I was the beneficiary of a wonderful childhood. In addition to his scientific accomplishments (his pioneering work in the field of bone marrow transplantation earned him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1990), my father was a highly skilled outdoorsman. My mother also loved the outdoors. Best of all, they always made every effort to include me in their hunting and fishing activities, and the threat of being left behind because of bad behavior on my part was the only form of discipline they ever needed.
Dad grew up hunting in rural Texas during the Depression for the most elementary reason of all—to put food on the table. That’s likely the reason he never showed much interest in the bow and arrow other than being the first to congratulate me when I killed something with mine. However, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife and outdoor skills, and the lessons I learned from him contributed immensely to my own development as a bowhunter.
My brother was just two years younger than me and enjoyed the same introduction to the outdoors that I did, but we went in two very different directions. I’d do anything in order to go on the next hunting trip—wash the truck, clean the shotguns, feed the dogs, get up at four in the morning to cook breakfast and get the coffee started. My brother just wasn’t into it, no matter how much encouragement he received from my parents. Having seen similar situations in other families, I’m convinced that there is a genetic basis that leads some kids to become hunters while others from the same environment do not.
Threading on a No-Glov finger guard. Kids inevitably will lose tabs and gloves.
This theory has implications for all of us who are interested in helping youngsters develop an interest in the outdoors in general and bowhunting in particular. All you can do is offer encouragement and opportunity. Some will pick up that ball and run with it. Others would rather join the soccer team or play the guitar. There’s nothing wrong with kids who make different choices, and there’s nothing wrong with you if they don’t become fanatic bowhunters. It’s important to bear that in mind at all times. As Robert Ruark once wrote, “The sound of the hunter’s horn comes sooner for some…and later for others.”
When Lori and I got married 25 years ago, we each brought a son and daughter to the household. Initially, the thought of having four teenagers under one roof at the same time terrified me, but the kids all got along great and remain best friends to this day. My son Nick was already off to a good start and had killed several big game animals with his bow by the time he headed off to college. Daughter Gen loved to fly-fish and go with me when I went hunting although she never shot much herself. Interestingly, she is now of the generation that sees hunting as a means to great food. She cooks game enthusiastically and came out last fall with the express purpose of killing a deer and butchering it herself. Since she lacked confidence in her archery, she hunted with her grandmother’s deer rifle, but we couldn’t get her in front of a whitetail. Now she’s practicing hard with one of my old recurves and is determined to take a deer with it this fall.
Lori’s son Scott, like my younger brother, just didn’t have the gene. His father tried hard (we remain friends with Lori’s ex and hunt together frequently), but it just wasn’t happening. Her daughter, Nicole, is an all-around athlete who loves the outdoors, especially fly-fishing. When she was in high school, she decided she wanted to bowhunt, but she insisted upon making her own bow first. With Dick Robertson mentoring her, she produced a recurve either of us could hunt with today. Now she has provided us with something the other three haven’t: grandchildren.
Well, technically unofficial step-grandchildren. Nicole is now involved in a stable long-term relationship with a fine young man originally from South Dakota. Like many people of his age who now live in Bozeman, one of Montana’s college towns, he is an outdoor enthusiast but not a hunter, although he certainly has no problem with hunting. He also has two great kids, boys now aged seven and nine, both of whom are fascinated with wildlife and the outdoors. As soon as I met them, I wondered how I was going to get bows in their hands without disrupting some complex family dynamics.
I shouldn’t have been so busy trying to out-think myself. When they arrived for their initial visit to our rural home, the first thing the boys noticed was the 3-D bear target in the front yard. “What’s that?” asked Owen, the older of the two.
“It’s a black bear,” I replied.
“But it’s not a real bear,” Leo observed.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “But it’s a real archery target.”
“You mean you shoot arrows at it?” Owen asked. “Can we shoot arrows at it?”
“As long as it’s okay with your dad, that would be just fine.”
Encouraged as I was by the direction the conversation had taken, I slowly realized that I had a problem. Over the years I had acquired countless youth bows, for my own kids and others’. The problem was that I always assumed that the purpose of those little bows was to get kids shooting. Whenever I ran into an enthusiastic young archer, I let the bow walk away with him (or her) and made no attempt to keep track of it after that. A frantic search of my garage produced nothing light enough for kids. By this time the boys were making it very clear that there would be no peace in the house until they were shooting arrows at the black bear target. Fortunately, I still had an ace up my sleeve.
Owen’s bow looks like too much here, but he quickly grew into it.
I placed a quick call to my young friend Mark Schwomeyer, who has a son, appropriately named Archer, who is Leo’s age. I’d been watching Archer shoot bows practically since the day he was born, and I knew he had a couple of age-appropriate longbows lying around the house. When I explained my predicament, Mark volunteered to drive over with two youth bows, and I started scrounging through my mountain of arrows for something that might fly from them.
Safety is the only subject I’m strict about when introducing kids to archery. Even a target tip from a #15 bow can put out an eye. Although the boys were champing at the bit as soon as they saw the bows, I made them settle down while I reviewed some safety principles. I had Leo go around the house and confirm that all my bird dogs were locked safely in the kennel while Owen informed the adults that we would be shooting on the lawn. We checked the area behind the target to make sure it was clear. Then we paced off an imaginary shooting line as I explained that no one ever shot if someone was between the line and the target. That can be a hard concept to get across to excited youngsters. I was careful to explain it in a firm but nonthreatening manner, using the “I mean business” tone of voice my dad used to convey important messages. It worked for me back then, and it worked for Owen and Leo.
Then the fun began. I’d “drawn” the shooting line ridiculously close to the target. Kids want to hit what they’re shooting at, and they don’t much care how far away they are when they do it. The boys still went through the inevitable amount of fumbling as they tried to keep arrows on their rests, and I provided just enough instruction to keep them shooting without leaving them confused. Then—miracle of miracles—one of Leo’s arrow smacked the bear target and stuck in place for all the adult audience to see. That drew a momentary pout from his big brother, but then Owen followed up with a hit of his own, “Right in the heart!” as he was quick to point out, even though his understanding of ursine anatomy was obviously not yet fully developed.
From that point on the kids were on automatic pilot. They kept shooting while we grilled burgers on the deck. They were still shooting when the sun finally set, and I needed to call a halt. They were obviously exhausted after a long day, but Leo’s last words were: “Can we come back next weekend and shoot our bows again?” I thought about pointing out that they were Archer’s bows and not theirs, but the timing didn’t feel right for that discussion.
Because most of my friends’ kids are now grown and gone just like mine, a long time had passed since I’d enjoyed an opportunity to introduce youngsters to archery. I felt exhilarated. The kids’ enthusiasm reminded me of the fascination I felt the first time I released an arrow from a bow and watched the shaft sail away. There’s just something about it, and none of us should ever lose track of that feeling.
My experience with Owen and Leo reminded me of a lot of teaching moments I’ve enjoyed with other kids over the years. I learned important lessons during that process, and I’ll share a few here.
Safety first. Kids need to learn from the start that bows, like firearms, are weapons, not toys. You need to convince them that this is serious business even when they’re having fun.
Make sure they get to hit something. We may understand the importance of form and accuracy, but that can come later. Kids want reinforcement, and an arrow in a target will provide all they need at first. They really love 3-D targets. Inflated balloons pinned to a backstop of some kind make an even more exciting alternative. Start out close, at “can’t miss” range. It’s really helpful if the target is soft enough to make an arrow stick so they can see what they’ve accomplished (and show if off to everyone else).
Avoid competition. If two kids are shooting competitively at the same target, every winner creates a loser. No one should “lose” when they are learning to shoot a bow.
Keep the equipment simple. Kids are going to lose every little item they can possibly lose. One solution is to keep track of everything yourself, but kids want to have “their” stuff (even if you paid for it). Gloves and tabs disappear regularly and are hard for kids to figure out at first. The little rubber finger protectors that slide on the string (No-Glov, String Fingers, and others) solve both of these problems. You may have progressed to the point of not needing an arm guard, but kids should use one. A good “whack” on an unprotected bow arm can discourage further shooting. Find one that fits and make sure the beginner wears it.
Offer opportunity, encourage participation. Some kids just aren’t going to be self-starters. The worst thing you can do in this situation is try too hard. Kids love 3-D target courses! There’s something about animal targets that paper bull’s-eyes just can’t provide. Invite the kids to the range and make an adventure out of it. Even if they’re ambivalent about archery, they should have a great time.
Owen, Leo, and Preston after a busy afternoon of archery on Don and Lori’s lawn.
Draw weight. This factor poses a dilemma for which I have no perfect solution. In general, starting with too much bow is a real pitfall for novices that leads to lots of problems with form. But if you give a six-year-old a bow that’s just right for him, he will have outgrown it in a few months due to growth and muscle development. Since form isn’t crucial at this stage, I don’t mind making kids work a bit at first. If I’d kept all those kids bows I would have been able to offer more options, but a lot of kids would have done a lot less shooting.
By the time the kids headed back down the drive toward Bozeman, I knew what I had to do. I began with a call to my friend and master bowyer, Dick Robertson. Although Dick had made Nick his first bow, he admitted that he hadn’t made a youth bow in years and didn’t even know if he still had the forms. But Dick is a resourceful guy, and when he and his wife, Vikki, stopped by for dinner two weeks later, he brought along bows with the names of the kids’ totem animals inscribed: Jaguar (#21 at 24”) for Owen and Arctic Fox (#20 at 24”) for Leo. Their jubilation reminded me of Christmas mornings when I was a kid.
From that point on, all I had to do was stand back and get out of the way.
Don Thomas, his bowhunting wife Lori, and their bird dogs make their home in central Montana. After years spent trying to escape high plains winters in places like Arizona, they now snowbird to a quiet corner of Hawaii. Don’s books on a variety of outdoor topics are available from donthomasbooks.com and most on-line book outlets.