Traditional Archery — Is It for You?

Factors you want to consider before taking up hunting with traditional archery equipment.

Traditional Archery — Is It for You?

It was something I had experienced many times before: Hearing the impact of the arrow hitting the deer; watching the bright yellow fletchings on my released arrow wobble; the deer nearly falling, then pivoting in the wet leaves; and finally taking off running.

Yet, this time was different. 

I knelt there against a gray tree, light rain misting my face, and looked down at the bow in my hand. Instead of the machined compound bow I had been toting around the woods for the past 10 years, I held a single-piece wooden recurve. I had swapped the familiar for the unfamiliar and challenged myself this year . . . I had set a goal of shooting a whitetail deer with a stick bow, and it had truly been a struggle.

But, I had done it. My first deer season using a traditional bow and I filled a deer tag. After months of hunting hard and wanting to call it quits, after passing on many deer that were just a little too far for an ethical shot — my patience had paid off.

For the author, target practice and hunting is a family affair. Shooting with a pack — and a partner — requires focus, good balance and patience.
For the author, target practice and hunting is a family affair. Shooting with a pack — and a partner — requires focus, good balance and patience.

Feeding the Fire

I remember the exact moment I decided to try traditional archery. It was an epiphany, that hunting with a compound had run its course; it no longer provided me with the challenge I craved. Traditional archery seemed to be the obvious solution to finding a new challenge and a new motivation when it came to deer hunting.

For years I had brushed off the idea of hunting with a traditional bow, always with the excuse of it being too difficult. Yet, once I took that plunge I realized that while yes, it was difficult, it certainly wasn’t impossible. And now, nearly 10 years later, I’m still toting around a one-piece wooden longbow with no plan to ever return to a compound. 

Despite my unwavering love for traditional archery, I’m aware it is indeed challenging and certainly may not be for everyone. I may want to talk about how great it is to every hunter I meet, but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak.

Many people, like myself, jump in with both feet, excited over the prospect of trying something new, something that adds some nostalgia to the act of bowhunting and archery. The need to feel at one with legends such as Fred Bear and Art Young, living their legacy as our own. 

It's often assumed I grew up hunting with a traditional bow, that it was something passed on to me along with the knowledge. On the contrary, I taught myself and I still find myself learning something new every year. I feel I will never be an “expert” on the subject, and am always happy to share what little knowledge I have accumulated over the years. 

Yet, the requirements to become successful as a traditional bowhunter can quickly weed out the weak, leaving room only for those who are truly determined. If you stick it out long enough to kill an animal with a traditional bow, then you likely won’t go back to a compound.

The Biggest Hurdle

The first thing I usually state about traditional archery, is there is generally only one deciding factor as to whether or not you’re shooting well. YOU are the main factor. 

There is nothing else to fall back on — no shooting aids, no sights, no mechanical release. It’s you and your bow, and when there is an error, it almost always means you did something wrong. Maybe you’re not being consistent with your release, or maybe you’re overthinking the shot process, but that’s no one’s fault but your own.

People in general don’t like to admit they’re wrong, especially repeatedly, so this is a big hurdle. 

Wrapping my head around that particular theory of being continuously wrong took time. I had to essentially retrain my brain when it came to archery, unlearning what I was taught to do while shooting a compound bow. It can be tough realizing you have to step up and rely on yourself, and that your thoughts and mindset play such a huge part in how well you shoot. If you can’t accept the fact that you are the deciding factor, then you probably won’t stick with traditional archery very long. This is essentially the hardest part for someone to overcome. 

Quiet your mind, calm your thoughts, and look to the target. This is the secret to shooting well. 

Patience is also a big factor. 

Patience is required for all archery and bowhunting, no matter what kind of bow you use. Yet there is more — far more — patience required for traditional archery. Our current world is obsessed with instant results, being able to start a new hobby and quickly becoming adept at it. Overnight success is not something that will happen when you start traditional archery; for some of us, it may take months to become good enough to head into the woods. 

And that is where patience comes into play. When I first started dabbling in the world of stick bows, I would shoot daily, engrossed in the task at hand, concentrating on improving little by little. I practiced for 6 months before I felt I could go into the woods and shoot at an animal with realistic chances of making an ethical shot. Compared to shooting a compound bow, where you can progress to reasonable hunting accuracy within a day or two, it may seem like eternity to wait 6 months for solid results. But, that is what makes the journey of becoming a traditional bowhunter all the more rewarding.

Hitting the Ground

It may seem that becoming a decent shot is the biggest hurdle — that once you can shoot a dinner plate group at 15 yards, the hard part is over. However, that is far from the truth. Your journey has only just begun.

The mindset and patience has to follow you to the woods. 

Some people have beginner's luck, managing to get a great opportunity and executing it flawlessly at the first attempt. I felt as if that was my situation, despite waiting for weeks to finally have everything fall into place.

Yet, some bowhunters wait years before they get the perfect opportunity with a traditional bow. It all boils down to how badly you want to succeed, and how important it is to you. 

In my first year of hunting with a traditional bow, I quickly learned I was going to have to change how I hunted. It was unexpected, but I was committed to doing whatever it took to be successful in tagging an animal. 

With a compound, I hunted almost exclusively from a treestand, however, I found it to be a bit trickier with a traditional bow; often it was harder to get a good shot angle or even just a shot that I felt confident I could take. Some may call it a cop out, but I quickly discovered I was far more comfortable hunting on the ground. My confidence level increased as I felt I was far more likely to make a successful shot.

Ground hunting also meant I practiced how I hunted — from a blind, shooting while kneeling, shooting while sitting on the ground. I did everything I could to prepare for the shot I knew ultimately would come. The adrenaline that comes with being eye to eye with a whitetail only 10 to 15 yards away is like no other. I became hooked on ground hunting, and still prefer it over treestands.

While switching to traditional archery doesn’t mean you must hunt on the ground, it does mean you might need to switch up your hunting techniques and keep in mind your shots will be up close and personal. Many hunters are set in their ways when it comes to how they hunt, however, changing things up can occasionally mean the difference between filling a tag and eating tag soup.

The author pursued turkeys on Ohio public land for 18 days before finally getting a shot on this gobbler. She hid in thick brush on a field edge, and placed a lone hen decoy in the field at 10 yards.
The author pursued turkeys on Ohio public land for 18 days before finally getting a shot on this gobbler. She hid in thick brush on a field edge, and placed a lone hen decoy in the field at 10 yards.

The Big Picture

There is a reason traditional bows are affectionately dubbed “struggle sticks.” They do indeed come with a bit of struggle, and yes it can certainly lead to some frustration. But, simply being happy to exist in the woods, bow in hand, can do wonders for that frustration.

Think back to when you first started hunting. Everything is new and exciting, each hunt is filled with new experiences and new hope of filling your tag. That’s what traditional archery brought back to me, the grounding idea that just hunting without filling a tag is enough.

When you look at the big picture, there are some factors that can make hunting with a traditional bow a bit harder than with a compound, but the pros far outweigh the cons. 

For example, making the switch to a traditional bow will have you thinking more about the ethics of hunting and shot placement. Waiting for animals to come within such a close range will make you more aware of the animal, and what could possibly go wrong. There will be no instances of “sending it” at 60 yards and hoping that your sight pin is correct; and there will be no expandable broadheads to aid a marginal shot.

Instead, there is suddenly a vital awareness of the animal and it’s every movement, hoping it will come closer; waiting for the perfect shot placement so the arrow will make a complete pass through and a quick kill. Particularly when you’re at eye level on the ground, there is a next-level awareness to the hunt that changes the whole experience.

Traditional bowhunting may be for you, or it may not be. However, the only way to find out is to give it a try.

The biggest mistake archers make when switching from compounds to traditional gear is pulling too much weight, which makes it impossible to develop proper shooting technique. The end result is a lack of consistency.
The biggest mistake archers make when switching from compounds to traditional gear is pulling too much weight, which makes it impossible to develop proper shooting technique. The end result is a lack of consistency.

Sidebar: Draw Weight Advice

One of the most common mistakes made when it comes to switching from a compound to traditional bow is choosing your draw weight. Most people assume if they shoot a 50- or 60-pound compound, that they’ll be able to efficiently shoot a 50-pound stick bow. This is far from the case, and many people end up being “over-bowed.”

There is no let-off on a traditional bow, meaning there is nothing to help you out when you’re at full draw. You are continually pulling more and more weight as you draw, finally holding your bow’s maximum weight at full draw. This will make even a 40- or 45-pound-draw bow seem much heavier than your compound, no matter what draw weight it was.

Attempting to shoot and hunt with a traditional bow that is too heavy not only makes it harder to become accurate, but it causes the archer to develop bad habits when it comes to drawing, focusing on the target, and then releasing.

There is no rule that states you will be less of a hunter if you shoot less draw weight — and in reality most hunters will never need any more than a 45-pound draw on any traditional bow. It can get the job done on just about any game, big or small, at reasonable distances.

Traditional bowhunting is a game of how close, not how far. And a well placed arrow from a 45-pound recurve or longbow will certainly kill a deer just as well as an arrow from a much heavier compound. It's all about shot placement.

Sidebar: Tips for Buying Your First Traditional Bow

When it comes to purchasing your first traditional bow, it can feel overwhelming. There are a lot of options out there, in varying price ranges, and many different styles. How do you know what’s best for you?

First, consider your budget. I always recommend starting low to mid range for someone just starting out. If you aren’t sure you’re going to stick with traditional archery, then you probably don’t want to drop $1k or more on a traditional bow. 

To narrow your choices, you’ll want to make the decision whether you’d like to shoot a longbow or a recurve. Recurves tend to have a little more speed, and are often easier for a newbie to tote around the woods. Longbows are . . .  well, LONG. But, if you can get used to the length, longbows are generally very forgiving and easy to shoot. There is no wrong answer as to which design you choose.

If you have a mentor who knows bows, feel free to ask them for advice on brands to consider. However, keep in mind that what bow feels good to you will be a matter of personal preference.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, you’ll want to decide if you’d like to shoot off the shelf of the bow, or use an arrow rest. I generally recommend shelf shooting, as simplicity makes it a bit easier. While rests have their place, they aren’t always a necessity. The biggest difference is the fact that shelf shooting will require you to “cant” (tilt) your bow, holding it at a slight angle to prevent the arrow from falling off the shelf. With most arrow rests, you have the ability to shoot vertically like a compound.

A handful of top-notch, affordable bows I recommend to a beginner, in alphabetical order, include: Bear Kodiak recurve, Bear Montana longbow, Samick Sage recurve, Traditional Only Cairn recurve, and Traditional Only Mesa longbow.

Photos by Beka Garris


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