A bow hunter spots a mule deer bedded down in thick brush. Before taking a step toward the deer, he begins the ritual. First the hiking boots come off, followed by the khaki shirt and pants. His hat and underwear stay on, however, but he leaves behind his quiver, gear and anything that could make a sound that would spook his prey.
Stripping down to your skivvies might seem a little extreme to someone who has never hunted deer with a bow and arrow. But in a sport with a 2% success rate--where a hunter can go more than 10 years without bagging a buck--no precaution is too extreme.
Gale Fowler is what you might call a bow-hunting moderate: He has never stripped for a deer. But he knows hunters who have.
“You’ve got to be pretty dedicated to go that far, but I know one guy who does it quite often,” said Fowler, 48, owner of Archery Sports in Thousand Oaks. “He’s the kind of person who goes a little bit further than everybody else.”
Bow hunters must be prepared to sacrifice to be successful, Fowler says. Let’s say a bow hunter forgot to shower or didn’t have a change of clothes in the wilderness. A hunter’s chances of getting within shooting range of a deer are reduced if the deer can smell him.
“It’s pretty tough to get close to a deer if you stink,” Fowler said.
Cleanliness is just one aspect of bow hunting. A bow hunter must be familiar with the eating and sleeping habits of his prey. It’s also important to be properly camouflaged and to know the best spot in a forest to stage an ambush.
Oh, and it also helps if the hunter can shoot a bow and arrow.
Yet, even if a bow hunter is an expert marksman and is knowledgeable about stalking an animal, the chances are still good of coming up empty-handed.
Clearly there must be more to the hunt than the kill. Hunters like Fowler derive their satisfaction from just being outdoors and matching wits with an animal, such as a deer, bear, elk or wild pig, in its natural habitat.
“Bow hunters are a different group of people, they have a different temperament from other hunters,” Fowler said. “Bow hunters are not overanxious toward taking game. They like being out in the field and just getting close.
“I’ve known guys who have been doing this for 12 years who have never gotten a deer, but they keep coming back.”
Like many bow hunters, Fowler started as a youth. He hunted jack rabbits in the Baldwin Hills near Azusa with a rickety fiberglass bow. Years later, Fowler bought a white, fiberglass laminated bow from K mart and took up tournament archery.
Fowler gave up a career as a machinist to open his own archery shop in the early 1970s. Since then, he has parlayed his interest in archery into a full-time business.
In addition to selling bows and archery equipment, Fowler also operates an indoor range in his store and dispenses advice. He spends a lot of time espousing the virtues of bow hunting.
“One of the problems is that bow hunting is not a well-advertised sport,” Fowler said. “People just don’t hear about it. Hunting in general also gets a lot of negative press in California.”
To counter criticism of bow hunting, Fowler said that most hunters are environmentally conscious and eat any game they kill.
“Our rule is that if you’re not going to eat it, don’t shoot it,” Fowler said.
California is popular for bow hunting because of its long season and varied and plentiful national forest areas open to bow hunters. Some of the state’s best hunting is found in Northern California.
Southern California is a different story.
“I feel that Southern California is very difficult to hunt,” said Butch Herold, the executive secretary of the National Field Archery Assn. “It’s very up and down and real brushy. If you get a deer in Southern California, you’ve earned it.”
While deer is the most popular animal among hunters throughout the nation, there is other game located within 200 miles of the San Fernando Valley. Black bear is hunted in some parts of the San Bernardino Mountains, while Spanish goats are indigenous to Catalina Island. Wild pigs are found throughout the Paso Robles area and there are sheep on Santa Cruz Island.
Deer are hunted throughout most of the Southern California area, including the Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Monica Mountains. However, there is a little-known 14-year ban on bow hunting within the Los Angeles city limits, an area that includes most of the mountains east of Topanga Canyon.
Avid hunters, such as Fowler and Gordon Marks of the Conejo Valley Archers, do not confine themselves to the Southern California area. They travel to Arizona, Idaho or Utah on weeklong elk hunting trips.
In other words, the farther away from civilization a bow hunter gets, the better.
“You find a lot less people out in the field when you are bow hunting than if you’re hunting with a rifle,” Marks said.
Marks, 56, of Woodland Hills, has bagged five mule deer in seven years of bow hunting, a sport he took up after rifle hunting lost its appeal. He hunts with an old-fashioned recurve bow, which is more difficult to pull than the technically advanced and newer compound bows. For Marks, that makes the sport more challenging.
Jorge Villaverde, 28, of Camarillo, who has hunted all his life, says that the sport is difficult enough as it is.
“You need a lot of breaks,” Villaverde said. “You have got to put in the time and the only way you learn is by doing. You need to develop special skills in this sport in order to get close and that’s the challenge.”
Getting close means being within about 50 feet of the game, difficult considering that most deer are aware of a hunter’s every movement from within about 40 to 50 yards. Other game, such as wild boar, have an excellent sense of smell and, unlike deer, are not the least bit curious.
Despite the odds, Fowler has bagged about 15 deer--along with elk, bear, goats, sheep, pigs and even a shark during the past 21 years. Yet, in Fowler’s most memorable bow hunting encounter, he never even took a shot.
“One of my biggest thrills was closing within 15 feet of a bedded-down buck,” Fowler said. “It took me about an hour to move in that close from about 100 yards, and the whole time, you’re heart’s pumping and you’re trying to be quiet.
“That was a thrill.”