Tin Cans and Wooden Dowels

In our latest episode of the Traditional Outdoors podcast, I mentioned wanting to do something I hadn’t done in a very long time – build and hunt with wood arrows.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of this change of heart. A wooden dowel (other than a few simple sets for my daughters) hasn’t crossed my workbench in years. After taking a doe with a crudely-crested cedar in 2012, I put my tools away, gave my Young’s feather burner to a friend, and entered the soulless land of synthetic materials.

I used time, or a lack-there-of, to justify the move. My kids were young and staying busy wasn’t something I needed to work on. I was more interested in shooting and less interested in fiddling when it came time to bows and arrows. But time was only one of many excuses. I was burned out and didn’t have the hunger I had in the beginning.

I sent this Eclipse-tipped cedar shaft through a doe in 2012. It was my first harvest with a wood arrow.

My arrows were simple early on – an aluminum shaft with a 145g field point or two-blade broadhead. They were easy to assemble and they were easy to maintain. They were also more consistent shaft-to-shaft than my wood arrows and stayed straight unless glancing off a rock or concrete floor. I got by with this setup but soon learned the value of a heavy, forward-weighted, hunting arrow. There were several ways to reach the goal, but the people I shot with preferred footed carbons with weighted inserts and heavy broadheads. I went that way as well and had accumulated dozens, thinking it was the final stop in my gear-tweaking journey.

I was wrong. The carbons were an effective setup but I felt little connection to them and connection was the point of the journey. Carbons were also bland and unexciting aesthetically – even the models with wood-grained graphics. Even vinyl wraps and interesting fletching weren’t getting the job done. It felt like putting lipstick on a pig. You can dress a carbon up to look like a wood arrow but they end up feeling like cheap imitations (no matter how expensive they are).

The same can be said for the aluminum “tin cans” but opportunity and nostalgia made those my next stop. My Dad had discovered a half-dozen old aluminum shafts at an antique store and bought them for me as a gift. They were 2216s in the old school BDU camouflage finish and were tapered on both ends to allow for glue on nocks and points. My original arrows, including the one that killed my first deer, were similar and the memories came rushing back while fletching them.

(L) The 2117 with 145g Ace broadhead that killed my first deer in 2009. (R) The 2216 that killed my first buck. Note the 160g Magnus Classic on top of the 100g Woody Weight and 100g steel adapter.

The nostalgia was where the similarities ended. This batch was better tuned and much heavier. I applied my knowledge of Ashby arrow construction to the (already) heavy 2216 shafts and ended up with a hunting arrow tipping the scales at a rib-cracking 820gr with a Magnus Classic on the business end. The setup performed well, passing through a buck and a doe with short recoveries. Again, I wasn’t satisfied. The results were there but the process was lacking. Aluminum arrows were assembled not made. There was no art involved. No personalization. No romance. And some of my closest friends were shooting finely crafted works of art. My arrows were lame in comparison.

I’d also discovered fly tying and loved every second of it. Few things compared to the feeling of a hooked trout on a deer-hair caddis fresh from the vise. The cedar-shaft doe was one of the few. The writing was on the wall. I was going to add wood back to the quiver and planned on hunting for shafts at the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational.

I was looking for cedar, but as I strolled through the vendor area, noticed a stack of raw ash shafts at Emerald Archery’s booth. I had a long history with ash and had been stump-shooting with the same batch for almost a decade without a single break. Emerald had several batches in the 75-80# range at a 620-640 grain weight. While the weight grabbed my attention, the straightness kept it. Ash required heat and a lot of work to straighten. My initial batch were clearance-bin specials and as lumpy as a Michigan highway in the Spring. I spent hours working them straight and swore I would never do it again. But these were quality shafts and the majority were straight enough to shoot out of the bundle. I handed over my money, and for the first time in years, couldn’t wait to start making arrows. The hunger had returned.

The process was as gratifying as I remembered. I took my time at each stage to mind the details and squeeze out every last drop of enjoyment. This kind of patience and attention would have been impossible when I was younger and couldn’t wait to finish and start on the next batch. My process was simple then. I would straighten, taper, and stain each shaft, then wipe on several coats of polyurethane with an old sock. I didn’t own a cresting jig, so I fashioned one out of a block of wood and four casters. It wasn’t the easiest to use. I would spin the shaft with my left hand and crest it with my right. Rudimentary designs and thick, wobbling lines were the result but I was proud of my ingenuity. Fletching was my favorite part. I didn’t have the budget to be picky and often purchased whatever was on sale at a show. The length, wing, color, or brand didn’t matter.

I was in a different place for this latest batch. My budget was larger and I had more patience at 40 than I did at 27. I no longer needed arrows. I just wanted to make them. My process was similar but evolved with experience. I swapped the wipe-on polyurethane for a quart of gloss Polycrylic and a dip tube, which gave me a more consistent and durable finish. I was also gifted a motorized cresting jig and was impressed by the level of detail it allowed. It took some getting used to but the experimentation was half the fun. The paint itself was also an experiment. I’d been drawing with Posca paint markers for several years and thought they might work for this application. While it took several passes to get the thickness I wanted, I couldn’t argue with the results.

I like to use bright colors on my arrows. I track them better in the air and find them easier.

The batch produced seven target arrows, four hunting arrows, and a stumper that was too stubborn to make it into either quiver. The hunting shafts were the straightest of the bunch and came in at around 820gr each with a single-bevel Grizzly head. They fly true, hit hard, and have personality. I can’t wait to get them into the woods and have a feeling it is going to be a very special season.

The battle of arrow materials has been raging around every campfire and on every social platform for years. I was passionate enough to weigh in when I was younger but realized doing so was a bit like patting one’s own back. I’ve shot them all and discovered that an arrow in flight is an arrow in flight. The way the archer felt when they sent it is the only thing that matters. We would all be better off typing less and enjoying our own journey. Shoot straight, shoot often, and have fun doing it.

Fit to be Tied

I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. That combined with my tendency to immerse myself in an activity made me a perfect fit for traditional bowhunting. Crafting arrows, making quivers, twisting strings, and whittling self bows appealed to me early on and were key ingredients to a more intimate experience afield.

Few of those skills stuck with me due to time or the realization that others were better suited for the tasks, but each helped me understand my passion for the stick and string on a much deeper level. Knowing the components helped me to better understand the whole.

A wise old friend of mine often says, “you get out what you put in” and I’ve found the phrase to be true when applied to anything. I knew it would only be a matter of time before it applied to flyfishing as well.

Flies and fly tying appealed to me early though I didn’t anticipate jumping into it so soon. But I found the creative possibilities and the promise of a more personal experience irresistible. Snagging expensive flies wasn’t an enjoyable experience either and I wanted something to do in the Winter when fishing was more difficult and opportunities scarce.

Having heard me mention wanting to tie, a friend was gracious enough to let me borrow the tools and materials he’d accumulated over the years and told me to enjoy myself — no questions asked. His only advice, “Don’t overdo the material. Most newbies use far too much and end up with fat bugs. Bugs are small.”

Don’t overdo the materials. Most newbies use far too much and end up with fat bugs. Insects are small.

He handed everything over by campfire light at the Great Lakes Longbow Invitational and I couldn’t wait to get started. I would’ve tried that night had there been a proper place to do it. Waiting was the wise decision. I had no idea as to what I was doing, couldn’t figure out if I was left or right handed, and had very little understanding of entomology. I didn’t know where to begin.

I turned to the Web for help and found an abundance of videos on the topic. One of my fishing buddies suggested I choose one, classic pattern and tie it until I perfected it. I choose the Hare’s Ear nymph, which was my favorite pattern at the time. It mimicked most underwater insects in Michigan and I caught my first brown trout on one. It was the perfect candidate. It felt wrong to tie a nymph and not a dry, so I choose a basic deer-hair caddis pattern without knowing how complex dries are and how important it is to get them right.

My early attempts were embarrassing — fat, furry, grubs with little space between body and hook. If a pattern required a wrap or two, I quadrupled it for good measure, disregarding the “thin is in” mantra altogether. My wings were abnormally large. I possessed the uncanny ability of turning a size 14 fly into a 10. My clumsiness with the bobbin was partially to blame. Being cross-dominant, I could not figure out which hand did what. I settled on my left hand for the bobbin work, which is surprising, as my right was the more dominant of the two. (I am still not sure if this is correct but it is too late to turn back now.)

Mechanics aside, my horrific attempts had more to do with my lack of understanding insects. Bugs were something to smash before I started fishing with them. Mayflies in particular. I’d seen my fair share of mayflies growing up in Northern Michigan and working at the county marina. I was a night security guard and one of my duties was to sweep the mayflies from the walls of the office building post-hatch so they wouldn’t gross out the residents. I accomplished this with an old gore-covered broom and grew to hate the mayfly with an indescribable intensity. I swept hundreds of them off that building and into piles. Then the ducks would eat them and I would have to clean up the aftermath.

Sometimes, if I was lucky, a mayfly would pass through said ducks and come out hobbled but alive on the other side. While awkward and disgusting to talk about, a mayflies journey through a duck sums up my attempts tying the deer-hair caddis. My goal was to create an imitation of the unscathed insect but ended up looking like the post-duck insect instead.

Still, I thought I was doing well at the time and began fishing my creations. I even caught a few on them, including a nice brown that refused to turn down a mangled meal. That was my greatest angling achievement and the reason for my fly-tying hunger today. It was also my very first experience fishing a wet fly, though I didn’t know it at the time. My early attempts didn’t float for long, if at all, and I didn’t know the difference between a surface strike or a trout sipping a sinking fly off the surface. It would not have changed my experience, regardless. I was overjoyed then and am proud of the accomplishment now.

My tying has improved with practice and experience since. Books, such as The History of Fly-fishing in Fifty Flies have been instrumental in my education. I still have a lot to learn but my flies are producing and I am happy with the results. I am having my best season on the water and have fished nothing but the flies I have tied. It has unlocked something in me that is hard to describe. A joy I haven’t felt for some time. I am seeing the river with new eyes and leaving it with a satisfaction I didn’t believe possible.

If you do not tie, I encourage you to try. It is an investment on many levels but it is worth every minute and every penny. You truly do get out what you put in.

Thank you for reading. Please subscribe and share it with your friends. I appreciate the support. My 2nd book, “Clumsy Predators” is coming along nicely and I’ve decided to include some fishing stories in it as well. I love writing about all things outdoors and think you will enjoy it. I will keep you updated on its progress. Until then, shoot straight, and tight lines.