Here is where to aim and when to release your arrow, whether the deer is standing or moving.
There are two important aspects of mental shot preparation, and both must be addressed before a trophy buck walks into bow range. First, the hunter must know the proper point of aim on a whitetail. He also needs to know what to do when dealing with a moving target deer. Let’s discuss each of these critical questions. Before we get into where we should aim to be most effective, let me say that I believe there is only one shot that should be taken at a deer with an arrow. That, of course, is when the deer is broadside or nearly so, allowing the broadhead to slice through both lungs. A whitetail has a lot of stamina, and a one-lung shot can result in a lost trophy. Such a shot might not even be fatal. A mature whitetail buck takes a lot of killing.
A few years ago, while bowhunting in central Illinois, I made the terrible mistake of shooting a 10-pointer down though the top of his back. I knew better; however, with the buck only four yards from the base of my tree and walking straight toward me, I believed I could break his spine or hit his heart. But somehow, the shot went awry. As the deer ran off, I could see more than a foot of my arrow sticking out just about dead center between his shoulder blades.
After giving the buck more than an hour, I began trailing him. Not long after I began to do so, I found the fletched end of my arrow. The shaft had been broken off as the deer had passed under a limb. It became apparent from the distance he had traveled before blood showed up that my broadhead had not penetrated the bottom of his chest. The deer had about 14 inches of my arrow’s shaft and a 3-bladed broadhead still in his chest. With no exit wound, he simply could not get rid of the remaining portion of the arrow.
Once the buck did start to bleed out the entry wound, I found foamy bubbles of blood on vegetation he had passed through. It was obvious that I had shot down through one lung, more than likely from top to bottom. I had no doubt that the buck would soon be dead, and I was just as certain I would find him.
To make a long story short, I searched for the deer for five straight days, to no avail. Then, six days after the hit, I again climbed into the same stand from which I had shot the buck. After about an hour of hunting, I was amazed to see the same big 10-pointer come down the same ridge, looking for does. When the big buck was about 60 yards from my stand, he dropped off the side of the ridge and circled around me. I knew one lung was shot down through, and I was just as certain that my broadhead and the front end of my shaft remained in his chest. Nevertheless, there he was, looking as fit as ever. I was relieved to see that he had recovered from my attempt to shoulder mount him on a shiny oak board.
Surely this points out the tenacity of these amazing animals. I will never again shoot an arrow at a deer that is not offering me a broadside shot – and, in my opinion, neither should you. Therefore, when I am discussing aiming point, it should be assumed that the deer is standing broadside to the hunter, or very nearly so.
It is my belief there are only two points of aiming variations a bowhunter should use for deer while hunting from a tree stand. This system keeps things simple, and it is all that is needed. As discussed in the previous chapter, close shots (a few yards from the stand out to around 20 yards) have the greatest potential to hit high. If you have your first (top) pin set at 16 yards, you will have removed a lot of the potential for this problem. However, that does not solve the problem completely. I believe one reason for high hits is the way we aim at deer, especially at close range on rushed shots.
As you know, during the rut things can happen really fast. When bucks start looking for and chasing does, there might be no deer in sight one minute – then, the buck of a lifetime is moving past your stand the next. Whether he stops on his own or you stop him, you know he is not going to stand there for long. As you draw the bow and lower your sight onto the buck, what is going through your mind? It should be, Pick a spot. However, more times than not you will be thinking, I have got to shoot before he takes off. So, as soon as your sight gets down into the hair a few inches behind the buck’s shoulder, you shoot. Because you rushed the shot, your pin might have been only three or four inches down on the buck. This, combined with the deer’s ducking reaction to the sound of the shot, can easily result in the arrow sailing over his back.
This is precisely what happened with a buck that still haunts me. The bowhunt took place many years ago, but I will never forget it. Neither will I forget the way the other bowhunter looked as he fast-stepped down the road toward me about two hours into the hunt. What in the world is that fellow all excited about? I wondered. It was obvious from his gestures that he wanted me to step into the woods. He is probably all worked up about a little doe he is dogging, I concluded as I walked down the road toward him. However, the man’s excitement and persistent hand signals directing me to enter the woods to my left continued; so, reluctantly, I followed his instructions.
Just as I entered the woods, I looked up and saw a giant-bodied buck running toward me. His headgear was also spectacular. He had a huge-framed rack with multiple brow tines on each side. As I began to prepare for a shot to my left, where the buck’s course would take him, he stopped and looked back over his shoulder at the excited little man following him. The buck was now standing 17 yards from me, almost straight broadside, with his head turned away from me. This is my chance, I thought, and I had better hurry.
I jerked my bow back as quietly as I could and began to lower my sight onto that hog-like body. As soon as my sight pin was on the high-lung area, I shot. The last thing on my mind was that my sight pin was set for 23 yards and that the target was 17. The arrow centered a pine after sailing six or seven inches over the buck’s back. I knew my mistake as soon as the arrow hit, and I would have given my eye teeth to have had the shot opportunity again. Part of the reason I missed this great buck was because of the way my sight was set. Part of it was the way I intended to aim. And finally, part of it was my target deer. To fully understand why I was set up for disaster, you need to know a little about the background of this hunt. With this information in hand, perhaps you can avoid a similar mindset and outcome.
When using your top sight pin (shots of under 21 yards, using the author?s aiming system), place the pin two inches above the deer?s foreleg elbow, as indicated here by the red dot.
The hunt took place at an Army armory plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was the first time the plant had been opened to hunting in recent years, and I was lucky enough to have been drawn for a tag. There was no opportunity to scout or even pick the area we would hunt; we were bused in and dropped off at different spots on the property. Considering the situation, I figured I had just as good a chance hunting from the ground as from a tree. At least, I could do so until I had been able to look the area over.
While thinking about my sight-pin setting, I came to a conclusion that in the end would cost me an unbelievable trophy: I decided to use only one pin. Due to the sudden onslaught of hunters into the area – most of them moving around on the ground – I figured that any shot would likely have to be made quickly, at a deer that was being pushed. I reasoned that one sight pin would help me get the shot off faster. I also decided to set it at 23 yards. Because I was hunting from the ground, I reasoned that any shot would probably be longer than if hunting from a tree stand. That, in a nutshell, is why I set my one pin as I did.
On shots of 21 yards or longer, it is advisable to aim for the center of the deer?s chest. Even if he drops slightly at the sound of the shot, your arrow will still hit him squarely in the vitals.
The aiming system I would use seemed simple. If a buck was 21 to 25 yards out, I would put the pin in the middle of his chest and shoot. If he was out around 30 yards, I would put the pin on top of his back. If he was 20 yards or closer, I would simply aim low on the chest.
It was a good plan on paper; the only problem was that I failed to figure into my scheme what might happen to my brain when a monster buck presented me with a rushed shot opportunity. When the non-typical ran up, my brain turned into mush; the farthest thing from my mind was making an aiming adjustment. Because of the way my sight pin was set, as well as the fact that I had no exact aiming point in mind (nor had I practiced one beforehand), I missed one of the best deer I have ever seen. Do not let this happen to you. Have a clearly defined aiming point in mind before the shot opportunity happens.
There are only two aiming points I use on deer. The first we will look at is for close-yardage shots. To give yourself added insurance on those critical close shots, make sure you aim low. When aiming with the top sight pin (under 21 yards), I recommend that you pick an aiming spot two inches above the foreleg elbow. If you aim at this spot and the deer does not react at the sound of the release, you will hit around the center of the heart. If the deer drops a slight amount, the broadhead will hit somewhere around the top of the heart or in the lower lungs. If the deer drops six to nine inches, the hit will still be well within the lungs. I believe that if you use this aiming point for shots that are under 21 yards, you will have great results.
Of course, if a buck is extremely close beneath you, you will need to move your point of aim up onto the chest somewhat, so that the arrow’s angle will take it down through the main part of the chest cavity. In preparation for either scenario, practice on a deer target (preferably a 3-D buck target) over and over until finding the proper aiming point becomes second nature to you. Then, hopefully, when you are faced with that rushed shot at a monster buck, you will automatically drop the pin to just the right spot before you shoot.
The only other aiming variation I use is for shots out past 20 yards. I have found that it is not necessary to aim low at longer distances, because most of the reasons for high shots do not exist at those ranges. Another reason I do not aim low at longer shots is because of the margin for error. As you know, as shot distance increases, the exact placement of the arrow decreases. So to give you the least chance for error on longer shots, aim for the center of the deer’s chest. To do this, pick a spot to aim at midway between the top line of the deer’s back and the bottom line of his chest, just behind the shoulder. Practice these two aiming variables until they become automatic in the field.
To review, if the target deer is at a distance at which you would aim with the top sight pin (under 21 yards), aim about two inches above the foreleg elbow. (If the deer is very close to you, aim a bit higher.) At 21 yards or farther, aim midway down the deer’s chest, just behind the shoulder. I believe that if you give this method a try, you will be pleased with the results.
As most of us have found out, not all deer walk up and stop in shooting lanes. Therefore, you need a game plan worked out before a trophy buck comes moving past your stand. The system I am about to show you will give you a game plan whether the deer is walking at 10 yards, walking at 30 yards or even running. More than anything else, this system gives a hunter confidence, because with it we have a game plan in place beforehand. This puts us in control, with the knowledge to react quickly, calmly and correctly when we encounter a big buck that does not want to cooperate.
Most hunters simply lack the skills needed to hit a running whitetail in the vitals with archery gear. The best plan is to draw the bow as the deer approaches, then try to stop it with a grunt.
First, let’s look at what we should do when confronted with a running target buck. Most hunters simply do not have the skills needed to hit a running deer precisely with archery equipment, so try to stop the animal. When a buck you want to arrow is running in your direction, draw your bow well before he gets within range. Do not wait too long; a running deer can cover ground quickly and be on you before you know it. Draw your bow and follow him as he comes in. When the buck is broadside as close as his course will bring him, grunt with your mouth. Be sure you grunt loudly enough to stop him.
Where the buck will stop is anyone’s guess. If he stops in an opening, place the appropriate sight picture on the target spot and shoot. You will need to get the shot off as quickly as possible, because you never know how long he will stand for you. However, in your haste to shoot, be sure you do not release until the sight picture is where it should be on the deer.
If there is cover between you and the buck’s chest when he stops, hold up on the shot but remain ready. He might take a step or two, offering you a shot. If he remains stationary behind cover, it might help to grunt again. He might take a step to get a better view of the area the sound is coming from, exposing his chest in the process. When confronted with a running buck, the odds are stacked against you up front. However, if you will keep these things in mind, you might be able to make a good shot. Now let’s consider what to do when old “Tyrone” is walking by your stand. There are too many variables for most bowhunters to take a shot at a walking deer much beyond 17 yards. If he is farther than that, try to stop him.
I picked 17 yards as my cutoff point because if he is walking inside this distance, there is only one “aiming lead” that has to be used (more on this later). However, if he is out past this distance the lead will vary, depending on how far away he is and how fast he is walking. That would be a lot to think about in the excitement of the moment.
When confronted with this situation, draw your bow as the buck approaches shooting range. Track him with your sight while looking ahead for an opening. When he enters the opening, grunt with your mouth, and do so loudly enough to get the job done. (If you start too softly and have to grunt two or three times, he might be in cover again before he stops. However, do not blurt out a grunt that is so loud you spook him.)
You will need to get the shot off as soon as you are on the deer. Just do not get in such a hurry that you neglect to put the sight picture where it should be before you release. I believe you will have good success if you use this approach on deer that are walking out past 17 yards. Now let’s look at what to do with a walking deer that is 17 yards or closer. As the deer approaches, draw your bow and follow him with your top sight pin, looking ahead for an opening at least three feet wide. As the buck approaches the opening, place the pin on the center of his shoulder and keep it there as he walks. Release as he enters the opening.
This “center-shoulder” lead is the only point of aim to have in mind. If you place the pin on the center of the shoulder and release properly, the shot will be good. I have used this method many times over the years, and it has always worked out for a lung hit. If the deer is out around 17 yards, the arrow will enter four to six inches behind the shoulder: still well within the lungs. If the deer is only five or six yards from you, the arrow will enter close to the shoulder. Either shot is a good hit. I used this center-shoulder lead on a 15-yard shot at a Pope & Young 8-pointer in November 2002, and the hit was perfect.
If a deer is walking at a range of 17 yards or closer, use a center-shoulder lead and release as the animal walks. Doing so will result in an effective hit slightly behind the shoulder. If the deer is farther than 17 yards, it is advisable that you stop him before releasing your arrow.
There are reasons I do not like to try to stop a buck that is closer than 17 yards. First, if you grunt at him, he might pinpoint the sound, look up and see you. Also, a walking deer is not as likely to “duck” at the sound of the shot as is a standing deer.
One final note about walking deer is in order here. If the animal is walking in thick cover with only small openings, try to stop him in one of them, regardless of the distance. It is hard to shoot a buck that is walking through a small opening, even at close range, and not strike some obstruction with your arrow.
The author arrowed this mature Illinois 8-pointer as the deer walked past his tree stand at 15 yards in November 2002. Using a center-shoulder lead resulted in a perfect double-lung hit.
Trophy Whitetails, published by North American Whitetail magazine)