Rangefinders have definitely eased off much of the work associated with judging distances. However, simply owning a rangefinder does not make judging distances easier. Because every archer needs to understand how to overcome any and every issue possible, it is imperative for a hunter to have some basic hunting skills to complement the rangefinder, hence making the distance estimation process a lot easier on the user.
THE “GUT FEEL”
Some people can simply look at an object and guess its distance. It is something built into their natural abilities. After years of shooting most hunters have somewhat developed this talent to a point where it is the very first thing they do when they look at the intended target, be it foam or flesh. Instinct and natural ability are powerful things, and can often be your most reliable asset. While you may not be pinpoint accurate with this method, it is always the first thing to do and then back it up with a different method.
This is a very common method and one of the best to practice with and use when time permits. The basic method is to be sufficiently good at picking out an object between you and the target, at a distance that you can always judge accurately. Usually, this means finding something at 10 or 20 yards (or whatever you are comfortable with) and then repeating that distance until you get to the target.
For example, you may walk up to a shooting stake and see a bedded doe target that your first “gut feel” to be about 35 yards away. Then you should find a landmark, a bush or weed or rock, that you know is 20 yards away. Next, you should look for something that is 10 yards beyond that first mark, and so forth until you have crept up to the target.
Generally speaking, this is easier for most people because they are able to take a large task and break it down into smaller bits. This is the most accurate method to use when time permits.
SIZING THE TARGET
While somewhat similar to the gut-feel method, the sizing method relies on your ability to gauge distance by looking at relative sizes. This method is very useful for shooting at objects that are of known sizes, especially 3D targets. For example, the small axis deer 3D target is going to look different in an open field than the mule deer buck. By realizing how different sized targets look at different distances, it is possible to use this information to help determine the exact distance. This is a bit tougher on live animals, but with practice it is possible.
What makes it tough?
There are many things that can take an easy-to-judge target and make it extremely difficult to get right. Light can play funny tricks on the mind and understanding how shadows change your perception of depth is very important. Generally speaking, heavy shadows will tend to make most people believe that the target is farther than it really is.
Large objects such as trees, rocks or even hillsides can really mess with your judging abilities. These objects can not only hide part of the intended target but can also distort your view of the target’s size.
Another thing that many people struggle with is elevation changes. This can mean shooting uphill or downhill, but it can also mean shooting at something at the same height, with a ravine, gully or streambed in between. The change in height adds another element to the guessing game, especially considering that the archer must judge the pure horizontal distance, not the actual distance in order to get the arrow to fly true.
The bottom line
There is no such thing as too much practice judging distance. Everyone can always use more practice and in the end it will only benefit you. Practice as you are walking into work, hiking to your favorite fishing spot or jogging along that river trail. There are always opportunities to practice; use them to your benefit. Avoid being overly reliant on your rangefinder, the ability to use skill and the rangefinder cohesively is what sets seasoned hunters from the rest.