Primitive Bear Hunting

by Patrick Meitin

From the very conception of my bowhunting madness I’ve held firmly to the goal of someday bagging game with a bow I’d made myself. There were several false starts in this regard, early on resulting in a whipping for hacking up backyard landscaping for bow material, to decades later and the English-style longbow I tediously craved, only to have it explode dramatically after only a few shots. These episodes lead to obvious frustrations but I was determined that someday my dream would come true.

That dream began to take real shape after meeting Alan Currier during a potluck dinner in our small New Mexico village. Alan holds a couple primitive-bow world records for flight shooting, wielding bows he designs and builds himself. It doesn’t take long before Alan and I are spending any free time we have hunting bow wood, Alan offering to teach me to build a primitive bow if I’ll teach him to target shoot with some degree of accuracy. New Mexico’s harsh deserts make long self-bow staves rare indeed, so we eventually settle on a primitive takedown design to take advantage of shorter hanks of wood. We design a riser with a New England hickory core flanked by Osage orange – laminated with primitive hide glue – cut for center-shot and including crowned shelf. Limbs are heavily reflexed, laminated from hackberry backing and Osage faces we’ve cut locally during out wood forays. It’s all a bit more tedious than this of course, Alan, the master watching over my shoulder at every step as we slowly cut and rasp and sand a working bow into shape, sealing the works in hard wax against the elements.

The Author's Completed Self Bow
Author Patrick Meitin's completed self bow.

The finished bow, a forgiving 73 ½ inches made to accommodate my extreme draw length, proves fast yet sweet shooting.

My wife and I move to Idaho a week after my bow’s completion. There isn’t much I miss about New Mexico (the impossibility of drawing quality big-game tags most notably), but I do miss Alan’s jocose wit and contagious fervor, making hunting wood and those hours in his sawdust-heaped shop cherished memories. I invite him up to investigate Northwest bow woods (yew and viney maple), but he’s busier than ever building primitive bows – our take-down vision – for paying customers. We keep in touch, via letters, Alan eschewing telephones, the Internet. I’ll soon win several traditional-only 3-D tournaments with Alan’s bow – as I’ve come to think of it. One of these I win by posting 98 points better than second place, primitive class, that second-place shooter swiftly demanding my disqualification. My bow’s too efficient, he says, (it does shoot on par with modern longbows), too “modern.” The official in charge refuses. I offer the man my $5 plastic trophy, prompting a departure punctuated by muttered curses and gravel-spitting, spinning tires.

Killing something with this bow proves more exasperating. In fact, I’ve come to consider the bow utterly jinxed. My arrows, initially Sitka spruce tipped with 1947 Zwickey Black Diamonds, sail over the backs of two point-blank whitetails during early season. On the final day of late season, in sub-zero weather, I miss a trophy buck I’ve pursued since fall. I guard bear baits the following spring with my primitive bow, small bears appearing regularly, but never the shooters featured on camera when I’m absent. A custom recurve made for me by South Cox (Stalker Recurve Bows) coaxes me to shelve the bow an entire season, catching up in my killing, but by next spring it calls to me again. I carry it to guard bear baits once more, but only after a single evening with my new recurve in tow does a trophy bear show to offer a shot. And then it’s fall once more.

There’s a gap between September archery-only deer/elk season and mid-October’s general-season opener normally reserved for hunting upland birds. Yet fall bear remains open and bait sites I’ve enjoyed good results over during spring months are being pounded again in short order – put back to work mostly because a friend’s failure to collect his spring bear more than the fact I’m permitted a second bear for the paltry fee of an additional tag. A faithful trail camera’s capturing regular visits from several bruins, one of these a burly fellow with lustrous fur and pumpkin head. He impresses enough I spend nearly two weeks sitting intermittingly for him, a shy brute inclined to show only under the cover of darkness -- the friend who occasioned all the renewed effort ultimately unable to join me.

1941 Ace Standard Broadhead
1941 Ace Standard Broadhead.

It’s a chilly evening at altitude, heavily overcast, threatening rain, maybe snow. Shooting hours are winding down and I’m keeping an eye on my watch, ready to climb down after four hours of uncomfortable boredom. Shooting light’s uncertain, despite the hour. All confidence has left me. He won’t show, and my conviction of this bow being utterly cursed is now complete. I tell myself it’s fine: I’ve taken a beautiful spring bear. There’s no one to help track and drag and skin. I’ve 3 ½ hours of white-knuckle mountain driving to contemplate to reach home once more.

And then he’s just there. He has appeared, like a wraith, on silent feet. He’s broadside. Only 18 yards away.

I fight to control my breath, giving myself a minute to pull it together, shooting hours looming. And then it’s time – shifting slowly to twist my legs aside to make room for the long-reaching bottom limb, tugging the string to snug into anchor, making absolutely sure of it. The the sibilant chorus of cutting feathers follows. The boar crashes away and I can’t even guess where my arrow’s gone. I strain to hear something more, but only the beating of my heart fills my ears.

Traditional Archery Bear Kill
Meitin with a beautiful bear and his self bow.

I quite literally trip over my prize 70 yards into the tangled alder, Juneberry, cedar and red willow. The heat-tempered bamboo shaft (ordered via Internet from an Englishman who sorts from thousands a dozen matched for spine and general diameter) has driven the 1941 Ace Standard (chosen due to parallel ferrule creating a natural mating over hollow bamboo) completely through both lungs. I’m quite beside myself, a long night lying ahead, but my heart as full as can possibly be.

Alan will be pleased. I can’t wait to write him about it. I can count on him calling from the ancient payphone in town after receiving my letter. It’ll be good to talk to him again.

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