Whether you’re preparing for the end of the world or just enjoy the taste and texture of a fresh steak, bowhunting is a valuable skill to have. In survival situations, bowhunting small game might even be your only option to stay fed. In this article, I’ll show you how to make the most of a bow, which small game to aim for, and some practical tips for a successful hunt.
Bowhunting Small Game
The Benefits of Bowhunting Small Game
Although I’m a Bowhunting enthusiast myself, I had the privilege of interviewing expert bowhunter Jason Lindell for this article. Between the two of us, we have a combined 30+ years of experience bowhunting in the Pacific Northwest. First, we discussed the main benefits of bowhunting small game. These are our top points.
- You don’t need a lot of experience. Small game bowhunting is the original “point and shoot” experience. Once you understand how a bow behaves, you can instinctively adjust your techniques. It’s not complicated, you just need to practice.
- Arrows can be used repeatedly. Bullets can only be used once and can be expensive. Arrows are usually cheap, easy to buy or make, and can be used repeatedly.
- Hunting with lead bullets can make you sick. Recent studies show that hunting with lead bullets could be hazardous to your health. Researchers discovered that 20% to 87.5% of the game meat tested contained lead that exceeded safe levels. Cooking the meat made it worse, especially if the bullets shattered and spread through the meat. Arrows aren’t usually made of lead.
- Eating small game is healthier than commercial meats. When you know exactly where your meat came from, you can stop worrying about artificial growth hormones, antibiotics, and other drugs that big farms use to make their animals grow fat.
- Bowhunting has a lower impact on other animals. Firearms are loud. Just one shot will scare off all the animals in a large radius, making future hunts much more difficult. Bows are nearly silent.
- Small game is plentiful year-round. Small animals are typically easier to find in abundance, no matter the time of year. Get to know the local wildlife and understand their cycles and you’ll always have a plentiful supply of protein on your table.
- The equipment is smaller and lighter. Big game requires massive power, and that means the gear is more complex. Complexity brings added weight. Small game doesn’t require the same power as taking down an elk, so your gear is going to be much lighter.
- Small game won’t rot before you can eat it all. Hunting a buck is exciting, and those first few meals will be delicious. However, if you’re out in the wilderness for an extended period, all that venison is going to rot. When you focus on small game, you hunt only as much as you need for a day or two.
- It doesn’t require tons of storage space or strength. Nobody is suggesting you’re a weakling, but the carry weight of your kill is an important factor if you’ll be in the wilderness a long time. Small game will always be easier to carry and store. Also, since you’re not dragging a huge corpse back to camp, you won’t be leaving a bloody trail for scavengers to follow—both wildlife and human.
Traditional vs. Modern Bows: Which is Better?
Jason says, “A pawn shop fiberglass (traditional) bow and aluminum arrows can be quite lethal in the hands of an accurate archer.” I agree. Any bow will do, so just pick one that’s in your budget, can hunt the things you want to eat, or just matches your aesthetics. But how do you choose?
- Traditional bows include simple, two or three-piece designs such as longbows, recurves, and takedown recurves.
- Modern bows include complicated compound bows with many parts and more maintenance requirements.
The Basics of Traditional Bows
Traditional bowhunting is fast, simple, and efficient. Without fancy cams and gadgets, setup and breakdown happen in seconds. There are fewer parts to maintain and each piece can be used for multiple purposes. They come in many sizes and styles.
At a mere 5′ 4″, carrying around a 6′ longbow would be hilarious to watch, but would hinder my hunt. I prefer Hungarian horse bows, which have all the power of other traditional bows, but in a compact, light frame. Larger hunters may prefer a longbow, traditional recurve, or even a takedown recurve that can be broken into multiple pieces and stored. After many hours of research, I found this takedown recurve bow to fit the bill and be the best deal for the price. It’s perfect for silently hunting small game.
- Easy to pack and carry
- Simple to use
- Rugged and tough
- Effective for small game
- Easy to maintain and repair in the field
- Less expensive
- Wide range of styles and sizes mean it can work for any hunter
- Requires significant upper body strength
- Not suitable for long-distance shots
- Longer learning curve to master
Required Gear for Traditional Bows
- Any simple bow of any material
- Several strings—one for use and the others as spares
- String wax
- A quiver—hip or shoulder style
That’s it. There’s nothing else required other than your time and patience. Wax the string after every use, keep the arrows dry, and unstring the bow when not in use. It couldn’t be any simpler.
The Basics of Modern Bows
A modern bow, also called a compound bow, will provide more power than traditional bows. They’re made of high-tech materials and typically have complex systems and finely-tuned parts. They’re easier to pull and release, but require some special care to stay in top shape. Modern bows are designed to take down big, tough animals, so a single shot from a compound bow can turn your small game dinner into a squishy paste if you’re not careful. Compound bows often come in pre-made kits, but you can also select better parts to be installed.
Jason warns, “Modern equipment is both fragile and incredibly tough. Modern bow limbs are susceptible to breaking or delamination. Any little chip, scrape, or gouge can lead to catastrophic failures.” But they can also take a hell of a beating if properly cared for.
- Easy to aim
- Easy to shoot
- Simple for beginners
- Effective for large game
- Works for small game when using blunt arrows
- Heavy maintenance required
- Complex designs with more parts to break
- Must use correct size and style for each hunter
- Must be kept dry
Required Gear for Modern Bows
- A compound bow properly fitted to your frame and strength
- Proper arrows made for your compound bow (you’ll want an assortment that includes blunt tips for small game)
- Release loop—Attached to the string
- Release-aid—A small, triggered device that attaches to the release loop, used in place of just fingers
- Bow-sights to aid in aiming
- Peep sight—Attached to the string
- Arrow rest—Attached to the bow for the arrow to sit on
- Stabilizer—Attached to the front of the bow (optional but recommended)
- Quiver—Attached to the bow limbs
Whether you choose a traditional or modern bow, just make your decision and stick with it. With a little effort, anyone can become proficient with either type.
What’s the Best Type of Arrow for Hunting Small Game?
For very small game like rabbits and squirrels, usually blunt tipped arrows are best. If you’re hunting slightly large prey such as wild turkeys or raccoons, a broadhead tipped arrow is usually the most effective.
Which arrows you use are just as important as your bow. While arrow shafts and fletchings can be made of a wide variety of materials, the tips are arguably the most important part. Match your tip to the prey you’re after for the best results.
- Target Tips and Field Tips: Mostly for practicing, these tips can still be used for the smallest prey. Squirrels, small rabbits, snakes, frogs, and rats won’t usually survive a hit from a target or field tip. They’re designed to go into softer targets with ease and come out just as easily. The downside is that without barbs, they can sink so far into soft ground that you can’t easily retrieve them.
- Blunt Tips: These flat, wide tips are used to stun or paralyze small game. The force can also kill. They’re less likely than bladed tips to damage the meat or pierce the bowels (which can contaminate the meat). Blunt tips often come with springs, wires, or wings that keep them from burrowing into the ground, making retrieval incredibly easy.
- Broadhead Tips: Broadhead (bladed) arrow tips are razor sharp and deadly. Their main goal is to dig deep into the flesh of your prey and not let go. They’re designed for large game, but can work for small game if you’re careful.
Video: Best Arrows for Small Game
This quick video shows some blunt tips variations you can choose from.
Bow Hunting Specific Types of Small Game
Obviously, you need to follow local hunting laws and use common sense, but small game bow hunting can be successful in nearly every area. These are a few of the most common (and plentiful) types of small game that you are likely to come across. For each type of game, I’ll cover the best type of arrow to use, where to find them, and how to hunt them. I’ll also toss in some important tips that I’ve learned over the years so you can have a successful hunt!
Rabbits and Hares
Rabbits and hares are two different animals, but they are hunted in the same way. They are plentiful year-round in most areas, taste great, and they replenish quickly so you won’t need to worry too much about overhunting.
- Best Type of Arrow to Use: I prefer blunt arrows for rabbit hunting. They’re small, light animals that don’t require a lot of power to take down. If you’re not sure your bow has enough power to knock a rabbit out, use a fixed-blade broadhead arrow.
- Where You’ll Find Them: Rabbits and hares are found everywhere: meadows, fields, forests, wetlands, and deserts. They’re often hiding in thickets, large patches of clover, and deadfalls. They are herbivores, so will gravitate toward areas with green vegetation low to the ground. They are mostly nocturnal, but can often be seen in the early morning and late evenings. Rabbits and hares out in midday were likely chased from their burrows by predators or overcrowding. They also may be sick, so be wary of daylight rabbits that are lethargic, listless, or wobbly.
- How to Hunt Them: As prey animals, rabbits and hares are always on alert. This makes them difficult to hunt. However, they also live in large groups, so if you see one rabbit running away, there is probably a large population nearby. Your best bet for hunting rabbits is to find a likely food source near a good hiding spot and check for signs of rabbit activity, including chewed leaves, plants chewed down to the stems, and the presence of rabbit pellets.
Get Cozy and be Patient
If you see signs of rabbits, find a comfortable spot a good distance away and wait. Given enough time, rabbits will pop their heads out, sniff a bit, then hop out toward the food source. Have your bow ready and an arrow nocked, but don’t draw the string back until you have a clear shot.
You don’t need to be up a tree, but if you can get off the ground a few feet and stay comfortable, rabbits will be less likely to notice you. Boulders, stable deadfalls, and hills provide a clearer shot.
Look Them in the Eye
Move slowly and quietly around likely hiding spots, peering into the brush. A rabbit’s round, dark eye will stand out in the chaotic brush, especially if you’re sweeping a light—look for the reflection.
Sweep the Area
If you can’t find signs of rabbit activity, you can switch to flushing them out of hiding. Dogs are awesome for this, but if you’re alone, simply sweep the brush with your foot. Be ready to shoot a moving target.
Walk and Stop
If you’re trying to flush rabbits out of a long row of thick brush, crouching and staring into the depths every few feet will be exhausting. Try the walk and stop approach to use their instinctive fear to your advantage. If you walk a few feet, then stop for a full minute, then walk another few feet along the hiding spot, your prey may get nervous and bolt. They can’t handle the anticipation and may feel safer running than hunkering down.
- Best Type of Arrow to Use: Because of their size, I only use blunt tips for squirrels. Most broadhead arrows leave a mess of shredded flesh.
- Where You’ll Find Them: Squirrels are found all over the world, except Australia and Antarctica. Mainly arboreal rodents, they spend most of their time in trees. They favor trees that bear nuts and cones but will hide in any tree to avoid you. Ground squirrels, on the other hand, burrow into the ground. They are mostly found in wooded areas, but will sometimes venture out into meadows if food is scarce closer to home. They’re active throughout the day, but I find evening and early morning hunts to be the easiest.
- How to Hunt Them: Squirrels are like rabbits when it comes to alertness. The difference is that these critters will make a lot of noise if you startle them. That telltale chirping will alert every squirrel in the vicinity that you’re out to eat them. Because of this, you need to be stealthy and patient.
Watch and Wait
If you have acorns, nuts, or cone-bearing trees in your area, chances are very good you’ll find squirrels. Park yourself a good distance from a likely food source and wait. Squirrels will come down trees in short bursts, often circling around the trunk to scan the area for predators. Take your shot when the squirrel’s back is facing you, aiming for the spine. If it doesn’t kill the squirrel straight away, it will stun it so you can finish it off quickly.
Rustle the Leaves
While certainly alert, squirrels aren’t very smart. If you haven’t seen a squirrel, but you’re certain they’re in that tree, try tricking them into thinking it’s safe. Rustle the leaves under a large tree every so often, then sit silently. The random rustling will mimic the foraging patterns of squirrels. It may trick the ones in the tree into thinking there are squirrels under the tree eating all their food. Jealousy is a powerful tool.
As with rabbits, stealth is vital to success with squirrel hunting. Take slow, steady, careful steps if you must change hunting spots. Stop frequently and listen. If you can’t hear chewing, chattering, or the sound of squirrels jumping in the trees, you’ve been noticed. Sit right where you are and stay quiet. They’ll eventually start moving again, and so can you.
A stealthy bow hunter may be able to get right under a squirrel who is happily munching on nuts in a tall tree. If you see or hear a steady, light rain of nut shavings and shell pieces coming from a tree, there’s a squirrel. Look up. Shooting an arrow straight up is a rookie mistake. Make sure you’re angling your shot properly and anticipate potential ricochet points.
If you’ve been successful and there’s a downed squirrel under a nearby tree, don’t retrieve it right away. Wait a few minutes and see if more squirrels will start to move around again. You may end up with two, three, or more squirrels if you’re patient enough. Bagging multiple squirrels in one small area is not uncommon when bowhunting, since the bow is almost completely silent and won’t startle other animals.
Time of Year Matters
Squirrels will start eating nuts right from the trees in spring. But when the leaves begin to fall, so do the nuts and acorns. Squirrels must shift their foraging to the ground when fall hits. Be aware of the time of year and the habits of squirrels in your area to get a better harvest. A squirrel on the ground will bolt up a tree if startled, so you may still get a second shot if you miss the first.
Unlike rabbit hunting, you need to avoid high points when hunting squirrels. Any movement, no matter how small, will alert them. Take cover and stay down. Bows can be shot from many different angles. Practice low, horizontal holds to get a feel for them. This is one reason I love horse bows—they were specifically designed to be shot at that angle!
- Best Type of Arrow to Use: Broadhead arrows are best for wild turkeys because all those feathers create effective armor against blunt attacks.
- Where You’ll Find Them: Turkeys can be found in many areas, but favor mountainous regions, open woodland, and forests. They often wander into agricultural areas if there are nearby suitable roosting spots. Wild turkeys roost in trees and come down in the early morning to begin foraging.
- How to Hunt Them: Delicious, stupid, and flighty, wild turkeys can be a challenge to hunt, but they provide a lot of meat and can be taken out with a single arrow.
Look for signs of turkey activity a day prior to your hunt. Telltale signs include feathers on the ground, the sound of gobbles nearby, and piles of turkey droppings under large tree branches. Also, keep an eye out for scratch marks in the dirt.
Get yourself in place well before the sun comes up and wait for wild turkeys to come down from their roosts. If you wait until later in the day, they’ll see you approaching and will take off.
Keep the Sun to Your Back
Sit in the shade with the sun to your back. Turkeys love to sun themselves and the males will use open, sunny areas to strut their stuff for the ladies. With the sun in their eyes when they turn your direction, they’ll be less likely to spot you hunkered down in the dark.
Wild turkeys have incredible eyesight. Any movement will give away your location and they will flee. You must remain perfectly still until it’s time to take your shot.
Again, sharp turkey eyesight will thwart your hunting plans if you’re not careful. Eliminate the obvious human markers by wearing head to toe camo.
Use a Turkey Call
Turkeys are dumb, so using turkey calls will trick them nearly every time. This video shows my favorite methods.
Decoys help when hunting turkeys. Depending on the time of year, you’ll want to change which decoys you use. Early season, for example, try to make the Toms (mature male turkeys) jealous by setting up a hen decoy next to a decoy of a Jake (which is a young male turkey). For survivalists, this method isn’t very helpful since it’s unlikely you’d be lugging around three or four fake turkeys.
- Best Type of Arrow to Use: Broadhead arrows, especially those with barbs designed to lock into the flesh.
- Where You’ll Find Them: Raccoons are found everywhere, though their natural habitats include deep forests and areas with sparser trees if there is access to water and abundant vegetation. Nocturnal by nature, they’ll be out in droves late at night.
- How to Hunt Them: Raccoons are probably the most controversial game on this list, but I know a lot of people who hunt and consume them. As long as you take obviously healthy animals and avoid any that have been feeding in urban areas, you can get some quality meat.
Raccoons are hunted almost exclusively at night. Arm yourself with a flashlight and start walking through the woods. Your goal is to scare the raccoons from the deep brush up into the trees. Shine your light up into the branches above you every so often. You’re trying to catch the flash of light reflecting off their eyes. A treed raccoon will never come down, so take aim and get ready for dinner.
Though most raccoons will be buried deep in their dens in the middle of the day, there is still a chance to nab one in daylight. Sometimes they can be found sleeping under trees, in bushes, or near old stumps in the spring and early summer.
Winter is rutting time for raccoons, so they’ll be out in force starting around January. Use a squaller to attract their attention.
Find a Den
After mating season ends, females will be looking for warm places to have their babies. Raccoon dens are easy to spot by this time due to the food scraps and scat collecting nearby. They especially like stable deadfalls, rotten stumps, and hollow logs, but they’ll take old underground dens abandoned by other creatures, too.
Snakes, Frogs, and Rats
Yes, you can eat snakes, frogs, and rats. Just be sure of the safe types in your locale, and never eat an animal that has been feeding in urban or suburban areas.
- Best Type of Arrow to Use: Blunt for critters on land and a tethered, small broadhead for ones in the water. Tethered shots let you reel in your kill like a fish.
- Where You’ll Find Them: Frogs will be near fresh water and wetlands, while snakes and rats can be found everywhere. All three especially love tall grass, bushes, and old logs that border areas of lower, green vegetation. These three animals often eat each other, so if you see one type, the other two are likely nearby.
- How to Hunt Them: This is the one group of animals I recommend a traditional bow only. Modern bows will be too fast and too powerful for such small animals; you’ll end up with paste and an arrow stuck in the ground.
‘Round the Clock Food
If you decide to hunt snakes, frogs, and rats, you’ll end up with ’round the clock protein choices. You just need to be patient to fill your belly. The only real tip you need for this small game group is to find a good spot between wetlands and a meadow and get ready to take your shots.
- Snakes need sunlight and warmth, so they’ll be out in the daytime hunting bugs and smaller rodents. Look to the meadows when the sun is high.
- Frogs start to appear around sunset, and snakes will take advantage of that last meal before it gets too cold and dark. Focus on ponds, wetlands, and the meadows boarding the wetlands.
- Just as the frogs are settling down for the night, the rats will come out. They’ll usually stay away from the ponds, but can be found in the wetlands and the meadows, usually hunting the last frogs and night insects.
Bowhunting small game is easier than people think, mainly due to the variety of small animals you can aim for. For survivalists, it’s more than just a fun sport or a way to supplement the food on your table. This skill could literally save your life. Finally, I’m not going to babysit you. If I’ve mentioned anything here that’s illegal in your particular area, don’t be dumb; follow your local laws!
Have you tried any of these tips, or do you have some new tips to share? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!