This past weekend the Big Guy (AKA: Dad) and I shot our first Total Archery Challenge in Killington/Pico Vermont and it did not disappoint! I can't speak highly enough about the Total Archery Challenge (AKA: TAC) and don't think you could walk away from the weekend without feeling like a more knowledgeable, capable, and confident shooter. Or at the very least leave with a bunch of stories, broken arrows, and a laundry list of skills to practice and gear to upgrade. The environment and courses put together by the event staff will push you out of your comfort zone and introduce you to some of the limits and potential of your abilities and that of your gear. It's a great way to establish a true baseline for where you are as a shooter and gives you the opportunity to get together with other hunters and shooters, rub elbows, share stories, and learn from one another which I think we can all agree is one of the things that draws us to bowhunting in the first place.
For those unfamiliar with the Total Archery Challenge (A.K.A. TAC) it is a friendly 3D archery event held at different locations around the country between April and August of each year. Event venues are typically ski resorts where the slopes are converted into multiple 3D courses compromising 25 targets each. Similar to golf, participants register for "nock times" which reserves them a designated time frame to take their selected course. Each course, named after event sponsors, poses their own unique style and challenges typically symbolic of their title sponsors. Dad and I opted for the Sitka course which is one of the more difficult courses on the mountain. Like Sitka gear all of the shots on this course were designed to demand performance at the extremes of your comfort level. Targets were typically sheep, goat, and other medium to small mountain dwelling creatures placed between 50 and 100 yards. Adding to the degree of difficulty, these shots were not only long but featured either steep angles or tight shooting lanes that required you to thread the needle with pin point accuracy or kiss your arrow good bye. To give you an idea of how demanding these shots were I lost two arrows and bent another four over the course of the day. Most of my misses were due to hitting branches that were in the arc of my arrows flight path. Not bad for a First Lite guy ;) In addition to their main courses, TAC events feature a more novice friendly locals course, beginner/youth course, and various novelty shots where you can win major prizes like a new truck or all expenses paid African hunt.
All of the event sponsors and some other vendors had tents set up where you could check out their latest gear including Yeti, Mtn Ops, Leupold, Prime, Hoyt, Rock Mountain Elk Foundation, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, among others. There are also plenty of food, drinks, and snacks around for purchase or sampling. One of the opportunities we wished we had taken advantage of was Leupold's test drive program where they allow you to take their optics on the course. In my recent BX-4 review I mentioned this was probably a good thing for my bank account because I probably would have bought a pair... Other than that we wish we could have stuck around for the RMEF after party and film festival but we had a friend's wedding to get to the following day. Next year...
As far as atmosphere there are few events or communities better. Social media can sometimes highlight the negative and it can be easy to think the hunting crowd is saturated with cannibalistic haters but I have never been to an actual hunting camp, shooting event, or other congregation of hunters, especially bow hunters, that was anything other than welcoming and supportive. Maybe I am just blessed but I hope not and I think those drawn by events such as this are the same people willing to put their egos aside, test and develop their skills, and network with others. Throughout the course and down at the tent area shooters spurred each other on excited every time someone made an impressive shot. We traded tails, talked gear, and shared pointers with those heading out on the course.
As far as preparation and equipment I would definitely recommend coming into any TAC event as polished as possible. Treat it like any big hunt. Do your research, have a plan, test your gear, and come fit. Average course time is about two hours and that is a healthy amount of time to spend hiking around any mountain. I wouldn't recommend going from couch to mountain. If you aren't someone who maintains their fitness year round give yourself at least a month of solid hiking and body weight HIIT training so your muscles aren't completely fatigued by the end of 25 targets and you can maintain proper shooting form and enjoy the experience to the fullest. Keep in mind that archery already requires a certain level of strength and shooting steep angles demands even more core stability to execute. So if nothing else break in those hiking boots and tighten up the trunk.
When it comes to gear we ran essentially a scaled down version of our typical hunting setups. It was a foggy and damp day with temperature starting in the forties and ending in the upper sixties. Besides the ski lifts the atmosphere felt just like a hunt and both us and most of the shooters we saw seemed to take this as an opportunity to shake out their standard gear. I wore my Crispi Crossover GTX boots which I have been using almost exclusively for the past year and continue to love. My pants were a pair of Prana Brion 's which are an affordable light/medium weight hiking/climbing pant I have been using while I wait for the new First Lite pants to drop. My top was a cotton First Lite t-shit in place of my normal Wick 150 Aero-wool long sleeve. I had an Easton hoody over that and a KOTA trucker cap. Dad ran basically the equivalent except his boots were Chippewa's, pants were from Kuhl, and his pullover was a Sitka Core Heavyweight Zip-T.
As far as our bows and packs those details are as follows:
|Bow||Mathews Vertix||Hoyt RX-1|
|Rest||QAD Ultrarest Integrate MX||Hamske Hybrid Hunter Pro|
|Sight||Spot Hogg Fast Eddie XL Double Pin||CBE Engage 3 Pin|
|Stabilizer||12" Mathews Flatline||12" Bee Stinger|
|Strings||Zebra Strings||GAS Bowstrings|
|Grip||Rattler Grips Insert||Lizard Skinz Wrap|
|Etc…||Bee Stinger 10 degree QD mount|
|Arrow||Easton Axis Pro Match 300||Easton FMJ 300|
|Insert||Deep Six RPS||HIT Insert|
|Vanes||6 Fletch AAE PM 2.0||4 Fletch PM 23|
|Nock||East X-nock||East X-nock|
|Release||Carter Nock On Nock 2 It||Truefire Chicken Wing|
|Range Finder||Sig Kilo 2200LRH||Sig Kilo 2200LRH|
|Binoculars||Swarovski 10X42||Swarovski 10X42|
|Bino Pack||Alaska Guide Creations Kodiak Cub W/Max Pocket||Muley Freak|
|Pack||Mystery Ranch Treehouse||Field & Stream Fanny Pack|
Overall we both found our setups to be extremely capable of taking on the course. Dad literally picked up and setup his CBE Engage sight a week before TAC and this was his first slider so the learning curve was pretty steep. It took a few targets to square away some issues with his calibrated sight tape but I will have more on that when I review that sight in an upcoming article. We knew going into the challenge that our bows would be up to the task but we didn't expect how much the importance of good optics would prove to be. The TAC staff do an excellent job hiding some of the targets between rocks and trees and in the shadows or the dense deciduous forest. A good set of binos proved key to not only locating the target and 12 rings but also spotting any would be arrow assassinating branches hanging out over the flight path.
Likewise our range finders were also put to the test. The dense morning fog at the top of the mountain only granted visibility of 50-100 yards and this proved to be the one failure point for every range finder. We both were running Sig Kilo 2200LRH range finders which are on the higher end but even they failed to cut through the fog. There was one elk target in particular we figured was at least 60 yards but the range finders kept returning 20. While we waited for a break in the fog one of the TAC staffers drove by with a Leupold range finder. Same result. Eventually we resorted to ranging a bush roughly halfway between us and the target then walked to the target, ranged the remaining distance, added the sums and shot it from the original shooting spot which ended up being 78 yards away. That worked well enough.
Another rangefinder lesson we observed and heard others echo was that the newer angle compensating models seem to do a pretty precise job calculating downhill shots but overestimated uphills. One the first two uphill shots we took both Dad and I noticed our shots hit identically higher than our point of aim. On one of the final uphill targets, a goat at 78 yards, I shot it for 76 and sure enough, 12 ring. That was probably the most tangible gear lesson we learned that day.
If you want to check out more Total Archery Challenge Killington/Pico check out the video below or the T.A.C. VT story on the Knights of the Apex Instagram page.