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Journey to bow hunting, the shot that cannot be practiced

I had saved every check from writing these columns and all the money I had received from my birthday and holiday gifts in one of my favorite outdoor books. By April, I had $973.25 socked away in the pages of Bill Heavy's latest compilation. This money was accumulated over eight months for the sole purpose of purchasing a bow and beginning my journey into bow hunting. (Note to potential burglars: I have since opened an "outdoors stuff" account at the local bank.)

Since then, it has been a blur of yellow and green fletchings leading up to this weekend's deer archery opener. For the first month, I shot exclusively at 20 yards. Upon the advice of friends, magazine articles and Internet how-tos, I focused strictly on form. Keeping my feet even and shoulder-width apart, holding my bow arm straight into the target, pulling the bow apart as I prepared to shoot, squeezing the release and following through were the mental checklist that I followed well into June, until it was second nature.

Content with my form and the way my arrows had begun to hold in a steady pattern in the bull's-eye of the Cabela's Arrowhawk target, I began switching things up. Moving my range out to 30 yards and then 40 to test my sight pins, I made slight tweaks to match where the arrows were ending up. Through the middle of summer, my shots began to become consistent and I began to feel more confident.

To keep myself from getting overconfident, or at least too comfortable, I began shooting from a chair, as if I were seated in my treestand. I shot kneeling in the trees, as if stalking, and shot at half-hidden targets behind the silver maples on my father-in-law's lawn from his elevated deck as if they were deer sneaking through the woods, obscured by leaves and branches. Each week's practice challenged my form, my aim and the integrity of the foam target. By the end of August, only two crescents remained out of the five circles on the face of the block.

Last night, while looking back over my journal from the summer, I added the practice sessions together. At 30 arrows here and 50 shots there, the total comes up to just over 2600. Most of the entries include comments on the weather, wind, and how I felt about each practice round. Good, bad and in between, the rounds from the backyard show a general improvement in my aim and the notes describe the various situations I shot in.

I've shot in the heat of summer, with a swarm of mosquitoes buzzing about my head as I struggled to hold form while the Minnesota state bird forced a donation from me. I've shot in the chill of spring, with mist and wind whipping around me and the skin on my hands glowing as red as the 40-yard pin. I've shot dog-tired in the waning hours of twilight, where everything was slow and steady. I've shot while hopped up on a pot of morning coffee, with my arms, eyes and brain twitching as I attempted to stay steady. I've shot in every position and every condition, (including late April snow flurries) that I could expect to encounter this fall. All of them, that is, except for one.

As many of you know, I'm pretty excitable. It doesn't take much in the outdoors to get me going. A muskie follow or a flushing rooster will get my heart pumping and my knees knocking, even though I've experienced both many times. So my hope now is that when a deer - any deer, from the smallest doe to the biggest buck - walks by my stand, the adrenaline rush won't give me away, my thundering heartbeat won't spook the animal and the twitch of every muscle in my body won't rattle my shot.

This autumn brings with it many changes for me; foremost among them being that the hunt is here and it is very real. Here's hoping that Pop Warner's ideology is still relevant; that I'll play this fall the way I practiced all summer, and in the heat of the hunt, the chill of the autumn air and the moment of truth, I will be ready for the shot that cannot be our outdoors.