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.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Great post, but is does leave one question unanswered.
Where do i get the time to do this? LOL

Tovar Cerulli said...

Great archery post, Joshua.

I took a hiatus 15-plus-year hiatus from archery, then got back into it. When I started back up, I was using a sweet little 50# browning recurve. But it was on the short side--like yours, my knuckle-dragging wingspan is somewhat gibbonish, exceeding my height by several inches--and it stacked like crazy.

The three-fingers-under draw, which an uncle suggested, works nicely for me, too.

I ended up getting a longbow made for someone even longer-armed than me: very smooth.

Though I love that bow, I admit I hunt with a compound now. I haven't gotten good enough with the longbow to be reliably deadly. Not that I've ever shot an animal with my compound either...

Tovar Cerulli said...

P.S. Sorry to have been scarce lately on your blogs...super busy at the moment!

Josh said...

SBW - Ah, time. I bet you waste five to eight hours with your eyes closed... I have the same problem.

Tovar - Show up whenever you are able, no worries. It's funny, we complain about stacking, but it's probably because we are 1-3" past the draw length of the bow...

That's a cool draw, eh? As for the compound, no problem. I will say that having to use that recurve (and "having to" involves another story) really taught me more about hunting large game than I'd ever known. When I had to get close, I moved so much slower and was much more attentive than when I had the crutch of thinking I could take a longer shot.

Tovar Cerulli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tovar Cerulli said...

I definitely agree with you about what we learn by moving slow and getting close. With both longbow and compound, I've spent some very instructive and intense time near deer, in the 0-30 yard range, both on the ground and in a tree. (Even with a compound, I'm not absolutely confident in any shot much over 20-25 yards. With a longbow, I'm usually on the mark at 20 yards, but not nearly as certain about it.)

Come to think of it, I've also spent time that close to deer with a rifle in my hands. Some of those deer (e.g does) weren't legal in that season. Some didn't offer a shot I felt good about taking. And, in these thick woods, even when I have squeezed the trigger, the deer have to be that close just to see them clearly!