Thursday, July 15, 2010

Last weekend's hunt, and thoughts on archery hunting

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I had an absolutely amazing time on my bowhunt with Phillip and Cat.  No game was bagged, but something in me clicked, in a good way.

Archery hunting tends to do that to me.  It makes me calm, it helps me move more deliberately and understand that serenity goes a long way in life.

When a person moves when archery hunting, they are trying to get in close, without being recognized.  Many people automatically anthropomorphize creatures, but when one hunts with a bow, even the most basic human assumption - that sight is the most important sense - has to go out the window.  At least, it does when you hunt pigs or deer.
When bowhunting, the wind is more important than cover.  Sound, too, becomes very important.

And so, one pokes slowly through the forest, using game trails and old roads, and always checking the wind patterns.  Especially when there is no persistent breeze, winds can be tricky.

I consider myself fairly astute at reading the wind, for which I credit my nearsightedness.  When I was young, I went a few years without knowing I needed glasses.  I was quiet and shy, and I also got good grades, so it just never really came up until I was about to get my driver's license.  However, I walked outdoors constantly, but came to rely more and more upon my understanding of the wind, especially in regards to how it moved sounds, but also smells.  (I also greatly enjoyed tracking, because tracks were close and thus more visible than, say, sunlight through the ear of a cottontail.) 

Luckily for me, then, I've a decent ability to read the wind, a downright invaluable asset when bowhunting.  Rifle hunters need to know the wind, too, but usually only if it is moving big, or if they are still-hunting, or hunting heavy cover; but for a bowhunter, there is much more to it.  My most recent trip provides a prime example:

This last weekend, I had the absolute privilege and joy to stalk wild hogs.  In particular, after stumbling (a little more literally than I'd have liked) upon a wallow on a creek, I decided... well, my calves decided to sit a bit, because I knew it had been used recently (I could smell pigs there - isn't that cool?).  The Sun was setting, and I knew I had maybe 20 minutes of light left.

The creek was nestled between two steep, dry hills that rose a few hundred feet on either side.  They were very steep in some places, impassable in others, and covered in varying degrees of deep, dark wood, oak park habitat, and grassy open spots.  The grass was golden and dry, the ground baked by the California Sun, making bushwhacking too noisy a prospect.  But, a road paralleled the creek.

After "hearing" something up-creek a bit, I slowly walked around a small bend.  I realized almost simultaneously that the noise had come from the water, and that, 100 yards distant, browsing calmly between two oak trees and out in the grass, moseyed a sow, a boar, and six piglets.  I froze.

Now, if this had been a story with a rifle, I would have had the picture of the pig at the end of this story, right?  But with my recurve, I was just beginning a stalk, and I had 70 yards to go.

Thanks to my nearsightedness, when I stopped moving I immediately knew the bad news.  The back of my arms and neck, the exposed parts of my body, were colder than the front.  The wind was slowly wafting from me to my prey.  With little light left, I knew I couldn't hike up the hill and back down to them, so I attempted to close the distance a little quicker than normal.  Using the cover of the creek berm, I moseyed, myself, toward them.

Crap!  I walked up onto another wallow, and I immediately knew that's where they were headed, and if I'd stayed put, they might have walked right up to me.

I made about 30 yards before the boar caught wind of me.  A little snuffling snort, and all of them stood stock still, wound up tight, and ready to run.  Then they did run, back into the deep, dark wood, and into my memories forever.

They never once saw me, of that I'm sure - and the creek's gurgle ensured that they never heard me, either.  All it took was the familiarity of my smell (my wife will laugh at that one) for them to know, as surely as I would know if I'd seen a man with a gun stalking me, that they needed to leave, and fast.

Archery hunting hones a lot of lessons that regular hunting teaches, including the human need to move slowly and deliberately through the wild, the need to understand how you influence the world, and the vital lesson that things happen that you cannot control, and that accepting them and putting yourself out there are more important.

Getting out there also reminded me that I love and thrive on just being there.  I saw a tiny owl, I saw bandtail pigeons ripping through the air.  I saw quail, and had the hooey scared out of my twice by a lovesick grouse and his beautiful, brown mate.  Twice.  I stalked a jackrabbit and was showed equal shock and an instant of stark terror when a horrifying pig-squeal rose up from the canyon below us.  I realized that no successful North American mammal predator has a green coat.  And I spent a great time with two great, new friends - laughing, joking, eating and drinking, recounting tales, and sharing a sad moment (read Phillip's piece on that one).

So, when I got home and started poking around a few sites looking for archery and bowhunting legends and lore, and I stumbled upon this amazing video, I won't feel shame to say it brought tears to my eyes. Please take a couple of minutes to hear the last question of the last interview given by Fred Bear.  You won't be disappointed.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Man, that sounds fun. I'm not even close to being ready for archery yet, but I hope to take it up some day, before arthritis makes it impossible.

Fundamental Jelly said...

While I don't doubt you had a great time and while I also don't mind that folks bowhunt, I have never gotten over the idea of shooting something with an gives me the willys. Could you have just as much fun with a camera??

Josh said...

Cazadora, I'm ready any time you are.

FJ, I don't think there is a quantitative correlation between fun with a camera and fun with a bow. I do have fun with a camera, though I'm not nearly as good as either you or NorCal Cazadora (you should check out each others' blogs, by the way). But, bowhunting is a very different being. Fred Bear's comments really strike to the core, but there is more: the predator-prey relationship; the sense of belonging and the chance to get to know a place as if you are a member; and the chance to actually obtain food from a place, to provide for your family in a very direct way and with a very direct connection to a place, to a being.

I understand the willies comment, though. I totally get that.

Phillip said...

Good one, Josh. We had a great time too, and look forward to doing it again. B zone rifle season isn't far off... might be time to introduce one more person to Kokopelli Valley? Maybe get Holly along for the fun as well.

Also really love the video. Fred Bear did a lot of stuff with the bow and arrow, and while some of it really pushed what we now recognize as "ethical lines", he was a true pioneer. He, Gene Wensel, Saxton Pope, and a few others really showed us that a skilled and patient archer can be as deadly on big game as any gun hunter... and have a deeply rewarding experience in the process.

Fundamental Jelly raises a common question. The simplest answer (at risk of flippancy), is that you can't eat a photograph. But that's really an incomplete response.

A critical component of the hunt is the intent to kill. Without that element, you may still have all of the other pieces... the stalk, the discovery, etc. But you will never have the primal urgency of that final action. Press the shutter button and you and the creature both walk away. A bad picture results in a blur in the frame. No harm, no foul. That is not always the case in hunting.

Josh said...

Phillip, you make good points. I think FJ's issue with the bow and arrow is the nature of that particular weapon, as opposed to a gun, or a giant rock falling on you. I think it freaks him out.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Really? "Why can't you shoot a picture" is traditionally what someone who's very uncomfortable with hunting says.

I see bowhunting as one of the more challenging and definitely more natural ways to hunt, but one that requires much more skill to be used effectively.

Josh said...

Cazadora, FJ is a friend. We've talked about hunting before, and though he's not a hunter, he's never been against hunting. So, yeah, he's uncomfortable about hunting, but I'm confident his particular comment about the willys was referring to archery kills.