Archery Distance Judging: Tips and Tricks
If you ask any seasoned archer what their top challenges are, estimating yardage will invariably be near the top. Of course you must also have a high level of skill in putting the sight where you want to hit and releasing so that the arrow hits the intended mark, but if you haven’t picked the correct distance in the first place, it is all for naught.
It cannot be stressed enough the need to practice yardage judging if you hunt or shoot at unmarked distances. Especially in hunting situations, it is absolutely critical that you can accurately judge distances in order to make an accurate and ethical kill shot. Sadly, a large portion of wounded animals is caused by improperly judging the distance to the intended target.
Not only must a bowhunter accurately judge yardage, but they also must often do it very quickly and under adverse conditions. It’s one thing to be able to take your time with a target in plain view, with no obstacles in between and judge the yardage properly; it’s completely another to have to look at a moving elk across a shadow filled ravine with the sun in your face.
If you want to be the best archer and/or bowhunter possible, want to make ethical kill shots and have the best chance of hitting that 12 ring, PRACTICE, PRACTICE then PRACTICE some more!
Yardage judging practice tips and hints
The “Gut Feel”
Some people can simply look at an object and guess it’s distance. It is something built into their natural abilities.
Instinct and natural ability are powerful things, and can often be your most reliable asset. While you may not be pinpoint accurate with this method, it is typically the first thing one does before backing it up with a different method.
This is a very common method and one of the best to practice with and use when time permits. The basic method is to be sufficiently good at picking out an object between you and the target, at a distance that you can always judge accurately. Usually this means finding something at 10 or 20 yards (or whatever you are comfortable with) and then repeating that distance until you get to the target.
For example, you may walk up to a shooting stake and see a bedded doe target that you first “gut feel” to be about 35 yards away. Then you find a landmark, a bush or weed or rock, that you know is 20 yards away because you’ve practiced the 20 yard distance so much that you can almost always nail it. Next you look for something that is 10 yards beyond that first mark, and so forth until you have crept up to the target.
Generally speaking this is easier for most people because they are able to take a large task and break it down into smaller bits.
Sizing the Target
While somewhat similar to the gut-feel method, the sizing method relies on your ability to gauge distance by looking at relative sizes. You may find that this method is very useful for shooting at objects that are of known sizes, especially 3D targets.
For example, the small axis deer 3D target is going to look different in an open field than the mule deer buck. By realizing how different sized targets look at different distances, it is possible to use this information to help determine the exact distance. This is a bit tougher on live animals, but with practice it is possible.
Things that make it tough!
There are many things that can take an easy-to-judge target and make it extremely difficult to get right. Shadows that lay between you and the target, or that shade just the target or just your position can play funny tricks on the mind and understanding how shadows change your perception of depth is very important. Generally speaking, heavy shadows will tend to make most people believe that the target is farther than it really is, though some people may have the opposite reaction.
Large objects such as trees, rocks or even hillsides can really mess with your judging abilities. These objects can not only hide part of the intended target, but can also distort your view of the target’s size.
Another thing that many people struggle with is elevation changes. This can mean shooting uphill or downhill, but it can also mean shooting at something at the same height, with a ravine, gully or stream bed in between. The change in height adds another element to the guessing game, especially considering that the archer must judge the pure horizontal distance, not the actual distance in order to get the arrow to fly true. For more about shooting from different elevations, see Uphill and Downhill Shots and How to Adjust.
One more obstacle on occasion is water, especially water with reflections of objects, or worse, the sun. Water has a tendency to really distort your perception of distance and can cause all sorts of issues.
How to practice distance judging to become a better archer and bowhunter
Of course nearly everyone will agree that the best way to become better at something is to practice at it, and practice a lot. But often people are left scratching there heads as to the best way to practice.
The biggest mistake you can make is the misjudge and object’s distance then just move on to the next object. Take the time, figure out where you went wrong and why (Did the shadow deceive you? Was there a tree in the way? Or did you simply rush your judgement?) Pick hard things to judge, look for obstacles and learn how they affect your vision and your ability to judge. If you consistently over-judge anything in a shadow, learn from it and use that information the next time.
There is no such thing as too much practice judging distance. Everyone can always use more practice and in the end it will only benefit you. Practice as you are walking into work, hiking to your favorite fishing spot or jogging along that river trail. There are always opportunities to practice; use them to your benefit!
Edited from original post in ArcheryPost.com