November 04, 2010
We all have to grow up sometime, but we should never forget where we came from.
The sun peeking over the mountains raked fingers of light across the landscape as I drove down a very familiar road. The warm morning air wafted the sweet, sticky scent of pines and alfalfa into my truck window. With the June wind in my face and willows crowding the riverbanks, reflecting mirror images on the green, glass-smooth water, my thoughts drifted back to my roots as a bowhunter.
More than 40 years ago, as a grade-school boy, I'd ridden my Schwinn three-speed bike with the flared handlebars and banana seat down this same snaky road along the Spokane River with the same purpose in mind -- to bowfish for carp. Back then, my elementary school buddy Ken Werner and I were like peas in a pod. Our collective passions for archery were molten hot, and we fed off of each other's enthusiasm. Side by side we peddled the four miles, unsupervised by parents, to a little channel of water loaded with rough fish just above Nine Mile Dam.
Upon arrival, we carefully unwrapped the masking tape used to strap our fiberglass recurve bows to the handlebars of our bikes, knowing we had to use the same tape to carry our bows back home.
Ken was shooting a kiwi green, 25-pound Ben Pearson recurve while I wielded a cherry red, 22-pound Shakespeare. Our ammo was a hodgepodge of 49-cent wood arrows of different lengths, weights, and diameters. They were fletched with assorted bright-colored feathers and tipped with crimped-on aluminum tips.
At this stage, fiberglass arrows, barbed heads, polyester line, and bowfishing reels were beyond our means. On our lawn-mowing budgets, we were lucky to keep our tube-shaped quivers full of arrows and bike tires full of air.
We'd ditch our bikes under the willow trees and then stash canvas knapsacks filled with lunches made lovingly by our stay-at-home moms on the rocks above the high-water mark.
With everything ditched and stashed, and with all the stealth 10-year-old boys could muster, we sneaked along the channel, moving slowly (or so we thought) until we found a shootable fish lounging close to shore. Most of the time wary fish darted away at our approach, leaving swirls of muddy water where they had just been.
On rare occasions when we did sneak within our effective range and the fish stayed put, we quickly learned to pick our shots carefully. Without barbed arrows and reels, we had to make head shots or swift-killing gill shots to dispatch the fish within wading distance of shore. Otherwise the fish would just swim off with our arrows. Sometimes our arrows pinned smaller fish to the muddy bottom. In such cases, we waded out, un-stuck our arrows, and hoisted our slimy prizes ashore before they could slip off the unbarbed tips.
At the time, I had no clue how much those early adventures would shape my life. Ken and I learned about navigation, such as choosing safe travel routes and remembering how to get home -- knowledge I've applied hundreds of times since, not only on day hunts close to town but also on wilderness adventures from Alaska to Africa. We learned to stalk with bows in hand, using shadows and soft mud to mask our approach; to draw our bows in slow motion to avoid spooking our quarry; to pick our aiming spots to make swift kills; and to aim low to compensate for light refraction. And from dealing with fluctuating water levels on the river, I learned to adjust my hunting in relation to drastic ocean tides when bowhunting for bears along the bays and coves in Southeast Alaska.
These are skills I still use every year while bowhunting as an adult.
Oh, those sweet days of childhood when life was simple, when hours seemed to last longer than days do now, when worries were nonexistent and all we had to focus on was the task at hand -- arrowing the next fish!
Suddenly, my mental stroll back to my roots was interrupted as I drove just a few yards from that same stretch of river. Off to my left a big carp shattered the glassy surface of the water with an explosion of spray followed by a loud thud as the hefty fish slapped the surface again. The jolt back to present time and the sight of spawning fish near my destination stirred a familiar and welcome anticipation of the day's events in this bowhunter's soul.
My friend Tommy Petrie would join me for a day of bowfishing. I'd met Tommy a few years before at the Bighorn Sportsman's Show in Spokane, Washington. Although he is 20 years my junior, we share a mutual passion for all things outdoors, particularly bowhunting. Our friendship reminded me of my boyhood connection with Ken.
Tommy is the consummate blue-collar outdoorsman. Rather than buying them, he'd just as soon make hunting accessories himself when practical, and he prefers do-it-yourself adventures to high-class guided hunts. He carries himself with a confident yet approachable manner that makes him easy to spend time with.
Quickly, we launched his duck hunting boat turned bowfishing skiff and were on our way. In short order, the boat allowed us to access some prime carp hideouts that had been inaccessible to me as a boy.
Tommy cut the outboard motor and we glided toward shore, watching carp slap the surface here, seeing a dorsal fin crack the water's plane there. Instantly, I could tell Tommy knew his way around a bowfishing scenario as he gently guided the boat toward a fish. Standing on the homemade shooting platform, he pushed the boat forward with a handcrafted push pole in one hand while holding his trusty bowfishing recurve in the other. He took only a few shots to "calibrate" his eye to the trajectory of the bowfishing arrow, and from then on he connected with fish regularly.
Each spring the common carp here, weighing 10 to 25 pounds, migrate from deeper water to concentrate in the shallows near shore to spawn, promising a two to three-week timeframe of outstanding bowfishing in late May and early June. With no closed season and no bag limit, these fish offer unlimited targets for archers to have fun honing their skills.
After Tommy had arrowed a few fish and I'd shot plenty of photos, I put down my camera and picked up a bow. I hadn't bowfished for years, and the transition from my flat-shooting compound with sights and light carbon arrows to a recurve lobbing heavy fish arrows took me a few shots. But my roots were in the recurve, and before long I was dialed in on the copper-brown targets and making my share of the shots.
For hours we drifted along the riverbanks
, watching mallards and their nearly grown ducklings quack and swim by clumps of yellow water iris. Ospreys swooped down with uncanny precision to nab fish with more consistency than Tommy and I could shoot the fish. The combination of warm weather, kin-like companionship, and a healthy carp population made for a relaxing and pleasant day. It felt great to return to my roots.
The author is a regular Contributor from Spokane, Washington.