KENAI - As Joe McMullen of Kasilof approached his quarry, he was pleased with what he saw.
The black-tailed buck was gazing in the opposite direction from where McMullen approached.
"Looking away, just the way I like them," he said.
McMullen crept quietly through the woods and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He loaded it in his compound bow and then drew back on the string while taking aim on where he perceived the heart of the animal would be. When ready he released.
The arrow met it's mark, much to McMullen's delight.
"That's a dead deer. It wouldn't even go 30 yards," he said.
Unfortunately, there would be no venison for the freezer this time. The animal was a life-sized model, part of a 3-D shoot held semimonthly by the Kenai Peninsula Archers, but the practice experience was helping to better the odds that McMullen would bag a buck come hunting season.
"Any ethical hunter is going to practice weeks, if not months, before they go, and this is the next best thing to shooting at a real animal," he said.
Knowing that many of the archers who attend the 3-D shoots are aiming to improve their hunting skills, Len Malmquist, president of the Kenai Peninsula Archers, said every effort is made to simulate real hunting scenarios.
"There are shots from up high, through trees and between objects. These are all fairly realistic situations. You may be off your mark from time to time because you hit a twig, but that's how it is with hunting. No one's taking down the branches for you," he said.
Also, unlike indoor ranges, archers at the 3-D shoots must contend with incessant insects, wind and inclement weather.
"The intention is to have people put up with all the things they'll encounter while hunting. So when we say we hold a shoot every two weeks, we hold one rain or shine. We even have a few die-hards that come out in winter and will snowshoe the course," Malmquist said.
Since the course for the 3-D shoot is on a 55-acre, heavily wooded area off Arc Loop Road, real animals also make an appearance from time to time, so archers must be "bear aware," just as they would while really hunting.
"We had a black bear come through two years ago, we had a brown bear feeding on a carcass last fall, and we had a cow moose charging people this spring," Malmquist said.
However, unlike like these living animals that are few and far between, the life-sized targets archers are there to take aim at are numerous and ever-changing.
"We have 15 individual stations with a diversity of wildlife," Malmquist said.
Most of the animal targets represent Alaska species, such as caribou, Dall sheep, mountain goat and black bear. However, there are a few Lower 48 animals mixed in, such as cougar, bobcat, wild boar and turkey, since some hunters will want to brush up their skills for hunts Outside.
"We have 31 targets, and we just fund-raised all winter to get a moose," Malmquist said.
"While having 31 targets to fill the 15 lanes may seem like it would produce a variety of archery situations, Malmquist said the 3-D shoots are actually much more diverse.
"We use 15 stations at a time, but we have 49 lanes, so we mix it up so that each time someone shoots here it's different," he said.
The stations also are set up to challenge archer's abilities. Some of the targets can be hit from as close as 12 yards, while others may be placed as far as 70 yards away.
"The longer distances teach better form, so you have better accuracy," Malmquist said.
There is even one station that has a tree stand for archers to climb to, complete with a tow rope to get a bow up and down, and a safety chain to prevent people from falling out.
"It's an entirely different thing once your feet leave the ground, but in this area probably 90 percent of the people that hunt black bear do so from a tree stand, so this is a good simulation," he said.
Many archers who attended the first 3-D shoot of the year recently said they got a lot out of the course.
"There is still a higher anxiety level and increased heart rate to hunting real deer, but it takes practice to be ready for that moment. 2-D targets will help, but if your a hunter, they don't really do it for you. This gives a much more real representation," McMullen said.
Robert Gauden of Soldotna agreed. He has been making the transition from being a rifle hunter to a bow hunter and said the 3-D shoot allowed him to practice shots he will need to be successful.
"With a rifle you're taking shots from 50 yards, but with a bow you've got to stalk to 20 to 30 yards and still place a good heart/lung shot, so this type of practice makes you a better hunter," he said.
Doug Gordon of Soldotna said he also found the shoot useful for brushing up on his perception of hunting distances.
"Since it's all new, I like trying to gauge how far away the targets are, then I brought a range finder to see if my guesses are right," he said.
The cost to participate in a 3-D shoot is $10 for members and $20 for nonmembers, with all funds going directly to the club for the purchase of new targets and repairs of existing ones.
"It's fairly expensive to buy and maintain these targets. The moose we're getting will cost around $1,888, and we have to go through and fill the arrow holes on our existing targets every year," Malmquist said.
In these trying economic times, he said archers can take solace in the fact the 3-D shoots are a reasonably good investment, though.
"Where else in Alaska can you go hunt all afternoon for $10 bucks," he said.
For more information on 3-D shoots, call Len or Penny Malmquist at 262-7375 or e-mail penny.malmquistacsalaska.net.