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The ethics of long shots.

Back in early November, I shot a big whitetail with a 51-yard shot and it appeared on our Midwest Whitetails Web show. It was a buck I had been hunting for four seasons, and he had grown into a real giant over that time. Many people were following the hunt, so it came as no surprise that I got a lot feedback from viewers regarding the shot.

The response was overwhelmingly positive, but it did raise some ethics questions in the eyes of some. I have to admit I don't exactly sit around thinking about hunting ethics. I look at a situation and decide if I can make a clean kill. If I truly believe I will, I take the shot. I suppose on some level, that is the same thing as ethics, but the whole post-shot experience opened my eyes to this subject a bit more. The lightning rod for the ethics debate was shot length. So, this month I am going to take on that subject.

The negative comments focused on two things. First, I was told the shot was too long because the deer could have moved while the arrow was in the air. No doubt, this is a valid point, and I will get to that in a minute.

Second, some felt I was setting a bad example by seeming to promote long shots, thereby encouraging other bowhunters to exceed their skill level in the hopes of tagging a big buck. Again, there is definitely a point here.

The Deer Can Move

There is no doubt that the longer the shot, the more time a deer has to move before the arrow arrives. I have written about this a few times in the past, but the more deer I shoot, the more I learn about this.

When discussing the subject of movement and string jumping, we take the first steps in putting together a very complex puzzle. I will take on part of it here, but will save the bulk of this discussion for another day. Here is the short version of what I have learned: I only hunt with a camera over my shoulder now, so the things I have discovered are only possible by going back and studying the video footage frame by frame to see what really happened, not what we think happened.

In my experience, having shot many deer over the past few years, they tend to jump the string (at least here in the Midwest) most noticeably at ranges from 20-40 yards. The most dramatic movement (they drop to load their legs to bolt off) occurs at ranges from 30-40 yards. At those distances, it seems the deer have time to hear and react to the shot; the sound is close enough that it causes alarm.

Beyond 40 yards, it seems deer are less alarmed by the sound than they are when closer. They may still drop a bit, but they don't turn inside out. It is almost as if the greater distance makes them feel safer. These are just very general observations. So, don't take them as gospel. Each deer will be different, and every year I learn more. I just wanted to pass these thoughts along and get your wheels turning.

The buck I shot in November was feeding and had its head down near the ground when the string slipped from my release's jaws. I felt the buck would be least likely to react quickly under those conditions. A deer standing on alert is a totally different situation. I would not have shot under those conditions. So, first of all the likelihood of string jumping has to be low in order to consider any shot past 30 yards. To be honest, even at 30 yards a deer can drop 1015 inches if it is alert.

I aimed with the 50-yard pin just at the brisket line (low heart). Since the range was just over 51 yards, I was confident the arrow would miss low if the buck didn't drop at all. That way, if he dropped some (which he did), I would have a good vital hit. It was a solid shot-selection strategy given the conditions, and it worked out well. I will somewhat agree with those critics who said I was lucky the buck didn't move more. I suppose there was some luck in that, but given his relaxed demeanor and distraction with feeding, I felt the situation was a green light.

Skill & Confidence

I am not openly promoting long shots. In fact, just the opposite is true. Most of the whitetails I shoot are at close range, and some of those have been tough shots too. So, distance is not the only factor when determining when, or if, to shoot.

I have put in a lot of practice time with my bow over the years and had plenty of input from some of the best shooters ever to draw a string. Most notably, I have picked Randy Ulmer's mind many times regarding correct shooting form and technique. As a result, I have better than average skills with a bow. I can hold a three- to four-inch group at 50 yards, provided the wind isn't pushing my bow arm around and I can be in a position that allows me to use good form.

To be sure I am ready for each season, I spend a lot of time practicing at distances well beyond 50 yards. Some days I take all my shots at 80 yards, just to reinforce the importance of good technique.

In addition to being proficient at longer ranges, you have to feel good about the specific shot at hand. Just as you have to read each deer individually to gauge its potential reaction to the shot, you have to judge each shot individually with an eye toward your ability to hold the pin steady. I won't take long shots if the angle or my body position is awkward--or the wind is blowing. These factors make it too hard to keep the pin settled as I squeeze. Again, everything has to be perfect.

The evening I shot the buck, the wind was dead calm. The only air movement was thermals, and I was using backyard form (shooting from a standing position at near eye-level with the deer). The pin was not moving when the bow fired. If I had been struggling to keep the pin still, I would not have shot.

Adding it All Up

A 51-yard shot is not for everyone; nor is it for me except in perfect conditions. So, don't infer from my success that I take long shots all the time. You have to practice for years so you can hit the spot you are aiming at when the distance stretches past 30 yards. Don't try this unless you have done that work.

I never thought about ethics while I was in my treestand waiting for the buck of lifetime to offer me a shot. I simply knew I could make the shot, so I took it. Maybe I got lucky the buck didn't move more, and maybe I shouldn't have taken the shot at all. But I wasn't just out there flinging arrows. There was a lot of thought and preparation that went into that shot.


Visit to see Bill Winke's video on the ethics of longe-range shots at deer.
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Title Annotation:CENTERSHOTS
Author:Winke, Bill
Publication:Petersen's Bowhunting
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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