I live in La Jolla, once a scrub-covered area of sandstone hills and arroyos, now covered with homes that, come a half inch of rain or so, slide down said hills into said arroyos. No matter how unstable these hills are, we pay plenty for them, which explains why I have a vanishingly small back yard.
So when I got my first bow, a reasonably priced compound, I realized that there was no way that I could safely practice in my so-called back yard. Furthermore, I live on a corner lot, midway up one of the busiest hills in La Jolla, surrounded by neighbors that I never talk to and rarely see. Which sounds sad, but it’s not. I can’t stand neighbors.
Then again, I had to consider what the neighbors would think of me shooting a high-velocity compound bow mere feet from where they might be enjoying an evening with friends, delicately sipping Napa Chardonnay, the wild salmon roasting expertly on a $20,000 built-in stainless grill. I doubted that the homeowners’ association covenants, conditions, and restrictions covered archery on the premises, but I was quite sure it would be frowned upon.
I set up a target (as large as I could find, for safety reasons, of course) against a small stone wall. When the coast was clear, and the cat and kids were out of the way, I crept out the sliding-glass door and onto “the range,” having blocked off all other ingresses and egresses to the yard with dining-room chairs. I shouted to the wife, over the blow-dryer upstairs, that “the range is hot,” then tiptoed out with the bow hanging down to my ankles, using all the cover the jasmine vines afforded, and knocked an arrow. I was somehow able to make a range of 15 yards by standing in my wife’s flower garden and putting the target just beyond the potted tomatoes, resting on the herb garden around the corner of the house. I peered downrange through the palm fronds and noted the narrowness of the shooting lane. Perfect. A little dicey for someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but perfect. More realistic, I reasoned.
That summer, most every evening after work, I would hit the range. I took out several green tomatoes (unintentionally) and two garden hoses, carelessly left on the grounds of my range, and punched a few holes in the stucco of the corner of my house. Thanks to my overreaching safety precautions, no one was seriously injured.
After a few months, I got to thinking that maybe I could hunt with this contraption. Just as I was admiring my tightening groups, I would suddenly send an arrow flying into the stucco.
“What the hell was that?” the wife screamed from her morning bubble bath, one story up from the range.
“Nothing, dear,” I said, retrieving the shattered arrow. “Probably just another bird committing suicide on the window.”
“Oh, like the birds that keep pecking holes in the stucco and the garden hose?”
She was clearly more observant than I had given her credit for.
When I was shooting my rifle, I would call it a flinch, but in archery they call this premature release “target panic,” a name that, in and of itself, inspires fear and suggests some type of psychological disorder requiring a medical professional, or at the very least, self-medication. The term works its way into your midbrain and takes over at the worst times — like when you’re really, really trying to shoot something.
I needed to purge the term from my mind. Being a Californian, with an open, yet unquiet mind, I did this through various Eastern techniques of meditation and yoga. (Just kidding. Pure nonsense.) Instead, I held steady and released the arrow without flinching. Midbrain be damned.
Then it happened. I got up early on a weekend, certain that no one would see or hear me firing arrows downrange, when my Croatian neighbor emerged onto his deck, still in his jammies.
“What you doing there?” he shouted.
I quickly lowered the bow and put on my harmless, non-hunter, haven’t-I-been-a-good-neighbor face and said, “Just lobbing a few arrows in a safe direction, nothing to be concerned about.”
“Good. I take you to Croatia. You hunt wild boar there. We go soon, eh?”
Shocked, I said, “Sure.”
“Another thing, we have too many $#@! rabbits in yard, you shoot some, eh?”
“Sure thing,” I stuttered, thrilled that I was being commanded to kill in a foreign accent. I felt like Jason Bourne or the Manchurian candidate. Clearly the Croat was impressed by my shooting ability.
Next thing I knew, I was watching the Padres on TV on a summer evening when I noticed my neighbor’s yard filling with the little cotton-tailed varmints. I made sure my twin teenaged girls were safely engrossed upstairs in some slut-filled, gory TV movie, and, fairly certain that the Croats weren’t home, I stalked out the sliding-glass door, kneeled at the fence, and, trembling in the fading light, shot my first game animal with a bow at 12 yards. Unfortunately, I used a nonlethal field point, so it wasn’t exactly a humane kill. I knew this because I heard the aluminum arrow clackity-clacking along the fence as the hapless creature looked for an escape route.
Having passed (sort of) this test, I knew that it was time. I booked a wild-pig hunt in central California, fully guided, on private land. Which, if you’re from SoCal, goes without saying, since there is no public-land hunting down here, most of it being desert or heavily used bits of national forest. The guide was young, energetic, and an experienced bow-hunter. It was 100 degrees in the valley, and the pigs were having none of it. Being fairly intelligent creatures — them and me — we found a cool spot to pass the heat of the day. I sat in an air-conditioned hotel room reading crappy novels, hunting only a half hour in the morning and a half hour before dark. They crawled under some cool scrubby vegetation, dreaming the pig dreams of lust and hunger.
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.
So I bought my first real bow, a recurve, a few years ago. Nothing serious, just something to mess around with in the back yard, I told myself. The UPS guy delivered it. With all the hunting gear and cammo he delivers to my house, he usually inquires of my daughters about my mental stability. Most outdoor stuff you can buy in San Diego makes you look like a goofy suburban hiker, clad in bright-colored, noisy, special-wicking synthetics, totally inappropriate for bow-hunting.
It was dark when I got home from work the day my recurve was delivered, but I couldn’t resist shooting the thing. I snuck out to the back yard after dinner and set up a flashlight on the target. I stood about five yards from the target, pulled my shoulder out of its socket, and let go of the string before it severed my fingers at the first joint. Luckily, I had a very large backstop. Having barely hit a very large target a few feet away, I was reassured of my initial assessment of traditional archery — impossible. These stick-and-string bows are strictly toys and not for the serious hunter.
I’m the kind of guy who believes nothing unless it’s written down somewhere, and even then, I’m suspicious. I read every imaginable thing written about shooting a traditional bow, and then I bought every DVD and videotape, before I finally realized that shooting a bow, like any activity, is all about the doing. The only good thing about all that research was that I actually saw guys shooting these bows with incredible accuracy. There was Howard Hill demonstrating his snap shooting style by driving an arrow through the head of a giant snake across an African river, then firing a volley of arrows at a running lion 70–80 yards away; or Byron Ferguson shooting an aspirin tablet his wife threw up for him, or shooting an arrow through his wife’s wedding ring (sans finger). And here my wife is complaining about a few holes in the house.
So I had proof: Shooting a traditional bow accurately was possible, but it looked as if it were going to take half a lifetime to learn.
“Honey,” I shouted upstairs to my wife. “I’m quitting my job to pursue a life of traditional archery.”
“What’s traditional archery?” she asked distractedly. She was apparently in the middle of unloading a large Bloomingdale’s bag and thus failed to hear the first part of my announcement.
“You know,” I said, “those fat guys with the beards and the funny hats you see on the hunting shows with stick-and-string bows, sneaking through the woods in natural fiber cammo, flinging wooden arrows willy-nilly, hopelessly off the mark, but looking cool doing it.”
“Oh. Okay,” she said. “Did you see my Christian Louboutin boots?”