While preparing for my bowhunting trip to South Africa, I worked to improve my shooting skills, which have been geared to whitetail hunting since my youth. I concede, however, that I seldom shot archery during the 20-plus years I spent raising my family, serving my community and pursuing my career. Further, as a stalwart bowhunter who shot only to bowhunt, I rarely practiced beyond 20 yards and never shot at deer beyond that range. I’m a conservative shooter – a practice reinforced by my scientific work on wounding studies – but I also lacked the confidence to shoot longer distances.
To address these shortcomings, I upgraded my equipment a few months ago and then contacted friends to see how to upgrade my shooting skills to prepare for Africa. During an ATA trip to Arizona, I brought along my equipment to ensure I didn’t waste my friends’ advice when we met. My first stop was Tucson, where I spent an evening in Pete Shepley’s shop looking at the equipment he uses in Africa, and discussing the challenges I had to overcome. Pete has long said that target panic is one of the biggest obstacles facing bowhunters, and we discussed remedies from releases to shooting technique. When Pete learned I had my equipment along, we scheduled a shooting session at the PSE plant in the morning, and Pete called renowned shooting coach Frank Pearson to help. To my surprise, Frank agreed to join us, even though he didn’t know me.
When I found myself shooting with Frank and Pete the next morning, I was surprised that nearly all of Frank’s advice concerned the gray matter between my ears. Frank devoted his time to making me think through the shooting process, and to write down the shooting steps I use. Pete weighed in often and, together, these industry veterans made me think more about my shooting habits and mindset than my equipment. Meanwhile, I never stopped thinking that I was shooting with PSE’s founder in the factory he built, and yet I was shooting a bow made by one of his competitors. Yikes!
Next I contacted Randy Phillips at Archery Headquarters in Phoenix. We reviewed every piece of my equipment and I asked what to change. Randy said I had the cart in front of the horse. Before considering any changes, he wanted to see me shoot. A few days later, Randy welcomed my wife, Janet, and me to his shop and led us to his new shooting range. After I shot a few arrows, Randy asked me to stop obsessing over my pins and the aiming process. His advice was a bit unsettling, but it worked: I focused on the spot I wanted to hit, and then drew, anchored and released smoothly. His approach helped me allow my instincts to take over as I drew the bow, aligned the sight and put the pin on the spot I wanted to hit. As I continued shooting, Randy reminded me to push with my bow hand and pull with my release hand and, to follow a smooth routine that’s the same every time – points similar to those from Frank and Pete). When I tired and we ended our session, I was pleased with my shooting.
My last stop was Macrotech in Baltimore, the shop of my friend Len Marsh, whose annual bow-tuning seminars at the ATA Trade Show are legendary. Len had set up another bow for me and helped me sight it in and get it ready. I now had two great bows and excellent equipment, as well as advice from some of the best professionals in our industry.
I tried a few shots with the new bow, but the handle felt too narrow and its back wall felt too hard. I had been shooting a bow with a fatter, more comfortable handle and a much softer hard wall. I told Randy Phillips my concerns about the new bow and, once again, he surprised me. First, he said the narrow handle was better for me because it would force me to keep the bow deep in my palm in the “V” between my thumb and forefinger. He also said I would not grip the bow tightly with my entire hand – which is what happens with handles that form-fit my hand. Second, Randy said the hard wall would give me a firmer draw point to ensure I firmly anchored, which would enhance my push–pull to execute a clean release. Randy said I just needed to shoot the bow a bit more before deciding what I thought. The next day, after an hour at the range, I shook my head in amazement. Randy was prophetic. I was thrilled with my shooting session and enthusiastic about bringing the new bow to Africa.
During May and June I increased my daily shooting routine to at least an hour, or until I tired. During my first couple of weeks I worked hard to hit 3-inch circles at 20 and 30 yards while focusing on my shooting routine. I felt buoyed as I improved, but it was frustrating to “throw” an arrow occasionally. The upside of each bad arrow was knowing exactly what I did wrong and how to correct it. My most common issue was punching the release. Pete’s cautions about target panic were alive and well. I also learned that no matter how hard I tried to focus on my shooting routine, my mind still wandered during each shooting session. An unexpected remedy occurred one day when Janet joined me at the range. Just when I thought she was quietly reading, she would pipe up and say, “That’s not what Randy said to do.”
By merging all this great coaching – and prodding – with excellent equipment, my shooting improved dramatically. As I progressed, I shot 3-inch circles, first at 30 yards and later at 40 yards. I used pie plates when shooting broadheads, but was pleased that most arrows struck the plates or grouped tightly around the 3-inch circles. As a testament to these improvements, I walked to the 50-yard target and, on a lark, used my sight’s fourth pin. To my surprise and satisfaction, I shot a respectable group that would have done the job on a whitetail. Clearly, with practice, proper technique, a consistent shooting routine, and a confident mindset, distance is less important in shooting than I had realized.
As I sit on the plane nearly five hours into our flight to South Africa, I feel confident about 20-, 30- and 40-yard shots. That’s something I’ve never before felt, dating to my recurve days and my bowhunting youth when I practiced all the time. While I know many bowhunters are excellent shots and maintain their accuracy at high levels, this is new territory for me. For those who aren’t equally skilled, I can tell you that you can improve relatively quickly. In fact, improving at archery is much like other sports. You just need good equipment, good coaching and quality practice time. You’ll be happy with the results.
OK, I’m ready to hunt. Now, what to shoot?