I drew my bow; both eyes focused on the center of the deer’s chest, and let the arrow fly. The dreaded clanging sound of an arrow bouncing through limbs followed. I looked at the next shooter and said, “You’re up. Hope your shot is less expensive than mine.”
I was shooting a 3-D course organized by my local Izaak Walton League with two fellow longbow archers. We followed the rules and shot from where we were told; even though many of the targets were well out of range when compared against what we were likely to shoot while hunting. Because we always follow the rules, a 3-D shoot is more expensive for us than for our compound shooting brethren as many of our valuable cedar arrows miss the mark entirely and end up somewhere other than in the target or in our quiver.
My clanging arrow drew attention from the group behind us and one particularly funny fellow suggested that I should adjust the sights on my bow. I took off my sun glasses, wiped them with my shirt and replied, “There, that should do it. Mike, let me have one more shot at that one.” The next shot hit dead center.
My sarcastic response enticed a question, “So how fast are those bows anyway?” To which he and his fellow “compound buddies” got quite a chuckle. Another in my group responded, “The bows are pretty slow, in fact they just sit there most of the time. The arrows, on the other hand, are fast enough to pass through a deer and stick in the dirt before you figure out which pin to use.” Laughter erupted from all the archers within hearing distance, both modern and traditional alike, and everyone proceeded to the next target.
As I walked the course I was reminded once again why it is that I pretend to hunt in the summer months. Walking quietly through the woods in search of 3-D targets helps fine tune my bowhunting skills and does the archery hunting equivalent of limbering me up for game time.
Most of my practice is done in an open field against a 1-D target. An orange sticker the size of a silver dollar stuck to a large, white Styrofoam cube serves as my target most of the time. I concentrate on the slight bend in my left arm, maintaining focus on where I want my arrow to strike, anchoring in the same place every shot and efficiently releasing the arrow with every pull of the string. Day after day I shoot at my sticker; concentrating on form until it becomes mechanical.
This regiment has proven extremely effective at training my hand-eye-arrow coordination and from five to twenty-five yards I hit the sticker more often than not. The problem is that most big game animals are not shaped like a big white cubes and I’ve yet to find one with an orange sticker centered over the lungs. As valuable as my daily practice is; it does little to prepare me to shoot at game under actual hunting conditions.
During the dog days of late summer when the wife and kids have lost interest in the fishing rods and would rather have cold drinks at the local swimming pool, I seize the opportunity to sneak away on Saturday mornings to walk the trails of local 3-D shoots. Life sized targets resembling endless species of game strategically placed to create actual hunting scenarios force me to shoot like a hunter, not a target shooter, and help me to calibrate the instinctive ranging mechanism imperative to successful traditional bowhunting.
I don’t participate in 3-D shoots with any hope of winning a trophy, so if I’m not likely to delay other participants I’ll shoot two or three arrows at each target. If I happen to be preparing to hunt an animal I don’t often get to shoot at, like bear or elk, I’ll spend up to a half hour at that target letting other archers “play through” as they come along.
I finished my day as I always do after shooting a 3-D course; with more confidence than when I started. My participation in 3-D shoots has become an enjoyable ritual in preparing for hunting season and I’m certain has made me more effective in the field.
But there are other reasons I pretend to hunt in the summer time. Arguably these reasons are far more important than the invaluable practice and preseason walks through the woods.
After I had worked my way around the course I found the club kitchen and ordered breakfast. With a plate full of eggs, bacon and toast I searched for a new target; and found what I was looking for sitting all alone in one corner of the pavilion.
I walked to the seat across from the old timer and asked if I could join him. He flashed a toothless smile and invited me to sit. His bow hung in the rafters behind him; an early model Bear. The scars on the bow and the leathery, wrinkled skin of the archer gave clue that if the right questions were asked; tall tales would follow.
“I like your bow,” I started.
“Not very fancy, needs replaced. But she has served me fine.” Was his matter of fact response.
“Mostly with whitetails?” I prodded.
“Mostly. But I’ve taken her a few other places too. I remember in 1984 we went to Quebec for caribou…” I smiled at my success in getting him talking; then settled in to enjoy my breakfast and his stories.
I listened to tales of adventure that ranged from the hills of West Virginia to the tundra of Quebec to the peaks of Colorado. The longer he talked the more people joined us at our table, and eventually the tables surrounding us. No one said anything; just smiled as they listened and laughed or grunted at the appropriate times. After telling the audience about the bear he killed in Maine, for the second time, he looked at his watch and declared that he had to get home to “the wife.”
“Really enjoyed the conversation fellas,” he said as he gingerly lifted his bow out of the rafters. No one else had said a word; though I’m confident that everyone had enjoyed the conversation as much as I did.
On any given day I talk to work people about work stuff, family about family stuff and usually to a repairman about whatever stuff has broken in my house or on my car. Rarely do I get a chance to talk about the stuff I’d really like to talk about…
I’ve yet to find a 3-D shoot that didn’t have an old timer ready to yarn tales, a guy who just got back from some far off place with an interesting story to tell or a group deep in to a debate about some political issue that might effect the archery hunting crowd. I must admit that a time, or two, I’ve enjoyed the company of like minds so much that I never actually made it on to the course; but I can live with that.
As I reluctantly stood to put my paper plate and cup into the garbage and work my way back to my truck, I noticed a boy across the pavilion. He fidgeted with the anxiousness of a young man both busting with excitement and agitated by concern. He held a youth recurve bow and wore a leather quiver full of arrows. His dad held no bow and looked a little lost.
I approached the duo, introduced myself and learned that the boy wanted to participate in a 3-D shoot but that his dad had never shot in one and was a little apprehensive about leading the way. I had no where to be and knew that I wouldn’t sleep for a week if I walked away; so I offered to walk the course with them.
As we walked toward the start of the course I learned that the young man of eight years had already spent time in the field hunting and fishing with his dad, uncle and grand-dad. I learned he enjoyed any time spent outdoors but that when given a choice he roamed field and forest with his recurve bow; piercing hay bales and skewering rotten stumps. He had longed to test his skills on lifelike targets and on this day his dad had given in and brought him to the shoot.
As we walked the course trail, now beneath the forest canopy, the boy’s eyes scanned the forest carefully for the first target. Though we were searching for inanimate targets molded of high density foam; the boy’s demeanor and approach was much better suited to stalking bull elk in the dark timber of Colorado. The first target we spied was a strutting turkey.
We stopped at the post marking the spot from where archers were to shoot. “Sure is a long way.” He pondered, “What if I miss?”
“Mind if I go first?” I asked.
“No sir, go ahead,” was his response. I proceeded to stick an arrow in the dirt several feet short of the target. I’d like to say it was on purpose; to make the boy feel better. It wasn’t, but it did.
“Think anyone would mind if I got a little closer?” He asked shyly.
“I think that’s a fine idea. You move on up to wherever you are comfortable.” I urged.
He walked, rather stalked, to about ten yards. He drew an arrow from his quiver, knocked and shot in a single fluid motion that would have made Howard Hill proud. The arrow arced toward the target and stuck in the side, exactly where it should have been. He hesitated; then turned to his dad and me with a look of disbelief.
“Good shot son,” where his father’s only words; but they were the only words needed. The boy’s expression went from surprise to pride and the ensuing smile stayed on his face for the rest of the morning.
I have spent many wonderful hours with bow in hand both practicing and hunting, but the morning spent with that young man easily takes first place. Everything was new, everything was an adventure and I was reminded why it was I picked up a stick and string in the first place. I envied the boy’s enthusiasm and was silently ashamed at the realization that I had turned into the “grown up” I promised myself I’d never become. I admired the boy’s father for bringing him to the shoot; despite his own reservations.
As the boy returned to the pavilion he noticed the trophies displayed on the front table and asked his dad, “Think I won a trophy?”
His dad put a heavy hand gently on the boy’s shoulder and said, “Probably not today, but you took first place in my book.”
The boy smiled and said, “Thanks dad. Maybe I’ll get a trophy next time.”
I have no doubt that boy will return to many shoots; and I’d bet a lot of money his dad carries a bow next time too. I’m certain that the young man will get his trophy eventually – and I hope with all my heart I’m there to see it.
I love to hunt. I’ll hunt until my body is no longer able. And in the summer months, when there is nothing legal to chase in the woods I’ll turn to 3-D shoots and I’ll pretend. I’ll walk the woods, spend time with like minds and drag every kid I can find onto the course. I’ll fight being a grown up, and I’ll hunt…for pretend.