One fall afternoon several years ago I came walking out of the camera store downtown and ran into a guy I knew from the bicycle shop across town. It surprised me a little bit that he was dressed in hunting clothes, as I didn’t know he was a hunter. Archery deer season just wasn’t on my radar at that point. I’d been a life long firearms hunter, with a very short exploration into archery for deer. He was a bow hunter and walked me back to his truck to show me a little more about what he meant by that. There were no wheels or cables and not even any fiberglass. His bow was one he whittled himself out of a hickory tree. Rick invited me to bring my bow over sometime to shoot.
That conversation stirred memories for me of my Browning Wasp, a 45# recurve that I got for Christmas in 1973. Back then I bought some department store wooden arrows, glued on factory sharp broadheads and I thought I was ready to hunt. That following fall a buddy and I took to the woods and fields with our arrows nocked walking about in the fashion of hunting rabbits than deer. We didn’t have a clue of what we were up to and I don’t think we even saw a bunny, let alone a deer. After that initial trial, the bow was soon assigned to the back of the closet in favor of gun hunting.
With the more recent invitation to shoot, I dug the bow out and lucky for me the limbs are still straight, as it had been stored in a variety of positions over the thirty some years of collecting dust. I ordered some wood arrows and glued on some field points and judos and hit the woods with Rick, a friend Brian and Rick’s dad Rich. That was a great day. It seemed like I couldn’t miss and had a blast working through the woods with those guys. It’s a great trick the gods of archery play on a guy with beginner’s luck. Get him hooked right off the bat letting him think he’s got it made. It set’s him right up for the trials and misses soon to come.
That summer I bought a black foam block and some broadheads. I got the arrows to fly pretty straight and I hit the woods in October. As a dad and a freelance photographer, I hunt when schedule allows, not always when the conditions are best. That’s the way it ought to be. I spend a lot of my time in the woods at noon when deer must be napping and I’m known to be hugging trees in the wind if a windy day is what I have to hunt. One afternoon I just couldn’t stay out of the woods because I had the time, even if it was raining way too hard. Lucky for me and the deer, I didn’t see any. On my soggy stroll back home, I paused to take a few practice shots at the foam block. To my amazement my arrow took a nosedive that was shocking. Even at only ten yards I was probably three feet low. Arrow after arrow went grubbing. I just couldn’t believe that wet feathers would make that much of a difference.
The guys at archery shop were getting pretty used to the sound of my voice by then, so I called again to ask what was up with the big dipper. The patient fellow on the other end said that just maybe my arrows weren’t tuned as well as I thought they might be. There’s probably a cartoon with a light bulb in there somewhere, but that comment began somewhat of a quest for me. I needed to figure out how to build a better, more reliable arrow.
I tried some aluminum shafts and found I was more consistent with them, so I shelved the wood arrows. The aluminums shot well, but darned if they didn’t take a kink so easily when I was stumping. I was definitely in the tomato stake business. Doing some rough math, I ordered my first dozen of carbon shafts, figuring that I’d save money with more durable shafts and I happened to be right on that one. I bought some carbon fiber shafts that were the least expensive out there and had good reviews.
A couple of other things happened at about that same time. I retired the WASP again when a Leon Stewart custom longbow came into my possession. With my new bow came a few tips from Leon and my shooting improved. My interest was growing steadily and I was shooting usually a couple of times a day. Every walk in the woods with our Labrador was a stumping shoot. Inspired by Rick’s dog, Nubo, I had fun training my dog to find wayward arrows for me.
David Petersen and others on the TradBow forum turned my attention to Doctor Ed Ashby and his studies on penetration, broadhead design and forward of center balance influences on arrow performance. Being a newcomer to this great sport, I decided right then that this was the ticket for me. Since I was inexperienced I could not afford to shoot less than the best arrow I could build. Knowing I was going to make mistakes in the learning trajectory of hunting with a bow, I needed an arrow that would be most forgiving for me and especially to my quarry.
The order of priority for me was this. Start with the broadhead I wanted to hunt with, which was the 225 grain Tuffhead, and then tune a shaft to fit that head. I got some 225 grain Tuffheads from Joe at Vintage Archery, some brass inserts and a variety of steel adapters and 300 grain field tips. With mixing and matching I was able to get a combination that would allow virtually the same set-up for hunting, target shooting and stumping.
I cannot express the gratitude I have for the likes of Troy Breeding and a bunch of others, including David Petersen, on the TradBow forum. The generosity with which these guys share their knowledge really does a guy good. Here were and still are, a bunch of archers that really understand what makes a bow and arrow tick. Doc Ashby provided the penetration data to make sound decisions based on science. Troy and the others provided the how and why to get the set-up really set-up. It’s really simple. Just do what they said. Okay, not always easy I guess, but not too complicated either. Just keep trying, changing one thing at a time and keeping track of what you are doing.
I ended up with a carbon 400 shaft, four fletched with 2 ½ inch feathers, 50 grain brass inserts, 75 grain steel adapter and a 225 grain Tuffhead for a 630 grain hunting arrow. So, I’m 20 grains light of the magic 650 (read Ashby to find out about that number), but I’m pretty well matched for three types of shooting I do. I run a 100 grain brass insert, 125 grain steel adapter and 135 grain Judo to get the closest weight to my hunting arrow. These arrows shoot well, group well and fly well, which I suppose is double redundant. Dry, soaking wet, one or two feathers missing, it doesn’t seem to matter much. If two feathers are missing, they remaining need to be on opposite sides of the shaft. The heavy head just drags that carbon shaft along for the ride. The benefits of the shaft I bought are two. One, they are about the cheapest shaft going, which I already said, and two, they are among the lightest grain per inch carbon shaft. That helps put the percentage of weight up front, which helps turn FOC into EFOC. These shafts have shown themselves to be plenty tough, too. After about five years of using them I am still only half way through my third dozen. Loses include plain old loses and an occasional breakage when stumping. I also retired a couple that were badly scarred from other arrows accidentally hitting them while target shooting. That does not happen as often as I’d like.
I have only killed two deer with this set-up or with any set-up for that matter. That puts me deep in the ranks of beginner. I’m determined to always be a student anyway so I’m okay with this designation. That said, my experiences with the two deer taken show me that this formula is what I’ll stick with at least until I learn something better.
Three years ago, my first archery deer, a little doe, came down the hillside about 12 yards away. I drew back and whispered, “I can do this,” to myself as that doe slowly walk by broadside. I hit a few inches lower than I hoped, taking her in the lower third of the heart. The arrow passed through dove five inches into the stony hillside behind her. I really don’t think she would have noticed a thing, but jumped startled at the sound of the arrow striking ground on the other side of her. She continued her walk for about 25 yards, stopped and lost her balance. It was all over in a few seconds and all in view from my stand.
Last November a button buck came down a grade out of a stand of white pines and walked a broadside arch past me at about nine yards. I drew as it stepped behind a small tree and then stepped out. As I shot, he stepped again. With my lack of follow the arrow struck several inches to the rear of my spot. My heart sank as the little buck darted into the denser woods uphill to my right. I cringed that I had made a poor shot, but I’ll always remember how that arrow disappeared into that deer like it was just going through smoke. I gave myself a verbal butt kick for the shot I just made and, after a few minutes, climbed down from the stand. I exited my position in the opposite direction from the deer, not wanting to push a gut shot deer into Neverland.
I took my time and deposited all unneeded gear in my SUV. After a few more minutes I took a worried walk back up to the stand and found a bloody arrow dug deep into the ground. I slowly followed light but evident trail of red spots led me up the hill into the pines. At about twenty yards, the trail lost course, going left, going right, so I paused and tried to gain a sense of its direction. I slowly stood upright to look around, still hoping not to spook a wounded deer. There, not ten more yards over the crest of the knoll was the little buck lying over a fallen log. The single bevel head had sliced through the liver, pierced the gut, missing both lungs. It was fortunately quick and fatal.
A collection of two incidents is far from convincing data in terms of science and these small deer are no testament to superior penetration, but these are two tales of success for confidence that I carry with me into every hunt now. I give credit to an arrow built on the advice of other knowing archers and a well-designed broadhead. Archery is often likened to art. In art, the expression is given flight by the heart and carried on the wings of the craft. Buried within the craft is the glue of science that holds it all together.
Thanks for reading my tale. I hope to add to it in the seasons to come.