It’s 23 degrees below zero outside this January day in Minnesota, as I sit down at my computer to write this column about how important it is for a bowhunter to practice year ‘round. Well, I’ve got a news flash for you… I won’t be practicing at -23 today. Today I will just write about it, and ignore the irony.

I’m often as guilty as the next guy as I sometimes look at my calendar and realize I have a hunt coming up in a couple weeks so I get serious about practicing. I go out and shoot 30-40 arrows every day as the hunt nears and soon I’m dialed in and feeling confident.

I got away with that for a lot of years. I reasoned that I was a darn good shot, I’d been bowhunting for decades and all I really needed to do was tweak it a little and be on my way to make a perfect shot when the opportunity came. It worked for me. But there are flaws in that formula. And those flaws have the spotlight on them more and more as I age. I am just now coming to grips with the fact that I will turn 60 years old on March 22, which is a complete shock to me since I was 35 just the other day. Gone are the days when I pulled a bow wound tight at 88 pounds without as much as a grunt.

These days, I have to shoot a 70-pound Mathews 2-4 times a week to stay in form. Those muscles that we use to pull a bow back and hold it steady with the pin fixed to the target are not muscles that we use for many other things in our life. They need to be specifically targeted with exercise because if you ignore them, they fade from atrophy. That’s true of archers at any age, but especially true of bowhunters beyond the age of 40.

I was once shocked by the fact that a friend who was a weightlifter, and had the bulging pecs and biceps to prove it, couldn’t pull back my bow. I was half his size and I could draw it with hardly any effort but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get it back. That’s when I realized that a lifetime of shooting archery had equipped me with the development of muscles that nothing can duplicate other than drawing shooting a bow, or something that is designed to simulate the drawing and shooting of a bow.

That’s also the reason women who couldn’t bench press 60 pounds can draw and effectively hold a 60-pound bow and make a great shot. They started with a 35-pound bow and worked their way up. Development of those specific muscles takes time and repetition.

No matter what your age, you will benefit from more practice. But the right kind of practice is even better. You’ll be a better shot at the moment of truth if you are strong enough to pull the bow back with ease and hold it steady. Plus the added motion involved when struggling to draw a bow is likely to blow the whole opportunity for you. So drawing the bow a lot is important.

There’s nothing wrong with going out in the back yard and shooting 100 arrows, but it doesn’t do a very good job of simulating an actual hunting situation. When your bowhunting, your 100th shot isn’t going to be the one that counts, your first one is. You’re much better off practicing with a dozen shots, five days a week rather than 50-100 shots a couple times a month.

After the first dozen shots, your form can have a tendency to break down, which will cause you to miss the bull’s-eye more often, and that can mess with your confidence. It can also lead to things like target panic, which can manifest itself in several forms. Ever have a struggle to move the sight pin onto the bull’s-eye? For example your pin seems to want to settle right below the bull’s-eye or above it and you really have to force it to move? That’s a form of target panic and it can be caused by a loss of confidence.

The confidence that comes from drawing the bow smoothly, settling the pin on the target and seeing that arrow drive home just where you wanted it, cannot be overstated. Confidence on the range can translate into confidence in the shot on an animal at the moment of truth when your heart rate is accelerating and your adrenal glands open the flood gate and dump their magic potion into your veins.

All these factors add up to show the importance of practicing regularly year around for bowhunter of any age. It helps tone your muscles, both in drawing the bow smoothly and in holding the pin steady on your target with an outstretched arm. It helps boost your confidence. When that big bear is right there in front of you, offering that perfect shot, you will be visualizing the arrow zip through both lungs and you’ll have an underlying confidence that the arrow will go right where you want it to.

The wisdom that comes with bowhunting for 45 years has taught me these things. Now, however, following through with them takes commitment and determination, which become much easier as I make it a part of my weekly routine.

I intend to be bowhunting as long as I can, and one of the best ways I can ensure that I have the strength to do so is through diligent practice and exercise. This is especially true of a guy who’s about to turn 60, but anyone half that age can benefit from the advantages of regular practice.

So I won’t be outdoors shooting my bow at -23 degrees today, but I will pick it up and draw it back 25 times just to give those muscles a good workout and keep them toned. I plan to use them for a long time to come.