An Education in Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Bowhunter Certification
By Mike Rogers
I've been an Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) certified bowhunter for just over a year now. While this piece isn't exactly intended for the experienced archer, it does answer a whole bunch of questions you may have prior to taking the ADFG bowhunter certification course. Alaska, and several other states, require bowhunter certification prior to hunting big game with a bow and arrow, and the qualifying course and certification must meet International Bowhunter Education Program (IBEP) standards. Right after I got my bow, I was a little dismayed to find that the only bowhunter certification class in my immediate area was just five weeks away. It was either get good in the next five weeks or endure the time and expense of travelling to take it somewhere else. Despite my initial concern, I passed the tests with flying colors and this article is a review of the process to making that happen. While the shooting test varies a little from place to place and instructor to instructor, the process is pretty much the same statewide. I opted for the "Online Course w/ Field Day" option, which means I took the classroom and written testing portion online. You will spend something on the order of four or five hours to take the online portion—depending on how well you do with that sort of computer-based training. I'm sort an old hand at it since my employer invests heavily in computer-based training and a portion of my academic coursework is online as well. If computers aren’t your gig, you may opt for the traditional class. You have one year to pass the Field Day Qualifier once you pass the online portion of the course.
Target practice on a caribou | Mike Rogers Expect no surprises. My course was through Hunter-Ed.com, a vendor that services a bunch of states, including Alaska’s hunter, bowhunter and muzzleloader education programs. The course provided a logical breakdown of bowhunting and archery basics into several modules with a multiple choice quiz at the conclusion 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 to watch. The videos are geared for about the 5th or 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 archery pro you might feel a little bit patronized. You will need to pay attention though and answer the questions appropriately since your advanced status is not reflected on the test. Most of the material is straightforward, so a passing score is pretty much guaranteed if you have a basic reading comprehension. You are also allowed unlimited attempts at passing the test, should you need it. In Alaska, you have to wait for the passing grade to upload to the state fish and game site before you can register for the field day. The Field Day Qualifier was a bit of a worry for me. Since I didn't have a long background in archery (in fact, only a few weeks!), 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-inch group at 30 yards consistently the test will be an easy enough event. The longest shot I've ever heard of in the Field Day Qualifier is 35 yards and during mine it was 26 yards. I only used the top pin, sighted at 20 yards, throughout the whole course. In retrospect, a 10, 15, 20 and a 25-yard pin would have been more useful than my 30, 40 and 50-yard pins. It makes sense; IBEP guidance discourages long shooting despite all the talk about 70 and 80-yard shots common on the internet. Making long “hail-mary” shots is simply poor hunting and results in wounded and suffering animals. The Field Day Qualifier started in the classroom and we had about an hour of paperwork and review of animal anatomy with some miniature animals and a broadhead safety demonstration. Safety is a pronounced component of the course with a lot of emphasis on tree stands. While tree stands are uncommon in my area of Alaska, 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.
Target practice on a Velociraptor | Mike Rogers The target course 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 lethal arrow into any one of them. The closest shot in my course was 10 yards and the farthest was 26 with 18 and 21 yard pokes making up the middle ranges. 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 imprinted in the target. 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. Half of the shots were made kneeling and two were from an elevated stand that replicated a tree stand. In hindsight nothing was surprising and anyone who would contemplate shooting an arrow at a big game animal should be able to pass the shooting proficiency test easily. 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 in the future more states will require such education and certification in a manner much like the now universal hunter education requirements among all states. I also feel that the course will make me a better bowhunter in the long run. I’ve had years of experience hunting with a rifle and the course made transitioning to the bow a less daunting proposition. Good tracking skills are critical for bowhunting, so the Field Day Qualifier also has a blood tracking exercise. I've heard the blood trailing exercise can be challenging. In our class, with ample snow cover in March … it was easy. Just like real life, sometimes conditions are more favorable than others. At least there was some advantage to taking the course in winter conditions. I’ll conclude with some tips for those of you who will take the course in the near future: 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 (I saw that with one individual in my group). I probably fired a thousand arrows in the five weeks before the course. That was probably overkill, but I was going in blind as a newbie. As mentioned, if you have a properly sighted and tuned bow and can hit groups out to 30 yards, you'll have zero difficulty with the shooting portion. 2. Shoot from kneeling and 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 of our shots from a stand, so 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 the target. If you have a longbow the kneeling shots might be a real problem. I’ll admit with a modern 30" compound bow—my shots kneeling were better than standing. 3. Know your animal anatomy—scoring rings don't matter but vital shots do. Know where to hit an animal with an arrow from most sensible angles. You would think this would be self-explanatory in a bowhunting course but you'd be surprised. The coursework covers shot angle and vital zones in extensive detail, but if you have questions simply ask the instructor to define the kill zone for you and he or she will likely be happy to oblige. 4. Be prepared for weather—the class runs rain or shine and in my course that meant 5 degrees and snowing like crazy. I put a couple of hand warmers 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 rainstorm 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 have 25-30 people in attendance. 5. Bring a rangefinder—you are allowed (even encouraged) to use a rangefinder in the shoot. However, you are not allowed to share range information with other students during the test. Rangefinders are cheap and easy to use these days. If you bring one, you won't be sorry. Using a rangefinder while hunting is a good idea too. 6. Be a sportsman (or sportswoman)—the instructor is almost assuredly a volunteer on his or her own time motivated only by promotion of archery and bowhunting. 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 gentlemen 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 kind of drama in my group. 7. Use the "right" bow—you are allowed to use any type of bow for the class. You may be a dedicated "trad" archer, but my instructor indicated that traditional archers fail the course most frequently as a group. One of the guys in my class missed the entire animal three times with his recurve bow and secured his chance to try the course again. He would have benefited from more practice for sure. Another gentleman brought a bow that was clearly too powerful for him and failed his first attempt. If you can't draw the bow while seated or draw back in a straight line you need to drop back poundage. Of course, some people do pass the course with traditional gear and common sense would dictate that if you can’t pass the cert with the gear you’ve got—you should refrain from hunting with it as well.
Target practice | Mike Rogers On that note—another student brought his 80-pound compound bow set to full power. He was a great shot and he passed easily, but he drove his arrows so deep into the target that pulling them in the cold weather was a challenge. It was challenging for everyone but he ended up destroying a half dozens arrows and a foam target in the process. There is no advantage or requirement for a high speed, high poundage bow for the qualifier. If your class will be during cold weather, I recommend lubing your arrows with silicon spray or WD-40, which will make pulling them out of the target a whole lot easier. Best of luck to everyone and while the qualifier isn't super easy, it is straightforward. With prior practice and forethought passing it should not be a problem. Interested? Alaska Bowhunter Education Course
Michael Rogers is an Alaskan hunter, a total amateur with the bow, and a student of all things hunting. While his first year as a bowhunter didn’t yield big game, it yielded many hours of enjoyable challenge and a limit of grouse. If you enjoyed ADFG Bowhunter Certification, you'll be sure to enjoy Shooting Dad's Old Winchester Model 37 by Mike Rogers.