Bowhunters: Prepare now for antlered payoff

In my study, sitting inches from where these words are being written, is a clipped advertisement from a national bow manufacturer.

In the photo, a camo-clad bowhunter kneels at full draw in the woods, his broadhead-tipped arrow aimed at an unseen big-game animal as the sight pin settles in on the exact aiming point.

Next to the kneeling archer is this timeless piece of hunting advice:

When the moment of truth arrives, the time for preparation has passed.

How true it is.

Across the nation, bowhunters are heeding that message, ending their offseason nap by flinging arrows at a variety of three-dimensional foam targets shaped like whitetails, mule deer, elk and wild pigs.

From sighting in a new bow to tuning new add-ons and accessories to perfecting shooting form in the backyard, the time of preparation is now.

All of this, of course, is in an effort for hunters to have their equipment tuned flawlessly and their skills with a stick and string honed to a razor-sharp edge by the time the first cool breezes of autumn blow.

And that, of course, is when the moment of truth will hopefully arrive for us all a second etched in time by the glint of big antlers carried by a monster whitetail or a massive, bugling elk.

Having stared down both critters with a bow in his hand and tagged each is Orvie Cantrell Jr., owner and operator of "Big O's Archery Shop" in Sherman, Texas.

Not just content to preach the preparation gospel, Cantrell knows from firsthand experience that offseason 3-D practice can bring big dividends come fall.

"The main thing I like about 3-D is that it keeps you in touch with your equipment and shooting form during the offseason," Cantrell said. "It also helps you keep your shooting muscles toned."

With his hunting experience ranging from wily Texas whitetails to burly Rocky Mountain elk to sneaky wild pigs on the prowl, Cantrell suggests there are other reasons for sending arrows downrange at a glorified piece of foam during a summer-evening practice session.

"From an accuracy perspective, shooting 3-D certainly helps you judge distances better," Cantrell said. "Plus, it helps you learn to hold on a specific spot on the target."

Aside from such physical benefits, Colorado Springs bowhunter Brian Strickland is another archer who spends time shooting at animal-shaped 3-D targets during the offseason months.

His primary reason, aside from developing his shooting form and sighting in his equipment, is that it serves as a realistic rehearsal for an adrenaline-charged moment that he hopes to find himself in later this autumn.

"I will actually act like I'm stalking or sneaking up on it," Strickland said.

Such summertime "dress rehearsals" specifically help Strickland to work on perfecting his spot-and-stalk shooting technique when the time comes to slowly rise, draw his bow and loose a shot all with his pulse throbbing in his ears after a lengthy, strenuous stalk to get into position.

In Strickland's mind, such realistic 3-D practice now certainly pays dividends later, especially big-antlered ones.

He should know, already tagging four record-class animals, including two Kansas whitetails, a Colorado trophy bull elk and a fine New Mexico pronghorn antelope.

That collection of bowhunting trophies is made even more impressive by the fact that Strickland has only been carrying a stick-and-string for five years.

Such realistic practice also helps to get Strickland into the proper state of mind for those heart-pounding moments when a Pope & Young trophy slips into range.

"I think a lot of it is a mind-set," Strickland said. "I think a lot of people miss shots because of the mental aspect more than anything else."

"I'm already thinking about next fall's elk season and (shooting at a 3-D target) helps me get into the mental frame of mind to go through the proper shot preparation and hopefully execute a shot at a 320-inch bull."

Keep in mind that Cantrell advocates that there's far more to all of this than simply flinging arrows mindlessly at 3-D targets in the backyard, at a local archery club, at a bow shop target course or on a tournament shooting range.

"Perfect practice makes perfect, but bad practice makes bad habits," Cantrell said. "I tell guys don't shoot 200 shots but, instead, go out and shoot 25 really good shots."

"If you start to get tired, put it down and come back a half-hour hour later or even tomorrow and make sure that you're executing really good shots."

After all, executing really good shots or specifically, executing one great shot during the sport's moment of truth is the whole point of off-season preparation on the 3-D range.

That's because when you find the Booner buck of a lifetime strolling by your treestand during the November rut or if you find yourself settling the sight pin onto the vitals of a monster bull elk screaming out his amorous intentions come September, don't expect a second chance.

Big bucks and bulls seldom, if ever, give an archer such an undeserved reprieve.

And you can take that to the bank. Or, better yet, take it to the 3-D archery range.