Basic Instinct

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Basic Instinct
Texas’ primitive archers do it Indian-style

Bill Decker eyed the fencepost carefully, sizing up its potential. Gray and decayed on the outside, it wouldn't have looked like much to an outsider, but Decker knew it was destined for greatness. Made of Osage orange wood, or bois d'arc, it was the ideal substance--incredibly strong and straight--for a handmade bow.

Decker, an eighth-grade algebra teacher from Beaumont, chopped and whittled away at the post until only the "heart wood" remained. Then came the laborious process of shaping, sanding and attaching strips of deer sinew to the back of the bow, which he secured with an all-natural glue that took days to dry. Decker used deer hide from one of his own kills to craft a quiver based on an ancient Plains Indian model. Eventually he would inscribe the word "Chee-Wa" just above his line of sight on the bow.

Kim Denton, a traditional archer from Fredericksburg, poses with his prey: an unidentified Styrofoam creature.
Andrea Grimes
Kim Denton, a traditional archer from Fredericksburg, poses with his prey: an unidentified Styrofoam creature.
Lois Finkelman
Lois Finkelman

"That's the sound an eagle makes just before he gets his prey," Decker says. For Decker, hunting with a primitive bow is an awesome thrill. Since the bows aren't particularly accurate at long range, Decker must creep almost silently through brush and trees to get as close to his prey as possible. Like other primitive archers, Decker sees his bow as more than inanimate tool; one of his fellow hunters paints eyes on his bow, so it can "see" its prey.

Of course, he could have been a "just add water" hunter, the dismissive term traditional archers use for the guy who drives to Bass Pro Shop and plunks down $600 for a high-tech compound bow, a sophisticated sight and aluminum arrows. But Decker, who got up at 4 a.m. to prepare for today's hunt, is looking for another kind of experience. He searches for just the right words to convey the sense of closeness he feels to nature when he's on the trail of a deer or wild hog. His eyes light up when he visualizes a buck only a few feet away. "It's like me coming into your living room, standing where you can't see me and watching you watch TV," he says.

Decker and his hunting buddies are aficionados of primitive and traditional archery, two disciplines centered on the intense experience of re-creating history. Primitive archers craft bows according to centuries-old designs; some even "flint-knap" their own arrowheads the Indian way. Longbows, "like what Robin Hood used," says one archer, are the weapon of choice--one solid piece of wood bent into a graceful arc when strung. Primitive archers have their own magazine, host frequent festivals and shoot-outs around the world and use none of the sights, stabilizers and weights common in compound archery. Traditional archers don't necessarily make their own bows, but they always use a one-piece, solid-wood construction.

Mike Moore, president and CEO of Houston-based Primitive Archer, says his magazine has more than 80,000 readers and is upping yearly production from four to five issues. He calls primitive archery "the fastest-growing venue in the archery sport. It is like going back to the basics."

Rusty Craine, a Fort Worth pharmacist and Primitive Archer writer known for his arrow-making skills, tried to explain the attraction of his sport. He theorizes that some kind of innate, even genetic desire exists within man to hunt. "When you're eyeball to eyeball with an animal, you know you've got to hit that animal dead. There can't be any doubt in your mind." He adds that primitive archers make some of the most careful and respectful hunters not only because of the physical closeness necessary to kill prey, but because even the toughest guys "can't help but anthropomorphize what that animal is going through" when hit.

"One of the most dangerous mistakes modern man has made is forgetting his place in nature," says Craine's hunting buddy Mike Westvang of Weatherford, who has been making his own bows for about six years.

At today's shoot, however, Decker's prey isn't a whitetail in deep forest. He'll be stalking Styrofoam targets molded and painted to resemble woodland creatures. They look like giant stuffed animals--without the fur. Decker is showing off his Chee-Wa bow at a Saturday-morning archery competition sponsored by the Traditional Bowhunters of Texas (TBOT). Hunting season won't begin until October, so many of TBOT's 600 members spend time honing their skills in target shoots.

Battling mosquitoes, stifling heat and dense foliage, 20 or 30 traditional and primitive archers have driven for as many as five or six hours to make a 9 a.m. start. Though traditional archery uses store-bought equipment, the sport frequently overlaps with its primitive counterpart, as many traditional archers keep one or two "self-bows"--hand-hewn bows--on hand.

Out on the Navasot Archery Club's reserve near Normangee, three hours southeast of Dallas, the requisite pickup trucks line a dirt driveway bumpy enough to give a baseball bat whiplash. Bowmen warm up on targets that look like flour sacks. Some have already had an intensive online discussion, trying to determine whether the reporter who's visiting them today is on the up-and-up--or a spy for PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"You like huntin'?" one man asks. "What do you think about huntin'?"

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