Practice makes perfect. This saying could not be a better fit for archery hunters.  When getting ready to enter the field bow in hand, it is imperative that you have gone through the proper off-season practice to ensure you are ready for the hunt.  Being a successful archery hunter is no easy task.

As I prepare for archery hunting season, I’ll shoot more practice arrows in a month than I’ll shoot bullets in two years of practicing with my big game rifle.  Mastery of archery requires constant repetition and focus so that the process of shooting becomes involuntary something that you do without even thinking about it.

Finely Tuned Gear
First, my gear must be honed. When getting my gear in order, I rely heavily on the expertise of my favorite archery pro shops. They help me with making necessary tweaks to my rig, and with replacing any worn or damaged parts such as D-loops, peep sights, or frayed strings. If I must change or tweak my bow or accessories, I do so with ample time left to become intimate with the change.

A lot of effort goes into getting a bow shot on a big game animal.  In Colorado, a good hunter might put in 9 or 10 days just to earn a shot at a bull elk. That means that if you only hunt for a week every season, you might only get a shot every two years.  I would hate to squander that rare opportunity due to lack of familiarity with my gear.

Since arrow loss and breakage are unavoidable, I’ll start with two dozen fresh arrows in the spring so that I don’t need to add new arrows to my quiver as the months of practice wear on. It makes no sense to practice with one bow and arrow set-up all summer and then switch components just before the season. I mark each arrow with a number or letter to identify it.

As I practice throughout the spring and summer, I notice that some of the arrows fly more consistently than others.  This is caused by many factors, including arrow straightness, fletching alignment, field point or broadhead alignment, and weight differences.  It’s worth trying to re-fletch a faulty arrow or re-align the point, but if the arrow is still bad after those tweaks are made, I set it aside for use on stumps or small game.  It does not pay to even practice with such an arrow, because it will degrade your confidence and disrupt your focus.

Eventually, I separate my two dozen arrows into three groups, first arrows with poor consistency, second arrows with average consistency and third arrows with exceptional consistency.  This third group of arrows is the one that I’ll be using for big game hunting. I like to have made this selection at least 60 days prior to season, at which point I’m ready to start practicing with broadheads.  This is important because broadheads tend to fly differently than practice tips or field points.

Adjustments to the arrows themselves, fletching and insert alignment, might be made, or more commonly the sight pins will be moved to accommodate for any point-of-impact changes. The use of mechanical broadheads can alleviate some of these adjustments, as the slimmer profile of the mechanicals lets them fly like a field point. However, I personally prefer the fixed-blade broadheads for big game hunting because I believe that simpler is better when it comes to arrows and heads.

Perfecting Shooting Form and Strength
Over the spring and early summer, I’ll be building my muscles and perfecting my form by shooting many arrows a day. This might be as many as six to ten arrows between each visit to the target to retrieve my shots. (I don’t like shooting many more than that at a time, as I lose a little bit of focus once I’ve passed this threshold.) But as the summer progresses and I start practicing with broadheads, I begin shooting only two or three arrows at a time. This lets me concentrate on those couple shots only, maintaining a concentrated focus for each one.  Then, as I walk to my target to retrieve the arrows, I clear my mind and reset it for another three-shot round.

When there’s only a month left before the season starts, I treat each practice shot as if it were the one that’s going to kill an animal.  I visualize the animal standing there.  I visualize picking a spot and drawing my bow while the animal’s head is facing away.  I hold my bow at full draw and visualize the animal walking out from behind a tree.  And finally, I visualize the arrow hitting its mark and penetrating deep into the vitals.  The more I visualize all this during practice, the calmer I’ll be when the moment arrives.

Practice Various Different Shots
I  don’t take eighty yard shots at animals, but I practice at that range often. The amount of mental focus and muscle control required to tightly group arrows, even in a 24” circle, at eighty yards is tremendous. If I can easily connect on a target at eighty yards, I’ll have a much easier time connecting on an animal at 30 yards.

I practice at quartering away angles, shooting through tight lanes, from sitting and kneeling positions, and any other scenario that I can think of to prepare me for a difficult shot in the field.  I’ll do 50 jumping jacks prior to shooting an arrow to simulate the physical excitement that comes from a real hunt, or I’ll run a 100-yard dash to mimic a rapid heart rate from ascending a hill.I’ll hold my bow at full draw for two minutes prior to releasing the arrow, a very common scenario encountered on a hunt.

Up the Anty
I invite friends over for a casual competition.  We pin small balloons to the target and see who can pop the most, each taking one shot per turn.  By throwing a dollar into the pot, we all focus a little more.  It’s a great way to add a little pressure.

Keep Practicing
A mistake I’ve often made is ceasing to practice once the hunting season starts.  I’m a well oiled machine on day one of the season, but I’ll get rusty if I fail to practice for a week.  I make sure to keep an archery target in the truck, and I’ll always fire a few arrows before entering the woods for a hunt.  Besides keeping me in shooting form, this also lets me test my shooting with all my hunting gear on.  This ensures that a face mask or a rangefinder holster won’t interfere with my shot.