In my most cynical moments I look on the modern American bowhunter (and understand I include myself in this harsh assessment) with something approaching shame. I say this because it sometimes seems archers have allowed modern outdoor media to completely infiltrate their existence and sour bowhunting for them.
The Early Years
Early in life archery and bowhunting became my way of looking at the world. I remember those years in the late 1970s fondly, bowhunting with simple recurve bows, the graceless, clattering compounds of the day yet failing to move most of my coterie of friends who shared my bow-and-arrow passions. Those were certainly simpler times owning a completely different climate. It was a world in which pursuing small-game or bowfishing were considered wholesome pastimes instead of foolhardy child’s play. More pointedly, way back then, the smaller pleasures of bowhunting were approached as a way of earning your stripes before graduating to bigger stuff. It was an era when bowhunters seemed content in pursuing average deer close to home while bowhunting a generous neighbor’s small farm or stalking through a marginal swatch of ranch property accessed after a knock on a door and friendly chat.
Back in those days it was true we talked wistfully and at great length of someday arrowing bigger bucks (or any elk or pronghorn or black bear; exotic game on par with African Cape buffalo to a group of aspiring tyros). Occasionally one of us would kill a big buck (cause for whooping celebration) but we certainly didn’t pass shots at – or fail to brag about – a basket-rack eight, or a forkhorn or spike, or even a legal doe. We lived by Fred Bear’s mantra that any animal taken with bow was a trophy; furthermore, taking smaller animals as they came better prepared us for encounters with bigger prizes we assumed lay in our futures. In the big picture all of us were simply happy in the pursuit, to be outdoors, to occasionally fill a freezer with healthy venison chops.
Archery icon Fred Bear certainly arrowed his share of big animals, including some world’s records, but always insisted any animal taken fairly with bow and arrow was a trophy. It would be interesting to know how Bear would view today’s ultra-competitive bowhunting atmosphere.
Today’s bowhunter wants to start at the top, to kill only the biggest antlers possible or not at all. Bowhunting has come to represent another form of arbitrage, of unconcealed conquest. And why not? The modern bowhunter watches fist-pumping outdoor television stars killing an endless succession of behemoth bucks, bulls, billies, bruins and rams. Bowhunting magazines are chock-full of ads and article lead-off photos of bucks wearing antlers of dimensions seldom witnessed at a distance, after a lifetime in the woods, much less beneath our stands. Average bucks and meat does are no longer enough to make us happy; to provide a sense of contentment and well being.
This hit me squarely between the eyes last November, pointing a rental car toward a Kansas City airport following a disappointing bowhunt, summing up my impressions with close friend Jerry Gentellalli. Jerry owns Rancho Safari (think Catquivers and Shaggie) and is one of the last of the remaining old-school bowhunters. I’d hung a lot of big hopes and dreams on that hunt. Despite a bowhunting calendar marked against September elk and Oklahoma’s October whitetail and rutting backyard bucks, any time I shot my bow or pondered equipment choices Kansas loomed large in my mind. I’d somehow convinced myself this would be the one; the hunt that would finally relinquish a whitetail buck able to turn industry peers green with envy – ambitious indeed with today’s jaded archery community. After all, I was hunting prime, heavily-managed property during ideal rut dates. The place had a proven track record and I like to think I know a thing or two about bowhunting whitetail.
Author Patrick Meitin took this young whitetail buck on Idaho public lands. You won’t hear him apologizing for the lack of antler size, a hard-won, big-woods whitetail that required just as much bowhunting skill and effort as a behemoth taken on prime private land.
But it just didn’t happen that week. For many days before our arrival weather proved unseasonably warm and muggy, delaying the rut. Then a couple days in, when temperatures plummeted and bucks began moving well, I began passing bucks. Not monster bucks – not by Midwest standards in any case – but bucks I would’ve happily sent arrows through nearly anywhere else, several of them wearing solid “book” antlers. I had a picture in my head and none of these bucks filled the bill. With only a single morning remaining I made good on a promise to a friend who enthusiastically wanted venison, filling my tag with an eating-fat doe being dogged by a 3 ½-year-old, 135ish buck I was not allowed to shoot on that property.
I deemed the entire hunt a failure, voicing my gnawing disillusionments on the long ride to the airport while Gentellalli listened quietly. He endured maybe 65 miles of this pitiful whining before setting me back on my heels. “What’re you talking about, man?” he began. “You spent a week hanging out and cooking and drinking with three good friends. You got to see some nice bucks. And you got your deer, man; and a beautiful coyote with bow. I don’t see how you call that a ‘failure’.”And of course he was absolutely right.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
I often envy old timers like Gentellalli (now in his 70s) and Jim Dougherty (another bowhunter who started bowhunting in the 1950s) shaped by simpler times and simpler equipment, making a name for themselves while enjoying the sport on their own terms when scoring on any big game (or a large bag of small game) was enough. Perhaps I envy them most for maintaining this down-to-earth attitude in an age of egoist posturing and bowhunting reduced to an odious sport such as golf or bowling. Of course their “primitive” equipment made success harder-won, and perhaps that’s part of the bigger picture today. The modern 340-fps-plus compound bow and all its attached high-tech accessories, laser-straight carbon arrows and precisely-engineered broadheads have made bowhunting success, even the process in general, infinitely easier. We kill faster and longer and more precisely than ever – to the point I often worry for our future.
Many modern bowhunters seem to have forgotten the simpler pleasures of bowhunting, like pursuing small game such as rabbits with bow in way of relaxation and sharpening bowhunting skills for bigger things to come.
Like modern, scoped, in-line muzzle-loaders, I wonder when game managers will catch on that our equipment has far outpaced handicaps which originally prompted advantageous dates and generous seasons. Will increased success ultimately circle back to bite us in the rear, with further limits on coveted tags, less-ideal hunt dates and shorter seasons? Bowhunting legend and Pope & Young founder Glenn St. Charles certainly seemed to think so. Few modern bowhunters seem inclined to discuss the matter seriously; too busy hyperventilating about the latest archery gewgaw providing yet another bowhunting advantage.
I guess a lot of this also hinges on the fact limited tags for proven trophy units have become increasingly difficult to draw as more bowhunters chase the Golden Fleece (added to the fact vacation time’s more precious than ever). Pull a good tag after a long wait and big aspirations naturally follow — hand-in-hand with seeking every legal advantage possible. Meanwhile, the little guy who has hunted a private farm or ranch for generations is suddenly squeezed out as more land is tied up in leases or acquired by aspiring quality deer managers. The average bowhunter has allowed jaded outlooks to pervade their overall approach, succumbing to unrealistic standards ultimately tainting bowhunting for all.
Despite all these grand aspirations, or carefully following the proffered 10-step plans of the outdoor-writing gurus, the simple truth is the odds are poor the average working-stiff will ever kill a monster whitetail buck in their backyard – as an easy example. Or, be able to afford traveling to prime whitetail ground such as the Midwest, South Texas, certain Canadian provinces, or simply heavily-managed properties conceived for the well heeled. In other words, the very properties hosting the outdoor-television celebrity, the company CEO starring in the outdoor video, where trophy quality, genetics and prime habitat merge to make trophy bucks abundant. These guys don’t hunt public lands in, say, New Jersey, Georgia, Michigan or Pennsylvania, just to offer some obvious examples.
Keith Jabben’s, a man who bowhunts on his own terms, taking this handsome bull elk with longbow and on his own in a Colorado over-the-counter area. Pride of accomplishment ultimately means more to Jabben than final antler score.
Rich Man’s Sport
And don’t get me started on the entire Super Slam sham. It sometimes seems this is the only feat that impresses in today’s bowhunting industry – even if 99 percent of the people reading this could no sooner swing one of the more pricey species involved — $40,000 Stone sheep, $45,000 polar bears, $65,000 Mexico desert bighorn; heck, even a garden-variety Alaska moose ($10,500 minimum) – than purchase a weekend beachfront home in Malibu. This is the decided territory of the 1 percent Democrats are so obsessed with lately; people for which a fully-guided sheep hunt is no more financially challenging than a blue-collar father loading his kids in the minivan for a weekend at an amusement park. I certainly don’t begrudge the rich their wealth, it’s just the rest of us need to understand this is like aspiring to live like movie or rock stars.
Bowhunting should firstly be about fun and relaxation, temporarily escape from brutish lives filled with tedious toil. To enjoy bowhunting within these precepts it must be approached with a large dose of reality seldom afforded by the make-believe world of the average outdoor television show. This means returning to a place where you hunt on your own terms — and refuse to compete with the entire bowhunting world.
How do you feel about the current direction that bowhunting, or hunting in general, is headed in? Who or what is to blame? Is our hunting heritage at risk?