By Jeff Johnston
If you’ve been hunting whitetails for years, I’ll bet you’ve had a number of times where you did everything right but let a big animal slip away because you blew the shot. It happens. Get over it. And if you are relatively new to hunting, don’t laugh, because, brother, if you continue hunting, it’s going to happen to you, too. There are things you can do to minimize your misses. The best remedy is experience. The next best thing is practicing under duress.
Anyone can make a shot while sitting on a benchrest in the shade. Unfortunately, giant bucks don’t often prance around the 100-yard berm in full daylight. Your objective is to make your practice conditions even more difficult than the real thing and then, most importantly, to place mental pressure on yourself so you’ll become accustomed to it while executing a perfect shot.
Try these drills involving competition, audiences, wagers, shot timers, and random situations. In almost every case, getting a friend to help you is best, but I’ve written examples of a couple drills you can do by yourself.
The Pellet Gun Plink-Off
Requirements: A buddy, an adult pellet gun with a scope similar to your deer rifle, aluminum cans, a backyard, cash, string, and anything from which to hang the cans.
Drill: Hang five cans at distances ranging from 15 to 40 yards. One shooter shoots five shots at all five targets in one minute or less, timed by the other person. Then the next person shoots. A small wager should be made to increase the pressure of each relay. Taunting and verbal distraction is encouraged. Shots should be fired offhand. Most hits wins the round. If all five cans are hit, the shooter putting up the shortest elapsed time wins.
Benefit: Shooting a pellet gun with a scope similar to your deer rifle accustoms your eye to focusing on a target, raising the gun quickly and seeing the target through the scope, settling the crosshair, and pulling the trigger. If you jerk, you miss. The pressure added via pride and money will raise your heart rate slightly, mimicking a real shot on game. With enough repetition you’ll be amazed at how good an offhand shot you’ve become. And if you can hit a can offhand at 40 yards consistently, nailing a deer from your box blind will seem easy.
3D Archery Shoot
Requirements: Your hunting bow, set up exactly how you hunt with it; a dozen target arrows; binoculars; a 3D archery club; multiple competitors, who are equal to or above your skill level; little to no pride.
Drill: Ask the guys at your local bowshop about upcoming 3D shoots. Pick one, show up well ahead of time, join a group of shooters that best describes you, pay your money, listen to advice from officials, and shoot the match.
Benefit: For bowhunters, no practice beats a 3D tournament where the mere pressure of competition and the eyes of an audience can turn a normally dead-nuts shooter into an arrow-flinging fool. Trust me!
Fact is, few 3D shooters are great their first time in competition—mainly because they haven’t yet learned how to handle the pressure, the same kind of pressure that makes hands sweat, hearts flip, and pupils dilate when a true trophy steps into your lane. This is why you can use competition to your advantage. Learn how to focus—aiming small—while under pressure and learn how best to cope with it in your mind. Some competitors say they actually begin using the pressure as fuel to focus! Sure, not all hunters want to spend a Saturday competing against strangers, but it sure beats whiffing on that 170-inch double droptine when he stops at 34 yards between two oaks.
Solo Rifle Shoot
Requirements: A rimfire rifle set up like your deer rifle, shooting sticks, three cardboard targets (preferably deer shaped), thumbtacks, woods or brush country safe for shooting.
Drill: With your rifle slung, walk through the woods and tack each target to a tree at least 50 yards from each other. Then walk at least 50 yards away in a random direction before turning around and stalking the targets. As soon as you can see the vitals of a target, hastily find a stable shooting position and fire a round. Without pausing, assume another field position—using the best rest available—and fire another round. Your goal is to put the first shot on target in less than five seconds with both shots in vitals in less than 15 seconds. Then go check the target, mark the holes, stalk the next target, and repeat.
Benefit: By placing the targets randomly in the woods and then walking away from them, you’ll forget exactly where they are and what limbs or obstacles might be in the way of the shot. By getting into a shooting position using the first available object or shooting sticks for a steady rest, you’ll familiarize yourself with your equipment and become fast when shooting deer in any real-time situation.
Dress Rehearsal Bowhunt
Requirements: Your hunting bow; four practice arrows; a tree-stand; woods; at least one 3D deer target; the exact hunting outfit you intend to wear during the season from the waist up, including hat, gloves, facemask, shirt, safety harness, vest, jacket, etc. Even better if it’s raining or snowing or the sun is in your eyes.
Drill: Mimic an actual deer hunting scenario by setting up a treestand in the woods. Then randomly place a deer target somewhere between five yards and 10 yards past your maximum range. (Who knows—you might surprise yourself!) Climb the tree and secure yourself before taking one shot from a sitting position, one from squatting (as if you must shoot under a limb), one while facing 135 degrees to the right of the target (for a right-hander), and one while facing 45 degrees to the left of the target so you must twist your torso to shoot. Your goal is a tight group in the vitals. Climb down, place the target in another random location, and repeat. Challenge yourself in any way you can. Set goals and punish yourself if you miss. For example, if you miss, make yourself climb down, retrieve the arrow, and start all over until all four shots are true.
Benefit: More times than not, a big buck won’t just saunter directly in front of your treestand, turn broadside, and politely pause for you to make a target-range-type shot. Therefore, we shouldn’t always practice this way. Anticipate and practice for the worst-case scenarios so you’ll be better prepared when the giant of a lifetime comes in directly behind you and remains partially shielded by the one limb you forgot to cut down. After all, if you don’t lean out, crouch, or tippy-toe to make the shot right then and there, you likely won’t get another chance. Practicing under duress will up your odds of nailing him.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.