Having been a hunter for over forty years, I thought that I knew every trick in the book to spend more time in the woods. I’ve taken vacation time, worked hunting around holidays, called in sick (“cough, cough”), left work early, and given up sleep. I even bought primitive, side-lock muzzleloaders to take advantage of extended season privileges. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that I began to consider hunting with a bow and arrow.
About ten years ago, I met a bowhunter through a volunteer organization we had both joined. He hunted with a compound bow and really enjoyed the extra time in the woods. I expressed some interest in learning how to use archery equipment and we made arrangements for the two of us to experiment with his bow, to see if I had any ability. At the time, he had the latest and greatest gear and I was looking forward to possibly finding a way to increase my time in the woods.
The appointed day arrived and I was like a kid on Christmas Day. I could hardly wait to get my hands on the ticket to a longer hunting season. My friend set up the target about twenty feet away, demonstrated his technique and then gave me some instruction on the set-up of the bow and the use of the sights. He showed me how to safely draw the bow while making sure the arrow didn’t fall off the rest. Then he gave me the bow and arrows and stood back to watch, expecting to give some verbal guidance, I’m sure. Unfortunately, guidance didn’t help. I was a disaster as a bowman. Not only was I not hitting bullseyes, I wasn’t even hitting the target. After almost an hour of futility, my friend quit trying and I was right with him on that. At that point, I believed I had given up on the idea of bowhunting.
But the idea of bowhunting never really left my mind. I remembered my very first experience with a bow as a young boy in a summer recreational program. It was a bright yellow fiberglass recurve that probably had a 15 to 20 pound draw weight and shot wooden arrows. But the first arrow I shot with that bow was a bullseye. It was pure luck given my undeveloped ability and limited instruction from an underpaid, bored teenage staff member. But it sure seemed easier than the compound bow, at least in my mind’s eye.
I also remembered, in the “hook and bullet” magazines of my youth, reading stories of legends like Fred Bear and Howard Hill and actually seeing them on the early “sportsman” television shows. They used recurves and longbows and had mastered seemingly impossible feats of skill, accuracy, and hunting prowess. So I began to investigate contemporary recurves, longbows, and arrow choices. During my research, I encountered information on instinctive archery and it made more sense to me than the compound bow with its complex sighting system. Eventually, I committed myself to purchasing a recurve bow with matched arrows and learning how to shoot instinctively.
It took some searching, but I finally found a reasonably local archery shop that had a number of recurves in stock. I visited the shop, shot several bows on the indoor range, and walked out the proud owner of a new bow, a dozen arrows, and everything needed to shoot at targets. I bought an inexpensive square foam target and set it up in the back yard.
This bow felt much easier to use than my friend’s compound, and the instinctive method seemed to work for me. I had played sports in high school and college so the idea of muscle memory and repetition made sense. Before long, I was consistently hitting within the bullseye and the second ring at twenty feet. I kept practicing and continued to increase my distance from the target until I reached the limit of my back yard range at about twenty yards. This kept me occupied through a summer and into fall, but I was not confident enough to move into bowhunting at that point. I was pleased about everything, except for a nagging pain in my shoulder. As the pain grew worse over time, I became convinced that it was not just repetitive motion. I was going to have to consult with my doctor. Of course, my fear was that I had injured myself with too much shooting.
Ultimately, the diagnosis was bone spurs in the rotator cuff region, and those bone spurs were impinging on a tendon, tearing it and causing the pain. The repair surgery was simple as the goal was to remove the bone spurs and allow the tendon to heal. The prognosis was good but I had to give up archery for about a year. My physical therapist was supportive of my desire to continue shooting my bow and so gave me exercises to strengthen and stabilize the rotator cuff.
The next spring, two years after I had purchased my first bow, I set up my archery range again. I expected that I would be starting from scratch. But I was pleasantly surprised that my aim quickly returned and I was soon confidently shooting out to twenty yards again, and then on to thirty yards. It seemed like the right time to take my state mandated Bowhunter Education class. Boy, was that an education! Mostly a good education, but some parts were downright weird.
Much of the state-required curriculum deals with the differences in laws, differences in projectiles, and some differences in tactics between hunters using firearms and those using bows. There was also a good quantity of printed materials from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation. This was all expected and welcome. I was looking for as much information as I could absorb. The first weird occurrence was when one of the four instructors spent an hour denigrating crossbows and crossbow users when he was supposed to be explaining the use and legality of crossbows. These implements have recently been approved for hunting in my state after a very long and contentious process. There was quite a bit of animosity toward crossbows by various statewide “bow organizations” but I was surprised by the overwhelming amount of personal invective in a state sponsored class dealing with hunting legalities.
The second odd event was a bit more pleasant. It happened when everyone went outside for a little target shooting. I brought my recurve, which elicited quite a few comments. The lead instructor said he couldn’t remember a traditional archer coming through the class in at least the last five years. But he was impressed that I had spent quite some time practicing before taking the class to hone my accuracy and ability. That felt almost as good as my perfect score on the final exam. At the end of eight hours of class and six hours of study on my own time, I walked out with my bowhunter class certificate. The next day I went to a local archery shop and purchased my license. Now I was really starting to think seriously about bow season.
I had continued my backyard practice and familiarized myself with the flight characteristics of my new broadheads. I refined my gear by sharpening and honing the broadheads and building three quivers. The first quiver didn’t work at all, the second was much better, and the third was the best. Time after dark was spent in the house building a ghillie suit while some daylight hours were used to create some new ground blinds. Since I’ve lived on and hunted this land for fifteen years, I knew where the deer trails ran and I had been thinking about locations for archery blinds. At my age, I wasn’t too interested in climbing trees.
Opening Day of bow season dawned clear. I sat in one blind most of the morning but saw nothing. While sitting in the blind I began to think that maybe I was too close to the deer trail for a good shot. So I began looking around for another location that didn’t need much work but could still give me a good chance at a shot. I settled on another spot about fifteen feet from where I was sitting, which would potentially give me a twenty-five to thirty foot shot. I was confident at that distance so I still felt good about my chances.
My chance came about 3:30 in the afternoon. I spotted two doe coming through the goldenrod about fifty yards away. The distance was much too far for me to contemplate a shot, but I began my preparations to possibly draw my bow for a shot at some point. The two doe continued to head in the general direction of my blind. They were feeding and moving slowly, stopping often to poop and pee, and eat fresh grass. It took them almost twenty minutes to move ten yards closer to me, and another ten minutes to move ten more yards. Now they were within my preferred range but neither one presented any kind of a shot. There was also too much vegetation between us for a clear shot. I should have been nervous but I was really overjoyed at seeing two deer that didn’t know I was there for a period of about thirty minutes. To be that close to two wild animals and just watching them was thrilling. But the thrill was soon to end.
After more than thirty minutes of observing the two deer with no clear shot, the completely unexpected happened. My neighbor’s two dogs began to bark about 300 yards away. Both doe looked in the direction of the noise (away from me), one snorted and stomped, and they both took off heading back the way they had come. I could hear them stop after about fifty yards and snort and stomp again. Then I heard something I had never heard before, rapid bleating from both doe that sounded almost like laughter. It could have been directed at the dogs, at me, or just some kind of nervous relief.
So my first experience with bowhunting (at age 55) did not result in food for my family. But I had a great time observing the two doe and learning more about deer, about myself, and perhaps a little about bowhunting — knowledge I anticipate applying next season. It was an experience I would not trade for anything. Well, maybe I would trade it for backstraps!
Author Bio Note: First time contributor T. Michael Salter lives and hunts in Upstate New York. He is a self-employed writer and first aid/CPR training consultant.
Equipment Note: The author carried a 45# Samick Sage, Easton XX75 Camo Hunter arrows, and Zwickey Eskilite 135-gr. broadheads on this hunt.