an archer pulling strings by bowhunting, setting up a shot in a field

Considering switching to a vertical bow? Or maybe a compound? Here’s how to make it work.

Will that bear ever give me a shot? I wondered. I could have taken him three times with a rifle by now.

After 15 years of hunting with a rifle and cross­bow, I’d decided to go back to a compound bow, and here, on the first day of my return, I was sitting just 12 yards from a trophy black bear. Thankfully, a shot finally presented itself, and the bear expired 30 yards away.

Led by ethics

All those years ago, I’d switched from a com­pound to a crossbow for ethical reasons. In spite of daily practice, I could not hit the target consis­tently, and the possibility of wounding my quarry was not a risk I was willing to take. Ironically, my first kill after taking up the crossbow was a 45-inch bull moose from seven yards that I could have harvested it with a spear!

My decision to return to the world of com­pound bowhunting was prompted by a conver­sation with Larry Smith, owner of South Nation Archery in Winchester, near Ottawa. Smith sug­gested I take a lesson from him with a bow he’d set up. That lesson was pivotal, and I decided to start saving for a new compound bow. As if on cue, my brother texted me that he’d just bought a new crossbow to replace his compound. When I asked if he’d sell me his used bow he replied, “Heck, I’ll just give it to you.”

Lessons learned

The first thing I did with my newly acquired bow was to take it to Smith for a tune-up. The second was to schedule lessons with him.

Smith teaches the beginning archer by break­ing the shot down into 10 steps. Each is impor­tant and I was doing most of them right, but my hand position was completely wrong. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to correct.

Pre-aiming was a completely new concept for me. I’d always drawn while moving my bow arm in an upwards motion (like everyone else on TV), but the trick is to aim the bow roughly at the tar­get before drawing. I realized that moving my bow arm around while drawing was the cause of my inconsistent shooting.

By far the greatest challenge, though, was learning to execute a proper release. I was good at squeezing the trigger on my rifle or crossbow, but the release aid gave me some difficulty. Smith had me work on some drills, and after eight les­sons I was ready to practise on my own.

Practice makes perfect

Practice was going well until I had one really bad day. I was so discouraged, I took a week off and considered booking another lesson, but decided to sort things out myself. I broke down the shot sequence into its critical steps and realized that my bow-hand position was wrong. I’d returned to old habits without realizing it. Since that day, I’ve made sure that every practice session involves considering every step.

Today, when shooting from 30 metres, almost all of my arrows are within a four-inch circle, and when they aren’t I usually know why. This is good accuracy for hunting, but there’s always room for improvement, and my journey to advance is much more fun than it was 25 years ago. Information is readily accessible and a good coach makes the pursuit of archery possible for anyone.

In the off-season I may skip a few days between practice, but when hunting season is a month away, I practise daily to ensure my shooting is routine. One must love to practise, otherwise wounded game could be the result of your hunt.

Compound vs crossbow

When I speak to hunters about the commitment required to be proficient with a compound or recurve, they often reply, “Maybe I’ll just get a crossbow.” In my younger days, I would have tried to talk them out of that decision, but today I feel differently. Hunting with a crossbow in no way diminishes the experience of bowhunting, while a lack of ability to place an arrow accurately will profoundly diminish the experience.

But, if you have the time and means to hunt with a compound or even a recurve, you truly should. First, find a pro shop, then a coach, and finally, practise routinely. With all the informa­tion available today, there has never been a bet­ter time to pursue an archer’s path.

I recommend visiting to connect with world-class coaching in your area. Lessons are not as expensive as you might think. In fact, had I taken them, they would have saved me a lot of money over the years.

Expert advice

The internet has enabled me to follow several highly skilled archers to gain some insight. And, it has led to online conversations with archers who have shared some of my challenges. Two of those people are Tim Watts and Jeff Kavanagh.

Tim Watts

Tim Watts draws

Tim Watts is a world-class archery competitor, accomplished bowhunter, and OOD bowhunting columnist who uses a compound bow. When I sought his advice for begin­ning archers, his reply read like a list of my past mistakes.

Watts’ first tip: “Consistency in archery starts with proper bow set-up. Even the world’s top professional archers have trouble hitting the bull’s eye if the bow is not set up correctly.” He explained the importance of purchasing a bow from a shop with expert technicians on hand who can set up your bow and, if necessary, train you. That was my first mistake: if I’d had proper set-up and training from the beginning, I wouldn’t have given up.

Activating the release is a big challenge for new archers, according to Watts. “It’s imperative that the release goes off as a surprise. You’re supposed to shoot a release aid the same way you shoot a rifle. A slow, steady squeeze. If you slap the release aid trigger, it’s impossible to hold your bow hand steady.

“The front hand is more important than the release hand. A very small movement of your bow hand makes a huge dif­ference downrange,” Watts adds. My first lesson in proper release aid activation was a real eye-opener, and I’ve never stopped drilling this critical step.

Watts also has this advice for bowhunters: “Bow-hand positioning must be the same for every shot. If you hunt with gloves on, then you must practise for the hunt with gloves on.”

But perhaps the most important thing Watts had to share was this: “Consistency comes from the human. The bow is a machine. If you put a bow in a mechanical shooting machine, the arrow will strike the bull’s eye every time. There is no sub­stitute for practise. Archery is no different than any other sport. The more you practise, the better you become.”

I believe this is what sends many hunters to the crossbow, and rightfully so. To hunt with a compound or traditional bow requires a person to make practice a part of their weekly, if not daily, routine.

Jeff Kavanagh

Jeff Kavanagh sets up

Jeff Kavanagh is an instinctive recurve shooter/bowhunter who has dem­onstrated shooting at various moving targets on his YouTube channel where he has nearly 24,000 subscribers. He’s a mas­ter of the recurve bow, with the capacity to extinguish lit candles from moving targets 20+ metres away.

I’ve attempted instinctive shooting with little success, despite advice like, “Become the arrow,” or, “Release when you feel you are on target.” To my surprise (and delight) Kavanagh was very technical and offered nothing but tan­gible tips and training strategies. It turns out his path to become an archer was similar to mine, though he never gave up, and has become exceptionally skilled.

“When I started archery 40 years ago there was nothing to learn from,” said Kavanagh. “I had a copy of The Archer’s Bible by Fred Bear. It is only a general overview of all things archery. There are no shooting instructions in it. I had to look at the photos to see what they were doing. This was in the early to mid-seventies, so resources were non-existent for me. I would have given anything for someone to teach me. I was over-bowed, knew nothing about arrows, weight, spine, nothing about shooting form, the right muscles to use, any­thing. Consequently I had a very long learn­ing curve of 20 years.”

Need for coaches

Kavanagh realized the need for coaches in archery and has been pursuing that path for quite some time.

“I started making tutorial videos to help others shorten their learning curves. I had to learn by transferring skills and ideas from other sports like golf and basketball, using concepts such as fol­low-through, set-up, etc.”

On the subject of coaching, Kavanagh said, “A good coach is someone who will teach you something at the correct time. When I would video my kids I would always get comments, such as, they are doing this or that wrong. Yes, I knew that. It is like the video I made with my son wing shooting. I would focus on just one or two things at a time. When the time was right, I would turn the focus to something else. A good coach understands what the stu­dent needs to learn and in what order. I can’t stress that enough.”

Recently, one of Kavanagh’s students won the 2019 IBO (International Bowhunting Organization) World Championship, so clearly, he’s doing something right.

Originally published in the Nov.-Dec. 2019 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

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