February 20, 2009 by  

By Curt Wells

Success from the 5-stop program

Success from the 5-stop program

Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a bowhunter like the sound of hoof steps behind him. It can paralyze you with terror – unless you’re ready for it.

I heard that petrifying sound one November morning in North Dakota, just as the day filtered into the trees. It stunned me because I fully expected approaching deer to come from any other point on the compass except north.

I barely remember standing up, carefully picking my bow up off the hanger, clipping on my release, coming to full draw, settling the twenty yard pin on the buck’s last rib as he was walking away and touching off the shot. It seemed like a single move, producing no memorable glitches or moments of terror – besides the realization this was the 140-class buck I’d been after for weeks.

From the time my ears picked up that first step in the dry cottonwood leaves to the moment when my bowstring quit vibrating couldn’t have been more than twenty seconds.

Every once-in-awhile, things just happen the way they should.

That’s the bowhunter’s first and only goal – make things happen as they should. It’s not easy. It’s like a golfer’s swing. A multitude of things have happen throughout the process, all in the correct order, and all without fail, or bad things happen. Here are five steps that can help reduce the fear of those “hoof steps behind you.”


Most of us practice while standing flat-footed, in street clothes, on level ground, in warm temperatures with a well-tuned bow. That’s fine for building muscles, familiarity with your equipment and consistent accuracy. However, it’s a long way from “real” practice, which is essential to successful bowhunting.

Elevate your position similar to your stand when practicing

Elevate your position similar to your stand when practicing

You’ve read the advice for years about shooting with your hunting clothes on and from elevated stands but that’s not always easy or practical. Dressing up in your November hunting garb and shooting on a warm August day doesn’t hurt but you’re not actually simulating real time hunting situations.

You’re also not shooting the same bow. Let me explain. Just because your bow is tuned and ready to go in August doesn’t mean it’ll perform exactly the same in late November. Strings and buss cables can creep over time because of shooting or excessive heat and that can alter the synchronization/timing of the cam/s on your bow. Your point of impact can change. The bumps and bangs of normal use throughout an ongoing season can also alter the way your bow, arrows and body perform together. Just transporting your bow in and out of a vehicle or up and down a tree countless times can change things.

What’s the point? Real practice means shooting at 3-D targets from elevated stands and blinds during the summer months, but it also means practicing during the hunting season with all your hunting gear in play. Cutting way back on practice once the season opens is a common mistake made by lots of bowhunters.

A portable broadhead target should be your best friend. Keep it in your vehicle, in the yard or wherever you can get easy access to it. Get in the habit of taking the time to shoot a few arrows at any opportunity. I especially like to throw my target in the ditch and shoot several arrows before walking out to my treestand. When I get back to the truck from my morning hunts I do the same. I also have a treestand up in my yard and will do some mid-season practice from an elevated position just to simulate treestand shooting. If I plan to hunt from a ground blind, I’ll pop it up and shoot from my knees or from a chair so I know what to expect in all situations.

That kind of practice really builds my shooting confidence but more importantly, it will quickly and consistently reveal any problems with my equipment or clothing. If a bow limb creaks or the arrow squeals as it’s drawn across the rest, I’ll hear it. If my sight pins have changed or strings/cables have crept, I’ll notice a change in the way my peep turns or my arrow’s point of impact. And if my clothing is noisy or my binoculars or rangefinder interfere with the bowstring, I can identify and address the problem.

Think about what kind of shot could be presented, anticipate the clothing and gear you’ll be using then engage in “real” practice during the hunting season.


You need to wring three things out of your hunting clothing – silence, comfort and concealment – in that order of importance. I demand ultimate silence from my hunting clothes. I detest Velcro for obvious reasons and the material and linings of my hunting clothes cannot generate the slightest noise as I move to draw and shoot. On a cold, calm November morning when a mature whitetail buck is ambling by at ten yards you cannot afford even the softest swish of a sleeve or the back of your jacket against a tree trunk. Even my boots must be quiet and I’ll often wear a fleece boot cover or even lay a small rug on the stand surface to silence the movement of my feet.

Take the time to get concealed properly

Take the time to get concealed properly

Comfort may come after silence but that doesn’t mean it is any less important. Without comfort you’ll lose patience and determination. If you’re hot, cold, wet or sweaty you’ll find an excuse to leave your treestand or blind and that’s counterproductive.

Start off with a base layer of high-tech underwear such as Under Armour, Mossy Oak Vaportec, Cabela’s MTP Silk, polypropylene or even just natural silk. These and other materials will not absorb the body moisture generated by hiking into your stand or blind, but will transfer it to the next layer where it can more easily evaporate. The process keeps moisture away from your skin and that’s critical to comfort. You may feel sweaty once you get settled into your stand but you’ll dry off much quicker than if you wear cotton, which takes forever to dry out.

The second layer should also be a non-absorbing material such as polar fleece. Then add layers as the weather dictates. If the weather is extremely cold you’ll need a wind barrier in one of the outer layers. Just be sure that layer isn’t too noisy. Carbon clothing can provide some protection from the wind but offers no insulating properties.

Boots should keep you warm first and foremost. An insulated rubber boot works well to reduce your scent on the trail but they must be kept dry inside if you plan to stay warm. I use boot driers every night when possible and even have a portable set I take with me on trips. Another good idea is to use a pair of the fleece boot covers such as Cabela’s Baer’s Feet or Crooked Horn Outfitter’s Safari Sneakers. Not only will these products keep your feet warmer but, as mentioned above, they will significantly reduce the noise your feet make when shuffling around on your treestand.

Of course, matching the camouflage pattern to the terrain you’re hunting is important but it’s third on our list of priorities.

All other clothing considerations should be directed toward both silence and comfort so you’ll never have an excuse to leave your stand.


Elevate your position similar to your stand when practicing

Elevate your position similar to your stand when practicing

If you think readiness is not a crucial factor when hunting from a treestand, you haven’t hunted whitetails very long. Hours, days, even weeks of boredom can be interspersed with seconds of horror when a shooter buck appears out of nowhere and offers you a shot before you realize what just happened.

There’s an art to staying ready, whether you’re in a tree or a ground blind. The most important factor is that your bow is positioned so that it takes little effort or time to grab it and get to full draw. The best way to do that is to use a bowhanger of some sort. I like the Realtree Ezy-Hangers, but any similar product will work fine. Get your bow hanging out in front of you and in a position where you don’t have to awkwardly turn completely around to free it from the hanger. Load it with an arrow and carefully scan your equipment to make sure there are no obvious problems. It’s not that hard to miss a small twig caught in your cam that could ruin your day or derail your bow.

Double check everything from the sharpness of your broadhead to the location of your peep sight to the orientation of your fletching on the arrow rest. Leave nothing to chance.

Pay attention. If a buck appears out of thin air, you’re not paying attention. I’m constantly scanning my surroundings and will frequently use binoculars to penetrate the woods like radar. More than once that habit has tripped the alarm on an approaching buck, allowing me time to get ready or do some calling/rattling to bring him closer. Also, take the time to use a rangefinder to range various landmarks around you, then have it handy in case you need it quickly.


When its almost time, get in position carefully

When it's almost time, get in position carefully

The second you hear or see anything start thinking about posturing for the shot. Start getting your body in position and that starts with your feet, even if you’re sitting down in a treestand or a blind. Don’t wait until it’s time to shoot to start making your move. Be cautious, however, and don’t move until you’ve located the approaching animal and you’re sure it can’t see or hear you. If not, get in position as soon as physically possible so there’s no question you’re ready.

Even if you’re in a ground blind you must take care of your footwork, or kneework as the case may be. No, the animal may not be able to see you but the noise you’ll create by moving can easily blow the whole encounter if you wait until the last minute.

The smart bowhunter keeps his body aimed 90 degrees from the most likely angle of the shot. For example, if you’re relatively certain a shot could be presented to the north, and you’re right-handed, you’ll want to be facing east as you wait. That’s true whether you’re in a treestand or kneeling on the ground waiting for a bull elk to show up. You can cover a much wider radius to your left (opposite for lefties) than to your right, which is for all intents and purposes, a dead zone.

Achieving the correct posture well before the shot will ensure you’ll be able to draw smoothly, aim effectively and deliver a perfect arrow.


This is the one we all struggle with. Every bowhunter is affected differently depending on the situation. For some, maintaining composure on a raghorn bull elk is much easier than dealing with a 160-inch whitetail buck, an 80-inch pronghorn, or a 190-class muley buck. The guy who is cold-blooded on feral hogs, gobblers and whitetails can come apart at the seams when a 350-inch caribou bull strolls into range. Or a bowhunter who can calmly face down a 70-inch bull moose may completely lose his composure in the presence of a 90-inch Coues deer buck.

If you don’t know by now that archery/bowhunting is primarily a mental game, you’ll learn. We become comfortable with what’s familiar. Spend a lot of time hunting a particular species and that experience will help you be tougher mentally. On the other hand, if you are hopelessly addicted to a particular species, that drive can ratchet up your intensity which can amplify your buck fever, for lack of a better phrase.

The old tried and true advice about ignoring the antlers or horns is excellent because it works. The worst thing you can do is start counting points, estimating score and envisioning the animal on your wall. It’s the kiss of death. Or shall I say, non-death?

Once I’ve locked on to an incoming target, my only thoughts are on the vitals and what I have to do to put an arrow into them. I’m busy anticipating the animal’s course, scanning shooting lanes, estimating ranges, considering the anatomy of the shot, deciding when to draw and whether I’ll have to stop the animal with a bleat. I simply don’t have time to look at the headgear and since I’ve already made the decision to take the animal, that bone or horn becomes irrelevant to me. Well, that’s the plan anyway.

Do I get nervous? Damn right I do and I’ll quit when I don’t. Even if I decide to take a management doe, my heart rate automatically takes a jump. I get very excited but because I’m so busy taking care of the business of making the shot I sort of put that excitement on hold. Once the arrow is gone, it all comes flooding back to reality causing my leg to shake and cardiovascular system to kick in the afterburners.
Another factor that is of great help in stressful situations is the subconscious knowledge that I’ve taken care of the first four steps. I don’t have lingering doubts or fears about something going wrong because I’ve attended to those details. I don’t worry about missing because I’ve practiced and know I can make the shot or I wouldn’t come to full draw. I know my equipment inside and out and am confident it will perform the way I expect it to. I’m certain my clothes won’t hurt me and I know I’m in position to make a good shot. All things physical are in order. The rest is up to me.

Confidence is the foundation of success in all aspects of life. In bowhunting you must earn confidence, reinforce it with experience, then use it as a weapon. Follow these five steps to a kill and you’ll discover it’s never a matter of “if.” The only questions are “when?” and “how big?”


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