Sunday, April 10, 2016

Thoughts on Alaska Bowhunter Education and Certification

I've been an archer now for something just over two months and while this piece isn't exactly intended for the experienced bowhunter, it is something of an answer to a whole bunch of questions I had that I never got adequately answered prior to taking the class.

Alaska, and several other states, require a bowhunter certification prior to hunting big game with a bow that meets IBEP standards. Right after I got my bow, I was a little dismayed to find that the only certification class in my immediate area was going to occur just 5 weeks away. In short- I passed the tests with flying colors and this is sort of a review of the process to making that happen. While the exact shooting test varies a little from place to place and instructor to instructor, the process is pretty much the same.

I opted for the "Online Course w/ Field Day" option. That means that I took the classroom and written testing portion online. You need something on the order of 4 or 5 hours to take the online portion- depending on how well you do with that sort of computer based training. I'm sort of an old hand at it since my employer invests heavily on CBT and a portion of my academic coursework was virtual as well. You have one year to pass the Field Day Qualifier once you pass the online portion of the course.

Expect no surprises. My course was through Hunter-Ed.com , a vendor for a whole lot of states' hunter education, bowhunter education and muzzleloader education programs. It was a logical breakdown of bowhunter and archery basics into several modules with a multiple choice quiz at the end of each module and a 50 question test at the end. You can read the modules or select an audio file to read it to you and there are a number of videos that play. The videos are geared for about the 6th grade level (this is, after all, a company that contracts hunter education) in a slightly campy first person format. So, if you're a grizzled graybeard or an archery pro you might feel a little bit patronized. You will need to pay attention though and answer the questions appropriately since your status is not reflective of the test. Most of the material is straight up cut and dried so a passing score is pretty much guaranteed if you have even a basic ability at reading comprehension. You also have unlimited attempts at the test should you need it. In my state, I had to wait for the passing grade to upload to the state fish and game before I could register for the field day.

The Field Day Qualifier was something of a bit of worry for me. Since I didn't have a long background in archery, I had a limited frame of reference as to what constituted "good enough" shooting. I shouldn't have worried. If you can shoot an 8" group at 30 yards reliably the test will be a breeze. The longest shot I've ever heard of in the Field Day was 35 yards and mine was 26 yards. I only used the top pin (sighted at 20yds) throughout the whole course. In retrospect, a 10, 15, 20 and 25 yard pin would have been more useful than my 30, 40 and 50 yard pins.

The Field Day started in the classroom and we had about an hour of paperwork and review with some miniature animals and a broadhead demonstration. Safety is a pronounced component of the course with a lot of emphasis on tree stands. Tree stands are pretty rare in my area, but they are by far the single most common mechanism of injury for hunters nationwide. After the class work and review, we moved to the range.

The course of fire was pretty simple. Four 3-D targets, two arrows per target and you had to fire at least one lethal arrow on all four targets and a fifth arrow into one of them. The closest shot was ten yards and the farthest was twenty-six with an eighteen and a twenty-one making up the middle. These are completely realistic shooting distances straight out of the IBEP guidance. The targets were standard 3-D type  foam animal targets and the hits were judged by the instructor based on lethality in real life- not the scoring ring. For instance, on a quartering away target a hit behind the ring could be 100% fatal while a hit forward in the ring might only be a wounding shot. More on that in a minute.

Half of the shots were kneeling and two were from an elevated stand that replicated a tree stand. Nothing seemed surprising in hindsight and anyone who would contemplate shooting an arrow at game should be able to pass the shooting proficiency test pretty readily. Despite that fact, a couple of the folks in my group of six did not pass on the first try. If you fail to qualify on the first try, you may be allowed to shoot again that day at the instructor's discretion. In all, I found it a worthwhile experience and I would wager that more states will require such education in the future- much like the now universal hunter education requirement among all states. I feel that the course will make me a better bowhunter in the long run.

I've heard the blood trailing exercise can be challenging. In our class, with ample snow cover...it was not, just like real life. At least there was some advantage to taking the course in winter conditions.

Some Tips:
1. Practice, practice, practice- If you show up to qualify and blow the dust off your bow just prior you will likely not do very well (saw that with one individual in my group). I probably fired a thousand arrows in the 5 weeks before the course. That was probably overkill, but I was going in both blind and a noob to boot. As mentioned, if you have a properly sighted and tuned bow and can hit decent groups out to 30 yards, you'll have zero difficulty.

2. Shoot from kneeling, a stand and from close range- with today's short axle lengths and high speed bows that advice seems silly. But we had to shoot half from standing and a quarter from a stand, be prepared. The only dicey shot I made was the ten yard shot from a stand that resulted in a steep down angle on a small target...I had to think about that one and purposely aim under the impact point. A lot of folks shot clear over the top of it. If you have a longbow the kneeling shots might be a real problem, with a modern 30" compound my shots kneeling were better than standing.

3. Know you animal anatomy- scoring rings don't matter but vital shots do. Know where to hit an animal with an arrow. You'd think this would be self explanatory in a bowhunting course but you'd be surprised. The coursework covers shot angle and vital zones in detail. One of the targets I shot at was a Velociraptor due to technical difficulty with a deer target- since I was first in the cohort to shoot, I simply asked the instructor to define the kill zone for me and he was happy to oblige. I'm not only good to go in Alaska, but qualified for Isla Nublar (obscure Jurassic Park movie reference) as well.

4. Be prepared for weather- the class runs rain or shine and in my course that meant 5F and snowing like crazy. I put a couple of "Hot Hands" packets in my gloves to keep my fingers warm between shots. Easy. Depending on where and when your class happens- rain gear, bug dope, or hot hands might be appropriate. You want to do your best, and standing in a blizzard or rain storm while 30 people shoot first might be a distraction if you're not prepared. I was glad for a small group of six in that regard, but that's unusual- most classes in Anchorage or Fairbanks are 25-30 people.

5. Bring a rangefinder- You are allowed (nay, even encouraged) to use a rangefinder in the shoot. However, you are not allowed to share information with other students. Rangefinders are cheap and easy to use these days....bring one, you won't be sorry.

6. Be a sportsman (or sportswoman)- The instructor is almost assuredly a volunteer on his or her own time motivated only be promotion of archery. Be courteous, be punctual, and be a good sport. If you aren't shooting well, ask the instructor to give you a pointer or two. The two guys that taught my class were first rate and extremely helpful and arguing with them isn't going to help your case. You can, in fact, be failed for "unsportsmanlike conduct". I've heard stories from other classes but didn't experience any of that drama in my group.

7. Use the "right" bow- You are allowed to use any bow in the class. You may be a dedicated "trad" guy, but traditional archery guys fail the course most frequently. One of the guys in my class missed the entire animal three times with his recurve. He would have benefitted from more practice for sure, but he could have passed easily with any generic compound bow. I offered him the opportunity to use mine on his re-shoot, but he declined. Another gentleman brought a bow that was clearly too powerful for him and failed his first attempt. If you can't draw the bow seated or draw back in a straight line you need to drop back poundage.

Another student brought his 80# bow set to full power... he was a great shot and he passed easily, but he drove arrows so deep into the target that pulling them in cold weather was a challenge. It was challenging for everyone but he ended up destroying a half dozens arrows and a target in the process. There is no advantage or requirement for a high speed, high poundage bow for the qualifier. On that note- if your class will be during cold weather, lubing your arrows with silicon spray or WD-40 will make pulling them a whole lot easier.

Best of luck to everyone and while the qualifier isn't super easy, it is straightforward. Passing it with a little prior practice and forethought should not be a problem.

Best shooting,
Hodgeman.