I recently re-read a book I first bought in college, a collection of hunting essays compiled by David Petersen, “A Hunter’s Heart.” In the title essay, Petersen reflects on why he hunts, which describes my thoughts on it better than I could, a humbling admission for a writer. One of the many reasons he lists is “for the atavistic challenge of doing it well with an absolute minimum of technological assistance.” This hunting season, I finally took that line seriously, and traded my compound bow for a recurve.
Actually, I already had the recurve, a ten-dollar garage sale find by my dad a few years ago. I sold my compound bow to my brother for my half of us buying my dad a crossbow for Christmas so we could move deer camp into bow season, but also so I wouldn’t be tempted to revert to cams and let-off when the going got tough. My bow is a Shakespeare Super Necedah, a 54” magnum recurve with a 45# draw, made between 1968 and 1972 with a thick zebra wood riser.
The reasons why I made this decision are complex. Part of it, I think, is that line of Peterson’s. I’ve always hunted in a progressively more difficult method, as I think that as the method gets harder, I am forced to become a better hunter, which for me has never had anything to do with inches of antler. I shot my first doe with a rifle from a homemade tree stand when I was 20. Then I learned to still-hunt with a rifle from my dad. Then I bought a pawnshop PSE compound and started still-hunting public land with a bow, then doing the same out of a backpack camp. My best deer was a 3 1/2-year-old eight-point I shot with a rifle from the ground a couple years ago, but that wasn’t as rewarding as the doe I stalked with my compound last year, gutting it out while two bull elk sparred less than a hundred yards away in the same valley. A Fred Bear videotape I used to have showed still-hunting with a recurve out of a backpack camp, and I think that’s been my ideal ever since. Some of it may have been seeing the “AirBow” at the ATA the year before: the more hunting technology increases into the absurd, the more I want to run screaming in the other direction wearing nothing but a buckskin loincloth.
I started practicing as soon as I shot my doe last October. A full year of preparation included picking up form tips from Longbow Dan and Tribe Archery’s Ben Steiger at the ATA Show, and some more from my fellow trad archers in the Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers – Stephen Daugherty and Ryan Tucker. Stephen even gave me a PSE Ghost takedown to practice with. I shot almost daily in my basement at distances out to 17 yards, at public field course shoots at my club, Tomahawk Archers, and at the Total Archery Challenge in Boyne Falls, Michigan.
After competing in the Train To Hunt Challenge at the Ambridge Sportsmen’s Club the previous summer, this past June I entered the traditional bow division. In addition to the physical preparation, I think this forced me to practice more and earlier in the year than if my target was to be ready by October. I did well enough to earn third place and an invitation to the Train To Hunt Nationals in Grand Junction, Colorado. At Nationals, I got my butt kicked by better archers in better shape, but also picked up some tips from last year’s trad champ, Derek “Tex” Grebner.
While tuning my bow to broadheads, I couldn’t deny that I was shooting the Shakespeare better than the PSE, so I committed to hunting with the vintage bow. My first chance to hunt was a couple weeks into the season, mid-October, when I packed into a non-motorized section of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, in northern Michigan, after the quarterly meeting of the forest’s citizen advisory council, which I serve on.
Still-hunting on my first morning, I stopped and dropped to a knee in the tall grass when I saw a doe at about 35-40 yards. It would have been venison strapped to the roof with my compound, but my range is 20 yards with my recurve. I tried moving behind brush to get in position to shoot at a shorter distance, but she caught the movement and bolted. Over the course of four days, I blew a few more stalks in similar circumstances, but never felt as more of an ancient predator than crawling toward unsuspecting whitetails with an arrow nocked on my trad bow. It brought to mind another of Petersen’s reasons to hunt: “I hunt to acknowledge my evolutionary roots, millennia deep, as a predatory omnivore.”
We moved our annual deer camp up a few days – from the November 15 Michigan rifle opener – to catch the rut and the end of early bow season. I still-hunted whitetails for four days straight, in sunlit snow, below-freezing blizzard, flurries and pouring rain. I still-hunted to within 15 yards of a spike buck, my heart beating harder than when I shot that eight-point with a rifle two years ago. I held my bow upright for a straight-arm draw as I practiced for Train To Hunt, but I didn’t think I could draw without spooking him in my window of opportunity, so he got a pass.
It’s mid-December and I don’t have any venison in the freezer yet, but I have never felt more alive as a hunter than I have this season, my hunting instinct more fully engaged than it has ever been. And with a week off in between Christmas and New Year’s Day – the last day of late archery season in Michigan – I haven’t given up yet. Snowshoes, backpack, tarp, hammock, sleeping bag, a three-day kit, my trad bow, and the opportunity to obtain venison the ancient way on public land: I can’t imagine a better way to ring in the New Year.
by Drew YoungeDyke