Is a Purpose-Driven, Species-Specific Compound Bow Setup Right for You?

Match your compound bow outfit to the quarry and conditions at hand for more efficient bowhunting.

Is a Purpose-Driven, Species-Specific Compound Bow Setup Right for You?

I’ve been in the outdoor-writing dodge, well, forever. My reward for this minimum-wage existence in an industry that values celebrity more than actually producing something tangible is the opportunity to test and evaluate a lot of archery gear. On an average year, I might have eight to 10 bows set up and ready to roll. Due to this wealth of options, I regularly create bow outfits geared to specific tasks; treestand whitetails, run-n-gun elk, long-range Coues whitetails or pronghorn, or even a nighttime hog bow (which I’ll not get into here). And, yes, I understand this isn’t the average world in which most blue-collar bowhunters live.

Yet, typical bowhunters limited to a single bow can easily follow my lead by choosing accessories and arrow/broadhead combinations that make the most of the conditions commonly found on forays planned for the coming season. For most of us, that means backyard whitetails. But increasingly bowhunters are discovering the satisfaction of DIY adventures for western game, often far from home. In other cases, intrepid archers save for years to enjoy a guided trip of a lifetime for species such as moose, bison or caribou. Assembling an outfit to directly address specific species and the conditions under which they’re generally pursued can make for more fruitful efforts.


Treestand Whitetails

Treestand hunting including intimate shot ranges is bowhunting’s mainstay. More bowhunters pursue white-tailed deer than all other North American species combined. This stationary mode of operation might also include popular baited bear or wild boar hunts, or waterhole mule deer. Conditions are nearly universal: yardages starting from point-blank and seldom exceeding 35 yards, usually from elevated positions or from inside pop-up blinds, and shots often executed with stiff muscles after long periods of inactivity. Shot silence, forgiving shooting characteristics and the ability to deal with low-light shooting conditions become common requirements.

Treestand hunters are best served with an easy-drawing and quiet compound bow.
Treestand hunters are best served with an easy-drawing and quiet compound bow.

When contemplating long waits for whitetails, I want silky-smooth draw cycles that are easy on cold, inactive muscles. I want a forgiving nature that doesn’t accentuate nervous glitches that occur when asked to suddenly perform after long hours of boredom. I demand absolute silence to minimize string jumping that can result in misplaced arrows on wound-up whitetail bucks.

Smooth draw cycles are becoming more commonplace with even the fastest bows, cam systems like Mathews’ Crosscentric, Bear Archery’s EKO, Bowtech’s latest Binary and Elite’s ASYM Tri-Track Cam (off the top of my head) provide speed combined with no-surprise draw cycles. Forgiveness comes from brace heights higher than 6 inches, limb-pivot points aligned with or place in front of the grip, and a well-balanced configuration that comes with today’s long-riser/short-limb configurations.

Regarding accessories, I adhere to the K.I.S.S. principle. It’s vitally important to avoid confusion when going from zoned-out-dopey to pulse-pounding-panting after the sudden appearance of a trophy buck. No need to have 5- or 7-pin sights when shooting 20 to 30 yards. A 3-pin model is sufficient, preferably pins backed by extended fiber optics for maximum brightness. A total-containment rest, be that Trophy Ridge’s Whisker Biscuit or Quality Archery Designs UltraRest, ensures you’re always ready for action and that nervous bobbles won’t spoil your shot. A 5- to 7-inch vibration-absorbing stabilizer — opposed to longer “target” models — reduces frustrating snags while being derricked into stands on pull-up ropes.

This is all a bit arbitrary, but where the biggest influence comes into play is with the arrows and broadheads you choose. With whitetail arrows, two schools of thought reign, both completely valid. Most common is a down-the-middle option: not the heaviest, not the lightest, but designed to provide a balance of energy-absorbing weight and lightweight speed. We’re looking at 8.5 to 9.5 grains per inch (gpi) in popular 340/350 spine.

Gaining more popularity, especially as bows become ever faster, is a heavy-arrow option — arrows weighing 10 to 12 gpi in 340/350 spines. Heavier arrows simply absorb more of a bow’s available energy, resulting in less vibration and shot noise. And there’s just no such thing as a whitetail bow that’s too quiet. Heavier arrows are also more forgiving when, say, an unseen twig is nicked in low light or when subjected to a bad release influenced by nervous jitters. 

With whitetails, my goal is to punch massive wound channels, especially in tight, wet cover and leaf-littered ground that makes tracking difficult. Big holes are also preferred when a deer jumps the string, turning a well-aimed shot into a marginal hit. Mechanicals are the obvious answer, something cutting 1.25 to 2 inches wide, depending on available energy (55 to 60 pounds at one end, 65 to 70 pounds at the other). If shooting lower draw weight and/or shorter draw lengths something with cut-on-contact tip and sub-1.5-inch cutting diameter is preferred. In states where mechanicals aren’t allowed aggressive mini-heads with 1.25-inch cutting diameter (QAD Exodus, Wac’Em XL, Trophy Ridge Psycho or G5 Striker V2) is made to order. With whitetails, I often adopt a .300-spine arrow and bump broadhead weight to 125 to 145 grains, boosting F.O.C. and forgiveness and further quieting bows.


Bigger Big Game

North America’s largest big game comes in two varieties: elk addressed in highly-variable conditions from 20 to 60 yards — often on the fly — and even sturdier critters such as moose (below), big bears and bison generally taken at shorter ranges. Both scenarios demand deep penetration and rugged dependability for success.

The author arrowed this Alaska moose with a heavyweight arrow and a tough cut-on-contact fixed-blade broadhead.
The author arrowed this Alaska moose with a heavyweight arrow and a tough cut-on-contact fixed-blade broadhead.

Let’s address elk first, as they’re enjoyed most often by average bowhunters. First, I don’t mind more radical-cam, low-brace-height bows when bowhunting elk, as unless sitting a waterhole it remains an active pursuit and muscles typically remain warmed up and responsive. A rough draw cycle or less forgiving geometry is easily tolerated to gain a bit more speed and flattened trajectories. For accessories, I want unsurpassed dependability, but also top-notch accuracy. I normally choose a 5-pin, fixed sight, a cable-driven drop-away less prone to snagging than some limb-driven designs and an active stabilizer in the 9- to 10-inch class to steady those longer shots while out of breath or with pulse-pounding.

Everything else depends on the arrow, and especially the broadhead. My elk arrow of choice will typically include .204- to .165-inch internal dimensions (direct-fit X/A- and G/F-nock, Easton/Bohning, respectively), based largely on improved penetration potential, but also the ability to buck crosswinds on longer shots. It will normally lean toward the heavier end of the spectrum, if not the heaviest (depending on the cover type). Something in the 9.5 to 10 gpi in common .340/350 spine is about right. Some of my favorites include Easton’s 4mm Carbon Injexion and FMJ Taper 64, Victory’s Archery’s VAP TKO, Gold Tip’s Kinetic Kaos, Blood Sport’s Justice, Carbon Express’ Maxima RED SD or Black Eagle’s Spartan. Such shafts ensure reliability should arrow meet bone, but also relatively flat trajectories on longer shots, or should I need to “thread the needle” in tight brush.

With massive animals, everything hinges on the broadhead. Mechanical designs can and have gotten the job done on elk, but I prefer solid-steel, cutting-tip, fixed-blade designs when tackling trophy bull elk. Rugged fixed-blade broadheads or true cut-on-contact designs have saved my butt on maybe three shoulder-hit bulls (I shoot 70 pounds at 30 inches), so I see no need to press the issue. I like Flying Arrow Archery’s Orion, Slick Trick’s ViperTrick, standard-diameter Wac’Ems, Muzzy’s Trocar, Musachaccia Broadhead’s NB-100 and similar designs. In open country or following shoulder surgery when I was temporarily forced to shoot fewer pounds, true cut-on-contact designs like New Archery Products’ HellRazor, G5 Outdoors’ Montec CS and Muzzy’s One and especially SIK’s F4, Dirt Nap Gear’s DRT or Steelforce’s Phathead were designs I preferred.

Quickly, when given the opportunity to bowhunt moose, bison and brown bear, I choose essentially the heaviest carbon arrows available, which translates into .300 spines weighing 10.5 to 13 gpi, and the true cut-on-contact broadhead designs mentioned already but in 125-grain versions. Current arrow examples might include Carbon Express Piledriver DS Hunter, Victory’s Xtorsion, Easton’s 4mm and 5mm FMJ, Black Eagle’s Deep Impact or Bloodsport’s Evidence.            


Long-Range Big Game

No two big-game animals speak long-range bowhunting like pronghorn and Coues whitetails — the former due to open terrain, the latter due to sheer wariness. Of course, many pronghorn are tagged over water at reasonable ranges, but add a little monsoon rain, turning every low spot and bar-ditch into potential watering sites, and hunts can turn into spot-and-stalk affairs overnight. Coues, prey for everything from crafty coyotes to stalking cougars, are simply neurotic. Getting on the same hillside as a trophy Coues buck can come to seem a hopeless undertaking. To this list I’ll add tundra caribou, as while much larger, they aren’t particularly sturdy.  

When long-range shots are the norm, it pays to pick a bow-and-arrow setup designed for flat trajectory.
When long-range shots are the norm, it pays to pick a bow-and-arrow setup designed for flat trajectory.

What these animals introduce are longer average shots in the 40- to 60-plus yard range, if you care to increase your odds of success. In many circumstances, such as chasing moonscape alpine or desert mule deer, longer shots also become par. I’ll not get into the entire long-range debate here. Manufacturers continue to make compound bows faster and more shootable, I’m only taking advantage of that ability. The ethics of longer shots depend on long and savvy practice and the discipline to hold off when a shot just doesn’t feel right. But the right accessories also help make longer shots easier.

Radical, barn-burner bow models, again, are welcomed here, as longer spot-and-stalk shots usually arrive while warmed-up and limber. Accessories reflect expected yardages. On the plains or in the desert Southwest, I consider a 7-pin sight standard. Now, I might not take a 70- to 80-yard shot at healthy game, but should I wound a jumpy pronghorn or Coues at 45 yards, and that buck pauses at 80, I can assure you I’ll punch another hole in him somewhere, spilling more tracking blood and adding to attrition. I like limb-driven drop-aways for precision work, as they can be adjusted to support the arrow slightly longer, adding to accuracy. My long-range bows will usually hold a 10- to 12-inch, active stabilizer to steady a 40- to 60-yard pin while aiming at a distant target, and always a wrist sling to ensure proper, accuracy-enhancing loose-grip cradling.

Again, arrows and broadheads ultimately define the long-range outfit. Bowhunting long-range, thin-skinned, light-boned critters is the only time lightweight arrows make sense to me — and by light, we’re looking at shafts in the 6.5 to 8 gpi class in .340/350 spines. Carbon Tech’s Cheetah was the original here, today’s options including Victory’s RIP, Carbon Express’ Maxima XRZ, Easton’s Hexx, Gold Tip’s Airstike or Velocity Pro and Black Eagle’s Carnivore, just as examples. Streamlined mechanicals, when legal, are the obvious choice, aggressive designs cutting 1.75- to 2.3-inch swaths should a shot land slightly off due to wind gusts or an animal moving slightly. Rage’s X-treme, New Archery Products’ Spitfire Maxx, Trophy Ridge’s Rocket Siphon, Hammerhead XT or Meat Seeker, all represent ideals here. As a quick aside, the smallest game (such as turkeys and javelina) typically includes the same stipulations, as smaller vital areas and shifty targets require a larger margin for error afforded by such setups.

In states where mechanicals are illegal, and when targeting the big-game species detailed above, sleek mini heads with much lower cutting diameters become necessary to ensure straight flight, like NAP’s Thunderhead Nitro. Muzzy’s Merc or Flying Arrow’s Orion, just as examples.

I understand the attraction of a single no-nonsense, do-it-all setup for everything from rabbits to elk. It saves a lot of confusion and certainly better fits the budget of average bowhunters. But if you find yourself hunting a single species to the exclusion of all others, or are planning a special hunt for something with conditions maybe a bit out of your comfort zone, a purpose-driven setup really makes sense in helping you make the best of hard-won shot opportunities.


Sidebar: Is a Mover Bowsight for You?

Many savvy bowhunters choose mover sights for long-range chores. They add a measure of precision, as even the fastest bows include loopy trajectories and using fixed-pin gaps between even yardages is less than perfect. A single-pin mover allows dialing to an exact range and aiming right on.

All bowsights have pros and cons; a single-pin mover works well for long-range shots, especially when the shooter has plenty of time.
All bowsights have pros and cons; a single-pin mover works well for long-range shots, especially when the shooter has plenty of time.

The biggest problem with movers is they must be dialed before every shot, requiring more time to deploy properly. This isn’t a problem with the longest shots, as some contemplation should be involved. They are obviously more problematic in dynamic situations when animals are moving sporadically or passing through.

Another potential issue is forgetting to set the pin to the correct range before a sudden shot opportunity. Multi-pin movers — say three top pins holding 20, 30 and 40-yard spots — backed by long-range dialing capabilities have become more common and partially solve that problem.  

The latest movers include smooth-running gears operated through more streamlined adjustment knobs. They make a great option, when you have time, and given you remain cool under pressure and remember to adjust them correctly.

What about pendulum bowsights? I’m surprised pendulum sights aren’t more popular with the average whitetail hunter, as they solve problems inherent to shooting from elevated positions. In basic terms, they include a single pin on a swinging pendulum. This pin is sighted in at, say, 30 yards on flat ground (depending on model). From an elevated position they then provide compensated, point-on aiming at any target from directly beneath your stand to 30 to 35 yards. They remove a lot of guesswork when confronted by fleeting shot opportunities at intimate ranges. 

My best guess as to why they aren’t more popular is that bowhunters just don’t trust the technology. There is a lot of complicated geometry that goes into designing pendulum sights, and bowhunters just can’t wrap their heads around it. In average whitetail settings, especially tight cover where shooting beyond 30 yards is impossible, or at set ranges such as over bait, they create an ideal K.I.S.S. setup — one pin, aim right on every time, no second-guessing.


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