Use these top tips to set up the ideal bowhunting rig to gain an edge on whitetails
By Patrick Meitin
The terms of engagement are straightforward for most modern archers: Whitetail bow-hunting involves elevated stands and close-quarter ground blinds. This needs no explanation because the advantages are self evident: Resulting shots are typically short-ranged (kind of the point), pressure-filled, and oftentimes somewhat contorted.
In no other archery pursuit is a hunt-specific bow so obviously indicated. Although a general bow will see you through whitetail season, the open-country speed rig (for, say, desert Coues whitetail) or a “big-gun” setup (for elk or moose) simply don’t represent the best tools for the average whitetail hunter.
The Whitetail Bow
Short bows are often touted as ideal for whitetail hunting, but I disagree. Sure, they’re maneuverable, but short bows are also inherently unstable and more difficult to shoot.
Speed is also an industry obsession of late.
There’s something about whitetail hunting that rattles my cage like no other game — bugling elk and Cape buffalo included. There’s something about going from complete inactivity — sometimes bored witless and borderline hypothermic — to “Oh My Gosh!” in a blink of an eye. This is what makes bow shots at whitetails more challenging than meets the eye.
Because of runaway nerves, stiff muscles and that inevitable surprise factor, I seek forgiveness and silky smoothness in a whitetail rig. Today’s shortest and fastest bows simply don’t provide that clemency.
A bow’s length is relative to draw length and brace height. Those with shorter draw lengths won’t experience the same amount of torque a shooter with longer draw length will experience. Brace height is directly related to forgiveness. The longer the brace, the less time arrows spend on the string, allowing less time to introduce human error, especially following a sloppy, tension-filled release at a trophy buck. Short brace heights accompany fast bow designs, but they are also associated with radical cams that draw roughly. In regard to pure length, middle-ground bow lengths of 35 to 36 inches are a great compromise between maneuverability and stability, although I don’t feel handicapped when wielding 38- to 40-inch models because they offer even more stability.
When it’s cold and nerves are red-lined, I want a smooth-drawing bow to assure automatic shootability with no distractions. I also drop my normal 70-pound summer draw weight down to 60-65 pounds.
Choosing the ideal bow sight for whitetail hunting can be summed up in two words: KISS and bright. In other words, keep it simple and make it as bright as possible.
Shot opportunities are often quick and fleeting: the cruising deer passing at a deliberate march, or the rutting buck dogging a hot doe. In that brief moment of truth, you don’t want confusion via too many pins (most of which you’ll never use while hunting anyway).
Consider three pins (like Truglo’s Tru-Site Xtreme Compact) as the maximum for a whitetail rig. This will get you out to 40 yards — a safe outer range for most folks. You can use the pin gaps if you’re truly (be honest) capable of 60 yards when hunting, say, the edge of a picked cropfield.
In thicker vegetation, a single pin (like Impact Archery’s Solo), sighted for 25 yards, held high and low as needed, will see you through 99 percent of likely shot scenarios. Above all, keep it simple. You will be less likely to fall victim to brain hiccups that occur when a big buck knocks you off your mental pins.
The brightness stipulation needs little explanation. Any beginning whitetail hunter knows deer move best at the very edges of legal light, making bright, fiber-optic pins a boon. Look for models with spooled (Cobra Boomslang), aperture-wrapped (Copper John Saxon) or extended fibers (Fuse Pilot G-Series) to see you through those dim overcast evenings or mornings beneath heavy forest canopy.
Also consider a new peep system. More specifically, choose a larger peep sight, say ¼-inch, in combination with a round pin guard. The human eye naturally centers circles within circles, like a rifle peep sight. Aligning an extra-large (round) peep with a round pin guard aperture — instead of centering a single pin in a smaller peep — allows top-notch accuracy without sacrificing low-light efficiency.
The Arrow Rest
There were once two approaches to arrow rest design: Total capture (the revolutionary Whisker Biscuit, for example) and launcher-style drop-away (NAP Quik-Tune). The first offers ultimate control, but not necessarily pin-point accuracy. The second offers unsurpassed accuracy, but no foolproof control when hands shake or draw cycles turn rough.
Total-capture rests contact arrows front to rear not only during the draw cycle (a positive), but also after release. This means without rock-steady follow-through, arrows are sent off the mark through flinches or crumpled shooting form. Standard drop-away rests offer added accuracy through total fletching clearance but also because arrows spend 25 percent to 50 percent less time on the rest following release. Less time on the rest allows less time for introduced human glitches. Unfortunately, many drop-away designs make it easy to bobble arrows during shaky draw cycles.
Today’s bow-hunters have the best of both worlds. The best capture/drop designs hold arrows in place while waiting (even turned upside down), more pointedly during the draw cycle. After the release, cradling forks, arms or brushes provide 100 percent fletching clearance and added accuracy forgiveness. One of the best designs around is Quality Archery Designs’ Ultra Rest and similar Rip Cord Code Red. Other unique designs include NAP’s Apache, MidAtlantic’s Tri-Van and Trophy Taker’s SmackDown FC.
Contrary to popular convention, I assign blazing arrow velocity a low priority while bow-hunting whitetails … unless its the neurotic little Coues deer which I’ve hunted extensively. Seeking speed at all costs is typically a tradeoff in shot silence. Besides, today’s “slow” bows are still much faster than anything we shot happily just five years ago.
Aside from low brace height and radical, rough-drawing cams — which erode forgiveness — speed is derived by subtracting arrow/broadhead weight (or increasing draw weight). Lighter arrows don’t allow bows to work most efficiency, spelling excess and wasted energy manifested in vibration and bow noise.
Shot noise equals deer “jumping the string” at mid- to long distances. Just so we’re clear on my position, you cannot beat a wound-up whitetail to the punch by shooting faster arrows. Sound travels at about 1,128 feet per second (sea level, 70 degrees F), which is three to four times faster than today’s hottest compounds. A whitetail’s reaction time is measured in milliseconds.
Heavier arrows absorb more energy, becoming more efficient (penetrating deeper on dreaded bone hits), but more pointedly to our discussion here, are quieter after release. Less noise equals less string jumping. In bow-hunting whitetails, intimacy breeds immediacy.
Another selling point of heavier arrows directly related to whitetail hunting is less likelihood of deflection. Most whitetails live in brushy areas, and heavy arrows better stay the course after contacting leaves and light twigs than lighter projectiles.
When I say “heavy,” I’m thinking in terms of arrow shafts weighing 10-12 grains per inch (gpi) in standard deflections used by average archers (29-inch draw at around 65 pounds of draw weight). Easton’s Axis and Axis Full Metal Jacket, Beman’s Classic, Trophy Ridge’s Crush, Carbon Tech’s Rhino or Carbon Express’ Arimid KV or PileDriver all make perfect examples. These arrows also assure added dependability following punishing hits.
What’s more, while 100-grain broadheads have become an industry touchstone, 125-grain models (or heavier, such as Steel Force’s indestructible 145-grain Phathead) still deserve a firm place in the whitetail hunter’s arsenal. Placing a heavier head up front adds additional weight for silence, for sure, but also boosts front-of-center (FOC) balance. That creates a more stable arrow following a nerve-induced sloppy release, and an arrow also less prone to radical deflection following contact with in-flight obstacles. What this might look like on paper is a 12 percent to 14 percent FOC instead of a less stable single-digit percentile; or, for example, a paper airplane wearing a paper clip on its nose as opposed to one without.
You can determine FOC by first finding the balance point of your finished arrow — point installed — and marking it. Next, find the measured center of the shaft between the cut-off point and nock throat and mark that. Measure the distance between these marks and divide by arrow length — cut-off to nock throat. Move the decimal point two spaces right to convert to a percentage.
On the subject of broadhead design: Use what appeals to your sensibilities, but keep in mind: Deployable-blade broadheads — while providing easier tuning and wider cutting diameters — also require more energy to assure ample penetration. Wide cutting diameters (more than 1¼ to 1½ inches) and steeper cutting-edge attack angles require additional push for complete pass-throughs.
Two holes are always better than one, especially when shooting from an elevated position that leaves a single entrance wound high on the animal to spill little trailing blood. Pressed for an ideal, I choose fixed-blade heads with 13/16-inch cutting diameters (standard Muzzys) or efficient mechanical designs not requiring blades to swing 180 degrees (Rage). But that’s just me.
Modern innovation renders compound bows quieter each year. But in bow-hunting whitetails there’s no such thing as “too quiet,” even if your bow is factory equipped with string suppressors, onboard vibration dampeners and specially-lined limb pockets.
Aftermarket anti-vibration/silencing gear actually lives up to advertising hype and should be liberally added to your whitetail rig.
Original Sims LimbSaver silencers, and other brands that followed (BowJax), work wonders on bows not already wearing them out of the box. Active stabilizers, like Doinker or PSE/Vibracheck products, actually pull unwanted vibrations and noise from bow risers and are worth the added weight. Also look to cable slides and accessories (bow sights especially, but also some arrow rests) as sources of deer-spooking buzzes, and add adhesive-backed or slide-on silencers as needed.
No bow should enter the field without adhesive-backed arrow-shelf padding or string silencers, choosing Cat Whiskers (Rancho Safari), String Leeches (Sims) or yarn puffs (E.W. Bateman) as needed. I find even string-suppressor-equipped bows can be made quieter by adding string silencers.
When bow-hunting for whitetails, we normally don’t need to shoot far, but we must shoot straight under the sometimes extremely demanding conditions of cold accompanied by muscles grown stiff with inactivity. Whitetails are also demanding — wound tightly and always ready to skedaddle. Assuring your bow is whitetail-ready means assembling a rig that meets these unique demands.
Patrick Meitin is an expert archer and an accomplished big-game bow-hunter. He lives in northern Idaho.