Shooting On High
by Patrick Meitin
Pope and Young records tell us the average “book” whitetail is taken at something like 21 yards. This is a range even the most indifferent archer or novice bowhunter would fail to find daunting. Nearly all such shots today come as a direct result of an elevated tree-stand vantage.
Serious bowhunters spend long summers standing flat footed in their backyards, sending one arrow after another into tight groups from 30 or 40, even 60 yards. This practice provides confidence they can pull it off when their own trophy buck arrives within range.
Yet we continue to experience devastating misses at ranges we’d deem slam dunk on the practice range. This is easily explained. Those very backyard shooting sessions—conducted on flat ground; standing erect and easily repeating perfect shooting form—little resemble shooting from cramped, elevated positions. Performance anxiety and buck fever well aside, shooting from an elevated position presents unique pitfalls designed to toss perceptions and shooting form to the winds. Why you’ll miss normally hinges on three basic aspects: Geometric range, shooting form collapse and unrehearsed shooting positions.
The first is most easily addressed. The tendency when shooting steeply downward is to shoot high. The gravity scapegoat only factors minimally, geometry carrying the remaining 99 percent of the blame. In simple terms, targets addressed from on high are closer than you think—even closer than your super-precise laser rangefinder might relate. You’re holding for straight-line distance when the animal’s only as far from you as he is from the base of the tree you occupy.
Applying geometry’s Pythagorean Theorem supplies the numbers that really count—the lineal distance from stand-tree base to the deer. As a quick example using round numbers let’s say your stand’s 30-feet off the ground and your laser rangefinder supplies a straight-line range of 25 yards to a deer you wish to shoot. Heed your rangefinder and aim spot-on for 25 yards and you’ll shoot high. The deer’s closer to 22 yards than 25.
But who’s cool headed enough for mathematics when faced with a shot at a trophy buck? More realistically, after installing yourself in a whitetail stand and going through an initial inventory of ranges around your site with a laser rangefinder, make a point to range trees well up the trunk, straight across and at the same height as your position. You’ve then received the actual range for anything standing on the ground at the base of that tree. This simple exercise alone should assure you’re holding for the correct range when a shot is presented.
Or, you can depend on technology for an even more precise method of obtaining compensated range. Today tilt-compensated laser rangefinders are offered by many major makers, and are becoming more affordable all the time. When used carefully this remarkable technology assures you won’t miss due to misjudging the range on angled shots. Opti-Logic made the original, the Mini I with Vertical Angle Compensation (VAC) now also the smallest laser unit around, other options including Leupold’s RX-1000i with True Ballistic Range (TBR) technology or Bushnell’s Bowhunter Chuck Adams Edition with Angle Range Compensation (ARC), just to name the most affordable options.
Another worthwhile option, and taking even more time and guesswork out of the equation, is a pendulum bow sight. Once sighted according to manufacturer’s instructions the design offers single-pin, point-on aiming at any deer situated from the base of your tree out to 30 or 35 yards, and from any tree-stand height. The single pin sits in a pivoting cradle that automatically swings to adjust for angled shots. They offer foolproof assurance in tree-stand scenarios. Prime examples include TruGlo’s Pendulum Sight Series Adjustable Bracket (which doubles as a ground sight) and Impact Treetop.
The shooting form associated with shots taken from elevated positions is a bit more difficult to master. Presented with a steeply falling shot the inclination is to simply drop the bow arm to accommodate angle and stand straight upright while aiming. This instantly wrecks your shooting form, altering your anchoring point and making it difficult to use proper back tension to trigger the shot.
No matter what the angle of the shot it’s important to maintain perfect T-form between torso and bow and drawing arms. When shooting steeply downward this means locking into this upper-body T-form and bending only at the waist while addressing the target. Before this maneuver is solidly instilled in your subconscious it’s best to begin with a three-step program. First draw your bow, anchor and lock into solid T-form, your torso the vertical stem of the T, your arms the horizontal top. Secondly, aim on the level, as if you intend to shoot a squirrel in the tree directly opposite you. Lastly, after settling into proper shooting form, bend at the waist to address the target. The best way to practice is from an actual elevated position, setting up a stand to shoot from or climbing onto the roof of your house.
Setting up an actual stand, in a woodlot outside of town, or on nearby National Forest property, also allows you to invest in a full dress rehearsal. This allows you to discover if you’ll be able to draw and shoot unrestricted while wearing heavy insulated duds that keep you warm during late-season hunts, also assuring they don’t interfere with your bowstring on release and erode accuracy (or if a compacting armguard is necessary). This also allows you to become better acquainted with your safety harness system, discovering potential problems posed by certain shooting scenarios or angles. It’s also a good practice to seek shooting positions (sitting for instance) or angles (turning hard into your bow-drawing arm side, for example) that have the potential to trip you up, so to avoid them altogether, or become better prepared for such situations through familiarization. Now is the time to work through potential problems—not when a season-making buck is approaching.
Shooting from tree-stands need not trip you up. Heed this advice and avoid easy misses this whitetail season.