Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Gear for the Marginal Lands: Archery on the Margin

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Before writing this, I must first warn the reader that I am a very biased source when it comes to archery equipment.  I have loosed an arrow since I was 13 years old, and I've loved it every time.

For years, I shot a little 50 lb. Browning wheel bow with a draw length shorter than my own.  I still own it, and it still shoots just fine - in fact, I'm so attuned to that little bow, it's practically a part of me. 

But, I don't shoot it so much anymore.  It's draw length comes up about two inches short for my gibbon-like arms, which I have remedied with a trigger mechanism (by holding it funny).  I also have a sight on it, and an arrow rest.

I bring these points up because it was the plethora of gadgets that brought me to where I am now.

Archery, for all the primitiveness and simplicity that archers would have you believe they seek, is the most gadget-laden industry in hunting.  In fact, I'd argue that the only other outdoor sport to equal today's archer in the number of doo-dads one could be sold is bass fishing.

And I'll admit, that 12-year old inside me really loves gadgets.  I love how pieces fit together to work, and I love it when something goes right after all the pieces have been tuned.

But, around the time I turned thirty, I realized that I really did need the simplicity and the strive for excellence demanded of archery, and I realized that all those thingamajigs were really, seriously cluttering that process.

One day, then, while perusing an archery store with my wife, we came upon a little recurve bow.  Out of the blue, Agnes (my wife) said to me, "You should just get it."  It was a little expensive, but not as bows go ($150), so I bought it.

It's a smallish (58") Korean number, with a 55 lb. draw weight and I have some not-so-kind things to say about it.  For one, it pinches (an archery term meaning that the string gets quite an angle in it at full draw).  In fact, my bow pinches so much, I switched to a three-finger-under draw because it was affecting my arrow flight.

The bow also stacks like a monster.  Stacking is another archery term, which means that, close to full-draw (when you have pulled the bowstring all the way to your face), the amount of power it takes to draw one additional inch grows a great deal.

But, even with its faults, I love my bow.  I even named it - Stark Versorger - which is something I'd never previously done with anything but my Suzuki Samurai (whose name is Tomoe).

Why do I love it, if it is a pain to draw and use?  Because it taught me so much about both archery and hunting.  With this bow, I knew I'd have to set a real limit to my range, and I would have to be honest about that limit, learn to know it, and then learn how to get in range of animals I'd hope to take with it.

I learned that there can be a simplicity of materials in hunting, and that organic materials take on a life and deserve a respect that is lost to plastic doohickeys.  I learned that I could, actually, make my own equipment to fit me, specifically.  I learned that arrows kill by being accurate and sharp and heavy and fast, not just fast.

I also re-remembered just how much I love to draw a bow and fling an arrow.

 What is bad technique?  That wrist, for one...

I actually really like the three-finger-under draw now, too, because it puts my eye much closer to the arrow, which is a good benefit at the ranges I can ethically shoot (when I'm up in practice, that range is thirty paces).

The amazing thing about archery is that one can grab a quiver, glove, guard and bow, set out into the woods, and with the same equipment, take any game animal in North America.

Now, for my gear recommendations.  First, I do recommend recurves, self-bows, or longbows (traditional gear) over compound bows for hunting the marginal lands.  This is because when a person is looking to hunt these places, they often want simplicity - to just grab your gear and go.  A compound really requires a whole lot of fiddling around, and even an occasional tune-up at a shop.  Also, when hunting these great places, shots of different species often present themselves, and traditional gear is better at the quicker shots - the sideways shots, the spin-and-loose shots - that one would use when hunting squirrels or rabbits.  Compounds, with their sights, usually require the bow be completely vertical, and held the same way each time, whereas traditional gear only requires you intimately know your equipment, and feel comfortable with the shot.

If you have never shot archery, I highly recommend buying a bow with a 25-30lb. draw first.  If you have never shot a recurve, but shoot a compound bow and are looking to switch, I recommend you seriously consider a recurve about ten to twenty pounds under your current bow's draw weight.  Pride and the addiction to arrow speed can blind a person into buying a bow that is just too heavy.  When that happens, the bow winds up leaning against the wall, gathering dust, because it hurts to even think about shooting it.

Now, for newbies, that 25-30lb. recurve will not hunt, but, that isn't its purpose.  Its purpose is to teach you how to shoot - how to have proper form, how to breathe right, how to judge distance and arrow flight.  It is also supposed to teach you how to love drawing a bow, while building the unique set of muscles required for archery.  If you start with too much bow, you will develop bad form, bad breathing, you won't learn about arrow flight, you definitely won't love drawing it, and you just might hurt yourself. Once you are comfortable and in love with archery, go out and buy a nice bow in a weight you are comfortable shooting, from 45 lbs. and up.

I've heard good things about the BowFit exercise tool, and I think it could be helpful in getting a person from the 25 lb. bow up to the 50 lb. bow, but I've never used it, myself.  I also don't think it's a good idea to get a BowFit in place of a smaller weight bow.  There are form issues to be worked out by loosing an arrow, and these form issues involve muscle memory very specific to the person and the shot. 

For finger protection, I highly recommend leather, and though my preference is for gloves, my recommendation is for you to shoot with both tabs and gloves, and find which style suits you.  As for arm guards, I have a vented one for Summer and a full one for Winter, and I recommend them both.  Do not ever shoot without an arm guard - I've seen feathers get buried in forearms, and it's nasty.

Quivers are also personal, but I absolutely love my Cat quiver.  For years I hated it, but when I started wearing it without the waist strap, it became a much better quiver for me.  Also, it has lasted twenty years in great shape.

For arrows, I recommend carbon if you can afford it, but with feather fletching, not plastic, and make sure you weigh those arrows down!  I recommend arrowheads no lighter than 125 grain, and 150 or 175 are even better.  You want your arrow to fly like a badminton birdie - heavy in the front, stabilized by the feathers.  Why feathers?  Feathers are waterproof, they flex (required when shooting without an arrow rest) and they self-repair.  Plus, they are way prettier, and if you goose or turkey hunt, you will feel very proud to fletch your own.  I usually shoot wooden arrows because they are cheaper and heavier, but they do break.  Aluminum is also a fine material, and nigh-indestructible, so probably better for marginal lands hunting.  Try not to skimp on the number of arrows you buy, but make sure you like them, first.

What about my recommendations for sights, arrow rests, rangefinders, triggers, &etc.?  No sights, no arrow rest (well, you can buy some felt at OSH, or some hair rest or leather at an archery shop to tape to your shelf or fold over your knuckle), no trigger.  As for rangefinders, I have a pointed comment:  If you cannot eyeball that it is comfortably in range, then it isn't comfortably in range.  If you can't judge yards very well (Lord knows I can't), then switch to judging your own paces, and practice with them at the range.   Remember that you will always be about 10% off in your judgment, and remember that 10% of 40 yards is twelve feet, six feet bigger than 10% of twenty yards.  Being off by twelve feet, when the arrow is already at 40 yards, can place it a few inches up or down of your aim, which, itself, may not have been perfect.  At twenty yards, though, the arrow is still moving quickly, and so six feet one way or the other offers a much more comfortable range for error.

You see, archery is about being comfortable through knowledge.  It's about knowing your gear, your prey, your environs, the wind, and most definitely the shot.

And so my biggest single recommendation when using archery on the marginal lands is to shoot, shoot, shoot.  As you are walking along, shoot at pine cones on the ground, to judge distance and sharpen accuracy.  Shoot sitting, kneeling, bent over - all the different ways you may wish you'd practiced when presented with that once-in-a-lifetime shot.  The beauty of archery is that you don't spook much in the forest when you practice, unlike guns.

Archery provides a level of versatility that only gets better when you replace stuff with practice and time afield.  If you have fewer things to tinker with, you tinker less, and shoot more.  And that's the fun of it.  So get out and loose (and lose) some arrows.

Monday, April 5, 2010

I only do Epic

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Two weekends back, I invited Hank and Holly (of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and NorCalCazadora, respectively) to drive me out to Bodega Bay for a day of ocean food acquisition.  The Plan:  arrive at daybreak to catch the rising, perfect tide for surfperch.  After limiting out, drive down coast to the harbor, to throw crab snares off the jetty for dungeness, rock, and red crabs.  After filling our crab buckets, and with the tide moving out, we'd mosey onto the flats and dig for horseneck clams, as I had done in my youth.  With twenty clams, we'd have to call it quits, but the perfect low tide would have exposed the tidepools upcoast a bit, where we would find sea lettuce, laver, mussels, limpets, and everything else we'd need for an amazing dinner that Hank would (of course) provide the next day.  It's a good thing I convinced Hank that he'd thought of cooking dinner for us, too.

Now, some of you (as in, anybody who has ever hunted, fished, or foraged with me) may be saying to yourselves, "but Josh!  What about your reputation!  You have your honour to consider!"  I know, I know, I'd be putting my reputation on the line with such a diversity of opportunities.  Alas, I didn't disappoint.

The night prior to the trip, I couldn't sleep.  The folks would be arriving at 4:45 am, but at 11:30 I was up cooking biscuits for the trip.  Then, I lay on the couch (loosely defined, as it more closely resembles a conglomeration of wooden bumps) and thought of surfperch, and the newfangled gizmo - a crab "snare" - with which we'd limit on dungeness.  I finally fell asleep around 2:30; it felt like I was sixteen again.

At 4:15, it was brutally clear that I was not sixteen.  I think the word "fuzz" most aptly describes that feeling of being shocked awake before 5 am...

Stumbling around, I made my coffee and threw my equipment out the front door.  4:30 came, and then 4:45... after a couple of minutes, I peaked out the window next to the door - no sign of Hank, no sign of Holly. I stepped away from the window.

Knock! Knock!  

Scrambling back into my skin (it's awkward enough answering the door with no clothes on), I grabbed the door handle and swung it open to find a particularly chipper Hank (if this were a sit-com, that's where the applause would have happened, because Hank is becoming quite the star lately).  Uh-oh.  Chipper.  He might have accidentally packed the one item in a fisherman's chest that can cause nothing but pain when fishing with me - hope.

With my best impersonation of an awake person, I stepped out the door, grabbed my things, and hauled them to the car.  Holly waited at the wheel, less chipper, thankfully (it was 4:45, and we weren't hunting), but still nice, as always.

I jumped into the car, and Hank actually started talking about tomorrow's seafood dinner, made with all the catch we were to acquire this Bounteous Day.

I thought, have these people never been out with me before?!?  I started to sweat... his attitude just might ruin my reputation...  but I played along.

After a forty-five minute drive of 200 miles through winding and twisting, undulating Coast Range Mountains - did I mention my motion sickness? - Holly finally used the brakes, and we pulled into a gas station at Bodega Bay.  Peeling myself from the window, I wobbled out of the car.

"Well, Holly, you sure know how to get somewhere" I said, but she didn't hear me; my voice is muffled when my head is between my legs.

But the sea air has a wonderful curative effect, and the clear skies and rising Sun added to the amazement of the place.  Bodega Bay is a small bay by California standards, and much of it is harbor, and lays out before you at the gas station.  The tide was coming in, and it was a good flood.  With the tide, my anticipation and ominously, my hopes, also began to rise.

"Yep", I said, pulling my belt up and sniffing hard into one nostril, "we'll head up-coast till we find a nice, dumping surf, and look for holes."  I was sure to impress them with my surfperch know-how.

A couple of terrifying miles later, a beautiful little secluded stretch of sand lay before us.  "Portuguese Beach" the sign read, with smaller writing underneath warning of sleeper waves, rogue waves, and waves that would just as soon kill you as give you the time of day.  Among the warnings were the admonition not to turn your back on the ocean, nor to stare directly at it, but to maintain a respectful demeanor with eyes averted.  This was one mean stretch of beach.

And perfect surfperch habitat.  The V-breaking waves against the sand pulled open holes where sand-crabs and worms would find themselves drawn out into open water, creating the perfect natural chumming effect we'd been looking for.  The incoming tide compounded this effect, pulling tons of sand, and the occasional small child, out into the churning waters.

Yup, everything was perfect.  Perfect.

After an hour-and-a-half futilely flinging lead and bait into the washtub-surf that was Portuguese Beach, we slogged back to the car in disgust.  Stupid hope.

 Hank with a face-full of hope... it's like he doesn't even know me
(Photo by Holly Heyser)

But the harbor has a fishing pier, a wonderful stretch of concrete lovingly cradling the marina, where surfperch reside, as well as crabs - big, tasty dungeness crabs.  As we walked out, we saw brants, ducks, and a beautiful loon catching perch after perch right in front of us.  We tossed out our lines, and waited.

And waited.

Holly read a book and complained, ironically, about the prologue being too long.  Our day's prologue was extending quite a ways, itself.

The tide at full-flood, an Islander-type (Jamaica or Trinidad) just down the pier was catching crabs, but we had no bait, so I walked the twelve miles around the marina for five frozen mackerel at a buck a pop.  Back to the pier, we baited our new crab snares.  These snares reminded me of two lines:  One from anonymous, "Some lures catch fish, and some catch fishermen"; and one from The Ghost and the Darkness, "...""but I am convinced that the theory is sound."

Still nothing.

After about another half-hour of watching that hideous loon immorally gorging itself on surfperch that were too small, anyway, we decided to hit the jetty off of Doran Beach.  It was hopping with folks, but there was some space.  Hank, recovering from his torn Achilles (something which Achilles didn't even survive), gingerly walked out on the rocks, and we settled in.  A very nice man was poke-poling for monkey-faced pricklebacks (that look and act like eels), an endeavour that I sorely hope to try one day.  He was jovial, especially when he pulled a fish about as long as my arm out from three inches of water right in front of us.

Hank quickly lost his snare, and I played out a little line for another half-hour, until I grew bored of teasing three underage crabs with a box of mackerel heads.  Meanwhile, that chipper A-hole with the poke-pole kept happily prodding the rocks, occasionally uttering, "Aw!  I just missed 'im!"

But the tide had moved out a bit, exposing the clam-ful flats of Bodega Bay, and so we lit out with shovels and a bucket, Hank and I, while Holly discovered the better part of valor and went for beer.  I must note that when Holly decides it's time for beer, just follow her.

Hank and I found a few holes with water seeping out, and dug and dug and dug.  And dug.  After apologizing for hitting a Chinese guy on the toe, and only finding three cockles and two sand shrimp, we hung up this chance.  Holly had come back after a beer, and took some nice pictures.  Unfortunately, the white of my legs broke her camera (she was kind and said that it had been making a noise, but we both know what happened).

It's those shining twin beacons that helped Holly find her way to us.
(Photo by Holly Heyser)
Walking back, we got to the edge of the mud-flat, and Hank yells out, "Sea beans!"  I felt a pang of guilt, that this once salty-tonged man from Jersey had been so deflated and defeated by our day that he couldn't even utter an appropriate epithet, much less a real one.  Actually, though, Hank had found a plant that he loved to eat (thank God for something!).  He picked a peck, and we headed to the car.

We tried back up-coast for the tidepools, but Hank's leg still needed mending, so he and Holly stayed on the ridge line while I managed a rope-less rappel (read: free-fall) down the sheer cliff-edge to go match wits with mussels and limpets.  An uneven match, I know.  And yes, they won - I came back with exactly eight mussels.

It being opening day of turkey season, and we with no guns, of course we saw a huge strutting tom near a bustling corner-cafe' on the way home.  Well, I think it was a turkey - it went by pretty fast.

At least my reputation remains unblemished.