Bagging birds with a bow


"And what do you think that you are doing with that?" John asked, as I walked out the door of the lodge carrying a recurve bow with a quiver of arrows strapped on my back.

"I'm going hunting," I replied, with as much of a straight face as I could muster.

"This is not a rabbit hunting club," he replied.

I responded, "Yah, and game hens are $7.49 a pound and quail are $3 a piece at Whole Foods. This is about sport, more than meat."

I've heard that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And surely if you want that bird in the bush to be in your hand, your chances are certainly better if you are planning to shoot the bird with a 12-guage and #8's.

If I have friends coming over for dinner, I'll shoulder my Browning Citori and shoot birds with it. But if I am going out for a good time, I like a challenge. That's why I hunt game birds on the wing with a bow and arrow.

I use a recurve bow that Don Adams made for me 35 years ago — 55 pounds, with a custom grip that fits my hand like a handshake.

I prefer the recurve to a compound because the draw is smooth and does not require the hip hitch draw of a compound. The recurve draw allows me to start aiming the minute the bird takes off. My shot is a quick, smooth draw, track and shoot — all instinctive — often as quick as it would take me to me to get a compound drawn and anchored.

My arrows are flu-flu fletched, which I make myself from old large shaft aluminum hunting arrows. If I could find a way to screw points into wooden shafts, I'd use them.

On quail, chukar and pheasant, I use a Martin screw-in 295-grain bird point. The goal is to have the blunt point in the middle of the bird point basket hit the bird in the head or body. The shock brings them down like a rock.

However, this is a flying bird, target size about the same as a baseball. The four three-inch circular wires surrounding the blunt can also bring down a bird if they hit the head, or break a wing.

A hard rubber or metal blunt point also works well, but these are best when shooting at a bird that is on the ground or in a tree, or a rabbit for that matter. Basket points don't work well on the ground as a few blades of grass stop them cold.

In the case of pheasants, I might also use a hard rubber broadhead screw-in point, as the bigger a bird is, the harder it is to bring them down. The rubber points are obviously not as sharp as a real broadhead, but you will not get cut with them if you stumbled when walking up to the dog on point, like you could with a broadhead.

By far the best way to hunt birds on the wing with a bow is with a pointing dog. You can get prepared, walk up slowly, flush the birds, and the shots are close, 10-15 yards. Beyond 20 yards, forget it, as the flu-flu feathers break the speed of the arrow so much that you lose the lethality of the shot any farther out.

Yah, I will sometimes shoot a bird on the ground, or sitting in a tree. A quail or a chukar is a pretty tiny target, especially if you try to hit it in the head, which is about the size of a big marble. Sometimes spruce grouse just won't fly. Ptarmigan like to scurry in rocks, rather than fly, unless they have been heavily hunted.

Where you do you aim? Always, when a bird is in the air, I aim for the head, or better still, the beak. The bird is going to be moving headfirst, so that guarantees a lead. A blunt point kills by shock. Hit them in the head, that's it. Otherwise, a heart-lung kill-zone shot, as with big game, always bring them down immediately. When you get much out of that zone, the bird might get a bruise, but that's it.

I have three ways of practicing. The first, and most important, is visualization. Every day, regardless where I am, I practice archery by visualizing shooting arrows at various targets. I assume the shooting position, pick a spot, raise my bow arm out straight, and place my drawing hand at full draw position on my cheek as I take in a breath.

I point my index finger on my bow hand to simulate the point of an arrow, imagine a laser beam coming out of that finger and striking the point, hold my breath and then release when it feels right. Then exhale.

So long as you keep yourself physically fit with push-ups, weights, etc. so that the actual draw weight of the bow is not too much for you when you do shoot an actual arrow, practicing with mental imagery is the next best thing to actually shooting an arrow, and it builds precision shooting instinctively. I learned the value of this practice method from champion clay pigeons shooters like Linda Joy and Kim Rhode and IPSC pistol champ Todd Garrett.

When I want to shoot arrows and I am by myself, I rig up a pendulum pole about three feet above the three bales of straw that are the backing for the target. I make a target from a piece of foam about the size of a softball, or a similar size small burlap bag filled with sand.

I tie the target to a five feet-long piece of chord, and start the pendulum swinging. Then I step back to 10-15 yards and let fly. If you hit the target, it will keep the pendulum going for a long time in crazy ways, just like a bird.

If I have a partner, we take turns standing behind a tree or the bales of straw and tossing a dinner-plate sized foam target up into the air on the call of "bird." The outer ring is black and the inner ring is 3-inch diameter yellow circle, which is about the size of the kill zone on a chukar or a pheasant. Helps to have half a dozen such targets. Properly fletched flu-flus will travel about 40-45 yards, maximum.

Do I get as many birds with a bow as with a shotgun? Well, no, but I have bagged quail, chukar, pheasant, and spruce grouse with a bow. When you do it that way, somehow they taste better.

The nice thing, too, is that archery hunting extends your bird hunting seasons. For example, in California, the pheasant season runs Nov. 14-Dec. 27 this year. But if you hunt pheasants with archery, the season stays open until Jan. 12.

Regular chukar and quail season starts Sept. 12, but there is an additional archery-only season on both birds is Aug. 15 to Sept. 4. And of course for released birds, you can hunt them with a bow as long as anyone else.

Perhaps best of all, when you bag a bird on the wing with a bow, it's a feeling of great accomplishment.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.