Welcome to the cool, crisp mornings of September! This has been my favorite month for as long as I can remember. While some hunters crave Novembers filled with swollen-necked bucks, I’ve always preferred the vocals of love-sick bull elk. No matter what your favorite hunt is, I know that all of us Huntin’ Fools strive to spend as much time in the field as possible each fall. During these hunts, it’s inevitable that your practice time is going to take a hit. To make matters worse, it’s very likely that your bow will undergo some serious bumps and bruises as you drag it along on your adventures.
Many archery hunters indirectly choose to forego practice sessions once season starts because there’s always a good excuse. It’s too windy. It’s too dark to see. My target is buried under a load of stuff in the back of my truck. The trailhead is too crowded for me to safely shoot. Or the worst one of all, “What if my practice session goes poorly?” This excuse is deeply rooted in the mental side of archery and is common among hunters of all experience levels. As an example, I recently flew to Alaska for a boat-based spring black bear hunt and was surrounded by really good archers. When it came time to check our bows at the local motel, we had a very small target that we had to shoot in the gusting winds that Alaska is famous for. Every excuse was present. We had to dig through groceries, gear, and bow cases to get to our weapons. We had a target that was undersized for the conditions. We were in a public place, and I was surrounded by bowhunters I respected as great shots and great hunters. The stakes were high, and the anxiety was coursing through my body when I came to full draw and tried to keep my pin on the target while executing a good form shot. Thankfully, a few well-placed arrows confirmed that my bow had traveled well and the act of pushing through those nerves actually boosted my confidence as we started the hunt.
You get the point, and you’ve likely had one of these excuses yourself. Rather than live with the nagging doubts that accompany you when you haven’t shot your bow enough in camp, I’d suggest that you take steps to ensure this year will be different. I’ll share some of the things I’ve started doing to make sure my bow is dialed in at camp.
First and foremost, you absolutely need to have a great portable target. My personal favorites are from 365 Archery because they are very lightweight for their relative size, plus they are modular and easy to aim at. The modularity allows me to break the target into two parts if I need to stack it into a tightly packed vehicle or travel bag. I have started using their 36" target because even if it’s windy and my pins are getting blown around at full draw, I don’t have the fear that I might miss and ruin a carefully built arrow. Regardless of the brand you choose, you will find fewer excuses to set it up if it’s lightweight, highly portable, and large enough to aim at in crummy conditions. One exception to this rule is when you go on hunts where space and weight are limited. In these cases, I have two target types that I transport with me. The smallest and most compact is a replacement core for a Rinehart stegosaurus that is not much bigger than a volleyball. I’ve flown into remote Alaskan camps in a Super Cub with this target. The other is a 14" cube that is made by 365 Archery. I’ve flown this cube in my checked bags to Alaska several times, and I prefer it over the stegosaurus replacement core if space and weight allow.
The next thing you need to do is strictly mental. You need to plan to shoot in less than ideal conditions from the minute you leave the house until the day you return. As you load your favorite archery target into your vehicle, your brain naturally visualizes you dropping 60-yard bombs into the target from a beautiful campsite with brilliantly colored aspen leaves near a babbling brook. The truth is, if you are hunting hard enough, you’ll rarely see your campsite in the light of day, and every time you stagger back to your camp, you’ll be so tired that all you’ll want to do is slam down a Peak Refuel meal and slide into your sleeping bag. Once you learn to visualize shooting in the headlights after dark, in the pouring rain, gusting winds, and horizontal snowstorms, it somehow makes it easier to grab your bow and send a few arrows. The mind is a beautiful thing. Train it to expect imperfect shooting sessions in camp and it will become a help and not a hindrance.
I’ve mentioned a bunch of conditions that hinder practice in camp, so I think it’s worth sharing some ways that I’ve found to cope with them over the years. The most common hindrance is shooting in the dark. If I’m near a vehicle, this one is easily overcome as I just park with the headlights on the target and then I usually stand near the front tire so that the lights aren’t blinding me from the back, but there is enough ambient light in front of me to easily outline my pins. This works even if you don’t have a sight with a light on it. If
I’m away from a vehicle, I always carry two headlamps with me. If you rest one of the headlamps on the ground and point it at the target from a few feet away, it will illuminate the target really well. You will need to experiment with the best location for the second headlamp, but it definitely should not be on your head. I usually place it slightly behind me at a quartering angle to outline my pins and illuminate the pin guard. The bottom line is that a few shots in the dark are no big deal and will help you sleep better knowing that the day’s activities didn’t tweak anything on your bow.
High winds are the next best excuse to not shoot your bow. Archery practice can be a head game, so it’s not surprising that we elect to cancel practice when we’re afraid that we may get a false read downrange. In these cases, you need to prioritize the process of executing a good shot over hitting the bullseye. While it may seem counterintuitive, the truth is that it’s always a good idea to shoot your bow daily because the only way to prove that nothing is seriously wrong with your bow is to shoot it, or at least come as close as you can to shooting it. A few years ago, I was backpacked in on a solo hunt where I did not have access to an archery target. However, I did nock an arrow each day so I could draw my bow and aim as if I was going to take a shot. About three days in, I ran through this process and was dismayed when I realized something had snagged my peep and pulled it nearly a quarter inch up my bowstring.
While you may struggle to hit the bullseye in high winds, you will be forced to put the bow through its paces and you’ll notice if something is seriously amiss. Finally, not shooting in the wind is usually a byproduct of laziness because you can almost always find some shelter that will take some of the guesswork out of it. I’ve shot from inside a ground blind, behind pickup trucks, on steep banks, and virtually anything you can think of that will cut the wind mostly out of your aiming equation. However, nearly all of these “hacks” require extra work to set up your improvised shooting range.
Inclement weather encompasses the majority of the remaining excuses to not shoot your bow. In this case, I’ll simply say, “Don’t be a wimp.” Get out of your tent, the warm truck, your camp trailer, or wall tent and sling some arrows. I’ve never regretted shooting my bow, but I have regretted not shooting my bow. Again, this boils down to visualization from the start of the trip. You need to imagine yourself shooting your bow in the headlights of the truck in gusting winds with horizontal sleet before you pull out of the driveway and it will seem a lot more normal when it’s actually happening.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of “Campfire Archery” when it comes to maintaining confidence in your equipment and at the moment of truth. Commit to being more religious about your in-season practice this fall and I guarantee it will pay dividends in the woods.