The Basics – Bow Hunting for Beginners

Thousands of people decide each year to start filling the freezer with free meat. If you’ve never bow hunted, there is a lot to know. We are going to take you through the ins and outs, and by the time you have read this article you’ll know everything you need to know to get started.

Bowhunting 101, lets go through the basics

One of my favorite times of year is late September.  The forest is still thick with the green leaves of summer, and both early mornings and late evenings have a friendly, cool breeze blowing through the holler.  It is one of the few times of the year that I can go hunting and fully enjoy myself without ever seeing game animals. What I am referring to is archery deer season.  However, I have not always been so fond of bow hunting.

As a child, I was introduced to archery as soon as I was old enough to play outside.  My father had a recurve bow and a compound bow. He had hay bales set up in the back yard and used a paper plate with a black dot in the center for a target.  For what seemed like hours I would play in the yard and watch him send arrow after arrow into the target. He would start only ten yards from the bales but would gradually work his way out further and further.

There was something truly captivating about the process.  There was a smooth motion with every arrow he released. He would fire an arrow, drop his hand to his quiver, draw another arrow, nock it, draw, aim, and release. This dance went on and on until he could no longer hold the pin on the bullseye. I always loved the soft thud sound that the bow would make as he would release the draw string and let the arrow fly.

I started boy scouts and began learning more about archery.  One scout leader would have me come over on rainy days to help him fletch arrows and target practice in his basement.  Soon I had my own compound bow and was competing in and winning archery tournaments. I found something at which I excelled.

Unfortunately, it was not all fun and games.  My father had a friend with some wooded land for us to set up some tree stand for deer hunting.  After school we would suit up in camouflage and drive out to the forest. At 6pm the temperatures were often still in the 80’s or even 90’s, so the hike to the stand was grueling.  We would sit in the stand hour after hour, day after day, and very rarely saw anything. When we did see a deer, it was typically well out of bow range. I was used to seeing lots of deer when hiking, camping, or firearms hunting, so this was frustrating to say the least.

Bowhunters can spend hours in a stand waiting for a shot opportunity

After a few seasons with no luck, I swore off archery hunting but stuck to the tournament shooting.  I still loved archery but was convinced that hunting with a bow was a waste of time. It took me several years of reflection to realize the reasons why I had no success.  Once I understood the ins and outs of archery hunting, I was much more eager to get back in the stand.

Finally, I started having success on my hunting excursions and thus started my love of bow hunting.  In this article we will discuss the basics of bow hunting as well as the secrets to ensuring you have a fun and successful hunt.

What Can I Hunt with a Bow?

Large game that can be hunted with a bow include:

  • Deer
  • Moose
  • Elk
  • Caribou
  • Bear
  • Boar
  • Bison
  • Goat
  • Sheep

Smaller game or varmits like:

  • Racoon
  • Squirrels
  • Groundhogs
  • Rabbits
  • Skunks
  • Pheasants
  • Geese
  • Coyote
  • Turkey
  • Frogs
  • Fish!

All the above can also be bowhunted…. with the right setup. Generally small game can be thought of as anything in the sub 40 lbs weight range. Small game provide a greater challenge, have less hunting restrictions and longer seasons than much large game. However… the trophies are not as desirable and you won’t get fat eating squirrels….

A simpler answer to this question is that you can hunt anything you would hunt with a gun using a bow and arrows.  However, accuracy does play a factor. Bows are only accurate up to about 50 yards, and even at that distance it is easy to miss your target.

Selecting a Bow

You may already have a bow that you enjoy using.  If that is the case, stick with it. You are better to use an older and more basic bow that you know well versus a newer, fancier bow with which you have no practice.  With bow hunting, you must always keep in mind that you likely will have just one shot.

You want to be able to nail that shot in your sleep.

However, if you do not currently own a bow then you will have some choices to make.  Aside from the size of the bow, your biggest decision will be the bow design.

Compound bows are the most commonly used. They allow you to hold more weight as the pulleys will reduce the strain on your shoulder once you get to full draw.  This gives you more time to aim accurately. It also allows you to hold a draw for several minutes while you wait for your target animal to move into a shooting lane or to shift positions.  Compound bows also have more room for mounting accessories such as a bow-fishing rig. However, shooting moving targets can be difficult with compound bows.

Holding ‘full-draw’ with a compound bow is much easier than a recurve

Recurve and longbows use older technology than compound bows.  These will not allow you to pull as much weight as a compound bow, and you will not be able to hold your draw as long.  However, they are designed for a quick draw and release. These bows work fine for big game but are perfect for wing shooting or hunting small game such as rabbits or squirrels.

Crossbows are the simplest to use as they operate much like a firearm.  Once the bow is cocked you just need to pull the trigger to fire the arrow.  Crossbows also require the least movement, so it is less likely to spook your game.  They are also the most accurate bow you can purchase. However, if you are wanting a true bow hunting experience you are best to stick with one of the more traditional bow designs.

Of course, cost will always be a factor when selecting a bow.  First, decide what kind of hunting on which you would like to focus.  Then, select the bow that best fits that type of hunting. Finally, select a good balance of quality and cost.  Be sure you try out your bow before making a final purchase. Most good archery shops will have a small range to let you test out their equipment.

What Other Equipment Do I Need?

In order to prepare for your first bow hunt, you will want to pick up some much-needed items to go along with your bow.  For any shooting, an arm guard for your less-dominant arm is a good idea. This will keep the bowstring from slapping your arm when released.  You will need a glove, finger tab, or release for your dominant hand. Which you choose is a personal preference. I personally like the feel of gloves and finger tabs.  However, many people feel that a trigger release will give you a more accurate shot.

Archery Tab and Glove
Glove and Tab (Finger Guard)

Sights are very important for any type of bow hunting.  There are several different types of bow sights, but the most common are pin sights and crosshair sights.  You will need to adjust each sight to pinpoint specific distances from you to your target. I personally prefer crosshair sights because they are the most similar to a scope.  Rests are a vital part of your archery setup. There are several different designs available, and they will greatly affect the flight of your arrow.

Arrows and arrowheads are another category that is very important.  You will want to do your research and use the proper arrow material and weight for the game you will be hunting.  Your primary options will be aluminum and fiberglass. The length should be based upon your draw length, and your archery shop should be able to help with that.  You will also need to decide how long you want your fletching to be. Pick up field tips for target practicing so you do not do too much damage to your target. Then you will want to pick up the right type of hunting head for when you hit the woods.  Broadheads are best for large game (mechanical or fixed), while there are also special arrowheads for birds and for small game.

Finally, you can consider other accessories to improve your hunting odds.  You can attach a quiver to your bow, or your can wear one on your belt or over your shoulder.  Silencers can be attached to your bow string to dampen the sound it makes when you release an arrow.  Peep sights and stabilizers can help with accuracy. None of these items are a requirement, but any of them could potentially help.

Other Bow Hunting Accessories

No matter what game you are hunting with your bow, you will have additional equipment to purchase.  

The most common game animal for bow hunting is whitetail deer.

Your best odds of bagging a deer are found using a tree stand.  Deer rarely find food or predators above their eye level, so naturally they have little reason to look up. This makes you almost invisible if you are 20 to 30 feet above the ground.  You can mount a stationary stand in your prime spot, or you can bring a climbing stand so you can scale any tree that looks ideal.

Another vital accessory is a good pair of hunting boots.  One of the most miserable feelings you can experience is to have your toes go numb because your boots are not warm enough or because your feet got wet.  Good hunting boots should be waterproof about nine inches up your ankle. They should also have a good amount of thinsulate insulation to keep you warm in the coldest conditions.  They should have good ankle support for rough terrain, and a rugged tread pattern to keep you from slipping.

You will need some sort of pack to carry gear with you on your hunt.  I personally have a full backpack, a small shoulder pack, and an even smaller waist pack.  The smaller your pack, the less space that it will take up in your stand. However, you want to be sure that you can easily get to any gear that you need.

Depending on the game that you are after, you may want to bring calls or decoys.  Calls are ideal for just about every potential game animal. Whether you are using a grunt call to freeze a deer in its tracks or a yelp call to bring in a big tom turkey, calls always serve a purpose.  Decoys are only legal for certain game in certain states, so pay attention to your regulations. Turkeys are known for having incredible eyesight, so often a turkey decoy can draw in a bird from over 100 yards away.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You may have decades of experience hunting with firearms, but archery is a different ballgame.  With most types of bow hunting you will likely get only one shot. In addition, the margin of error is much greater with a bow.  

With a gun, my worst shot at 100 yards is off by a couple inches. With a bow, my worst shot at 30 yards is off by a couple feet.

This is a big difference when you are trying to kill an animal.

In order to become as accurate as possible, you will want to practice as often as possible.  This accomplishes a few things. One is that you will create muscle memory as you get into a rhythm of nocking your arrow, drawing, aiming, and releasing.  This will help ensure consistency. Another benefit of practice is that you strengthen the muscles that hold your draw steady. Even with a compound bow, it can be tough to hold your pin on your target without strengthening the proper muscles.  It involves your back, shoulder, biceps, triceps, forearms, grip and even your legs.

Practice should test your accuracy in a variety of different scenarios.  You can start at ten yards to warm up, but you should move back in five to ten yard increments until your have reached the limit of your bow.  The draw weight of your bow will determine how far from the target you can accurately shoot. You should also periodically practice shooting from strange positions.  

Don’t just practice standing up…

Practice shooting from your knees, from a seated position, or to your far right. You can even practice shooting from a tree stand so you can get used to the angle and limited foot space.  Prior to hunting, you should always take a few shots with your hunting tips to adjust your sights if needed. The weight can sometimes change the flight of the arrow.

Start with Big Game

One of the keys to enjoying bow hunting early on is going after attainable targets.  You want your target animal to be plentiful enough that you will likely be able to take a shot.  You also want the target animal to be large enough that you have a good shot of hitting it with your arrow.  If you go after squirrels on your first hunt, there is a good chance you will miss your target and get frustrated.  

If you go after big horned sheep, there is a good chance you will hike for hours and not see anything. Whitetail deer and wild hogs are some of the best game animals to hunt when you are new to bow hunting. If you pick the right spot, you will likely see animals and have a very good chance of bringing home some meat.

Start big

Do your Research

Once again, this is not firearms hunting.  You cannot sit in your truck and pick off a deer at 200 yards.  For bow hunting, you will need to get your target animal to come within about 40 yards of your location.  You might be able to take longer shots, but an ideal shot is typically around 30 yards. This means that variables such as scent, stand location, camouflage, movement, and sounds can greatly affect your success or lack thereof.

Be sure to read about the best spots to set up your stand and scout your hunting area for the perfect location.  Pay attention to the wind direction and bring along wind indicator to see if it changes. Figure out the best cover scent or attractant scents to use for your particular game animal.  Read up on the local regulations and use as much camouflage as you can. Body parts you need to hide are your face and hands. Most animals will see the exposed skin of your hands and face move and will never get close enough for a shot.

You should also learn about calls for your target animal.  In many cases you can buy a call and be able to call an animal into range with just a little practice.  Calls can also be used to locate animals or to stop their movement once they step into a shooting lane.

Getting Started

If you want to ensure success on your first hunt, it is often best to bring an expert with you.  This could be friends that have bow hunting experience, or it could be a professional guide. These people will know where to put your stand, so you are sure to have game animals in bow range.  However, it will be up to you to make the shot count. They cannot take the shot for you. In many cases deciding where to hunt is the toughest part of bow hunting, so going with an experienced hunting can ensure you have the best odds possible.

During the Hunt

When you head to the woods for your first bow hunt, there are several things to keep in mind.  One is that your bow is larger and bulkier than a gun, so navigation through thick brush can be more difficult.  Another is that getting into your stand can be more difficult. It is best to bring cordage and pull your bow up from the ground once you have climbed up the tree.

Getting situated can be more difficult as well.  You will have limited space, so often I like to keep my feet in position for a shot and rest my bow on my lap.  I like to pack as light as possible so there is not a lot of other gear to get in the way. I also sometimes hang a bow hook on the tree, so my bow is completely out of the way.  However, this means you must move more to get ready for your shot when the time comes.

When you see a target animal, you must first decide on the position from which you will take your shot.  If the animal is already very close, you may want to consider taking a seated shot to avoid the added movement of standing.  Seated shots are also sometimes better in windy conditions.

You must pick your moment to stand and draw your bow.  Deer do have a small blind-spot directly behind their heads.  The best time to move is when the deer is looking directly away from you, or when their head is behind a tree or bush.  Bowhunting is also unique in that you must greatly account for windage and for shooting at a downward angle. Your target may be 20 yards from the base of your tree, but from 30 feet in the air it may be a 25-yard shot to that spot.

7 pin sight aperture
Pick a pin…. have you judged distance to your target accurately?

Finally, selecting the right pin on your sights can be difficult.  There are two primary ways to judge distance from your stand. The easiest way is to have a rangefinder with you.  These devices will tell you exactly how far away your target is, and they factor in the elevation of your stand as well.  The option I use is to step off distances before climbing into my stand. I will generally tie hunter orange paracord to a tree branch about every 10 yards from my stand out to 40 yards.  Then, when a deer walks into range I will have a rough idea of the distance.

The Shot

Keep in mind that the shot you make with an arrow is more important than the shot you make with a gun.  A bullet will shock the nervous system of a deer and often drop it quickly. However, an arrow must be placed in the right vital organs to get it to drop close by.

It is much more common to need to track your deer over long distances after it has been shot.  For this process you will need to find the spot where your arrow struck the deer. Look for blood and fur, and then follow the blood trail in the direction the deer ran. It is sometimes best to mark the spot with something hunter orange and come back with help or even the next day if it is getting dark.

Be aware that the success rate of a bow shot versus a shot with a firearm is much lower.  The deer has a split second to react to the sound of the shot, so often it will duck below the arrow.  In addition, factors such as wind, elevation, and slight hand movements can greatly affect your accuracy.  

Many people also say that your nerves can affect your shot more with a bow than with a gun. If you miss, pay attention to your deer.  It may not move at all, or it may only move a few steps. You could have an opportunity for a second shot. If not, do not worry about it.  Just get comfortable and prepare yourself for the next deer to walk by.

Step Up to Small Game

Once you are confident in your ability to hunt big game, you can start going after smaller targets.  As was with big game, do your research to know where and how to hunt. Keep your expectations reasonable as missing a rabbit, squirrel, or bird is much more common.  You can also try bow-fishing if you want a unique experience.

3D Archery
Smaller game is more of a challenge

In Conclusion

The experience of bow hunting is something I am hooked on.  Part of the reason is how personal that the experience feels.  The animal walks in so close that you can hear it breathe and smell its musk.  Often a deer will not be able to see me in my camouflage, but I can tell it smells me or sees my cloudy breath floating out into the cool morning air.  

When you draw back your bow, time seems to stand still for just a moment.

When you release, you can see the arrow fly and hit your prey. This gives you a relationship with the animal that you simply cannot have if you shoot it through a scope from a long distance.

Meat in the freezer and trophies on the wall

Bow hunting has held my interest also because of the added skill required.  Sure, I like putting meat in the freezer. However, I enjoy the challenge of bow hunting and like to continue honing my craft.  If you take the time to get the right equipment and get in enough target practice, I am confident that you will be hooked as well.

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