Bowhunters: How to Ace Now-or-Never Whitetail Shots

When a rutting buck chases a doe by your stand, you’ll have only seconds to take and make your shot. Will you nail it?

Bowhunters: How to Ace Now-or-Never Whitetail Shots

Shooting form is a huge contributor to making or missing a now-or-never shot. No matter how fast it happens, you must use good form, find your normal anchor point, pick a spot and follow through without jerking.

A longtime outdoor writer whose work I’ve followed since I was a teenager once wrote something along the lines of slapping his release’s trigger to take an animal when it cruised through an opening. At the time, it surprised me. In my youth, I falsely assumed that most time-worn bowhunters took all of their animals with surprise releases, which, I’d always been taught, is the proper way to shoot a bow.

Fast forward to today. If I recall my encounters with whitetail bucks I’ve taken over the last 20 years, most offered me now-or-never opportunities where executing a shot with back tension would’ve resulted in the animal moving before or as the shot released, or a lost opportunity. Like my aforementioned colleague, I’ve used a deliberate release pull to take many of the dozens of animals that have fallen to my arrows. And the reason is simple: Animals aren’t stationary backyard targets. They’re always subject to moving at any given second, especially rutting whitetails.

Most successful target archers teach that you must trigger each shot using back tension or at least by gradually pulling — not punching — the trigger. I agree 100 percent, and that is how I shoot when I’m not hunting. When I’m hunting, though, now-or-never opportunities call for a more deliberate release pull.

As an example, I heart-shot a mature buck 13 years ago during the rut. Only about 5 seconds elapsed from the moment I saw him chasing a doe toward me until the moment I released. I was at full draw for less than 2 seconds. Had I not taken him when I did, he would’ve continued after the doe, and the dense brush would’ve swallowed him up on his next bound.

I have had many similar encounters that ended successfully. Fleeting opportunities such as these have prompted me to write on this topic. November is at the gate, and rutting whitetail bucks often provide now-or-never opportunities. Let’s discuss how you can make your shot count.   


Getting Started

Many misconceive that deliberately pulling a trigger release causes a poor hit. I disagree. I can make all sorts of good shots by firing intentionally. But, I don’t practice this way, because that’s how target panic creeps in. So, I shoot nearly all of my practice arrows with surprise releases, increasing back tension to build pressure on the trigger and execute the shot. This allows me to de-stress, put the sight pin in the center of where I want to hit, and hover there until the arrow departs. Then, confidence follows me to the woods.

When you practice religiously with trigger punching or even a gradual pulling motion, it can easily lead to unneeded stress because you’re focusing on taking the shot and you’re missing the in-between steps that can alter your shot’s outcome. And then, target panic can manifest itself so deeply that your finger or thumb wants to slap the trigger the instant your pin touches fur or even beforehand. Like I said before, deliberately pulling a trigger isn’t the sole deciding factor in the accuracy of any shot. The steps you perform from the moment you raise your bow arm to draw back until you shoot are also critical. Let’s discuss them.


Use Good Form

Most bowhunters ambush whitetails from elevated treestands. This is so different from on-the-ground backyard practice. One of the easiest things to botch when taking a quick shot from an elevated stand is shooting form, and it begins with your stance. Just like in the backyard, your feet should be positioned from 45 to 90 degrees to the target or deer. I tend to stand with both feet at about 90 degrees. Others do well with a back foot at 90 degrees and a front foot at 45 degrees. That means that you’ll often need to reposition your feet as the encounter unfolds, making sure you’re in the best position when the actual shot happens.

Further, bulky clothing, cold temperatures and long hours of inactivity can hinder your shooting form, if you let them. In other words, when a buck unexpectedly flies onto the scene, those factors can cause bad shooting form on a quick shot. For those reasons, stay mobile. Stand up and stretch not just your legs, but your arms and shoulders, too. Get the blood flowing and draw your bow occasionally. I do this. Not only does it keep everything mobile, but you can also identify anything that could impede your form — branches, tree trunk, safety harness, etc.

Poor or inconsistent form is a leading cause for poor shooting in the woods, so be mindful of your form and try to practice for this before your hunt. If all is right with your shooting form — muscle memory tells you if it is or isn’t — you’ll probably make a good shot. If not, you could miss or wound the animal.


Find That Anchor

This relates to the previous point. It’s easy on a quick shot to find your pin somewhere in your peep sight and then jerk it onto the deer and shoot. This might work half of the time, but if you don’t anchor in your usual spot, you’ll be looking through your peep sight differently than usual, and it can affect your arrow placement.

If it means taking an extra second, even when a buck you’ve mouth-grunted to a halt is staring you down, make sure your anchor is right and that you’re centering your pin housing in your peep sight. Do that, and you’re eliminating one more thing that could cause a poor shot.


Don’t Forget to Pick a Spot

If a rutting buck trailing a doe stops in your only opening and you’re concerned that he’ll resume his chase, it’s so easy to jerk your pin onto the “kill zone” and slam the trigger. The farther the shot, the worse the outcome can potentially be. It takes a fraction of a second longer to bury your pin on an exact spot, but it can drastically improve the outcome.

A fast shot opportunity is stressful on its own, so try to eliminate things that impose even more stress, such as too many bowsight pins. Further, separate the whitetail encounter into individual tasks so that you focus on what it takes to win, not the bigness of the opportunity.
A fast shot opportunity is stressful on its own, so try to eliminate things that impose even more stress, such as too many bowsight pins. Further, separate the whitetail encounter into individual tasks so that you focus on what it takes to win, not the bigness of the opportunity.

Don’t Jerk

With adrenaline pumping, your sight picture will naturally appear shakier than during practice. This increases anticipation, and the more you anticipate a shot, the harder you’ll probably punch the trigger when your pin dances across the vitals. And along with that high anticipation is the desire to know the outcome, so much so that we drop our bow arm and look for the arrow in flight. You’ll miss low if you do this.

Also, the harder you slap your trigger, the more likely you are to jerk in anticipation of the shot. A gradual pull is all it takes, which requires less movement, keeping the shot cycle more natural.


Final Thoughts

Let me share a few remaining tips. Consider what points make a fast shot opportunity more stressful. If you shoot a five-pin bowsight and have difficulty choosing the right pin within 2 seconds, choose a three-pin model or even a one-pin slider. If you start breathing uncontrollably, practice a breathing technique. And if your mind is a blur, try to separate the encounter into individual tasks so you address each objectively and don’t miss one. After all, most misses are the products of something being neglected.

Most rutting whitetails don’t offer the opportunity to aim for 10 seconds and then execute a shot using back tension. More often, you get 3-4 seconds to shoot after you hit full draw. Follow these tips, and your now-or-never shot opportunities on rutting whitetails will be far more doable.


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