Bow hunters get their trophy animals the old-fashioned way: they earn them.
Through the end of this month, several local residents have taken vacation time or cut their workdays short in order to participate in a ritual nearly as old as our species: hunting big game with bows and arrows.
Archery hunting requires stealth, and the innate knowledge of wildlife, geography and weather. Ultimately, it requires the ability to get almost close enough to smell an animal without being smelled.
While rifle hunters can successfully bring down an animal at ranges measured in hundreds of yards, a bowhunter will typically shoot not much farther than spitting distance. An archer who feels confident about a 40-yard shot knows his stuff. Most bow hunters won’t shoot at anything past 25 to 35 yards away, roughly the distance between the produce and dairy sections at the Eagle City Market.
But bow hunting is less about the shot than working to get ready to shoot.
“Elk travel in herds, and there’s always one with its head up, looking, listening,” said Bob Nock of Eagle, who added that calling in an elk is one of the most remarkable things about the sport.
“There’s nothing more special than calling in an elk to five to seven yards,” said Eagle resident Teep Blevins. “It’s a different kind of experience.”
Like many bow hunters, Nock grew up hunting with rifles. He’ll still participate in rifle season once in a while, but said taking a step back to archery has been a thrill.
“It’s such a wonderful time of year,” he said. “The weather is nicer in bow season. You can see the leaves changing day by day.”
“You can hunt in jeans and a T-shirt if you want,” said Blevins. “It’s just a great time of year to get close and see animals.”
Bow hunters generally have a lot of space to work in, too.
“There’s less noticeable pressure,” said Blevins. “Of course, everyone’s wearing camouflage.”
As the owner of Eagle River Anglers, a fishing outfitting business, Nock said he appreciates the slower, more deliberate pace of bow hunting.
“Our lives move so fast, there’s something to be said for taking three steps, stopping, looking and trying not to break a twig,” he said.
The allure of a more slow-paced, disciplined form of hunting has a select appeal. Last year, the Colorado Division of Wildlife issued 24,566 archery licenses for elk, just more than 10 percent of the over 229,000 elk licenses issued.
Part of the more subtle appeal could be because it’s a lot harder to bag an animal. The overall success rate for all elk hunters last year was 27 percent. That number drops to 16 percent for bow hunters.
Nock said in 10 years of bow hunting, he’s bagged one cow elk, which is fine by him.
“I really believe that if I stick an arrow in an animal, it’s 100 percent luck,” he said.
Eagle resident Bill Heicher, recently retired as an officer with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, has bow hunted for several years, partly because rifle season was his busiest time. Bow hunting, he said, is a “natural progression” for many hunters.
“You look for another challenge,” he said. “Bow hunting is more the experience. A lot of people with rifles measure their success by whether they get an animal or not. You don’t see that with bow hunting.”
Of course, getting an animal is part of hunting, too, so many bow hunters participate in some black powder or rifle seasons, too.
Gypsum resident Scott Thurston grew up hunting with shotguns and rifles in his native New Hampshire. Shortly after moving to Colorado in the early 1990s, he took up bow hunting. A few years later, he also started hunting with black powder rifles to give himself a better chance of putting an animal in the family’s freezer.
Thurston said using a bow has made him a better hunter with black powder or rifles, too.
“You learn how to spot and stalk animals. You learn to use the wind better,” he said.
The wind, Nock added, can be a crucial part of archery hunting.
“You can think you’re in the right place and the wind can swirl and (the elk) will pick up your scent,” he said. “All you can do then is smile.”
“Bag of tricks’
Nock saidthere are a lot of similarities between bow hunting and fly fishing, mainly because of the “bag of tricks” one only gains with experience.
“You’re always trying different things,” he said. “You learn what’s working and what’s not that day. Every situation is different.”
For Blevins, the very act of shooting is part of the sport’s allure.
“Shooting a bow is very enjoyable for me. The repetition, the muscle memory, the form… you get to the point it’s second nature. You don’t want to think about that,” he said.
Also important is deciding whether to shoot at all.
“You’re using something that can maim as well as kill,” Nock said. “There are times I’ve gotten close enough to get a full draw and passed up the shot because I didn’t think I could kill that elk, and I didn’t want to maim it and track it. There’s a lot of self-restraint.”
That restraint leads to some remarkable rewards. Nock, who’s been hunting with friends almost every afternoon and evening for the past couple of weeks, said he and a friend started calling in a bull elk with “cow mews” one early evening last week.
“He was maybe 1,000 yards away,” Nock recalled. “We started cow mewing, and the two of us sounded like a herd. He bolted down the hill, and we could hear him crashing through the brush.
“He came down and started talking to us,” he continued. “We let him have one more mew, and he stopped about 25 feet away. We just looked at each other with our eyebrows about as high as they could be and just said, “Oh my gosh!’ What a thrill!'”
Amazed to have finally gotten an animal in that close, neither hunter shot before the big bull spotted them and ran, but both men returned home with a memory that will last the rest of their lives.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.