May 22, 2023
Immediately, I knew I was in trouble as the giant, velvet muley buck was bearing down on me at a steady walk. But he was coming in head-on, and didn’t seem inclined to turn and offer me a shot. I was sitting halfway up the steep side of a wooded draw somewhere in the vast reaches of the North Dakota Badlands, leaning against a gnarly, old tree that the record-class buck seemed intent on visiting. Yards became feet, and eventually the huge muley was a mere eight feet away, working the overhanging branch with his mouth, pre-orbital glands, and even the bases of his fuzzy antlers. His face and rack completely covered his body…not that it would have mattered anyway, because I was shaking uncontrollably. It was doubtful I could have even drawn back my recurve bow!
Suddenly, the deer did an about-face and marched straight away from me to join up with a trio of nice velvet bucks that I hadn’t even seen. The quartet then climbed up out of the draw and disappeared.
Waiting a half-hour to see if any other deer would make their way up the draw, and to calm the rapid-fire beating of my heart, I eased out of the draw to glass my surroundings. As luck would have it, I watched a nice buck slip into the head of a dry wash a couple hundred yards away, and when I didn’t see him come out, I quickly began my stalk.
The open prairie offered quiet walking, and the stiff wind this country is famous for covered any sound I might have been making while also carrying my scent directly away from where the buck had disappeared. Approaching where the mule deer had dropped into the deep cut, I tossed a couple rocks to the other side of the hideout…nothing. After I ran out of rocks, I bleated softly on my deer call with similar results, so I assumed the buck had slipped out the bottom of the ravine while I was out of sight. Walking to the edge and looking down, I didn’t immediately see anything, but then a velvet antler tip moved directly below me, and my pulse hit overdrive!
The deer was bedded in the shade of the overhanging bank, so all I could see was an occasional antler tip. Not wanting the deer to bolt, I stood there like a statue, arrow nocked and tension on the string of the bent stick cradled in my left hand.
For over two hours I stood — baking in the sun and getting pounded by the incessant wind — until the buck finally got on his feet and exposed his body. At a distance of maybe three feet from the tip of my broadhead to the top of his back, my heavy cedar arrow scarcely cleared the bow before hitting the buck with a resounding thunk! The buck rocketed up and out of his hiding place and across the prairie, heading for the heavy cover of the wooded valley to the east, but the broadhead did its job well and the hard-hit deer folded up in midstride less than 100 yards away.
Although this hunt took place decades ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. As it happened, a lot of firsts took place on this hunt: My first mule deer, my first traditional kill, and my first tag filled with a wooden arrow that I had crafted myself.
As I write this piece, 50 years of shooting and hunting with stickbows have passed since I first picked up a fiberglass recurve as a kid in Minnesota. I still handcraft a lot of cedar arrows, I still twist up all of my own Flemish strings, and for nearly two decades now I’ve handcrafted my own longbows under the Prairie Longbows moniker. I’ve seen a lot in five decades; most notably the compound taking over the bowhunting market to the point that seeing a fellow stickbow enthusiast is a rarity.
Stickbow popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, but there’s been a recent surge in their popularity the likes of which I’ve not experienced in a half century. I’ve thought a lot about this and I believe that in this crazy, messed up world we find ourselves in, people are seeing the absolute need and desire for simplicity, self-sufficiency, and for the use of these age-old tools to provide for themselves and their families. Whatever the reason for a person’s interest in stickbows, there are a few constants to consider…
As far as traditional bows are concerned, there are three basic options to consider: self-bows, longbows, and recurves. All three types have their diehard enthusiasts, and all three can and will cleanly and effectively harvest game.
Self-bows are quite simply a bent stick, and they are commonly fashioned from a single piece of wood, with popular options being Osage, Yew, Hickory, and a few others. Self-bows have no glass in their construction and little if anything in the way of laminations — generally, a self-bow enthusiast will pick a relatively straight piece of wood called a stave, and then whittle and shape the bow to his or her liking.
Self-bows are the simplest and oldest form of stickbows, and they’ve been around since man first fashioned them as an improvement on hunting with a spear. Typically, they're not as durable as modern, laminated bows, but they are still deadly in practiced hands, and self-bow hunters still take more than their share of game, even in these modern times.
In shape and function, longbows closely resemble self-bows, with the biggest difference being longbows are glued together in multiple layers and have glass in this stack. These laminations make the modern longbow much more durable and nearly impervious to weather, while significantly improving performance.
A traditional longbow, often called an ASL (American Semi-Longbow) or Hill Style Bow after the legendary longbow hunter Howard Hill, is typically as long as the name suggests: 66 to 74 inches for the most part, and they are very quick on target acquisition, smooth-drawing, and shoot heavy arrows extremely well. They can and often do have noticeable hand-shock and can be finicky with arrow spine because their sight window is seldom cut all the way to the center of the riser, but they have been around for decades and have accounted for countless game animals hitting the meatpole from rabbits to elephants!
More recently, longbow designs have improved, and RD (reflex-deflex) and hybrids have taken over the longbow market. These modern longbows can be found in much shorter lengths (from 54 to 64 inches), lack the hand-shock of an ASL-style bow, and can perform on par with even the fastest recurves. While many purists don’t consider these modern longbows to be a true representative of this niche, there’s no denying their popularity!
I picked up my first RD longbow 30 years ago — a 60-inch Monarch longbow crafted by the late Monty Moravec — and that started a love affair with these bows that continues today and eventually led me to start handcrafting my own line of reflex-deflex bows nearly two decades ago. I honestly believe that these bows are the ultimate hunting weapon, and I will continue to carry this style of bow in the woods, across the prairie, and up and down mountains until my bowhunting journey has ended.
As the name implies, recurve bows have a pronounced curvature at both ends of the bow. A recurve is the Ferrari of the stickbow world when compared to the simple lines of a longbow or self-bow, and this style has continued to gain popularity since taking over the traditional scene in the 50s and 60s.
Compared to a self-bow or longbow, the recurve can be very short; 44 to 48-inch bows are not uncommon, which makes them handy in the tight confines of a treestand or ground blind. Generally speaking, recurves shoot a faster arrow than their straight-limbed counterparts, although this is less true now with modern longbow designs. Recurves also shoot a much wider range of arrow spines than most longbows.
When I shot recurves, I typically hunted with shafts in the 90 to 100-pound range, because these tight-grained arrows could be found in very heavy mass weights, even though I shot bows 30 to 40-pounds lighter than my arrows…you can’t do that with a longbow! Another advantage to recurves is that they more closely resemble a compound bow, especially the deeper grip, which makes a person’s transition from modern to traditional archery easier.
The first and most important consideration when choosing a stickbow is draw weight. DO NOT OVERBOW!
With no letoff advantage, shooting a traditional bow is very different than shooting a compound, and the worst thing an archer can do is to pick out a bow that’s too heavy. Shooting a heavy bow will lead to poor form and bad shooting habits, and very often leads to the end of your Back to the Future journey in short order!
A 25 to 35-pound self-bow, longbow, or recurve is a manageable and comfortable weight for most adults. And depending on your state or province’s regulations, can even be hunted with in some locales.
The first recurve I ever owned was 45 pounds. It was so heavy for me at 11 years old that I couldn’t even draw it back! I struggled for a time, but having access to a lake full of carp provided lots of shooting opportunities and I quickly gained strength.
Eventually, I worked up to 60 to 70-pound recurves, but those weights have dropped significantly now that I’m in my 60s…my primary hunting bow is a 52-pound Prairie Panther longbow, but with a bow shoulder that's seen lots of wear and tear, I also built myself a 42-pound Prairie Wildcat that I can shoot all day without discomfort.
My best advice is to start light and work on form, and only after you’re completely comfortable should you consider increasing draw weight. Heavy bows are not necessary to be a successful traditional bowhunter, and a stickbow in the 50 to 55-pound range will cleanly kill any animal in North America, while bows in the 30 to 45-pound range are plenty for deer and bear-sized game.
Shot placement is the key, so hunt with a bow that allows you to consistently put your arrows where they need to go. Of course, always check your local game laws to be sure what’s legal, and then work up to the heaviest bow you can shoot comfortably and accurately.
One thing to note is that while traditional bows are not adjustable like a compound, you need to know your draw length relative to the bow’s marked poundage. Factory stickbows are scaled at 28 inches…if you draw more or less than 28 inches, you will lose or gain draw weight — typically two to three pounds per inch on a well-designed bow. Of course, custom bowyers can build you a bow to your exact specifications.
A bow’s physical length can and will play a role in your success in the field. Too short, and the bow can be difficult to shoot, especially if you have a longer draw length, while a bow that’s too long may result in clearance issues in heavy cover, a treestand, or if you hunt from ground blinds.
Ultra-short recurves were wildly popular back in the 70s, but as with most choices, a compromise is often the best option. Personally, I think that 60 inches is the perfect length, because it’s long enough to be smooth and forgiving but short enough where limb clearance is seldom an issue. As a generalization, shorter bows are quicker handling, faster shooting, and offer better clearance, while longer bows are smoother, more forgiving, and more comfortable to shoot. In the end, as with most decisions, personal preference is what counts.
Today, more and more hunters are giving stickbows a try, and rightly so. Traditional bows have been around for thousands of years, and will no doubt continue to successfully put meat on the table for as long as humans roam this planet. Happily, the wealth of information available now makes it easier than ever for outdoorsmen and women to go Back to the Future and give self-bows, longbows, and recurves a try!
The author has been shooting, hunting with, and writing about stickbows for decades, picking up his first recurve with lawnmowing money back in 1972 at the age of 11. In 2005, he came full circle and began handcrafting his own longbows under the Prairie Longbows name, and he continues offering a limited number of these bows from his shop in Minnesota. For information, visit prairielongbows.com, or search Prairie Longbows on Facebook or Instagram.