I’ve come to the conclusion that bowhunting is the greatest honor system ever created. So much of what happens during bowhunting is out of sight and done with equipment that makes no noise, which means: the only version of what transpired on a hunt is the one we tell. Bowhunting is even more of a test of honor since bowhunters are always close to the animals they’re hunting. This means they should be able to make very informed decisions about what they do.
When human decisions and Mother Nature are involved, things can take unexpected turns. For bowhunters, when the moment of truth is upon you and you have to make a decision to shoot, we all want the outcome to be a quick, clean kill that allows us to find the animal. While it is important that your shooting skills are good, your equipment is ready and the shot you take is a high percentage one, there is still an element of chance in executing a bow kill. That’s why the most important attribute of a bowhunter is honor.
Honor in bowhunting means you have great respect for the animals you are hunting. This also means you have a humble appreciation for the prowess of an animal’s ability to outfox you. When you choose to release an arrow, you are an honorable bowhunter if you take a shot within your range. “Your range” marks the distance — unique to each hunter — where you can hit 9 out of 10 arrows inside a 6-9 inch circle. You are an honorable bowhunter if you have patience and take an unobstructed, clear shot at a killing angle. Honor means backing down your bow and refusing to take a shot when an animal is moving too much or when an animal won’t give you the best angle for maximum arrow penetration.
One situation that puts honorable bowhunters to the test is taking shots in that last half hour before dark. While in many states it’s legal to take shots up to 30 minutes after sunset, the chances for problems to arise are very high when bowhunters take shots in low or fading light. Seeing the arrow fly, knowing where it hit, observing the animal’s reaction to the shot, and seeing the animal as long as possible are all reduced in low light. Recovery is more challenging when trailing is hindered by darkness — not only in finding blood, but in observing the characteristics of the blood trail and the nature of areas traversed by the animal as it reacts to being shot. The chances of a bow shot turning sour are very good as darkness is falling.
To compound these situations, animals are usually beginning to move as daylight diminishes. Often bucks, bulls and other potential trophy animals are the last to emerge, making those last minutes of light prime hunting time. For bowhunters, the temptations will be greater after sunset, when honor is put to the test.
When daylight is fading, every bowhunter has faced a situation where a nice animal moves toward them. Often, when we want an animal to move into range, they move in slow motion and spend what seems like hours inching closer. Each bowhunter has to make a choice as shooting hours are coming to an end: do I take the shot if the animal is within range? Of course, there’s no time clock in the woods so the end of legal shooting time can be a matter of 5-10 minutes either way. More to the point, no one knows but the bowhunter when he actually takes the shot. Sometimes having honor is not putting yourself in a situation where you’re confronted with that decision. Better to have unnocked your arrow and sit quietly as darkness descends rather than to be ready to shoot, while knowing every passing moment decreases your chances for a quick, clean kill and recovery.
This is why, to me, bowhunting is the greatest honor system ever created. Nearly all the events that matter in bowhunting occur when no one is watching. The only person who knows exactly what happened is you; and the only version of what happened is the one you choose to tell. Now I will hasten to add: if you’re in a situation with a shot at a nice animal, nerves and adrenaline will make your recollections of the events more difficult. Yet, your decision-making process can and should involve checks to safeguard against dishonoring yourself and the animals you’re hunting. There are enough things that can go wrong with even the best of shots so why give in to the temptation to take a shot outside your comfort zone or beyond your capability? Better to walk away with a pang of regret than to create a tarnished memory that will stay with you for the rest of your life.