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Traditional Bowhunting and Trophy Hunting

When you hunt as long as this bowhunter has, you learn a few things worth passing along.

Traditional Bowhunting and Trophy Hunting

I took this Sitka blacktail buck on Kodiak Island.

Yes, Howard Hill was right — up to a point. Hunting big game with primitive weapons, such as a stick and a string, is hunting "the hard way,” and it can appear to be an overwhelming challenge. Yet the key to success is to not let that challenge overwhelm you.

Everything depends on your state of mind. Do you believe you have what it takes to set a goal and doggedly pursue it to final success — no matter how many attempts may be necessary? I have discovered over my lifetime of hunting that if one believes one can do something, is sufficiently patient, determined, and self-disciplined, and wants it badly enough, most any goal becomes achievable.

As Jose Ortega y Gasset so eloquently wrote about in his classic work, “Meditations on Hunting,” the essence of the hunt comes down to a fundamental competition between two sets of instincts. The true hunter voluntarily handicaps his or herself to the benefit of the quarry, in order to make the contest at least equal. The more primitive the weapon one chooses to use, the lower the odds of success in the field. Of course, that doesn’t mean success is not achievable, but it does mean that — when it comes at last — it is all the sweeter and more cherished. It is that total process, leading up to a final victory, and undergirded by all the hard work and sacrifices, which makes those memories of a lifetime indelibly etched into our mind and heart.  

Those of us who have chosen to hunt only with primitive weapons do so not just for the greater challenge, but because the excitement is so much more intense as the moment of truth approaches. We necessarily must get within very close range of our quarry. To close the distance to within 30 yards or less and remain undetected by the much keener set of senses possessed of a trophy buck, bull, ram, or carnivore, is a thrill beyond description! Before the shot is ever taken, such an experience brings the kind of intensity that a long-range shooter can never know. It is then that the “overwhelming challenge” becomes the overwhelming emotion — if one can only remain calm enough to make the requisite lethal shot.

Arrowing my Dall ram in his bed at eight yards; shooting my Stone ram at 11 yards, while totally unaware of my presence; dispatching my Alaskan brown bear from five yards as he strode past me without a clue I was there — those are diamonds, rubies, and sapphires from my jeweled "memory box" that no one can ever take away from me!

For me, hunting “the hard way” has become the only way that gives me any deep personal satisfaction in the field. Therefore, I will not hunt any other way.

Dennis Dunn, Grizzly bear
Here's my record-breaking grizzly from 2004.

Above, I wrote about the importance of setting goals. Whether it be a question of educational goals, vocational goals, political goals, or hunting goals, no matter what kind of goal you may set for yourself, it is the process of setting and then achieving goals that builds confidence and makes personal growth a certainty you can count on.

Early in life, it’s important to choose goals that are clearly thought to be achievable. Not slam-dunks, necessarily, but ones that are doable. Then, as each victory is achieved and celebrated, it becomes a stepping stone to the next goal you set your sights on. As each new goal is accomplished, another one takes shape in your mind. Once you start achieving things you would never have dreamed possible as a younger man or woman, then your confidence begins to soar on the wings of your successes, and you eventually come to realize that there may be no peak or pinnacle too high for you to climb.

Not only is setting goals in your life essential for personal growth and maturation, but it is clearly one of the great secrets to longevity. In the realm of hunting, if a person at age 65 no longer has a hunting goal that they’ve fixed their sights on, then it is very likely that by age 70, they will have become a couch-potato — barring having taken up some other outdoor physical activity.

By like token, if a 75-year-old hunter has a dream or two he or she is still determined to fulfill, the chances are very good that person will still be hunting at age 80. Of course, the older we hunters get, the more we realize how vital it is to eat right, maintain our good health, and stay in good physical shape. And, thus, the greater our chances of continuing to have success in the field and living a longer life.

Unfortunately, once you get much beyond the age of 70, you discover that your body is no longer able to cooperate with your willpower to the extent called upon. Consequently, you make adjustments. You push yourself to hike five miles in a day instead of 10, or three miles instead of five. You reduce your vertical climbing in a day to perhaps only 1,000 feet, or maybe 800, rather than the 2,000 you used to do with relative ease.

It is very important for the older hunter to stay in tune with his or her body. Failing to do so can be life-threatening. It isn’t just strokes or heart attacks that can strike us down. Maintaining good balance becomes more challenging the older we get. Hiking or bushwhacking in the wilderness always invites the possibility of a fall, and with the added weight of a pack on your back, such falls can produce serious injuries, even to the seasoned elderly hunter.  

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I have taken two such falls during my recent hunts for caribou in Alaska. Both came close to ending my hunting career. The first occurred in 2019, and the second one was in September 2021. For any nimrod still “getting after it” with his bow beyond the age of 75, I want to emphasize that the use of not one, but two trekking poles, is a necessity if you want to avoid ending your hunting career prematurely.

Make no mistake about it: One’s incentive to stay in good physical conditioning in the twilight years of life can be directly calibrated to the intensity of one’s determination to achieve yet another unrealized goal. Therefore, never give up, and never say die until you actually do! In other words, whereas my wife’s plan is to shop until she drops, I intend to hunt until I drop in order to have lived the fullest life possible, as close to Mother Nature as I could get, so that I might better understand and more fully appreciate the limitless number of miracles that God has created on this planet.

For those who share my philosophy about goal-setting and hunting until breath do us part, let me explain more fully what has been driving my engine at age 83, ever since I completed my barebow Super Slam in the fall of 2004.

Upon taking the 29th species (for me, the Alaska brown bear), I counted how many of my species were really of trophy quality, as measured by the yardstick of the minimum Pope and Young entry scores. It turned out 17 measured up, and 12 did not. Being already of retirement age at the time, the remaining goal I set for myself was to see if I could possibly “upgrade” those 12 species to trophy quality before old age decided to remove me from the game.

Well, 19 years later, a succession of miracles has allowed me to “upgrade” 11 of those 12 species — leaving only the Alaska barren ground caribou. That seems to be my nemesis animal because I have hunted them in at least 10 calendar years, including six of the last seven. I didn’t make the challenge any easier for myself when, in the fall of 2006, I hung up my sightless compound for good and returned to my traditional-archery roots.

If I can maintain my good health for another year or two, and if the Lord decides to lend me another huge helping hand, then some significant bowhunting history will likely be made, because I don’t believe any bowhunter has ever taken an all-P&Y Super Slam with purely instinctive aiming and shooting. I certainly do realize, of course, that I am in a race with Father Time.

Dennis Dunn, scenery view
This view was awe-inspiring, and I hope to see a few more such places before I finally tip over.

Why am I so passionately in love with hunting big game the hard way? Because becoming part of the prey-predator drama, with a primitive or traditional bow and arrow in hand, makes it possible for me to reconnect with my Paleolithic ancestors, and to observe Mother Nature in a way few others can. Thus, I become part of that natural world. And even if I don’t find the quality animal I’m searching for during an entire 10 days of hunting, if I experience a very close encounter, I’m happy. 

There is yet another major reason I feel so passionately about bowhunting. It is a sport guaranteed to keep you humble. Let me quote a few sentences taken from Page 1 of the preface to my well-received book, “BAREBOW!”

• “It is my considered opinion that nothing is more certain to generate humility and guarantee a proper perspective on one’s relative insignificance in the cosmos than spending time in the wilderness. When you are dependent for survival on no one but yourself (and perhaps a hunting companion) — trusting only to your wits, and hampered by senses of sight, smell, and hearing woefully weaker than those of your quarry (and of those carnivores that may be hunting you) — becoming part of the predator-prey drama is not for the faint-hearted or the physically-unfit.”

• “Since time immemorial, Man has been a natural predator, and he certainly has as much right to hunt for food as any other predator. If he has the right to eat food, he certainly should have the right to hunt and provide it for himself. It is only in the most recent part of his long history on the planet that he has had the option of NOT hunting for his protein.”

However, since scripture in the Bible tells us that God delivered the animals of the earth into the safekeeping and stewardship of man, we clearly have an obligation to treat those wild animals with respect and reverence, choosing to take a life only for food, or for purposes of wildlife conservation.

Dennis Dunn, side hill shot
Stretching a few muscles not recently exercised is important for bowhunters of any age.

People have asked me, “Why do you hunt for trophy animals? Is it to be able to put another set of big antlers on your wall?” The truthful answer is both a yes and no. Frankly, the biggest reason I choose to attempt to harvest only males near the end of their lives is because the challenge is so much greater. 

Big animals don’t get old because they’re dumb; they survive into old age because they have refined their senses and techniques for evading predators. They know the terrain they inhabit far better than we do, and every advantage is theirs in the field. That said, the best any hunter (predator) can hope for is that our intelligence is just a bit better than the prey we are pursuing, and may be enough to outsmart their much sharper senses and instincts for self-preservation.

That, in a nutshell, is what trophy hunting with a traditional bow is all about — seeking to overcome low odds of success based on the limits defined by our primitive weapon of choice, while also doing our best to outmatch the survival instincts of the mature animals we hope to put our tags on.

When you insist that your quarry be the oldest and wisest of the species — males that are often beyond their active breeding years — then any success you may be blessed with is hard-earned.

After all, hunting is wildlife conservation. Especially trophy hunting!

The author is a highly accomplished bowhunter who lives in Sun Valley, Idaho.




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