By CODY MUZIO The Decatur Daily
DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Danny Slaten doesn't compete anymore. But that doesn't mean that he couldn't.
The 62-year-old Somerville resident has been hunting since he was 10 years old, and although he hasn't shot in a competition since 1991, he still might be one of the best bowmen in the state. He won't say that, of course, but he will say he's heard it.
"I'm proud of what I've done, but I don't want to brag," he said. "I've never had to, because other people always did it for me."
The Decatur Daily asked around the Tennessee Valley to learn about some of the area's best marksmen. And women.
Slaten, the 1989, 1990 and 1991 Bow Hunters of Alabama tournament champion, said his focus is on his hunting these days. He said that means his marksmanship is more important than ever because the end result is a lost life.
"Everybody says if you can hit a pie plate from 20 yards, you can kill a deer," he said. "I prefer to hit a quarter. I want to know where the arrow's going. I don't want anything to suffer.
"I've shot a deer before where the arrow went straight through him and it didn't even know it was hit. It was eating acorns, the arrow passed straight through and he looked up for just a second before going back to eating acorns. Then it collapsed."
Slaten said he took up bow hunting because it involved more skill, and has downed 188 deer since then, and hundreds more with a rifle before he made the switch. Slaten doesn't like to use the term "kill," so he says he "harvests" deer, and that he won't shoot an animal he doesn't eat.
Herbert Fields, president of the Tennessee River Coon Hunters Association, laughed when he described Slaten as "the most pompous deer hunter in the area," but was serious when he said "he's probably killed more deer than anyone I've ever met."
But Slaten is just one of many area residents whose reputations range farther than their shots.
Jerry Welch is a mild-mannered Priceville councilman during the day. But off the clock, he's a trained marksman with more firepower than his town's police force.
Welch is a certified gun safety instructor with the National Rifle Association, a member of the Lacey's Spring Trap and Skeet Club, a competitive "cowboy shooter," a firearm collector, appraiser and repairman, a recreational pheasant and coyote hunter and has helped train several Morgan County deputies at the request of Sheriff Ana Franklin.
"This is the kind of stuff that keeps me alive and keeps me moving," he said.
Welch said he was in a competition two weeks ago in which he shot 100 rooster pheasants in a row without missing. But he's more interested in coyote hunting.
"I'm 68 years old," he said. "But I was out there (Wednesday) night climbing a tree with a crossbow."
He said it's an intellectual thrill and he's working on his 62nd kill.
"It's not easy," he said. "Coyotes are very, very tough to hunt. And they are sharp as a tack. I tried it with a compound bow, but never could get one, because they'd see me draw it back. So I switched to a crossbow, instead."
Welch said he shoots daily and has a competition-grade range behind his house which he frequently invites friends to use. Martha Lee, 68, of Decatur, said she hasn't shot in years, but Welch said he still would vouch for her skill.
"My husband was a hunter and a state trooper," Lee said. "And every time he went to the range, I went with him and I found out I loved it."
Her husband, who died in 2010, had a prolific law enforcement career, she said. He was a state trooper in Decatur, worked as a SWAT team member with the Alabama Department of Investigations, and was a security officer for the governor. He was also the only bomb technician in north Alabama.
But he wasn't always the best shooter in the house.
"We would just shoot at targets and then go get them to see how we did," she said. "One day, I beat him. He didn't like that. He said, 'All right, let's go home. I don't want to hear nothing about it.'"
Martha Lee said she was never competitive and doesn't like to hunt, and she shies away from braggadocio.
"I just do it for fun," she said.
Like Slaten, Beau Hopkins, 18, of Moulton, prefers a bow.
He said he hunted deer with rifles when he was younger, but when he learned how to bow hunt, he never looked back.
"It's more of an adrenaline rush," he said. "You've got to get a lot closer to the deer. It's a game of wits. You've got to be smart about it."
The only drawback he admits to bow hunting is the reduced range. But even that isn't insurmountable with skill.
"About two weeks ago, I was hunting in Tennessee," he said. "About an hour and a half in, a doe walked up about 35 yards away."
He didn't have a good shot, he said. So he watched it leave and waited.
"When it finally came back, it was 71 yards away, but I had a perfect broadside shot," he said. He drew back, released, hit the deer in the lung and it fell.
He said he killed his first deer when he was 6 years old, a week after his birthday. He said he's since taken down 65. "That's a low estimate."
Moulton-native Laurie Schuman said her skill is mostly natural. She started hunting with her father and brothers when she was young and took to it immediately.
"There's just something about shooting a gun," she said. "I don't know what it is. Maybe because my daddy enjoyed it, and I'm a daddy's girl, so I was always watching him.
"And it's a rush," she said.
The first deer she killed, she said, set the family record that still hasn't been broken.
It was in 2009, in late December just before her father died. He was sick, and she said she wanted to make him proud by taking down a big deer.
"You could hear him,'' she said. "He just came crashing through the woods."
At 150 yards and facing her direction, even the huge 10-point buck wasn't an easy shot.
"My dad always told me, 'If a deer comes out, if he's facing you, picture a pie pan right above his front leg and aim for the middle of that pie pan.'
"So that's what I did. And he just dropped."
She said she had a feel for shooting from the beginning. Her father took her out to train by a pond. At the far end, he pointed out a small rock and told her to shoot it.
"I hit it on my first shot," she said.
She said her dad repeated the drill three or four times before he told her she knew what she was doing.
Keith Sanford, 48, of Decatur, also thinks his skill is natural, an assertion evidenced by his first skeet shoot. Welch, who said he shoots with Sanford frequently, said he had "never seen anything like it."
Welch had ordered a new 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun on Sanford's behalf.
It was this gun, fresh out of the box, that Sanford said he chose to try for his first round of trapshooting.
"I did rather well with it," he said.
Hitting the clay pigeon 25 times in as many shots, "rather well" is an understatement, Welch said. It also meant Sanford partook in the shooting club's unusual custom.
"They shot my hat," Sanford said with a laugh.
"They have a tradition where when you hit 25 straight, they take your hat, throw it on the ground and shoot it. Unfortunately, it was a hat I really liked, but it's what they do, so I wasn't going to tell them no. There wasn't anything left but the bill."
He has been shooting since he was 10, duck hunting with his dad in Arkansas, he said, and still takes to the woods or the range every chance he gets.
"I've been blessed," Sanford said. "I've been doing it a long time, and I'm good at it. It just comes naturally."
Unlike Schuman and Sanford, Slaten said he doesn't think he is naturally talented, but that his skills were gained through years of practice.
"The first time I ever went to a bow shoot," he said, "I didn't know what it was. I had my arrows in my back pocket and everyone else had these fancy quivers and they were all kind of snickering at me. So I said to myself, 'I'm going to do it.'
"From then on, I'd come home from work, turn the truck lights on and shoot 200 to 300 arrows a night."
By the next tournament, he was the man to beat.
"I shot bare bow,'' he said, meaning a bow without any additional accoutrements, "and I beat everyone else using their scopes and stabilizers."
He said word of his skill traveled.
"I always carried seven arrows with me," he said. "You know, for luck.
"One year, the Georgia state champion came to a tournament," Slaten said. "He said, 'Are you Danny?' I said, 'Yes sir.' He said, 'You the champion bare bow shooter?' I said 'Yes sir.' And he said 'If you're so good, how come you've got so many arrows on you?'
"And I said, 'Well, if you have to know, it's to loan you some when you've lost all yours. Sure enough, a little while later, here he comes, without a single arrow."
Information from: The Decatur Daily, www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml