This weekend marks the beginning of the tenth season since I stopped bowhunting. Yes, I miss it, but not as much as I thought I would. The incident that did it was actually back in July.
I’d been using a DIY strength trainer for years– 3 screen door springs and a couple of handles. It mimicked my bow enough that I could draw and hold in the comfort of my bedroom. I picked it up from under the chair one afternoon and gave it a pull and felt hot fire in my shoulder. I put the thing back down and realized I’d done something significant. At the time, I figured I would just give it a rest and come back later. At Thanksgiving, I was still having trouble and could not get my right arm past about 7 O’Clock. Doc called it Bursitis. Over the winter it got better, but by the next summer I was still hesitant to go muck with it. Since then, I have had flair-ups, but I’ve learned to adapt. I don’t do pound a lot of nails. I don’t cut much firewood with a half-moon saw. I use screws and a nailer. I own 4 chainsaws.
I never mentioned the shoulder in my weblog back then. I looked for an entry and it was not there. Obviously I was not ready to discuss it. I found a draft of a post I was going to make in 2012, marking the 5th anniversary. It never got posted, so I can assume I still was not ready to talk about my shoulder even then. This is going to be a bit ticklish. I know my bow hunting friends might very well look at this and think I am knocking bow hunting. I am trying my darnedest not to do so.
It was not until 2009 or thereabouts that I started to look for permanent replacements for bowhunting. Since I usually had my freezers full by the end of November, It was really just October I had to worry about. I thought it was going to be a problem, but I found I was already adjusting. Bowhunting had been such a solitary pursuit. Not having it meant more time with the family. Two weekends were already spoken for in the way of Yute Season and Muzzleloader Season in the middle of the month. As it has panned out, I hardly missed it.
I tried a crossbow. The doc signed the paper that allowed me to hunt all of KY bow season with one. What I found was that I finally had to face up to a basic underlying bias in my hunting; I had stopped taking early season hunting seriously. Part of it was due to the way Kentucky structures its seasons. Part of it was just my own eccentricities. For me, September always seemed too hot to be out hunting. I came of age in a state where the Bow Opener was the first weekend in October, and I was happy with that. As it turned out, the deer on my farm tend to agree. Usually they leave my ridge in late summer and go feed down in the river bottoms, and I don’t usually see them until about mid-October. Kentucky schedules its early Yute Season and early Muzzleloader Season in mid-October, so that was always a distraction. The peak of the rut is usually just about when Modern Weapons season opens, so even with a healthy shoulder, I was only bow hunting a few weekends before Rifle Season. It hardly seemed worthwhile. Late season? It is hard to get worked up enough to go out in the cold in December and January with a bow if your freezer is packed by Thanksgiving.
The farther I got from my last bow hunt, the less I missed it. Even after a decade, I have a hard time putting it in perspective. I was a pretty dedicated bowhunter for twenty years. Some years I used up all my paid vacation on bowhunting. I did not mind the frustration and hardships. I did not mind the practice. I loved being outdoors. What I found was that I found it harder as my kids got older to justify the amount of time I had to spend hunting alone. I also realized that if I was going to have a chance at a nice rack on my property, I had to wait until the rut to fill my tags, and that meant waiting until November. By then it made more sense to have a rifle in my hand as a bow. Lo and behold, the more I used a rifle, the more I liked it. Long before the shoulder gave out, I realized my bowhunting trips were turning into armed scouting expeditions.
So you can chalk family concerns up as one reason for my loss of interest. Health concerns are another. Those are easy, but after 20 years of bowhunting I found it a bit disconcerting to be so far removed from it so soon. The other reasons were a little tougher to grasp as well as own up to.
COST: Bowhunting is hard to do on the cheap. A properly outfitted hunting arrow is probably $7-12 bucks a pop. Granted, you can reuse them up to a point, but still! Everything about bow hunting is gadget driven, unless you go ultra-primitive. My hunting expenses plummeted after I stopped bowhunting. I went from a large-sized day-pack and a butt-pack to just a small shoulder bag for all the stuff I was able to remove.
TIME: It takes a huge investment in time to bowhunt properly. A lot of guys shoot year round. I usually started pulling my bow in July or August. However, the last five years or so that I used the bow, I found it was a lot of commitment, just to go out and sit in a tree. I knew the real show was going to start in mid-November and watching doe and small bucks pass under my stand was fun, but I found I could have just as much fun without a bow in my hand. Early season hunting also consumed a lot of the time I now use for scouting. Practice? I went from twenty or arrows several nights a week to firing a few practice shots with each rifle to check my zero.
HEARTACHE: I had been fortunate over the years. I lost one buck to a blown shot with a bow. I have only one deer not recovered with a muzzleloader, and one with a rifle. However, every time a deer went pounding out of sight with one of my arrows sticking out of their hide, I thought I was going to lose it. Sure, I have had that that happen twice in a year gun hunting, but that was with a 35 Whelen; I knew the answer was certain. I just did not know how long it was going to take me to find them or how much effort it was going to take to schlepp them out. With bowhunting, I always walked away with a queasy feeling I had screwed up, even if the deer died 20 yards from the stand. I did not have to shoot at a deer to have heartache either. I cannot count the number of times I had to sit passively and watch a nice fat buck walk by at 60 yards.
FAILURE: As I said, I only lost one buck in twenty years of bowhunting. I missed a few, but they were clean misses. With a modern rifle, I have seldom had any question of the outcome. Over the years, however, I had to keep asking myself, what was the cost of failure? Sure, I suffered a lot, losing a deer, but it was nothing like what the deer felt. While I was actively bowhunting, the price of failure always seemed to be. . . what can I call this? Manageable? Acceptable? Now that I have been away from it for all these years, I see how badly I felt in 2008 grazing a nice buck with a rifle. I nicked the buck in 2008 and it got away, because my scope had gotten a bump. If I had done that with a bow, I probably would have been quite inconsolable. Two years later I nailed my #2 best buck out in the middle of a field from the same stand. He jumped the fence and disappeared without leaving a blood trail. It took me a half hour to discover that he had not run down into the ravine I had searched, but was got his antlers caught in the fence and died almost instantly in tall grass right at the fenceline. That was a long half-hour. With a rifle, that sort of thing is going to happen once in a while. With a bow, nearly every shot at a deer left me emotionally drained.
SUCCESS: I took some nice bucks when I was bowhunting– some of my best. I had chances at a few more. There were a few more bruisers that just never got into range for the bow. However, many of my biggest bucks and my biggest successes have all been with a rifle and all but a couple have been taken within spitting distance of my stand. I really do not feel all that greater an achievement bow vs. rifle or close-in vs airmail. I will say that when the biggest buck I have ever seen came strolling up to the stand, I was glad I was holding a rifle. This was one shot I did not want to screw up. For me, at least, looking at that big rack up on the fireplace never has me regretting I did not do it with a bow.
CHALLENGE: I do not feel less of a hunter for bagging a big deer with a rifle over a bow. I do not feel less of a man for having put my bow down. To me, the challenge has always been about things much less distinct. Mostly it has been about just showing up. The hard part has been committing to getting out of a warm bed and heading for the truck at 3 AM. I always amaze myself that despite a demanding job and a growing family, I made it out. All the gear, all the food, hunting from a tent, schlepping in a climber in the dark, these were all far more of a challenge in total that what I held in my hand, waiting for the sun to come up.
I do not mean to be knocking bow hunting. However, after completing my tenth season without a bow, I have to say that my life has improved. I am still out in the woods as much, probably more so. I am certainly more as devoted than ever to the sport; it has been a year round passion since I got the farm. I did not become a slob when I put down my bow, and wearing an orange hat did not make me a slobbering idiot. Granted, I now hunt at a time and place when it is common to hear 1-3 shots per minute for the first three hours of season, However, I have the whole rest of the year to enjoy peace and solitude. For a couple of weeks out of the year, I’m no longer out on a nature walk, I’m out to kill.
If there is a message in this for the rest of you, I just want to encourage folks to keep an open mind in Deer Hunting. So much of what we see on TV and read on the forums promotes snobbery. Bow is more of a challenge. Single Shot rifles are what the experts use– you’ve seen this stuff. I was once called a “booger-eating moron” by a fellow simply because I shoot deer with a 30-06 instead of a more sophisticated cartridge. Another called me a cretinous hillbilly, because I admitted to hunting with a semi-automatic rifle. A lot of this comes from the couch potato crowd, but a lot of comes from our own. Having hunted with a crossbow, I can tell you that it is every bit of a challenge– a bit different from a compound bow, but still a challenge. Shotgun season? Rifle season? They are different, and they are different enough that it is worth trying if you haven’t.