Bowhunting basics: The stick and string in the 21st century

Ross Bielema

Ancient man used a bent stick, sinew string and crude arrow to take game for centuries. It wasn’t a sport for them - it was pure survival.

Some of us bowhunters still prefer to keep it simple, using recurve bows or longbows with no mechanical advantage to hunt deer, turkeys and other wild game. But most of these traditional bows are laminated with fiberglass, and we shoot carbon or aluminum arrows (a few holdouts still shoot wooden shafts) tipped with machine-created broadheads that screw into the shafts.

Most bowhunters, however, have embraced technology in the form of compound bows. These pulley-equipped bows, once condemned in the early 1970s as the end of bowhunting, are now being used by the vast majority of bowhunters because they make it much easier to draw and hold the string for longer periods of time. This feature and precision sights, including adjustable front sights and a rear peep sight on the string, make the modern compound bow a very accurate weapon for quick, efficient kills.

As technology advances, so do compound bows. Even in the past 20 years, they become smaller (axle-to-axle lengths are now averaging 30 inches, while a few decades ago they were 40 inches), more efficient (shooting up to 340 feet per second and allowing let-off percentages of up to 90%) and most importantly for hunters, quiet. For comparison, recurve bows and longbows range from 54-70 inches long and they have no let-off. What you pull is what you hold. A compound bow that has a draw weight of 50 pounds would require holding just five pounds if it has 90% let-off.

If you are new to bowhunting or just want to learn to shoot a bow, don’t panic. The gadgets and bewildering designs can be overwhelming, but every bow at the pro shops and in big-box store catalogs is basically the same design. You don’t have to spend $1,000 or more to get a good hunting bow, but you do need expert advice.

As a bowhunter for the past 49 years, my advice is to never buy a bow online. Any bow needs to be set up to fit you and tuned to shoot quietly and accurately. Head for your archery pro shop and then listen.

Talk to other archers. Visit a 3-D shoot and watch the shooters. Most major bow brands with deep roots make quality products. The hometown favorite, Mathews, built in Sparta, is very popular, but can be pricey. Hoyt, Bow Tech and their Diamond line, Elite, Bear, PSE and many others will serve you well.

Don’t be afraid to buy a used bow at a pro shop if that shop will give you a warranty. Today’s bows will last a lifetime if they aren’t dry-fired (never shoot a bow without an arrow) or otherwise abused.

Big box stores can be hit or miss, depending on the person who is working on your bow. I worked many years at the Gander Mountain store in Appleton, and we had a few staffers who were experts on bow setup and tuning, but we also had a few who were learning. The mom-and-pop stores who specialize in bows are the ones you seek. Yoda would take his bow to places like Butch’s Archery in Embarrass and Lena Swamp Archery in Oconto Falls. Buying bows on Amazon you must not.

Set a price range you can afford and keep things simple to start. Let the shop help determine your draw length (the length of your arrows from the anchor point on your face to the far side of the arrow rest, plus an inch for broadhead clearance) and draw weight (the amount of string resistance measured in pounds of pull). Wisconsin law requires at least a 30-pound draw weight for hunting.

Shawn Angle of Oshkosh and his son, Alex, recently bought their first compound bows, hoping to try bowhunting in the near future. They each bought a Diamond Infinite 305 bow, made by Bow Tech.

Shawn’s wife, Becky, then decided to get her first compound as well, choosing a lightweight Bear Royale that will accommodate a wide range of draw lengths and weights for youths and adults.

She has no intention of bowhunting but hopes to shoot targets and 3-D archery. She first shot a bow when she was 12 at a Boys and Girls Club, and now hopes to share the sport with her husband and stepson.

Those of us who first shot a recurve bow in school or at a summer camp remember using bare fingers or perhaps a shooting glove. Most archers today use a release aid, which straps around the wrist and clamps onto a string loop that’s added to the main bowstring. An adjustable trigger allows for a crisp, smooth release of the string, launching the arrow more consistently than fingers.

Many bows now use a drop-away arrow rest, which almost magically falls down the second an arrow is fired. The idea is to remove resistance and deflection of the arrow for a faster and more accurate shot.

But like anything mechanical, they can fail. These rests have been proven in the field, however.

The Angles opted for the tried-and-true Trophy Ridge Whisker Biscuits on their bows. A big advantage of this style of rest is that it holds the arrow in place when the bow is shot at any angle, which is common when bowhunting from a tree stand. An arrow slipping off a rest when shooting can have disastrous results. The Whisker Biscuit is also typically a fraction of the price of drop-aways.

Old-school arrows were wood, usually Port Orford cedar, and varied in straightness. Today’s carbon and aluminum arrows are made by machines and extremely straight, with more expensive options built to tighter tolerances. Plan on spending $50-$100 for a half dozen arrows. Carbons are far more popular than aluminums because of carbon’s strength and resistance to dents and bends, but carbons can crack and splinter. If you hit something hard with a carbon, tap it against a tree or carefully twist it to see if it’s splintered and then immediately throw it away.

You can spend hundreds of dollars on sights that are lighted with fiber optics or batteries, but a basic sight for $40-$80 will do just as well. Your pro shop can show you options and help you sight in.

The most important factor in bowhunting is a sharp broadhead. While classic fixed-blade broadheads are recommended for elk and other thick-skinned game, mechanical or expanding broadheads have become the most popular. Fixed-blade heads sometimes windplane or can be difficult to tune for straight flight, but most mechanicals fly like target heads because their blades are tucked inside a ferrule and only open on impact. When they work right, they also create huge wound channels for large blood trails (broadheads kill by hemorrhaging, not hydrostatic shock like a rifle bullet). But again, these “trick” heads sometimes don’t deploy properly or otherwise fail. I’ve used both, but am back to fixed-blade heads.

Be sure you practice with whatever broadhead you choose before hunting.

Your pro shop and local archery club will be happy to help you get started on this adventure.

Bowhunting in the fall woods is like nothing else, no matter which equipment you choose. Good luck.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at