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Old-School Archery

Traditional bow hunting makes a return

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"In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality."

--Eugen Herrigel, Zen In the Art of Archery

One arrow at a time is what I tell myself. Become one with the arrow. The nock, the fingers, the pull, the focus and the release all play a part. When I strike true, my heart flutters and my blood pressure rises. I revel in my success. And that feeling of achievement is one reason I will not be alone in this fall's late archery season.

But I have a problem, if you could call it that; I have chosen to shoot traditional archery.

I shoot a recurve bow. It does not have sights for aiming, nor does it have wheels and pulleys to lower the amount of pressure I hold before each shot. I am shooting a musket against the sniper rifle of modern archery.

However, I am not alone in the traditional archery field. Over the past few years, traditional and primitive archery have had a renaissance of sorts. Stories of traditional archery have even made it into the Wall Street Journal.

I wanted to talk to someone about this new popularity in traditionalism, so I contacted Bill Dorsch, owner of Full Draw Custom Bows in Garden Valley to see why he became involved in traditional archery.

"I shoot traditional because I grew tired of all the gadgets it took for me to shoot. I bought one of the first compounds available and shot them for years, adding things like sights, mechanical release and such.

"One night I was bear hunting and could not see the animal through my peep sight so I asked myself, 'What the hell am I doing?' I got home and tossed out my compound. I found someone to build me a recurve, like what I shot when I was a kid. There was a purity to the bow. And that's why I build bows now," said Dorsch.

Even with the resurgence, Dorsch and I are probably the exception. I recently asked Mike Gallegos, owner of Idaho Archery Company, if traditionalists made up 10 percent of the market.

"If that," he replied. "More like 5 percent."

By looking around the Idaho Archery Company showroom, it is easy to see that traditional shooting is not as popular as modern archery from a sales standpoint. Only four recurve bows are on display, surrounded by dozens of modern bows.

The difference between a traditional recurve bow and a modern bow is the technology. A compound bow is a combination of carbon fibers, metal wires, pulleys, fiber-optic sights and weight stabilizers combining to lethal effectiveness. It's capable of propelling an arrow to about 70 yards with considerable accuracy.

My recurve bow uses essentially the same technology used in the 14th century: laminated wood with tapered ends and string to propel the arrow. I can only shoot my longbow reliably to about 25 yards.

Add to the compound bow the advantages of peep sights, light-concentrating sight pins, carbon arrows and fall-away risers, and you get a deadly weapon that is very dissimilar to a traditional bow.

To some, the difference between modern and traditional archery is so vast that separate hunting seasons are being called for, with one set of rules for traditional archers and another for modern archers.

Dorsch is an advocate of a traditional-archery-only season.

"Traditional archers typically hunt only with traditional equipment so what we are proposing is opening all the elk hunting zones for traditionalists," he said.

"What we want, and this is probably gonna piss some people off, is access to other units [zones]. We are not trying to close anything off to others, just open more up for traditionalists," said Dorsch. "Let a traditionalist hunt other zones as long as he only hunts with his traditional bow."

While Idaho does not keep traditional-only statistics, it is a safe assumption that traditionalists don't harvest as many animals as compound hunters. So with low success rates and only a small portion of total archers hunting traditional archery, the opening of additional elk zones would not have that big of an effect on harvest rates--that's the theory behind allowing traditionalists additional access.

While traditionalists would like an expanded season, few places in the country actually offer them.

"I'm only aware of two examples of this: two isolated management units in Oregon, and McAllister military base in Oklahoma," said Don Thomas, editor of Traditional Bowhunter Magazine.

"I can envision some possible compromise, by reserving some hunting areas for traditional archery tackle. However, that horse [modern archery] is obviously well out of the barn now, and from a political standpoint, we are best off defending what archery seasons we have left," added Thomas.

Some would argue that the compound is just the evolution of the traditional bow; the next cycle of the same weapon.

In Idaho, hunting regulations reflect a parallel in the differences in technology; that is why there are muzzleloader-only seasons and center-fire rifle seasons. The fact that the accuracy and effectiveness is not equal between the weapons is recognized.

At the same time, isn't the choice to be a traditional archer just that­--a choice? So why should traditionalists be allowed additional access because they have made a choice to limit their effectiveness? I don't know the answer. I do know that with or without a traditional-only season, I will continue to shoot my recurve.

Perhaps the most enlightening comment on the debate came from Thomas.

"Personally, I've taken the position that the current state of affairs represents the inevitable result of human laziness meeting corporate greed. I deal with it by ignoring it, and hunting in places where it really doesn't matter: wilderness Alaska and my own back yard in Montana."

I'll continue to practice in my own back yard: the mountains of Idaho.

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