It’s often said archers do it “the hard way,” but hunting with a longbow is, by far, the hardest way.
The grizzly was occupied chasing salmon when I loosed an arrow from my longbow. On impact the bear spun like a tornado, fighting the arrow. As I’ve done dozens of times, I subconsciously grabbed another arrow from my back quiver and nocked it by feel.
The shaft, fletched with turkey feathers, drew smoothly. My eyes locked on the flash of the chest, behind the moving shoulder, and the 56 pounds of draw weight of my ACS longbow jumped from my fingers. At under 10 yards, the arrow struck home, taking out both lungs. And my quest for the 29th species of North American big game animals with a longbow ended in a whirlwind of excitement.
At 14 years of age, I went to my first archery banquet in Sturgis, Michigan, at the Grange Hall. There were maybe 35 people in attendance. My dad, Emerson, sat next to me. I got an award for the most improved shooter. It was nice of them to encourage a young kid shooting a 45-pound Red Wing Hunter recurve. The entertainment was a black-and-white film featuring Fred Bear hunting North American big game. Fred stalked and shot caribou, moose, brown bears, and much more.
I sat wide-eyed, as it was the most exciting movie I’d ever seen. Mountains, bushplanes, huge horns, wall tents and campfires. I decided then and there that I was going to hunt everything Fred Bear did. Pretty big dreams for a middle-class kid from the Midwest.
I was a traditional bowhunter before there was such a thing. I killed my first whitetail buck at 18 years of age with a four-blade Bear Razorhead and a 60-pound Bear Takedown. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wear a felt hat, or a plaid wool shirt.
A local bowhunter named Ken showed me how to build arrows. I liked the process and have handcrafted all my arrows since that time. In the late 1980s, everyone was switching equipment. I did, too. I ordered a longbow from Fred Asbell.
It was 1988, so why would a bowhunter choose to hunt with a weapon that is used by approximately one percent of bowhunters? I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider. I was a small-town boy, raised in a Christian family, doing farm chores, roaming the woods for small game, fishing in quiet lakes, and having a reverence for the beginnings of bowhunting. I was fascinated by the history of Native Americans and their bows. The movies of Robin Hood, with back quivers, wood arrows, and heavy drawing longbows intrigued me. I was a good student and a reader, and I had a subscription to Outdoor Life at nine years of age. In junior high, I read every book in the school library that had anything to do with cowboys, Indians, mountain men, Vikings, or explorers. My vision of archery and hunting was wood bows, turkey feathers on arrows, hand-sharpened broadheads, and long-bladed knives.
A longbow is simplistic, smooth, and forgiving. It has no weight, which is wonderful when walking mountaintops, but it’s challenging when trying to shoot tight groups. But I had no doubt I could master the longbow, and I never looked back.
I never expected to take shots longer than Fred Bear, or Ben Pearson. So what if I had to get closer? Isn’t that why they call it hunting? We have bowhunting seasons, not bow-shooting seasons.
All bowhunters are method hunters. If a hunter just wanted to kill something, they would use a trap, snare, or rifle. A longbow hunter takes it to an extreme. If this sounds intriguing, or really cool, a newcomer better face the reality of fewer kills and plenty of humility. The flip side is the longer and harder a bowhunter hunts, the luckier he or she gets. I have shot numerous animals on extreme hunts in Alaska and Canada on the last day of the hunt. What could be better? The stage was set in 1988: I had lived in Colorado for 13 years, just started my own law practice, and I owned a new longbow.
Many years of hunting elk and mule deer had honed my stalking skills. I had enough early success to be comfortable with my choice of bow. Decades of reading had me primed to broaden my hunting horizons.
My first hunt to Canada was for black bears with All Terrain Outfitters, in Saskatchewan. The hunt resulted in my first published article in Bowhunter Magazine’s June/July 1993 issue, thanks to an early friendship with M.R. James.
Caribou flooded the pages of hunting magazines in the 1980s, so I went to Quebec in 1990 and lived the dream of flying in a floatplane and stalking on the tundra. The hunt was a bust — no one in our camp took a caribou — and I had my first serving of humble pie on a faraway adventure. I never saw a caribou, but I enjoyed the camp and the fishing.
The outfitter invited me and Wayne Radley to come back again. On the return hunt, I hiked several miles from camp and ended up spotting, stalking, and shooting a bull, all on my own. The next morning, when the camp caretaker and I were packing out the bull, two more bulls dropped down into a ravine in front of us. I dropped my pack, raced 80 yards to the edge of a draw, and nocked a wooden shaft on my longbow’s string. A bull popped up at 20 yards. My four-blade Zwickey broadhead hit him square in the lungs. The bull spun 180 degrees, and a second arrow through his lungs dropped him in his tracks. As my guide and I crested the ridge towards camp, with each of us sporting a rack on our packs, it felt like a Fred Bear moment. I knew the hook had been set. I was going to seek adventure with my bow in hand as often as possible.
Scroll forward to 2007, and I’m riding in a boat on the Sea of Cortez with three guys — only one speaks English. We rounded the coast of Carmen Island, and I stared at the walls of the cliffs formed by a volcano many eons ago.
I already had a three-quarter Slam of North American sheep, and I wanted to finish my Grand Slam with a desert bighorn. It was my primary hunting goal.
No one had ever taken a Grand Slam with a longbow, but I figured it was possible. In 1992, I shot a bighorn ram in Colorado with a 60-pound Bighorn Ram Hunter longbow. It was a self-guided hunt in November, in a snowstorm. My Dall sheep hunt (Bowhunter Magazine, June 1996) was a heart-stopping adventure that ended with a 35-yard heart shot in the Liard Mountains of Northwest Territories. The Stone sheep was rough. My first trip with Muskwa Safaris was a great experience, but no sheep. A few years later, Jerry Geraci, owner of Upper Stikine River Outfitters, and I backpacked into Jerry’s “archery” area. A tough cowboy who made me laugh every day, Jerry was packing out my longbow-killed ram five days later.
I’m on the fence about focusing on awards and defined goals involving hunting. I think it’s great to give recognition for exceptional accomplishments, but for me it’s all about comradery with friends and sharing stories around the campfire. I look forward to hearing about my friends’ hunts and to shaking their hands at awards banquets. It’s a chance to relive great memories.
Most hunters aren’t hunting for recognition, and I hope our sport stays that way. That being said, my main hunting goal was to kill a Grand Slam of sheep. I can blame Jack O’Connor — his articles in Outdoor Life sparked an early interest in hunting the high country. When I booked with Mexico Hunts, there hadn’t been a bowkill on the island. By the time I stepped off the boat in November 2007, three rams had fallen to archery equipment. On Day Four, a full-curl ram passed me at 15 feet on a ridgeline, and I had all four sheep species with my simple weapon. It still amazes me that I was fortunate enough to take a Grand Slam in five hunts.
The journey to hunt all 29 species is not a casual mission that just falls into place. A bowhunter has to turn down most of the hunting invites from friends and oftentimes miss out on highly successful group hunts for deer, black bears, and antelope.
A hunter has to plan a year or two in advance to secure hunts during prime weeks with the best outfitters, especially for big bears and sheep. I told one of my friends how much I was paying for a Dall sheep hunt. He said, “You could shoot three caribou for that kind of money.”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t have a Dall sheep, would I?” was my response. My friend gave me a funny look. We don’t all think alike.
One of the benefits of “hunting them all” is the network of close friendships developed with like-minded hunters. When there are four “famous” bowhunters in a huddle around a table at a national hunting banquet, they aren’t talking about the weather. Chances are they’re helping one of their friends pick the exact dates and best guide to use at a premier Stone sheep outfit in British Columbia.
I’ve been blessed to have crossed paths with numerous well-known hunters in my journey’s arc. I was fortunate to become acquainted with Glenn St. Charles through the Pope and Young Club. In 1993, Mr. St. Charles called one day and invited me on a central barren ground caribou hunt at McKay Lake. This hunt is well-documented in Chapter 25 of Glenn’s book, “Bows on the Little Delta.” There were 14 of us on that hunt, including many well-known bowhunters. The fishing was grand, and the hunting was hard. I took a nice bull on the last day, but the real trophy of the hunt was making lifelong friendships with Billy Ellis, Max Thomas, T.J. Conrads, and Glenn, Joe, and Jay St. Charles. Glenn is gone now, but I still think of him often — he’s a true bowhunting legend.
Tom Hoffman invited me on a muskox and caribou hunt in Northwest Territories. He’s one of the happiest guys around who introduced me to the terms, “getting amongst them,” and “making memories.” Fred Eichler was sitting 20 feet behind me when I shot my brown bear. Fred, of course, went nuts when my arrow blew through the bear. Rick Duggan and I stalked caribou near the Arctic Circle in the Yukon. He always said, “just keep on booking,” when I came home empty-handed on grizzly bear hunts. M.R. James and I fished daily on the Unalakleet River on a fairly uneventful bear hunt. Norm Johnson helped call in my Roosevelt elk on the steepest slope ever in the Coastal Range of Oregon. My Colorado hunting buddy, Greg Jouflas, helped me trail, skin, and pack two high-scoring Sitka blacktail bucks on Kodiak Island, a huge black bear on Kuiu Island, and too many elk and deer to remember. These friends have helped me celebrate my success, and helped me get through the rough spots.
Unless a person is a resident of Canada or Alaska (or has a close family member who is a resident), the following 12 animals must be hunted with a guide: Canada moose, all four species of caribou; brown, grizzly, and polar bears; Dall and Stone sheep; and muskox. Unless a bowhunter is extremely lucky at draws, or has friends who are very helpful and connected, most hunters will need to be guided, or at least outfitted for bison, bighorn sheep, mountain lion, desert sheep, Alaska-Yukon moose, mountain goat, Sitka blacktail deer, and Tule elk.
I’ve been blessed to have some of the best outfitters and guides alive help me obtain my goals. Some of them are famous; others were cowboys or lost souls who needed a job. I thank you all, particularly Steve Fiarchuk (B.C.), Braun Kopsak (AK), Gaspar (MX), Cole Kramer (AK), Stan Parkerson (AK), Gerry Geraci (B.C.), Jim Fink (YK), with special recognition to Luke (NUV), who probably saved my life.
I’ve always said getting all 29 is all about the journey, not the goal. Sure, I’m celebrating, but I’ve been celebrating in hunting camp for 30 years.
My bowhunting journey isn’t over just because I met one of my milestones. That reminds me. I need to fletch some arrows and touch up a few broadheads. I’m going hunting this weekend!