June 07, 2023
“I guess I’d like to be thought of as a bowhunter who cared deeply about his sport… I only want what’s best for bowhunting. Ours is a hunting sport. We need to always keep in mind that the other half of the word ‘bow’ is ‘hunting’ and not ‘killing.’ I’d rather everybody remember that than who G. Fred Asbell was.” — Fred Asbell
Crouching in the shoreside willows overlooking a well-tracked game crossing, I’d watched hopefully as the two caribou bulls — including the giant Fred eventually killed — emerged from the trees directly across the surging northern Quebec river. They’d paused briefly before splashing down into the swirling waters, swimming straight toward me. Their sweptback, velvet-furred antlers reminded me of bobbing tree branches caught in some powerful undertow.
For a few fleeting seconds, I believed I’d get a shot. But then I could only watch helplessly as the rushing current pushed the bulls downriver and well out of bow range. The caribou finally clambered ashore, shook themselves, and walked into the mouth of a small creek. They disappeared exactly where my hunting partner had gone soon after our native guide dropped us off maybe an hour earlier.
So, I wasn’t really surprised when Fred appeared a short time later, walked toward me along the edge of the riverside willows, and asked, “Wanna come over and take some pictures?”
“Did you shoot that big son-of-a-gun?” I asked.
“I am proud to announce that I did,” Fred said with a big grin spread across his bearded face. “Never in the annals of bowhunting has so much luck been accorded to any bowhunter.”
Luck? Sure. Partly. But I’ve since come to understand that the harder a hunter works, the “luckier” he becomes. And take it from someone who knows, G. Fred Asbell was one very determined and hard-working bowhunter who deserved all the smiles that Lady Luck cast his way. Few men I’ve known have done more to promote serious bowhunting over the past half-century. As a first-class bowyer who once made sweet-shooting Bighorn longbows and recurves. As a talented author of helpful how-to books and adrenaline-laced hunting stories that were both inspirational and beneficial. And, finally, as a natural leader whose clear vision and firm hand helped steer two national bowhunting organizations to play increasingly influential roles in 20th and 21st Century archery.
Although born in southern Illinois in the latter months of 1940, Fred and I grew up not 35 miles apart — he in Petersburg, Indiana, and me in Mt. Carmel, Illinois — our paths never crossed until, most appropriately, the 1972 Pope and Young Club convention in Denver.
I had killed my first whitetail in Indiana in ’63 while in college; Fred arrowed his first in ’64. We both were active in tri-state National Field Archery Association tournaments. Fred later helped form the Indiana Bowhunters Association, becoming a Director and President; meanwhile, I joined the IBA and helped form the Princeton, Indiana, NFAA archery club while working as Sports Editor of the “Princeton Daily Clarion.”
In 1968, after a stint in the Navy, Fred had taken a three-month leave of absence from his job at IBM near Indianapolis. He and his Hoosier hunting buddy, Bob Pitt, hired an Alaskan outfitter to pack them into the bush, where they stalked moose, caribou, and black bears.
“It was quite an experience,” Fred told me. “Before Alaska, I was barely more than an anxious beginner wandering through the woods and hoping the gods of the hunt would bring me and some dumb animal together. After three months of living in a tent and hunting across the Alaskan tundra, with almost no contact from the outside world, bowhunting and its methodology, me and the animals, all began to mesh. My whole approach to bowhunting changed. I finally understood the game.”
Fred was still an IBM employee when the company opted to set up a Colorado purchasing department in 1969. Fred volunteered and moved to the Rocky Mountain West, where his bowhunting options vastly expanded: elk, pronghorns, moose, bighorn sheep, mule deer. He also enjoyed more Canadian caribou adventures and stalked British Columbia grizzlies.
Fred was very much at home in the Rockies. He’d later leave the security of a full-time job with IBM and — with Colorado bowhunter Denny Behn — founded Bighorn Bowhunting Company to build custom hunting bows. A 55-pound Ram longbow and 61-pound Custom Bighorn recurve are among my personal collection of special Asbell Bighorn hunting bows.
It was at the 1972 Pope and Young gathering in Denver that Fred and I first shook hands, and having so many common roots and interests, we seemed destined to become good friends. Bowhunter Magazine, which had been unveiled in August of ’71, published its first G. Fred Asbell feature in 1978.
Fred went on to write numerous magazine articles, and in 1980 I announced he’d joined the Bowhunter team as Hunting Editor. That association would continue for two-plus decades, during which time we shared more hunting camps and special memories.
Noteworthy is the fact that Fred would go on to become the longest-serving President in Pope and Young Club history (1984–2002). I had the privilege of working with him on the P&Y Board of Directors as both a Director and First Vice President. In the early 2000s, I was elected President, serving two terms in that office and several more as P&Y Past President-Director. And it was during this same time that Bowhunter’s readership grew from some 100,000 to a paid circulation topping 220,000, and a total readership approaching 500,000. Without question, Fred contributed to the magazine’s growth and popularity. Later, his articles and “Traditional Bowhunting” columns attracted, influenced, and entertained many more readers.
Fred Asbell’s books, seminars, and clinics are considered excellent and informative how-to bowhunting and instinctive-shooting treasure troves for legions of readers and attendees. Tens of thousands of copies have been read and reread by generations of bowhunters looking to master “hunting the hard way,” as the legendary Howard Hill called it. Fred explained it this way in his bestselling 1988 book, “Instinctive Shooting.”
“Instinctive shooting is shooting a bow using only the abilities of the hand, the eye, body coordination, and instinctive memory. It is looking — concentrating — on what you want to hit and allowing the bow hand to point the arrow at the correct place — and the bow hand being directed by the brain, which says ‘right there.’ There is no physical reference whatsoever. That means no sights, no looking down the arrow, nothing except looking at the target and shooting.”
Remember the big bull caribou that Fred shot on a 1990 Quebec “Old Man’s Hunt” the year we both turned 50? Here’s how he described that hunt’s moment of truth:
“I fell two times as I tried to run through the brushy tangle back in the direction I had come… And then I was out of the brush and on the creek bank behind the boulder pile. And there was the smaller of the two bulls trotting just below me as if everything had been perfectly timed. Even as I grabbed for an arrow, I could see the bigger bull coming. There was no time to think about how lucky I was — or how hard I was snorting and blowing — or about the sweat running into my eyes.
“I swung with him as he trotted past. I watched the big red-fletched arrow hang in the air — as they always seem to do — and saw it disappear through him. He flinched, jumped sideways, and went into the creek. With a lunge he came out the other side and stood there looking around, wondering, I suppose, what had just happened. And then he lay down and it was over.”
Fred followed his wildly popular 1988 book with “Instinctive Shooting II” in 1993, followed by “Stalking & Still-Hunting: The Ground Hunter’s Bible” in 1997. He explained the genesis of his shooting style and method as follows: “I’ve always shot instinctively. I sent for a Howard Hill archery catalog. In it was a sequence of pictures showing him shooting the bow, and I tried to do it that way. My backyard was small. I’d go out and shoot hundreds of arrows — but only from 10 to 15 feet. I’d shoot an old tennis ball or pencil — things like that — and I really developed my instinctive eye. Of course, in those days I had no idea there was such a thing as a sight.”
Over the years, Fred’s shooting clinics — most notably at Ken Beck’s Missouri-based Black Widow Bow Company, where over the decades a total of 721 shooters attended 42 instinctive-shooting clinics at the Nixa, MO, bow-making facility — complemented by his books, magazine features, and principled bowhunting philosophy. Overall, Fred reached legions of supporters and standing-room-only crowds wherever his hands-on instructional clinics were scheduled.
The last time I saw my longtime friend and his wife, Teresa, was late May at the 2022 Archery Hall of Fame induction ceremony, held at Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, MO. There, displayed in the AHOF Museum, are engraved plaques of all members recognized by their peers for exceptional accomplishments in archery and bowhunting. Fred’s 2010 plaque reads, “Visionary Leader and Legendary Bowhunter,” noting that he had “hunted 32 states, nine Canadian provinces, and Africa, taking numerous record book animals,” including 19 of the 29 recognized North American big game species.
Other legends of bowhunting, whose plaques are on permanent display, include Fred Bear, Ben Pearson, Jim Dougherty, Howard Hill, Bob Swinehart, Chuck Adams, Saxton Pope, Art Young, Will “Chief” Compton, and Glenn St. Charles, to name only a few. And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the Bowhunter staff members and regular Contributors to the magazine who have also gained AHOF recognition. These include Dr. Dave Samuel, who has continuously served the magazine for 50-plus years, Len Cardinale, Dwight Schuh, Randy Ulmer, and some guy named M. R. James.
Induction banquets are a happy but exceptionally busy time. While happy to see Fred and Teresa, I knew our time together would be all too brief. And when the banquet ceremonies ran past midnight, I missed seeing the Asbells afterwards and wishing them safe travels back to Michigan.
I’d thought Fred looked his usual self, albeit a bit tired. An earlier bout with kidney cancer had taken its toll, yet I’d heard his subsequent surgery went well. Then, a half-year later, on January 6, I got word my friend had been hospitalized in serious condition with kidney failure. I confirmed the news by phone with Teresa, who requested prayers from all friends and followers. The online response was overwhelming and positive. Then, on January 8, came the sad news that Fred had gone to sleep in the night and passed away peacefully with Teresa at his hospital bedside.
The bowhunting community has lost a friend and eloquent spokesman who touched tens of thousands of men, women, and budding young archers and bowhunters. I — and all who knew, loved, and respected G. Fred Asbell — will never again know a man like the uniquely gifted, bearded archer who preferred wooden bows and wool clothing to the standard mechanical tackle and camouflage uniform carried and worn by millions of 21st Century archery hunters.