“Well that took a bit longer than expected.” I chuckled, climbing out of the car and popping the trunk. “You ready to shoot Dad?”
“Definitely,” he groaned, stretching his back. “I’ve been wanting to shoot here since we heard about it at Compton’s. Pop it so we can get this show on the road!”
With a thump, the trunk opened to reveal the usual haul, including an assortment of fleece bow socks, and brilliantly fletched fir and cedar arrows. Dad sifted through it like a golfer looking for his 9-iron.
“Are we going to shoot our self bows this round, or are we rolling with our fiberglass bows?”
“Self bows.” I shouted, sliding a camouflage sock out from between the seats. “I need to air this thing out, it hasn’t been out of my shop since applying the polyurethane last week.”
I rolled back the sleeve to reveal my newest companion, a 68” mahogany-stained slab of oak with a decorative backing and hand-stitched leather grip; the results of two months worth of splinters. I worked it down with a rasp, and fine tillered it by scraping the belly with an old hunting knife. It was my first successful build and I couldn’t wait to shoot it at something other than the burlap covered foam cube in my basement.
“Boy that really turned out nice!” Dad exclaimed. I like the way you painted the back. It doesn’t even look like drywall tape anymore. Real organic…primitive looking!”
“Well it better shoot,” I chuckled. “I’ve got a lot of time into this thing and I don’t have a lot of that since the kids were born.”
It was hot. Uncharacteristically so for a Michigan morning in late August. The empty parking lot looked straight out of the Wild West – dusty and desolate. All it was missing were the tumbleweeds and rattlesnakes. It was enough to make me question why we drove 80 miles to shoot 30 targets, especially at $4.00 a gallon, but after three weeks of chasing a two-year-old and changing a newborn I desperately needed to be out of the house with a bow in my hands. I figured a range as isolated as this would be the perfect solution regardless of the price.
We signed our waivers, dropped our $5.00 into the lockbox, and proceeded to the first target: a turkey strutting broadside at 15 yards. Shooting from the stake required that I kneel, or risk smacking the limbs on the overhanging branches above. I inhaled deeply. This particular shot had me spooked and it wasn’t due to the kneeling. I drew an arrow, raised my bow arm, and slowly drew the oak slab, praying it wouldn’t crack.
The ground below the turkey erupted in a puff of sand and pine needles. I was far too low, and the arrow seemed out of sync with the bow. I compensated and drew another. THUMP! This one caught the turkey high and near the head — better, but not what I was looking for. Both arrows flew erratically despite being tuned and ready to shoot. I shot Dad a quizzical look, to which he wasted no time responding.
“You aren’t hitting full draw…you’ve got to draw that thing back there. It won’t break! What good is a bow you can’t draw all the way?”
That made sense. I’d tuned this bow to shoot arrows at 30” of draw, not 27”, which is as far as I was getting before chickening out. I had to shoot this bow as it was meant to shoot — at full draw — whether it broke or not.
I made sure to anchor the next shot to the corner of my mouth, released, and willed my arrow into the 10-ring and continued to do so as we moved from target-to-target. If I drew correctly, I’d find my arrow in the vitals of whatever we were shooting at. By the time we shot our final target there was little doubt the bow was solid and I was satisfied.
“You really shoot that thing well! I mean that was a really good round of 3Ds. You hardly missed the vitals.” Dad commented, as we unstrung our bows and loaded our gear.
“Yeah! How about that?” I beamed. “If only the poundage were a little bit higher, I could probably hunt with it then.”
“Or you could get a little bit closer.”
While said in good humor, this really resonated with me. I’d spent the entire round thinking of ways I could increase the weight and speed of my bow, rather than thinking of ways to get closer to my prey. Wasn’t that what traditional archery was all about? I felt like a hypocrite, having subscribed to the belief that a lightweight bow with a well-tuned arrow and sharp broadhead could kill any animal in North America with proper shot placement. I suddenly questioned whether or not I believed it.
I had planned to shoot a glass-backed longbow. A tremendous specimen of black walnut and buffalo horn made for me by a reputable bowyer friend of mine. Now, with the Michigan archery season only weeks away, I was actually considering hunting with a crudely formed oak board. It seemed foolish, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Visions of mature whitetails felled at the hands of my own bow stuck with me during the drive home. I wanted them to be reality, but there were legit fears to consider.
Abandoning the world of precision fiberglass and steel for the organic world of wood, sinew, and stone frightened me. I wouldn’t be making it on impulse or passing fancy. It would require faith in my abilities as both a hunter and a craftsman. Making a killing shot had always been difficult, crafting everything responsible for it seemed impossible.
I’d only made one shootable bow and only shot 100 arrows through it. I’d broken just as many as I’d made, so conjuring up the confidence to hunt with such a weapon seemed daunting. Shooting a deer was difficult enough with modern, dependable gear. I had the comfort of knowing a knowledgeable person with a time-tested formula crafted my bow, and that it was sound. That had always brought me piece of mind in the field. All I had to do was make it work. Not having that was intimidating. I had my doubts and concerns.
Will this bow break at a crucial hunting moment? Will I remember my limitations once buck fever sets in? Will I be able to perform with the added stress of knowing my gear will not cover up a poor shot? Will I miss an opportunity I would have capitalized on with my fiberglass bow? Am I prepared to deal with that and explain it to others?
I tried to dismiss these questions with answers a man of faith and optimism would give despite not totally believing them. Sometimes that is enough to give someone the confidence they need to leap and sometimes it isn’t. A word of encouragement goes a long way in this case. Mine arrived in the form of Dave Thompson, a friend and fellow bowhunter who was already hunting with primitive tackle and happened to live down the street. After exchanging emails for several months we agreed it was time to meet. I thought it would be fun to show Dad a little bit about the world of primitive bow building, so we decided to stop over the next day.
It was evident Dave built bows and hunted with them often. His garage was stuffed with tools, projects, and scraps of wood. Shavings cushioned our feet as we walked, which explained why Dave wasn’t wearing shoes. He wasn’t much older, but it was evident he was a more experienced bow builder as their were several examples in various stages scattered throughout the shop. We wasted no time getting acquainted. Like me, he had once considered the transition from fiberglass to wood, but made the jump several years earlier. He was currently working on his next hunting bow, and perked up when I mentioned the completion of the red oak. I had mentioned it before, but had yet to show him the final product.
“It shoots really well,” I explained. “Smooth and quiet…if only it were a little bit heavier poundage wise. I would consider hunting with it. As it sits, it’s only 43 pounds.”
He looked at me with a puzzled expression and then smiled as if he knew something I didn’t. “That’s all you need. That is perfect. Go make some meat with it man!”
He then shared experiences with bows he’d made in the past; how he’d gotten close on several occasions, but had yet to capitalize with them. Despite achieving little “success” with his homemade equipment, he was still headed down the path of self-reliance, venturing so far as to make his own grunt calls, cane arrows, and broad heads. I was amazed at his persistence. Here was a man that practiced what I was preaching and was living my ideologies. He wasn’t a superior hunter or bowyer by any means. His willingness to hunt the way he dreamt of hunting was all that separated us.
I returned home overwhelmed with motivation. I suddenly wanted to relive the previous months and rethink the season. While it wasn’t too late to hunt with the oak slab, the end of the offseason had arrived and I’d already committed to my hunting rig. I knew it wasn’t a good idea to change bows so near to hunting season and I didn’t intend to. I believed an adversary as worthy as the whitetail deer deserves you at the top of your game, and I wasn’t about to slack on my end of things, but my primitive quest had begun. The fire had been lit. While I enjoyed the fiberglass bow and its flawless curves, intricate laminates, and dependability, my heart would forever belong to the simple, all wood, self bow.
A version of this story was recently published in the winter edition of Stick and String magazine. Get your subscription at www.stickandstring.com to hear more from me and other great contributors!