No Squirrels Harmed

Archers

In my social circle of “avid” traditionalists, the phrase “small game hunting” should be amended to “small game trying”. Though many would question the accuracy of that statement, as well.

Every year, as the sun sets on deer season, empty promises are belched over the roar of the campfire and into the woods beyond for every squirrel, hare, and partridge to hear, remember, and immediately forget.

“Well I’ll tell you what I’m going to do more of…squirrel hunting. I was covered up in them this year!”

“Me too. Portly blacks and noisy reds mostly. I even had a wirey old gray rummaging through my daypack yesterday. Tried to eat my damn Snickers bar!”

“Had several opportunities, myself! Squirrels the size of house cats no further apart than you and I. Too lazy to shoot.”

“You’ve gotta shoot those! Squirrel cacciatore!”

“Catch them? Why would I want to do that?”

I’ve heard statements like this repeated year-after-year with very little follow up. Michigan tends to go dark from late December to early April. Archers are too busy joining indoor leagues, tying flies, ice fishing, tuning turkey calls, or dodging potholes to brave the elements for a bagful of rodents. The one exception, as far as my band of stick-flinging cronies is concerned, is the annual small game competition at Whitneyville Bible Church in early February.

This particular gathering has been a blessing in disguise for the longbow-toting, winter weary Michigander. While the bulk of its contestants are parishioners with beagles and .22 caliber rifles, a handful of foolhardy outsiders have made it a point to brave the elements with blunted arrows and the hopes that we’ll run over several with the truck on the way there.

That never happens (in case you’re wondering). The only luck we’ve had is the bad kind, and the closest we’ve come to success is convincing an old, stressed out gray to leap to his death from atop a maple by pestering him with our arrows. Even then, he survived the endeavor, and cursed us all to a lifetime of poor shooting afield.

We’ve had few encounters since and would love nothing more than to blame our lack of opportunities on squirrel sorcery. But I am a realist and positive our ineptitude has more to do with bad hunting than luck. The following outline of a typical Whitneyville hunt should illustrate my point.

Disclaimer: This timeline probably isn’t historically accurate but I can assure you that all of the events are 100% factual.

7 a.m. – We meet at a pre-determined place and the hunt officially starts.

7:30 a.m. – We examine each other’s new gear acquisitions.

8 a.m. – We finish our coffee, string our bows, and toss movie quotes at each other while laughing like idiots.

8:30 a.m. – We don our orange and start walking.

9 a.m. – We take a break to talk about things that irritate us — and bourbon.

10 a.m. – We get back to “hunting”.

10:30 a.m. – We take another break to complain about the weather, the rising coyote population, and why we aren’t seeing anything to shoot at.

11:00 a.m. – We get bored and decide to shoot stumps.

Noon – We run out of stumps but empty our quivers into an open field “just to see how far the arrows go”.

1 p.m. – We collect our arrows and argue about Michigan hunting regulations — and beer.

2 p.m. – We get back to the truck and realize the hunt is over, which is fine because we are hungry anyway and know the church provides chili dogs at the weigh-in.

2:30 p.m. – We fill our faces and hope to win the door prize, while everyone everyone else gives thanks for the woodland bounty adorning their truck beds.

Now, I should clarify a thing or two, less you judge us too harshly. If subjected to heavy questioning, every bowmen in the party would confess this is not the way you harvest a snowshoe hare or Michigan squirrel. However, those same folks would testify to it being the perfect formula for a good time.

And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.

I would personally like to thank MLA members Sheri and Matt Stoutjesdyk for inviting us to this event every year and the fantastic folks at Whitneyville Bible Church for having us. We’ll keep coming as long as we are tolerated!

 

 

 

Humble Beginnings

My wife shooting her longbow at a 3D course.

The old buck approaches from the West and my heart races as I ready my bow to meet him. Leather-clad fingers meet waxed Dacron, as they search for smooth plastic. A cool morning breeze licks at my nose, chilling the sweat from the hike in. “So far so good.” I tell myself. “But you haven’t won anything yet, Nick.”

The old boy continues on at a strong November clip. His neck bulges with desire and purpose. My skin begins to goosebump. I count the yardage down by fives to keep my cool but know it is pointless. The antlers aren’t helping.

“Antlers…the old guys at the range told you not to look at those, Nick. They said you’d lose it if you did. Probably miss high.”

I chuckle at the advice, which is a bit like reminding someone not to look down while scaling a steep cliff. The thought takes the edge off, allowing me to gather myself in time to catch my target broadside near a patch of dogwood 15 yards away.

“Pick a spot, Nick. Thats what all the magazines say. Pick a spot, draw to anchor, and release. Its that simple.”

I find a crease behind the shoulder, focus on it, and begin to draw.

“Honey?! Are you still down there?”

The voice echoes down the stairwell and yanks me back to reality. It belongs to my wife Jessica who sounds less than enthusiastic about the track of time I’ve lost. I respond with a less than enthusiastic “yes”, as my fantasy buck dissipates into the basement walls. He wasn’t the first. He wouldn’t be the last.

This was a common interaction in 2009. I was obsessed with my new hobby but Jessica and I were living in a major city, which wasn’t supportive of it. Operating a weapon within city limits was against the law and my fences weren’t high enough to disguise the activity. Our 100-year-old home included a Michigan basement, which hardly qualified as such. It was basically a cellar and half of that space was an enormous furnace that looked and sounded like a monster when the lights were off. At 6’3″ I couldn’t stand or walk upright without hitting my head on the rafters, so shooting a bow was out of the question without adjustments. Since modifying the house was out of the question, I would need to adjust my shooting style.

I brought my longbow downstairs, knelt down on the cold concrete, and canted it just enough to clear the floor joists. It was awkward at first but I was comfortable enough to try an arrow after a few test draws. There were only seven yards from stairwell to target, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t afford to drive 45 minutes to the nearest range multiple times a week and I couldn’t stop shooting my bow. I was committed to making it all work.

Some nights I crafted elaborate hunting scenarios like the one above. Others I concentrated on form and release — eyes closed in front of a cardboard box stuffed with an old blanket. There were nights I just read, learning everything I could from books, magazines, and forums. This was valuable time spent. All of it crucial to my bowhunting education.

I look back on those days with pride. They are proof that you can make something happen if you want it badly enough. But there is something else to glean from these humble beginnings and that is to remember what it is like to be new. This isn’t always easy to do for those of us who are now firmly entrenched in the archery lifestyle. We have a community around us. We have or know of places to shoot and land to hunt. We belong to organizations and have shooting events on our calendars that span the entire summer.

In short, we have it figured out.

There are many who have not and we need to be patient with these people. We need to reach out to them and find a way to share our knowledge without being spiteful or annoyed. Recognizing how overwhelming traditional archery/bowhunting can be is the first step. Understanding that no two paths are the same is the second.  I still shoot with a fairly drastic cant due to all of those hours spent flinging arrows in my basement. I snapshoot and anchor to the side of my face because chronic hand pain from years of football will no longer allow a deep hook to the jaw. These are but two examples of why I shoot the way I do and I know I’m not alone.

The traditional way is individualistic in nature. We each have our own way of doing things, which was shaped from the parameters of our reality. It would do us all some good to go back to the beginning, remember what it was like to be new, and learn from the trip. It will change your perspective and make you smile in the process.

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