The first evening of the hunt, I stuck a fairly large sow in the liver at 30 yards, surprised I’d even hit the thing the way my sight picture flailed around the brown blob. Instead of picking a spot, I basically let fly at the center of mass. Typical rookie mistake. Still, she was hurt bad, squealing and running in circles, and left a pretty good blood trail. We tracked her onto the next ranch, where we lost her at dark in the thick undergrowth that hogs love. I had several more gimme shots on this trip and blew every one of them, either because of poor stalking ability — I was used to shooting elk, antelope, and deer with my .300 Win Mag rifle at 300 yards after all — or because of stupid shooting mistakes, the worst being the time I got to within 30 yards of a small pig, only to put the 20-yard sight pin on its vitals. Why did I do this? Because I had shot so many shots in my back yard with the 20-yard pin that when I saw that familiar green dot, I released. No thought, just release. The arrow went just where I had aimed, into the dirt under the pig’s chest.
The guide was pretty understanding about the whole thing, no doubt because he was a bow-hunter. Pull those kinds of stunts with the usual rifle-hunter guide and you’d be lucky if he didn’t accidentally back over you with a Suburban.
When I got home, my wife was shocked that the cooler was empty, she being unaccustomed to poor hunting prowess.
“Why didn’t you just bring the rifle?” she asked, incredulous.
“It’s all about the hunt, honey, not just putting meat in the freezer,” I lied.
The fact is, I had brought the rifle on that trip but resisted the nearly overwhelming temptation to use it. Like lots of new archers, we take the old standby, terrified of going on a hunting trip and coming home empty-handed. “Bowfles,” as in bow and rifle, I’ve heard us called. The toughest part of bow-hunting is coming to the realization that many hunts won’t end with a kill, or worse, they’ll end like my first hunt did: with a wounded, unrecovered animal. I hate, more than anything, losing wounded game.
And don’t tell me that a hunt is still special without the kill. It’s not. Sure, being in the woods in the pursuit of game is wonderful, but without the kill, it’s a huge disappointment. Go into outdoor photography if you believe otherwise.
Bow-hunting — the stalk, the challenge of the draw and release in close quarters — was so much more exciting than my rifle hunts. I was hooked. I was becoming one with the mystical flight of the arrow. Well, sort of. There’s nothing mystical about it, really, but it is cool to see. Watching an arrow arch through the air after a perfect release is almost spiritual, driving you to do it over and over again.
A whitetail hunt was the turning point. I was on one of my yearly pheasant trips to North Dakota and decided to bring the bow, since I had seen so many deer around the property where we hunt. I had no tree stand and no ground blind. I knew from the year before what the deer were doing, so I sat on the ground next to a tree in the corner of a woodlot facing an alfalfa field, concealing myself with some brush. I thought my chances were pretty slim, sitting on the ground like that with a bow, going nose to nose with the most skittish game animal there is.
As predicted, the deer appeared just before dark, and a few young ones got close, but not nearly close enough. One young doe was behind a row of cottonwoods about 100 yards away, not getting any closer in the fading light, so I belly-crawled as close as I could, ranged a nearby tree at 40 yards, got on my knees, and came to full draw just as the doe cleared the trees. She stood broadside and stared at me kneeling there, and I put an arrow through her chest. There I was, alone in this field, all calm, nearly dark, no loud rifle report, pheasants and rabbits and other deer around me, not even disturbed by the light thunk of the bow string. Did I just do that? Crawled up on a whitetail and put an arrow through it? I did.
Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good with my bow. I did this by making every possible mistake one can make with a bow, or any activity related thereto. I’ve even injured myself. I haven’t shot myself, or anyone else, at least that I know of, but I’ve cut my fingers pretty badly in a rush to screw in scary sharp broadheads. After several bouts of tendonitis, I finally got a bow with the right draw length and started treating my shooting like an athletic event, using strength-training, warm-ups, and stretching.
Then a funny thing happened. The compound bow felt like a rifle. I could shoot tight groups at 50 yards (not in my back yard, but down at the park, between the golf course and the baseball field, well hidden, perfectly safe, nothing to be concerned about). I did this with the best state-of-the-art equipment money could buy, including an incredibly accurate rangefinder.
When peering through sights, holding steady, letting my air out, applying back tension on the trigger release, it felt as if I was shooting my rifle. More pleasant, of course, no kick and no loud bang, but the basic shooting of a compound bow is not too different from shooting a rifle.
Shooting a bow should be like shooting a bow — no sights, no range finders, holding wood, not aluminum, fingers on string, not release aids. Just a simple point, draw, and release on pure instinct. Traditional archery, stick and string, looked more like the real thing to me. But when I saw these traditional guys at the range, their groups were laughable, way off the mark, nowhere near good enough for hunting. How could one possibly shoot accurately with a stick and string? These things were not designed for the pinpoint accuracy required to take down big game. And how powerful could they be? No pulleys — no velocity. And how can you hold at full draw without the let-off the cam-equipped compound bow gives you? Impossible.