Why I Did It the Way I Did
On September 17th, 2004, I was fortunate enough to become the first archer in human history ever to complete the North American Super Slam of big game with no sighting devices of any kind attached to any of my bows for aiming purposes. Though some of the 29 different species were harvested with a compound, some with a longbow, and some with a recurve, all were taken by means of purely instinctive shooting. Throughout my lifetime, I have never hunted any other way.
Actually, the goal of achieving the Super Slam never materialized in my mind until Rick Duggan, a good friend from Colorado, pointed out to me one day, in 1998, that — if I really got serious about it — I stood a good chance of doing something nobody had ever done before. Once that idea was placed in my brain, it became an obsession, and six years later I was blessed with becoming a small part of hunting history. Rick, himself, completed his own Super Slam in 2007, thereby becoming a part of history, as well, since he took all of the species strictly with traditional bows.
About seven years ago, I went back to my roots and put away my compound bow forever. Long before the compound reached commercial production, I had been hunting with stick bows of different types and makes — taking, among other species, during the 1960’s and 1970’s — Mule Deer, Columbia Blacktails, Rocky Mountain Elk, Roosevelt’s Elk, and one Rocky Mountain Goat.
WHY did I decide to return to my roots in traditional archery, as I began to follow those hunting trails wending their way into the so-called “golden years” of my life? I guess the answer boiled down to something no more complicated than this: I simply derive more personal joy and pleasure from launching arrows that way, and from hunting with the more primitive weapons that require you to get much closer to your quarry before an ethical shot becomes possible. Even during the numerous hunts I did take with my compound bow in hand, I never used any release aids or triggers — only three fingers on the string (one above the nock, two under).
The challenge of aiming an arrow accurately, at whatever distance you find yourself from your quarry, has always been for me the single most fascinating part of archery. Much of the romance of the sport seems to lie in the exhilaration of watching the flight of the arrow as it completes its arching trajectory to its target. The slower the speed of the arrow, the greater the arc, and the longer that sense of exhilaration and anticipation. With high-tech archery gear today, and arrows often traveling well over 330 fps, sometimes one can’t even see the arrows in flight — especially in weak lighting conditions. With such equipment, some bowhunters can routinely hit a grapefruit at 80, 90, or even 100 yards. In such cases, our beloved sport becomes less one of hunting, and more one of marksmanship.
Have you ever noticed that when rifle hunters boast about their kills in the field, it’s almost always about how long a shot they made? 382 yards. 469 yards. 591 yards? And is it not true that, whenever an archer brags about a kill, it’s more often about how close he or she got before taking the shot? Regardless of choice of weapon, I submit that — the longer the shot taken — the more it becomes a challenge of marksmanship, and the less an exercise of one’s hunting skills.
Hunting for me has always embodied my attempts at time-travel backwards, to reconnect with my Paleolithic ancestors. The more primitive my bow and archery tackle, the more easily I’ve been able to merge myself into that identity of Everyman, from ages buried in the distant past. My exclusive use of a compound bow from 1998 to 2006, (when I finally hung it up for good) had more to do with wanting to maximize my arrow speed and foot/pounds of impact — as I sought to become the first-ever barebow Super Slammer — than with anything else.
The Polar Bear, the Grizzly, and the Alaskan Brownie were all “on my plate” during those years, and I guess I wanted to give myself every advantage I could (such as faster arrow speed and greater range) — every advantage, that is, SHORT OF putting sight-pins on my bow! That was simply one step too far away from my roots, and from the level of challenge I have always truly enjoyed.
As for the challenge of getting within bow range of wild animals, my many decades of hunting them in the wilderness areas of North America have taught me a lot about their natural defense systems. Most big-game animals possess what I call a “red-alert zone,” which extends to a radius of about 50 yards all around them. Penetrate that invisible “wall,” and it becomes a real challenge to remain undetected for long. Yet, depending on the size of your quarry, a barebow hunter will usually need to get within 15 to 30 yards, before a shot opportunity is possible. And even then, at such close range, it may be necessary to lie in wait for long periods of time — perhaps hours, on occasion — before the bedded or feeding animal rises or enters your only available shooting lane.
The above paragraph describes what for me is the supreme thrill of the hunt: being able to observe a wild animal at very close range, without that beautiful creature knowing that any danger is present. Their senses of sight, hearing, and smell are so very much keener than our corresponding human senses that escaping detection at close range by a mature wild animal, for any length of time, is a huge victory all by itself — regardless of whether you ever get to release an arrow or not. If things finally do come together to afford you that shot you are so ardently hoping for, by then it is often almost anti-climactic!
For a modern archer who chooses to use sight-pins for aiming, he or she is not necessarily required to penetrate that buck’s or bull’s red-alert zone in order to achieve success. I guess what it comes down to is breaking hunting into its component parts and prioritizing which elements of the hunt give each of us the most pleasure or personal satisfaction. For me, that prioritization has always dictated that I hunt with a bare bow — devoid of any sighting mechanisms — precisely because I know I must get much closer to my quarry than I would otherwise need to.
Whether one hunts with sighting devices, or purely instinctively, there are — needless to say — a number of advantages and disadvantages to whichever choice one makes. The advantages of hunting with high-tech archery gear are pretty well understood by everyone: faster arrow speed, flatter trajectory, greater killing range, more frequent pass-through penetration, etc. However, I’d like to conclude this blog by mentioning several distinct drawbacks to hunting with modern archery equipment, as opposed to hunting with traditional bows. First, during foul weather conditions, you may suddenly find, just as you come to full draw, that your pins have been rendered unusable by snow, ice, or a big raindrop that has stubbornly taken up residence inside your peep-sight.
Second, should you happen to accidentally sever your bowstring while on a wilderness hunt, you’re royally screwed with a compound, unless you happened to have brought a bow-press with you (or else a backup bow). With a traditional bow, you simply bring out your backup bowstring, and you’re quickly in business again.
Lastly, I learned the hard way some years ago, while on a moose hunt up in the Northwest Territories of Canada, that hunting with a compound bow can sometimes actually cost you a trophy animal that you otherwise would have harvested with a traditional bow. The following excerpt from my award-winning book, BAREBOW!, describes the frustrating circumstances in graphic detail:
powerful neck and antlers like a scoop on a D-6. His scoop, however, was spring-loaded! Deadwood debris of all sorts started flying through the air. Whole lodgepole spars were uprooted and tossed aside. This was one agitated bull! Or else a Master Actor! Richard and I couldn’t see any cows around him, so he must have figured we had some, and he was fixing to come and get ours!
And come he did! First, however, the intimidation card had to be played in full. Once he figured his awesome display of power had sufficiently intimidated his rival, the rush was on. There was certainly nothing slow-motion about this approach! 300 yards and closing fast. A few paces in front of us was a small clearing — perhaps 18 yards in diameter. Richard urged me to “set up” quickly on its front margin, while he would retreat 50 yards to do some soft “grunting” under cover — all the while keeping me between himself and the oncoming bull. I barely had time to kneel at the edge of the clearing and nock an arrow before the bull suddenly landed in my lap, so-to-speak.
The giant animal arrested his motion directly across the little clearing from me. Heaving hard, red-eyed, and drooling at the mouth, he was so ready for a fight it made my skin crawl! As I gazed upward from my kneeling position at his massive antlers rising nearly 10 feet off the ground, for the first time in my life I was feeling truly intimidated by an animal (other than a bear). The bull’s eyes were looking right over the top of me, trying to find the “other” bull he could not see. Since the wind was in my favor, and since I was wearing a camo head-net over my face, as well as similar gloves on my hands, I knew he would not likely notice me — unless I made some slight motion. I even tried to forgo blinking. My bow was vertically upright, ready to shoot, with the lower wheel resting on the ground. And thus the static drama continued on hold for several minutes, with neither of us budging a millimeter. He simply had no idea I was on my knees there in front of him — even though we were facing each other directly, only 18 yards apart.
I found myself wondering if I could possibly come to full draw on him
without triggering a charge. Did I dare take the chance? As I tried to screw my courage to the “sticking” point (may the non-hunting reader please pardon my pun), I suddenly noticed that about five feet in front of the behemoth there was a willow sapling rising to the base of his neck. No more than an inch in diameter, it nonetheless cut his brisket exactly in half as viewed from my fixed vantage point. Were I to attempt a front-entry shot directly into his “boiler room,” the arrow might well glance off the side of the sapling and be deflected into one shoulder or the other. The chance of merely wounding the bull was not one I
was eager to take. The big fellow was already angry enough without my further inflaming his rage!
Waiting for my opponent to turn and give me a broadside shot seemed by far the more rational thing to do. IF he would only turn! The standoff continued for several tense, agonizing minutes — each of us searching for something we could not find. Then, suddenly, with no signal or warning, the bull wheeled on a dime and trotted straight away from me. As soon as his motion began, I started my draw, but it was too late. By the time the wheels of my compound bow turned over and I “lurched” into my anchor position — so I could then stabilize and take proper aim — his last rib was disappearing from view, leaving me with only a rump for a target. I never got the shot off at all.
The sense of disappointment was crushing, to say the least. So near and yet so far! While Richard and I made our weary way back to the boat, I remembered something my friend, Duke Savora, had told me the previous autumn. It had puzzled me at the time.
“Someday, Dennis,” he had said, “You’ll go back to traditional archery and hang up your compound for good.”
Not understanding the thinking behind his statement, I asked, “And
why will I decide to do that?”
“Because someday you’ll miss your chance at a superb trophy animal
simply because you won’t be able to get your shot off fast enough,” was the reply.
I reprocessed Duke’s explanation through my mind a couple more
times, and then it hit me: I had just lived through the precise situation he’d predicted! Had I had in my hand that day, on the edge of the little clearing, a longbow or a recurve, I’d have been able to slip my arrow in behind that last rib before it disappeared. There was no doubt in my mind that Duke had been proven right. His larger prophecy, however, did not come about till the fall of 2006 — at which time I finally did retire my compound for good.”
—(Page 281; Excerpted from a story titled, “Compound Trouble at Skinboat Lake”)
I missed my chance at this giant Alaska-Yukon bull, because I had the wrong type of bow in my hand. The spread to his rack was easily over 60 inches, and he had very broad palms, with lots of points on each side. Neither my guide nor I had much doubt about his being an all-time Boone & Crockett trophy animal.
Readers, stay tuned! If you’ve enjoyed this first blog of mine at HuntingLife.com, next month I’ll write a post on the very different challenges involved in hunting the five various deer species of North America. If you care to read some of my BAREBOW! deer stories in advance, just click on the link below and download Volume One of my e-Book Series, The BAREBOW! DEER BOOK, to your Kindle, Nook Reader, or iPad.