HELENA – Crouching in a forest as the sun rose on the Continental Divide west of Helena, hunter Russell Ferebee listened to elk bugling and hoped one would draw near enough for him to shoot it — not with a gun, but with a bow and arrow.
Ferebee stayed close to the ground, his camouflage jacket and pants helping him blend in, and remained silent. Runny nose? Wipe, don’t sniffle and signal the wildlife. Ferebee’s companion intent on coaxing elk into close range tried “talking” to them with simulators that mimicked the mating call, or bugle, of a bull and the mews of a female. Ferebee sat with his bow, a carbon arrow ready to fly on a crisp morning as summer turned to fall.
Archery hunters, or bowhunters, account for a growing proportion of hunters in the United States as hunting overall declines. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service numbers for 2006, the agency’s most recent, show the 3.5 million archery hunters that year accounted for 28 percent of all hunters. Archers comprised 24 percent of hunters in 2001 and 1996, and 19 percent in 1991. Hunting overall declined 10 percent between 1996 and 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
In Montana alone, license data for this year indicate bowhunting’s popularity is “off the charts,” said Ron Aasheim, spokesman for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Bowhunting’s rise is about challenge, said Kevin Hisey of the Pope and Young Club, which keeps records on archery-hunted big game in North America.
“The challenge in the pursuit, the mastery of the skill — bowhunting isn’t a matter of just saying, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to do it,'” Hisey said. “It takes discipline, practice and patience, all culturally worthy values.”
More than rifle hunting, archery is an up-close experience with wildlife.
The common range for shooting an elk is 15 to 20 yards, Hisey said from the Pope and Young headquarters in Chatfield, Minn. Skilled hunters with guns may be able to shoot successfully from 300 yards.
Archers’ success varies with location, species and the length of hunting seasons. Numbers gathered through surveys of elk hunters in Montana indicate bowhunters pursuing elk last year had a success rate of just 7 percent, compared to 25 percent for hunters with guns, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which manages an elk archery season spanning six weeks in September and October.
Odds don’t matter to Ferebee, 44 and a resident of the Helena area. He grew up handling guns, but is a novice with a bow and arrow.
“I like the adventure of it,” he said.
Modern bows, like Ferebee’s, have cables and pulleys that put more energy into the flight of an arrow, sending it forward at speeds of perhaps 300 feet per second. A traditional bow might shoot an arrow at 125 to 160 feet per second, Pope and Young’s Hisey said.
“A bow will take down any big game animal in North America with a well-placed shot,” he said.
Whatever the bow, hunter ethics dictate that an arrow not be shot unless the archer is virtually certain of killing the animal. Hunters who see game but cannot shoot with confidence should keep searching, said Aasheim of the Montana wildlife agency.
Bowhunters pursue an array of species, including bears and, more commonly, deer. For many, though, Rocky Mountain elk are the big draw.
“The animal, spectacular country, beautiful weather — it sort of defines Montana,” Aasheim said.
Ferebee, a mechanic heading to Iraq in December for work as a contractor, would have been happy with a bull or cow elk the day he walked for several miles on the Continental Divide, his companion at one point erecting a decoy resembling a cow. Ferebee got neither. Still, it was a good day, he said.
“You get away from the rat race,” he said. “It’s kind of nice just to come back down to earth.”
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