Bowhunting is one of the first forms of projectile hunting in history. The invention of the bow vastly changed the way our ancestors hunted and also what they hunted.
Overtime the bow evolved and took on new forms and shapes to suit the need of the time. The traditional longbow gave way to the asian “horsebow”, a composite bow made out of layers of animal horn and sinew glued together. That led to the more well known “recurve” bow, a bow in the shape of stretched out “W”. These recurve bows were stronger and more powerful than any bow of equal size that were made previously. Soon after that someone slapped a handle and frame on the recurve and from that the crossbow was born.
The crossbow and much cheaper recurve bows were used for the next 2,400 years until the compound bow came along in the 1960’s. This was a shorter, stiffer bow with a system of pulleys and cams at each end. This pulley system granted the user mechanical advantage and made it easier to pull and hold the bow fully drawn. It also made it far more accurate and consistent in shooting. Not long after the compound bow was invented the concept was transferred over to the crossbow resulting in the compound crossbow.
In this article we’ll be sticking to bows and not on crossbows. With advances in technology and archery equipment these days, shooting a crossbow is much like shooting a rifle with a more limited range. You have a scope, put the animal in the crosshairs, then pull the trigger (after a few tweaks for range compensation).
For me, archery season is about getting close to nature, getting back to my ancestral roots, my heritage. Firearm season is about getting meat and providing for the family if archery season is a flop. These are two completely different styles of hunting and require two different kinds of mindsets. Some people are such diehard bowhunters that they continue to use their bows from the start of archery season to the end of firearm season and never lay a finger on a rifle.
While this article is about bowhunting in general, a lot of it pertains directly to deer hunting or talks about deer hunting. We do touch some on other potential game animals for archery, but the main focus will be deer because this primary animal people tend to hunt with a bow.
Bowhunting is great for many reasons, here are some of my favorites:
-It’s a tradition for many hunting families.
-It allows you to feel closer to nature by being more in-tune with the animals you’re hunting and your surroundings.
-There is a rich sense of heritage and accomplishment when you make a kill bowhunting.
-It is an incredibly quiet form of hunting that won’t disturb the wildlife or neighbors around you.
-When bowhunting, most shots take place within 30-40yds. This makes it far less likely that you would hit something you’re not supposed to...like a person.
-It puts you on a more level playing field with the animal you’re hunting, giving the animal a fair chance.
-The rut usually happens during archery season. This is a time where deer are more active during the day and less suspicious of their surroundings due to their raging hormones.
-Best of all is the lack of hunting pressure. Everyone and their cousin hunts with a rifle. The deer know this and at the start of firearm season they actually become more nocturnal. During archery season deer tend to be more active and less wary of hunters during the day.
What Can I Hunt?
Almost anything you can hunt with a rifle you can hunt with a bow. Some animals are harder to hunt with a bow, specifically small animals and many game birds like quail and pheasant. However, with new innovations in archery there are many things you can hunt.
-Fish (technically bow fishing)
Gear & Materials
Archery hunting is a lot more difficult than firearm hunting. It involves getting up close and personal with the animal. To be as effective as possible this means you have to be aware of your appearance as well as your scent and try to mask both depending on what you’re hunting.
-Bow - There are many kinds of bows out there. The most popular is the compound bow for it’s accuracy and ease of use. For a more traditional hunt try a recurve. It takes a lot of practice and skill to use a recurve, but there is less to malfunction on them and they are easily repaired.
Make sure you match your bow to your level of strength. You can effectively kill a deer with a 40lb draw weight bow, in fact it's a minimum draw weight in many areas for hunting. There is no shame in hunting with a lower weight bow if it works for you. The shame comes in trying to be macho and pull back a 70+lb bow only to realize you’re too tired to achieve full draw. This results in bad form causing your shot to be off and possibly missing the animal or worse, hitting the animal in a non-vital area and causing it unnecessary suffering. The most important thing is shot placement, not speed or weight.
We have a great post comparing some of the top recurve bows of 2018. You can find it HERE.
-Arrows - This is the projectile that the bow propels. It’s extremely important to match the spine of the arrow (how stiff it the arrow is resulting in the amount of flex it has when released) to your bow and draw length. Over and under spined arrows will greatly affect your accuracy. Another important aspect is arrow weight and fletching placement and position.
Gold Tip's website has a great chart that will quickly show you what spine arrow you should be using for your bow and draw length. You can find that chart HERE.
-Broadheads - These are the cutting implements that are screwed or crimped onto the end of your arrows. They usually have 2-4 cutting edges and can be fixed or have a mechanical open that allows the blades to fold out upon impact.
One of the most important aspects is weight. These need to match the correct weight of your field tips (the tips you target shoot with) for a consistent shot. A heavier weight arrow and broadhead result in a slower but harder hitting arrow while a lighter arrow and broadhead combo results in a much quicker shot. Usually compound bows are set up for lighter faster arrows and recurve bows are set up for heavier harder hitting arrows. One of my favorite brands is Muzzy. They're cheap and effective.
-Camo - If you want to get close to your target then a good set of camo will go along way. The main purpose of good camo is to break up your silhouette, but nothing will save your from skylining. Match your camo to the correct time of year and the correct surroundings. Don’t use spring green camo in the middle of a snow blanketed forest.
-Facepaint - It is important to break up big blotches of skin. This will shine like a beacon in the night in a forest of greys and browns. Alternatively you can wear a facemask and gloves but i feel the facemask hinders hearing too much. But if you're short on funds or left yours at home, a piece of charred wood from your campfire will get the job done.
-Decoys - Majority of the time people only use them for turkey hunting, but deer and elk decoys are gaining in popularity rapidly like these:
-Lures, Baits, Attractants - For deer hunting, bait is illegal in many places, especially if you’re hunting public grounds. Bait basically consists of something the deer can actually eat or ingest such as corn, apples, or apple flavored pellets and nuggets (one of their favorite treats).
Regulations on lures and attractants tend to be more lax and are for the most part allowed. They usually consist of things like doe estrus (doe in heat) urine, or buck urine. Some people go as far as using vanilla food flavoring on their boots and clothes but I can’t personally attest to its effectiveness.
I really like Tink's brand products. I've had good luck with them in the past so they are what i tend to use personally.
-Scent Killer and Cover Scents - When someone mentions scent killers they tend to be talking about deer hunting. By far a deer’s best sense is it’s sense of smell. A downwind deer can smell a person up to two miles away. That's why cover scents and scent killers are super important.
Don’t be confused and think just because you spray some fancy bottle all over yourself that a deer can’t smell you. You’re wrong. It just helps them to not smell you as well. Consider it more like blurring or dulling your scent to them. It is still incredibly important to hunt with your face into the wind whenever possible, this carries your scent away instead of to the deer.
Scent killers literally kill many odors causing bacteria that create human scents. They work for a little while until you start sweating profusely or it wears off. Frequent reapplication is necessary and the key to utilizing scent killers. Cover scents on the other hand are meant to make a deer feel more at ease or even draw them to you. They don’t really hide your scent, just make the hopefully focus on that scent and not yours. This can be difficult considering deer can smell up to 6 scents at the same time..
Wildlife Research makes one of my favorite brands of scent killer. It comes in autumn scent which is essentially fresh earth. I spray it on all of my gear and clothes and it has worked well for me.
Cover scents usually come in fresh earth, pine, or acorn scent. Match your cover scent choice to what natural vegetation is in your area. If your area is heavy in oak then the acorn scent may be the way to go. Got alot of pine in your area? Try a crack at the pine scent. If you’re not sure, the earth scent it a good fail-safe.
Below are two of the primary types of cover scent I use if I use any. I clip the wafers on my hat and clothes and spray the acorn scent on the bottom of my boots.
-Ground Blinds - Blinds can be tricky with bowhunting, especially if you use a popup one. Make sure they have enough room to reach full draw and swivel around to aim in. If you’re on your own property you can build a more permanent blind and many people do. The downside is that they tend to be on the pricey side since they have to be large enough to be able to draw and handle your bow properly.
Ground blinds are usually avoided in archery for the sheer cumbersomeness of them but they do have their place in certain areas. A good alternative is a piece of camo fabric. They fold up flat, are easy to pack, and can be set up with a few stakes or string. Then you have a portable, lightweight blind that is also super cheap as well.
-Treestands - This is pretty much a staple for 90% of the bowhunting population, especially for deer hunters. The treestand has many advantages over the ground blind. One being that deer tend not to look up unless provoked. Another is that your scent will carry much further when you are elevated, a lot of times carrying it right over the deer keeping you hidden. One of the best reasons to use a treestand is the vantage point. You can see a lot farther up in the air than you can on the ground. This lets you glass a much farther area for deer than you normally could on the ground.
Tree stands basically come in two types, hanging and ladder. If the stand is going to be there a while a ladder stand may be more beneficial, but if mobility is your main goal a hanging treestand is better. They also make climbing treestands where no ladder is required.
No matter which treestand you choose, be sure not to forget your safety harness!!!
-Calls - There are a couple of different kinds of deer calls on the market today. Each one has its own time of year that it’s best used and it’s own particular situation to use it in.
The Grunter - this is a call that sounds like a deer grunting. Most of them are made to mimic bucks grunting, but some can adjust pitch to mimic does and even young bucks. The main purpose of this call is to make a rutting buck think another buck is on his territory. These are best used during the rut and pre-rut.
Rattle Call - This is either two shed deer antlers or two mock/imitation antler. Your hit and scrape these together to mimic two bucks fighting over a doe or territory. These are best used during the pre-rut when bucks are still determining territories but can still be effective during the rut.
The Bleat - A bleating call mimics a doe calling. This draws in the bucks that are actively searching for potential mates. Use this during the rut, but use it sparingly.
Fawn Distress - A fawn distress call is used to call in a mature doe. It can even activate maternal instincts in a doe that doesn't have fawns and bring them in to protect what they think is an abandoned fawn in danger. This is best used later in the season after the rut when most of the mating is over.
The best thing to do with deer calling is try to make a enact a specific scenario, such as a buck chasing a hot doe or two bucks fighting over said doe. You can place a little doe estrus on a scent wick and start bleating lightly every 15 or so minutes. Switch over to your grunter to imitate an interested buck. After that swap to your rattlers and imitate two bucks fighting over the doe. It doesn't have to be that particular scenario, but just something in your head as to why you’re making that call. Just blindly calling is not very believable or effective. Do research on each kind of call and why the deer make them. Deer are surprisingly vocal and have many tones and inflections that mean many things.
Hunting techniques for bows are pretty standard across the board no matter what you’re hunting. You can use a ground blind, a treestand, or stalk. Those are the best and most used options.
-Ground Blind Hunting - Just like I mentioned in the gear section, these are hard to use for a bow if it isn’t large enough. You also have to gave a great location. Ground blinds are best utilized on your own property where you can leave them out for a few months. This allows the deer time to get used to them and see that they aren’t a threat.
When you put them in an area for the first time deer can become leery of them and shy away. With this kind of blind it's always best to give them a couple days or weeks if possible to get used to it’s presence. That just doesn’t include synthetic ground blinds either. It could be a natural blind you made by stacking logs or branches or a pile of brush you stacked in a good location. The same principal applies. Give them time to see its safe and get used to it.
-Treestand Hunting - Pick a thick strong tree with a straight trunk that overlooks an active area where game trails converge or on the outskirts of a good food plot. You don’t want to hang your treestand too low or too high. About 20ft is a good height. This is a good height to be avoided by deer but still gives you a decent angle for solid kill zone shots.
Make sure to keep the bulk of your body against the tree trunk and avoid skylining (showing your silhouette in the sky). Stay incredibly still and only attempt full draw when the animal walks behind a tree and can’t see you. Then you can shoot when it walks into an established “shooting lane”. This just a clear path free of branches or undergrowth that allows for an unhindered shot. Most treestand hunters make these paths early in the season or carry a small folding saw to clear branches if need be.
-Stalking - Stalking is the most difficult method of deer hunting. One mistake and the deer flee in a hurry. It is completely possible and many people do it on a regular basis. You have to have a level head, think about what the animal is, the topography of the area, how you walk, the noise you make, and the wind direction.
Many things can go wrong, but if you master stalking you aren’t limited to only the deer that walk past your blind or stand. I won’t go into much detail about stalking since it’s the hardest form of hunting and I could easily write an entire article on that alone, but just know you walk extremely slowly, incredibly silently, and with your face in the wind, staying behind cover whenever possible.
It is important to note that if you are ever spotted by a deer (while stalking or otherwise) to remain 100% still and quiet as possible. Many times the deer will dismiss the movement and go back to feeding or whatever it was doing. The exception is if the wind is blowing. If a deer spots you in the wind start swaying a little bit like you are a tree or tall grass. I have gotten within 20yds of a deer in tall grass simply by only moving when all three of the deer put their heads down or turned their heads in the opposite direction. It took over two hours to close in that distance, patience is key.
-When hunting deer, smell is king. A deer will smell you long before it sees you. Always hunt into the wind and use scent control if possible.
-Deer see most colors in shades of grey except for blue. The color blue they can see incredibly well and should be avoided when hunting. The color blue will shine like a beacon in a sea of grey to them.
-Although deer can’t see colors (except blue) very well, like most prey animals they can spot movement very well. Sit very still and avoid sudden movements. When you’re ready to draw your bow wait until the animal goes behind a tree and you are out of sight. Just pretend its an adult game of red light green light. When the deer is behind a tree or shrub, that's green light!
-If you’re not the best shot, stick to chisel tip broadheads. They are designed to break bone in the event you hit a rib or a shoulder.
-Whisker biscuits aren’t just a funny name. They help silence your string after you shoot, preventing animals from “jumping the string”. This is where the audible twang of the string being released frightens the animal (usually deer), causing them to jump. This will result in either a hard miss or a poorly placed shot that can cause the animal to suffer a great deal before expiring.
-The kill zone in a deer is about the size of a pie plate. This is a good size target to try and practice on to get a feel for your distances.
-Pop-up ground blinds are noisy and cumbersome. Instead try packing some camo netting or burlap blind material. They don’t make a ton of noise when rustled and you can attach them between two trees. This works great for turkeys.
-Know your kill zones from different angles. Many times you will be presented with a shot that isn’t perfect. An ethical hunter should know the where they kill zone is from the angle they are trying to hit the animal or not take the shot at all.
-When hunting deer in early season locate the soft mast, in late season look for hard mast. A great place to look is around white oak. This is a favorite among many forest animals including deer.
-Know the animal you’re hunting. This is a guide to bowhunting, not deer hunting. I won’t go into detail, but you should know eating, bedding, mating, and anything else you can find out on the animal you’re trying to hunt. Many animals change eating and bedding habits depending on the time of year so be prepared for that.
Bowhunting is a great way to keep the tradition alive and get up close and personal with nature. It allows you to directly pit yourself in a battle of wits against another animal, making a successful hunt all the more rewarding.
One of the best reasons to bowhunt is all of the forest newbies tend to stay at home. We tend to have pick of the crop when it comes to deer because of the lack of hunting pressure during archery season. This makes deer more relaxed and allows them to move about more during the day. The places you never see deer during firearm season could be a potential goldmine during archery season.
The bottom line is that bowhunting requires a great deal more skill than firearm hunting. Many lazy hunters don't want to put forth the effort to becoming skilled and patient enough to go bowhunting. The result is less hunting pressure, more deer, and less people in the woods. A perfect scenario for anyone who doesn’t have their own land to hunt and must resort to the dense hunter-populated, over-hunted areas we call public hunting grounds.
If you know of any secret tips or other helpful hunting tricks for new bow hunters leave a comment below or drop us a line on Facebook, Twitter, or even email.