to think in three dimensions to envision where your arrow will need to enter the animal in order to hit the heart or lungs that are suspended within the animal’s chest. Beginners are advised against taking full frontal shots or any shots at extreme angles. Wait for the animal to present a fully broadside or slightly quartering away broadside shot. Doing so will greatly up the odds of delivering a clean shot that kills the animal in seconds.
Animal Recovery: If you shoot an animal, take a deep breath while the adrenaline fades to gather your wits. Remember to watch and listen to the animal as it reacts, moves and behaves after the shot. Mentally mark where the animal was standing when it was shot. Take a picture on your cell phone if you must. Then mark the last place you saw the animal when it ran off. Listen and remember where the last sound you heard came from. Try to remember where your arrow struck the animal in your mind’s eye, then think back and remember the animal’s behavior after the shot. Did it kick its back feet high in the air? If so, it was probably heart shot. Did it clamp its tail tight? Did it scramble low to the ground? Did it bound off with its tail in the air as if it was unscathed? All of these reactions can be clues that you’ll use for recovery.
Make yourself wait 30 minutes until you do anything. After 30 minutes, climb down and go straight to the spot where the animal was last standing, and look for blood and for your arrow. If you find either, examine it; if the blood is pink and bubbly, the animal is heart/lung shot, and you can then follow the blood trail and go get your bounty. If the blood is bright red or crimson, it may be muscle hit, but it could be a liver shot or any number of things. Begin tracking the animal, but knock an arrow and be prepared to shoot again. If the blood has pieces of food and debris in it and smells foul, the animal is likely gut shot. Back out quietly, wait 4-6 hours, and go back in. Hopefully this will allow the animal time to die without being spooked and running further away. Don’t just look for blood, also look for tracks or broken limbs, freshly bent grass or anything else that is an obvious sign of the animal’s path after being shot. Follow and track the animal until all hope of finding it is exhausted. It is your duty to exert maximum effort to find any animal that you shoot.
If you followed all my advice, practiced diligently, waited for the perfect shot and then deftly delivered an arrow into the animal’s vitals, you will be rewarded with perhaps the best trophy in all of hunting, as well as the finest, healthiest meat available. At this point, you can congratulate yourself, for you are now a bonafide bowhunter!
Looking for more bowhunting tips? Check out the following articles:
• Know-How: Find the Perfect Release
• Must-Have Archery Accessories
• Know-How: Does Your Bow Fit?
• 10 Do’s and Don’ts for Better Bow Practice
• Know-How: Shoot Faster
• Bowhunting: How to Deal With Wind
• Know-How: Be a Deadly Shot
• 10 Bow Shooting Tips
• Is Your Bow Hunt-Ready?
• Bowhunting: Know Your Arrow’s Flight Path
• 6 Bow-Tuning Tips
• How to Set the Perfect Bow Stand
• How to Avoid the Target Archer’s Trap