The Lost Art of Roving

Back in 1878, a little over a decade after the Civil War, a southern gentleman named Maurice Thompson wrote a remarkable book titled, The Witchery of Archery. Though small in physical size, that little tome had big results as far as the sport of archery was concerned. It regenerated within the public of its time a renewed interest in archery. At the same time, it combined the making of archery paraphernalia along with the basics of both target archery and bowhunting (although the term “bowhunting” was unheard of at that time) in one volume.

In his classic 1923 book Hunting with the Bow and Arrow, Saxton Pope penned the following statement relating to shooting practice: “The open hearth, shaded forest, hills and dales, all make good grounds. As he comes over a knoll a bush on the farther side represents a deer, he shoots instantly… Let several archers go into the fields together and roam over the land, aiming at various marks; it makes for robust and accurate game shooting.”

Although he did not use the term “stump shooting,” that is exactly what Pope was referring to when he wrote those lines. Before the term “stump shooting” was coined, this form of outdoor archery shooting was known as “roving.”

When roving, the author likes to use a wide variety of differently fletched arrows and small game heads.

Roving was at one time a very popular off-season activity that all serious archers and bowhunters participated in right on up through the 1950s and into the ’60s. Back when I first got into traditional archery during the early ’70s, a number of my bowhunting buddies and I spent many a summer and fall day roving through fields and woodlots, picking out all sorts of targets ranging from a single fallen leaf to a grass clump and from milkweed pods to dead branches and rotting tree stumps. While the term “roving” can still be heard in some traditional circles today, its alias, “stump shooting,” is the term most modern traditional bowhunters now use to describe walking a woodlot and flinging blunt-tipped arrows at whatever target they chance upon, all of which allows their imagination to wander to far off lands where they can mimic hunting for bear, elk, moose, caribou, pronghorn, or ram.

I was interested in trying to find out when the term “stump shooting” was first used. After doing a little research on both the Internet and through some of my older, out of print books on archery and bowhunting, I finally came across the term for the first time in a paperback book titled Bowhunting for Whitetail and Mule Deer, published in 1976 by M.R. James, the Editor and Publisher of Bowhunter magazine. That reference to stump shooting appeared in a caption under a black and white photograph of a camouflaged archer about ready to loose an arrow at a prostrate log.

Personally, I prefer to use the term “roving,” because it more accurately describes a group of archers or bowhunters meandering or rambling along a field, woodlot, or mountainside, picking out all sorts of natural objects to shoot at—not just rotting stumps, although they are bigger and tend to catch the eye quicker than smaller objects.

Unfortunately, roving does not seem to be as popular these days as it once was. Lately, I’ve noticed that whenever a group of traditional folks gather for a morning or afternoon of shooting practice, they are more apt to meet at the local archery range where they can do their shooting on a 3-D course. Now, don’t get me wrong, I totally enjoy shooting at 3-D targets. As a matter of fact, I have four set up in my backyard as I write this. Unlike the old two-dimensional targets that first appeared on the archery scene years ago, today’s 3-D targets are lifelike and fairly accurate in depicting the anatomical features of both small and big game animals, providing the traditional bowhunter with lifelike shooting practice. When placed in a woodland setting, 3-D targets can provide true to life hunting scenarios that will help prepare the bowhunter for upcoming game seasons.

Aluminum and wood arrows with several of the tips I prefer.

However, unlike wandering across a field or through a woodlot with a group of archers picking out various objects to fling an arrow at, practicing on a 3-D range has its limitations. One of its major shortcomings involves range estimation. Most 3-D ranges are set up with shooting pegs placed at or near standard shooting ranges out as far as fifty yards or more depending on the shot. Yet, even if the participants do not know the exact yardage from the shooting peg to the 3-D target the first time they shoot the course, the archer only needs to shoot the course a few times to learn the actual yardages. Unless the targets are moved often, bowhunters can get into a shooting rut without really knowing it, simply by shooting at the same yardages every time they practice.

Another factor to consider is that most 3-D courses are set up on manicured trails with targets placed in fairly open niches, allowing for obstruction-free shots at the targets while practically eliminating arrow loss or breakage. I guess that is a good thing when shooting for score, because it allows the archer to concentrate on the shot rather on the chance of losing or breaking an arrow.

What a 3-D course lacks in optimal hunting practice as well as providing true to life hunting scenarios is more than made up for in a roving session. Take for instance the last one in which I participated. The lead shooter stopped along the crest of a small ridge overlooking a large vernal pool hidden in a low spot among a mixed stand of mature white oaks and younger maple and beech trees bordering a cut hay field. As the rest of our group came up and gathered behind the lead shooter, we all began to quietly speculate what the target might be. Was it the stump fifteen yards or so out and to the left of the pool? Could it be the downed log half submerged in the dark colored water? Maybe it’s one of those grassy tussocks scattered here and there along the pool’s edge.

Naturally, as we all speculated as to what the target might be, we made it a point to good-naturedly heckle the shooter, telling him that he could not find a shot that was too tough for us. As he made his draw, all we heard was, “We’ll see about that.” Then, when he reached his anchor, he let the arrow loose. To our great surprise, his arrow flew past all those targets we speculated upon, over the dark water of the pool, through a small opening in the thick honeysuckle bordering the opposite side of the water, and then into a broken hay bale lying in the cut field some thirty yards distant.

I’d like to say that we all hit the mark, but unfortunately some of us missed, putting a smug smile on the lead shooter’s face while prompting a few fresh remarks about those errant arrows. Since I was the next lead shooter, I pulled my arrow out of the clay just short of the bale and headed back up the ridge looking for a target that would challenge both our shooting and focusing skills. I didn’t have to go far. Glancing uphill and off to my right, I spotted the perfect target—a large, rotting stump the size of a big black bear standing broadside about twenty-five yards distant.

The challenging part was focusing on the spot I wanted to hit while ignoring the two beech saplings standing guard six or eight inches apart several yards in front of the stump. Kneeling on one knee, I nocked a blunt-tipped arrow, drew, anchored solidly, and then let loose of the bowstring when all looked right, although I felt a bit awkward due to the steep, uphill angle of the shot. In a heartbeat the arrow flew true between the saplings and then slammed into stump. One of the archers mentioned how easy I made the shot look. With a cocky half-smile, I said that it was easy.

Roving, or stump shooting if you prefer, will challenge and fine tune a number of bowhunting skills prior to the hunting season opener—skills such as yardage estimation, picking and focusing on a single, tiny spot on the target, maintaining form under a myriad of shooting conditions, consciously picking an opening through heavy cover, visualizing the arrow’s trajectory while shooting over or under objects, accuracy when shooting uphill or downhill, shooting from awkward positions, and much more.

This season, why not incorporate some roving practice throughout the year in addition to shooting 3-D rounds? You’ll quickly discover that it’s a great way to prepare for the upcoming hunting season in addition to being a fun and memorable way to spend the day with fellow archers and bowhunters.


About the Author:

John and his wife, Judy, live in Gansevoort, New York, in the Adirondack foothills, close to their six married children and sixteen grandchildren. John has been bowhunting and serving as a New York State Bowhunting Instructor for nearly fifty years.

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