Setting Up Your Bow for Night Hunting – Welcome to the Dark Side!

The first time I heard it, that shrill bawl, the hair rose off my neck to stand at attention and any sign of weariness from hours in the stand promptly left my body. I had never heard that sound before. What’s that? Was that a woman screaming? Could it be a cougar? I had heard they sound just like a woman screaming for her life. Then there was the droning of unruly cicadas, rhythmic croaks of lively bullfrogs and haunting yips and cries of excitable song dogs. 

Night hunting was something I had always hoped to experience but what I thought it might be like couldn’t have been further from reality. At a time, I assumed, the world drifted into slumber, the woods awoke with a fervor… alive with sounds and dimly lit sights I never considered. Now, they played out in the darkness less than a stone’s throw from my position. Not only were the woods alive, so was I. Night hunting was different, addictive, haunting… and it became significantly more experiential, more intimate when I began carrying a bow out to greet the midnight sky.

Bow set up for night hunting

While going dark does take a certain amount of grit… and maybe a few loose screws, it also takes the right night hunting equipment, not necessarily the low-light stuff hunters are routinely spoon fed by manufacturers – low light doesn’t necessarily mean night hunting, period! First, let’s look at the basic problem with night hunting followed by a solution based on choosing the right equipment. 


Light, the Problem and the Solution…

The problem with night hunting is the constant potential for either compromising your night vision with other lighting or the inability to see well enough to make an ethical shot; both can be frustrating and are causal to most blown hunts; in fact, this is the most common problem for night hunters aside from noise, the latter ranking high among failures no matter what time of day you hunt. Just like driving with the dome light on affects your night vision, too much light flooding into your shooting view also washes out your target – the result being a sight picture inclusive of your peep, sight pin, then little to nothing else. Conversely, too little light leaves a sight picture consisting of peering through your peep, seeing a subtle outline of your pin and little or nothing beyond it. Left to your own devices, achieving the appropriate balance can be tricky.

Fortunately, countless bowhunters have tread the darkness before you. Between advances in technology and field-proven results, some of us have actually put together the right components for quick, humane nighttime kills. Let’s consider your night sight needs in two parts, the peep sight and the main bow sight – both are foundational to appropriate lowlight sight alignment, sight picture and effective target acquisition. 


Peep Size Matters

Like the difference in light transmission when peering through 3-ft. pieces of 4-in. PVC or 1-in. garden hose, the larger the peep sight, the more light and better field of view you can capture. While looking through a small diameter peep when target shooting might be a perfect daytime or interior lighting solution, especially in competition, using the smaller peep does not allow the light you create while night hunting to effectively pass through without washing out your target – all you see is light. A larger peep diameter allows for light transmission as well as target acquisition with its expanded field of view. 

Bow Peep Sight for Night Hunting

A common mistake among bowhunters heading out for their first nighttime adventure is to continue using a 1/8” peep sight. While you may not want to go too large and compromise reliable sight alignment, 3/16-in. or ¼-in. peep sights are ideal. If you have poor eyesight to begin with, including haloing or starbursting of lights in lowlight environments, go with a ¼-in. peep. In terms of alignment, however, it’s also best to use a bow sight with a shooter’s ring diameter conducive to quick, easy and precise peep and ring alignment.


The best peep sight around for night hunting is no peep sight at all. While I do use a peep sight now because of a progressive eye disease that makes using a #6 verifier lens in my Specialty Archery Products Peep Sight and 2X-powered lens system on my HHA Sports King Pin Bow Sight, I shot and killed successfully for a while with no peep sight at all. The key to shooting effectively without a peep sight rests in consistency. Establishing a solid anchor point and other key contact areas foundational to good shooting habits effectively eliminate the need for a peep… or even a kisser button.

RedHawk Peep SightAnother amazing peep sight for lowlight or no-light hunting is a RedHawk Peep Sight. RedHawk offers a revolutionary system combining a definitive black sight-alignment ring with a translucent amber sight window – truly a perfect night-hunting combination if you don’t suffer from serious sight issues requiring the use of lens components. For years, RedHawk was my one-and-only go-to peep sight. Specialty Archery Products’ peep sights, complete with clarifier or verifier lenses offer the perfect solution for folks like me but you’ll have to play with different lenses to determine which is best for you. I prefer a hooded peep sight since I shoot during the day even more than I shoot at night.


The Right Bow Sight – Deal Maker or Breaker

Going back to the principles of your vehicle’s dome light and its effect on night vision, the most important element of a bow sight used for night hunting relates to the amount of light it produces. While sight alignment and pin acquisition are not issues affected by too much light, your target becomes washed out, even with a larger peep sight, leaving no opportunity for an ethical shot. To that end, the key to killing at night is to keep light transmission between your peep sight and bow sight at a minimum.

HHA Bow Sight

The most common bow sight problem plaguing night hunters revolves around the sight light. First, your sight needs one; many sights do not include a sight light or worse, are not compatible with one. Second, the sight light technology should only illuminate the pin, not flood into the shooter’s ring. Third, the light must be adjustable, often called a rheostat light. Rheostat systems are generally adjustable via a clicking knob, push-button or continuously-adjusting knob. The latter offers the best functionality since light adjustability is infinite where others may get you to a place where one click is too much and the next, not enough. The type of light should also not compromise your night vision. More sight light producers now use blue lighting. The best I’ve used, the Blue Burst, with infinite rheostat adjustability, comes from HHA Sports.

If haloing, starbursting, blurring or other issues with light affect your night vision, use a single pin sight. Many use a single pin sight anyway to keep their focus on one thing at a time, especially because night hunting is challenging enough already. My personal favorite, the King Pin, comes from HHA Sports. The King Pin not only features a Blue Burst Sight Light that illuminates only the fiber optic wire leading to the pin head, the single pin design works well with my K.I.S.S. method of hunting. The precision adjustability of both the yardage spool and main sight light, along with the additional Blue Burst Sight Light and magnifying window mounted at the rear of my yardage dial for accurate nighttime movements, make it a perfect solution. As a night hunter, I don’t know if I could have come up with a better system on my own… If I had, it would have been precisely what HHA built into the King Pin. My backup bow also features an HHA Sports single pin sight, the HHA Optimizer Light Ultra DS-5519 – in my opinion, a close second to the King Pin.

HHA Optimizer Light Ultra

Remember, the most important factor required of a good night hunting sight and proper night hunting settings is a sight light that illuminates only the pin without flooding into the shooter’s ring; the pin should be lit as dimly as possible. Too much light is bad; of course, so is not enough. You want to clearly identify the pin and nothing else. In the past, before switching to HHA’s bow sights, I used black electrical tape to block any light from bleeding into the sight picture area of the shooter ring. Again, controlling the light between your peep sight and bow sight gives you a clear path to target acquisition. The only thing left then is to light up the night out in front so you can pick out that sweet spot!


Light It Up!

While minimal light best promotes successful sight alignment and a rear sight picture, the overall sight picture certainly does require sufficient lighting; after all, with everything else kept to a minimum, you can’t possibly see an animal, even at 10 yards, well enough to take an ethical shot unless you light things up beyond the bow. Light color can also be critical. While battle-clad operators make a living neutralizing threats with blinding, often confusing white-light throws, serious night hunters generally depend on high-intensity colored LED lighting or lasers.

Generally speaking, effective bow mounted hunting lights, complete with hard-wired on-off or pressure-sensitive remote switches, screw into the stabilizer hole of your bow’s riser and are comprised of a single, focused, high performance red or green LED bulb and clear lens. My current bow mounted Hawglite Sabre light system produces approximately 190 tightly focused lumens but is no longer on the market. The same maker, now called Hawgfather, owned by the iconic Texas night hunter, Kelly Garmon, aka, “The Hawgfather,” now produces the Hawgfather HF100. Using the Sabre, I can easily settle a pin on the sweet spot of virtually any critter, including raccoons, at 40 yards, even with my crummy eyesight. I am certain the new Hawgfather HF100 performs even better and it is available in a combo kit with both red and greed LEDs.

Hawgfather HF100 light

White LEDs with colored filters are not ideal since light transmission is impeded by the filter itself, resulting in a fraction of the throw actually moving past and out to the target. Colored LEDs with clear lenses allow 100% of throw to illuminate a target. Many predators cannot see color or are otherwise not effectively rattled by such a light source; the largest factor then, in my estimation, is jumpy animals sometimes reacting to the shadow you’ve just created on their far side. 

I have killed scores of feral hogs using both red and green LED light systems. In my experience, and most night hunters agree, animals are much more skittish when using bright white lights, however, using white isn’t necessarily a deal breaker either. The best strategy when using white light is to power the light source on while holding up high, then lower the light slowly downward. The best setup with white light is to ensure only the fainter rings of light illuminate the animal well enough to take a clean shot. If you throw 100% of the light directly at your target, you’re likely to be disappointed; they generally do not wait around. As an additional point of interest, as a videographer, red seems to show better in video footage although green also works well enough.

bow hunting hogs at night

Lasers also offer a wealth of night hunting benefits, even for bowhunters. Using an additional picatinny rail system with your light easily accommodates a Crimson Trace Laser such as the CMR-201. Using what amounts to as a truly tactical light system complete with a remote switch, with a high-quality laser like Crimson Trace can produce the kind of deadly results full freezers are made of. 


Seeing the Light in Night Hunting


Hunting at night not only tests your nerves, it adds a truly primal element to hunting. Even before all this technologically advanced equipment contributes to preventing predatory damage to livestock, agriculture and wildlife habitat, your senses, absent of sight, are heightened, especially of hearing; of course, better hearing isn’t necessarily a great thing. You’re likely to hear things going bump in the night that will have your hair standing on end – maybe the Boogey Man will even make an appearance. The truth is, however, there is very little to be concerned about. Those eerie sounds are simply the result of insects, birds and animals doing what animals do at night… when they are most active – you’re just not used to hearing them.

night bow hunting

For those of us used to these sounds, they offer a sense of peace and tranquility few people really know. In the end, even if the draw of eerie sounds, heightened senses, lack of light, more complex shooting and blood tracking through those haunting witching hours while other predators are silently watching you are not enough to get your blood pumping, consider this, the strategy of pursuing predators when they are most active, at night, just makes good sense! If you can see the light I’m throwing through the darkness, only one question remains. Do you have what it takes? 


What about us rifle shooters? 

I love rifle hunting as much as bowhunting so keep your eyes peeled! The next night hunting installment focuses on setting up your rifle. Whether your focus is up close, longer range, budget-minded or all-out budget blowing, I’ll get you on target.   

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