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Cool Hand Luke



For those of us that make bowhunting a lifestyle, preparation for next season begins the day after archery season ends. For others, it might be a casual hobby or maybe you’re a weekend warrior. There’s nothing wrong with any intensity level of bowhunting as long as you’re a bowhunting! As preparation levels differ for each individual and hunting intensities differ, we all have one thing in common… the desire to have ice water flowing through our veins during the moment of truth. The perfect shot at the perfect moment for a perfect kill. Just a few seconds can define months of preparation, work and your whole season. No pressure right?

Don’t Overthink or Overwork Yourself

I didn’t plan on killing a bull the evening I killed this Wyoming bull. I was posted up watching a few bulls interacting and this bull chased a smaller 6 over to me. I couldn’t pass up the 10 yard shot. Some times the best thing you can do in the elk woods is nothing.

During the first few years I started bowhunting as a teenager, I figured if I worked hard success would follow. That’s how I was raised and it worked for me. I figured if I hunted hard enough and covered enough country I could catch up to the better odds and get an arrow bloody. Unfortunately, in the life of a bowhunter busting my butt didn’t always translate into success. That very statement is what got me hooked on bowhunting at a young age in NW Montana. It was a challenge that didn’t have a clear-cut equation of success. I became quickly submersed and enthralled in a lifestyle that was mine to define with success controlled by fate.
As my first few seasons went by I notched whitetail doe tags and turkeys. But my primary goal was a bull elk. All I could think about was elk. That’s all that mattered to me.

Each year my method of pursuit in the bowhunting of elk was shaped and refined by failure and heartbreak. I never wanted to achieve anything so badly in my life. After my fourth season I finally found success. Killing my first elk with my bow solidified archery in my life and I haven’t looked back since. So what did I learn?
First, I started hunting where there was a decent elk population, the more opportunity the better chance of success. No brainer! As I began to understand elk, their movements and habits, I quit working so hard. Working your butt off only gets you so far. About to the point where you’ve found a bull you want to kill. Punching your tag from there comes from luck and skill.

Killing the bull takes a change of mindset, a changed of speed and the ability to roll with the flow. Rolling with the flow, move for move, is a chess match. As I began developing that attitude over the last five years, making the shot became easier and easier. The moment of truth became routine. Once I found the mindset I needed, success found me in the elk woods.

Don’t Choke on Easy Shots

I think every bowhunter has choked at some point in their career. It’s hard not to dwell on it but simply learn from them and move on. Also, realize you’re only human, it happens. “Easy shots” are often over-looked. I mean it’s an easy shot right? “You don’t need to practice easy ones.” While it may be an easy shot at your foam target, your mind has to be in the right place to make an easy shot. The biggest no-no is to think negatively. Never tell yourself its over until it’s over. On the flipside, don’t ever picture the buck or bull on your wall until he’s dead. Trust me on this one, don’t do it.

I know this is easier said than done, especially when there’s a 200” mule deer in front of you. If you have confidence in your setup and routine, your odds of choking diminish. Here’s my six-step process for keeping my cool:

  • Set up to give yourself as much advantage as possible with multiple shooting lanes. Don’t forget about correct body position for when you are going to shoot. In 90% of bowhunting scenarios, position yourself in front of objects to break-up your outline. Put your camo to work. The first mistake a novice will make is to hide behind an object instead of in front of it. Hiding behind an object hinders most, if not all your shooting lanes.
  • Anticipate. Be able to identify a zone or lane where you are going to kill that buck or bull. Give yourself as many options as possible to be ready for anything. The goal is to know what your prey is going to do before it does it. Be a predator. Hard to master but this is a variable to the equation that leads to success. As always, be sure you picture yourself making a perfect shot. If you can see it, you can do it.
  • Expect anything. I just got done telling you to outsmart your prey but you’ll need to be ready for anything. As you know, your prey is completely unpredictable. You can still picture yourself making perfect the shot in this scenario but be ready to think on your feet, literally.
  • Don’t focus on the antlers. If giant antlers make you nervous, don’t look at them. Once you know the caliber of animal you’re hunting, there’s no need to look at his headgear other that to identify your target before you shoot. Nothing good will come out of it otherwise. Besides, you’ll have your whole life to stare at him if you’re lucky enough to cut your tag.
  • Build a routine. Every time you make a shot, you need to have a routine and be fluid with it. Nock an arrow, get into a comfortable body position, rangefind your shooting lanes, clip your release, etc. You get the drift. It will become subconscious after a few practice sessions. A consistent routine will keep you methodical and focused in rushed or pressured situations.
  • Aim small, miss small. When the moment of truth stares you in the face, don’t let your emotions control you. Get into “kill mode” and stay focused. Instead of just putting your pin on the side of your target, pick a spot on the shoulder crease or a tuft of hair, or any mark you can pick out to shoot at on the side of your target. It isn’t easy to do all the time but if you aim small, odds are, you’ll be cutting your tag.

“What We Got Here is Failure to Communicate” – 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke”

I knew this buck was big but did not focus on his head gear. I focused on getting him killed, and let auto pilot kick in. In my mind, it was just another routine spot and stalk situation in which everything fell into place.

I know there is a lot to take in here. Transforming into a calm, collective, cold-blooded killer can take years to become proficient at. There’s no magic pill, there’s no short cuts. No matter how much you prepare and practice, the only way you will become proficient is doing the real thing! So get out there, hunt and gain as much experience as humanly possible. Shoot arrows at live animals as much as possible. No, I’m not advocating shooting your neighbor’s cat. Just remember, there is no better practice than doing the real thing. Don’t make the same mistake twice.

Keep a journal and document what you did wrong and what you learned from a scenario, so that one day, when a mega-giant buck or bull steps out, it’s just another routine shot.

About Dan Pickar

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One comment

  1. Kevin Schwinkendorf

    Two years ago, I went on a backpack hunt with a couple friends (two brothers who are each in their 30s – one a utility lineman, the other a Marine Corp officer). I’m a nuclear engineer in my late 50s, and spend a lot of time behind a computer. I found out there are two seasons in the year: 1) Deer Season, and 2) “Time to get in shape for Deer Season” Season!

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