Traditional archery has been a part of my family as long as I can remember. I clearly recall my Mother giving my Dad a Bear Tigercat for his birthday in 1968. We were at my Grandpas and he brought it out of the back room as a surprise. My Grandparents had a grand dining room table, it was always set for Sunday supper (I never heard the word “dinner” until I was about 25). My Mother and Grandpa handed the bow across the table to my Dad…..he was as excited as I ever remember him being. We hurried through the roast beef, and my Dad and I headed out doors as soon as was polite. The arrows provided were one of those Bear sets of a dozen that used to be in every hardware store. Straw bales were in abundance. My dad shot for hours. He was happy.
I wanted a bow of my own badly. I can’t verify it, but my memory is that I was very young, 7 or 8. Easter Sunday rolled around. Easter was a pretty good holiday at my house when I was young. Aside from the important religous aspect, my Mother always made special baskets for us kids. This year my basket was sort of “thin”….a few chocolates, and a handful of licorice jelly beans. In 1970 kids didn’t complain about things like that. I went into my room to get ready for Mass. In my closet I found the greatest gift I have ever received. A green glass York static recurve, and a dozen arrows that my Dad had made. That Sunday, Easter service was was the longest on record. I could not wait to get home and shoot my bow!
After Church, all of the adults gathered out back to supervise the Easter egg hunt. I couldn’t be bothered with such childish things. I had arrows to shoot! My Dad strung the bow, handed me the arrows, and turned me loose.
Our backyard was pretty great. We had 3 acres that seemed to stretch forever. It curved south to a neighbors field, and then a woodlot of about 5 acres. Just past the mowed back lawn was a stretch of clover. As I walked out the back door, archery gear in hand, I saw a huge flock of birds pecking through the clover for bugs. I hauled back, launched an arrow, and I swear…with my right hand on my copy of The Witchery of Archery….center punched a shiny purple-black blackbird. It squawked and flapped back through the crowd of egg seekers. My Grandma, aunts, sisters and cousins all dressed in there Easter finest squealed and scampered out of the way. Etched in my mind are the smirkish smiles between my Grandpa and Dad as they quickly caught and dispatched the unfortunate bird.
With that bow I learned a bit about form, I learned how difficult (read that impossible) it was for a youngster with a fist full of arrows to kill a rabbit, but mostly I learned the joy of sending an arrow across the field. I would shoot the arrows that I had, arcing them through the sky. I was always amazed at how close they would land to each other. I love that bow. It still hangs on my wall.
Soon thereafter my Dad became a Boy Scout Leader. Specifically, and important to the story, he was a Webelo Leader. The Webelo’s were (are) a step between Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. And I wasn’t old enough to join the troop! My Dad explains it this way…..we were at the meeting signing me up as a Cub Scout. A call went out for a volunteer leader for the Webelos. My Dad says all the fathers kind of looked down at their shoes, ignoring the need. My Dad was perfectly happy to ignore it as well, he says, but he was there in his firemans uniform. The lady running the meeting said, “You there, Mr. Norris, certainly a fireman has some time for these boys?” He was trapped.
My Dad was probably not a great Webelo mentor. But he was a heck of an archery coach…..it wasn’t long before the troop had brand spanking new bows for each boy. I have no idea who the manufacturer was, but the had brown recurve limbs, and a very shiny chrome plated riser section. My Dad made each boy a dozen red arrows, and he put number decals on each arrow….so each boy knew what number his set of arrows was. The weekly Webelo meeting became an archery practice session in our backyard. I was jealous. Here I was shooting this crummy kids bow (my green glass York) when these kids had brand spanking new shiny recurves! And matched arrows! I was shooting broken and cut down scraps from my Dads arrow barrel, having lost my original dozen within a few weeks. I was mad about it, and said so. My Dad seemed to understand.
A few days later, I came in from school to find my Dad stretched out in his recliner. On his lap was a beautiful bow. He was polishing the highly figured wood with a white cloth. “Come get your bow” he said…..it was amazing. The wood on it was nicer than his. 20# pull, 48″ long. It spit an arrow way quicker than those gaudy bows the Webelos had. And looked better doing it. The next time my Dad had a “scout meeting” aka archery practice, I stood down by him and shot. Down at the head of the line where the men shot.
I cannot fathom how many arrows I put through that bow. My dad shortened up a bow stringer for me so that I had my own “stuff”. I had a back quiver by now, an arm guard, and a well broken in glove. It all went with me to my Grandparents cabin in northern Michigan, near Grayling. There, by order of my Grandma, my job was to dispatch gophers and red squirrels. Every other living creature was off limits, but Grandma was convinced the gophers were eating her gladiolas, and Grandpa was tired of patching holes in the cabin from the red squirrels. I went after them with a vengeance. Every dead varmint brought a bounty of a can of pop, a comic book, or a package of beef jerky.
At least once during my stay we would stop in Grayling and visit “Bear Mountain”…the Fred Bear museum and store. I sat in the dark little room and watched Fred Bear, on film, hunt the great trophies of the world. And the next day I would be having those same adventures, sneaking through the fields and cedar swamps near the cabin.
In time, I was handed down my Dads original Tigercat. It was 40#, a real mans hunting bow. I shot and shot….waiting for that magic day when I turned 12. In those days, Michigan’s minimum age for hunting of any kind was 12. You could hunt small game with gun or bow, and archery hunt for deer. I was a pretty good bowshooter by then. I had a decent set of cedars, 6 with field points, and six with Bear Razorheads. I never shot the broadhead tipped arrows, saving them.
When October first rolled around, I was ready. The night before opening day, I spent the night at my Dads apartment. We got up early, and he made sausage links, eggs and toast. I drank coffee, pretending that I always did. Dad put some in a thermos bottle for later. He had cooked extra sausage, and this he made into sandwiches, which he wrapped in tin foil. I put mine in the pouch on my hunting stool, along with a Hershey bar. We headed out, and it began to rain.
How many times do you suppose somebody has written “the rain didn’t dampen our spirits”? It didn’t. I tucked my stool under a Russian Olive bush that we had trimmed up the week before. It was raining, but the bush gave me some protection. I wore an old pair of hand-me-down leather hunting boots that were 2 sizes to big. Blue jeans, and an old camoflauge hunting shirt that didn’t fit. My dad let me wear his Australian style camoflauge hat, the kind that was sort of a cowboy hat but it snapped up on one side. He had bought it at Bear Mountain, it was the first piece of camouflage he ever owned.
I sat on my stool, in the rain. I was soaked to the bone before the sun came up. But every sound, every movement had my attention. Every bird that flitted through the hedgerow was a deer, I was certain. Sometime after sunup a sound and movement to the left caught my attention. A rooster pheasant strolled right through my spot. He never spooked, he never flew….just walked and pecked and fed off through the weeds. I never saw a deer that day. It’s funny to me how I remember all of these details, but I don’t remember being cold that first dripping opening day.
I launched a lot of arrows at deer with that bow, never coming very close. That bow was with me a year later, when hunting with a family friend “Up North”. A pair of coyotes came through and trotted by, one on either side of my still form. I could have reached out and touched them. Minutes later, from the direction they went, a lone doe came sneaking through the frosty jack pines, paying more attention to her back trail than her direction. She paused broadside in front of me, staring over her rear. She seemed to create a cloud of steam as she stood there, worrying about the coyotes, and not young boys. I drew and shot….before the arrow could connect it struck an unseen branch, shooting straight skyward. She was gone, saved by a sapling.
My next bow was another hand-me-down, a one piece Bear Super Kodiak. This bow was full sized, and I was bigger. It’s longer length and 45# pull made it easy for me to stack arrows in the center of my back yard target. It was a beautiful bow, but I soon spray painted it camouflage. The grip on that bow was perfect. To this day, I don’t think I have ever shot a bow better than with that old Bear. Whenever I’m going through a shooting slump, I pull out this bow and remind myself how to do it.
This Super Kodiak taught me a lot. My family had changed, and I hunted alone most of the time. Things that I never had to think about were now my responsibility. Did my arrows match? Was the brace height correct? What was that vibration? How do you get these damned broadheads sharp? I spent many days away from home with that bow, sneaking through orchards and pine thickets. Looking for deer tracks. Discovering rubs and scrapes, and speculating on the difference between the two. I was holding this bow in my hand the day I saw my first antlered buck in the woods. I was in the shadows of a stretch of pines, watching a group of apple trees across a narrow field. The miniature orchard had long gone wild, and I had killed grouse in there before. That’s what I was thinking about as a small racked buck popped up out of the long grass in the field, snuck into the apple trees, and dispeared. I spent the rest of that Saturday “hunting” that spot, sure he would come back around.
I hunted with that bow even after I got out of the Army, although I was intimidated by the compound shooters around me. Their arrows seemed so fast and accurate. Guys that didn’t even hunt when we were kids were buying them, and becoming great bowshooters overnight. These guys didn’t know anything about Fred Bear, or where Grayling was, and why that mattered, but they were killing deer on a regular basis. I succumbed. For $90 I bought a Bear Whitetail compound. I bought every gadget that I could bolt onto it, and tried every fancy broadhead (sharp right out of the package!) that I could find. One morning I missed 3 deer in about 3 minutes. I ran back home and wrenched and adjusted my bow, certain that something was misaligned. Shooting a bow became a mechanical process of gadgetry, nuts, bolts, and Allen wrenches.
Having some correspondence with my Dad, he wrote that he was glad I was bowhunting, but rode me a bit about using a compound. I wrote back that it was new technology, and he should embrace it. He told me I was cheating.
One winter day a package arrived. Wrapped in brown paper, was a small case with a “Fred Bear Showed Me How” cloth shoulder patch glued to the front. Inside was his Bear Super Kodiak take down. A note inside said “My shoulder hurts, I can’t pull this, you can have it. Love, Dad”. I strung the bow, grabbed some old arrows I had with feathers (not vanes) and started shooting. My arrows landed exactly where I was looking. It was fun.
When the next season rolled around, I was torn between the compound and the recurve. I argued and bargained with myself about it, and made excuses. “Looks like it might rain, I better use the compound because of the plastic fletching ” was my favorite.
One weekend I went hunting with a guy I didn’t know very well. We stayed up too late (not my style) and I got a late start to the woods the next morning. I lugged the compound in the direction of my treestand, but couldn’t find it. Rather than crash around in the dark, I sat down above the swamp I was trying to get to. As the sun rose, I realized I had stumbled into a pretty good spot. I stayed put, and soon deer started drifting from the hardwood ridges down into the cedar swamp I overlooked. I could see some thrashing going on, like a sapling taking a beating from a buck, but the swamp was so thick I couldn’t pick out the deer. But soon he was grunting and trotting my way. A great buck, bigger than I had ever seen. I drew my bow as he went behind a bush. I knew I could hold this mechanical arrow launcher back forever. As soon as he stepped out, I would hit the release, and kill a trophy.
Wrong. He paused behind the bush, as smart bucks are fond of doing. I held the bow. He didn’t move. I held the bow. He held his ground. Finally I had to let down the string. As soon as I broke, so did he. He trotted along his original path within 10 yards broadside, moving but not bounding. I walked back to the truck, disgusted. I was mad at myself for being late to the woods. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t find my tree stand. And I felt stupid for thinking a compound bow was the right tool for the job. Because as that deer trotted through, I KNEW that I would have killed him with my recurve. I wouldn’t have drawn the bow early, I would have waited until he cleared the bush and drew and shot in one smooth motion. I put the compound in it’s case, and gave it to a friend. I never drew it again.
The Bows I Grew Up With
I have been through a bunch of traditional bows since then. Some good, some great. But no bows have taught me more than the ones I grew up with. I still have them. I look at them often and think about where we have been.
See You Down the Trail…..