Many facets of hunting have changed over the last few decades, but none as dramatically as the tools of take.
When adorned with a state-of-the-art distance-ranging scope, a fast shooting center-fire rifle can deliver a bullet to a target at unbelievable ranges, sometimes as far as 700 yards.
Archery tackle has also leaped into the space age with small diameter carbon fiber arrows that can fly over 300 feet-per-second, and compound bows that feature 85% draw weight let-off.
Archery, once a very close-range sport, has evolved harvest distances out to 70 yards, and in the case of modern crossbows, sometimes 100 yards.
The merits, and shortfalls of technology as it relates to hunting ethics will always rage among hunters and game managers. Thankfully, hunting is a personal sport where equipment choice doesn’t characterize the sportsman. Rather, it’s how hunters behave afield and the ethical decisions made that really describe them.
Choosing hunting gear is a freedom hunters enjoy. Some are so-called gear heads, and others prefer simpler tackle. Thursday night, I made the short trek to tiny Cambria to meet up with a lifelong hunter who has always tread the uncomplicated path.
Departing Kato’s bustle for Cambria’s quiet seemed a fitting metaphor for leaving technology behind in favor of more primitive ways. Highway 68 was eerily absent of traffic. Turning off blacktop onto gravel and descending into the berg, I dropped my driver’s window to find the evening’s heat had been replaced with cool, dry air.
Off to my right, a gal worked a corralled horse, which kicked up dust on every turn, spiraling the dirt mist into sunlight, creating an idyllic scene that looked like an ever-changing painting.
A scant two blocks away was Steve Ladd’s place, meticulously cared for, complete with large lawn and a shop where Steve constructs all of his own hunting tackle. Specifically, he crafts all-wood hunting bows, just like those used by early archers before the invention of fiberglass laminates, modern epoxies and laminating presses.
The first time I met Steve was 20 years ago at Laven’s Archery range near St. Clair. The resident archery club was hosting a 3-D target shoot on a course set within the ravine complexes along the Le Sueur river bottoms. My pal, Paul and I were shooting a pair of deer targets when we spied an archer toting an unusual longbow.
We watched as he nocked a wooden arrow and drove it home, perfectly in the target’s vital 10 ring. As we looked on, he repeated the shot on a subsequent target, proving the first shot wasn’t a fluke. Intrigued with his bow, we hiked over and made introductions.
While we carried traditional bows made of heavy hardwoods and wood and fiberglass limbs, Steve explained his bow was wholly carved from native ironwood. It was a pretty weapon with its white wood-turned-camouflage from Steve passing a torch over its surfaces before applying moisture resistant coats of varnish.
We soon learned Steve had made everything he carried: the bow, it’s barber pole looking flemish-twist bowstring, quiver, and arrows, and even his armguard and finger tab.
In Steve’s case, primitive bow building seems to be more necessity than choice. Why buy an expensive, modern bow when a home-crafted bow and arrows will take critters, too?
Steve has taken dozens of deer with his wood bows and shop-turned yellow pine arrows. One of his more interesting yarns involves a turkey hunt that morphed into a deer hunt. It seems Steve had a fall turkey tag burning a hole in his pocket, so he set out on a stalk one nice fall day. He spied a small flock of the big birds picking along a railroad right of way and ducked into the adjacent chest-high grass to begin a stalk.
After a few steps, he heard the sound of animal traffic on the steep hill above him. Peering up, his eyes settled on a sauntering whitetail buck. Steve froze and followed the buck’s travel path, a course that would take the deer only 22 yards from him. When the deer reached that spot, he quickly released a deadly wooden missile that struck next to buck’s heart. After only a few bounds, the deer fell and became still, a testament to the effectiveness of his traditional gear.
Steve uses all manner of woods for his bows, a favorite being osage orange. Osage is not common to Minnesota, so he gets his from sources in southern states like Missouri. Osage is a dense, wickedly tough wood that makes excellent bows. When the back of the bow is covered in rattlesnake skins, an osage bow is not only striking, but naturally camouflaged.
Steve also uses local woods like ironwood, mulberry and rock elm, and even carves bows from straight-grained dimensional hardwood boards.
He has also constructed yew wood longbows reminiscent of old English war bows, and used them to win several titles at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival’s longbow competition.
Regardless of bow type, bows are hewn close to final shape specifications with careful hacks with a shaving-sharp hatchet. When the bow starts to emerge, he carefully whittles it to shape with spokeshave and drawknife, just as the old English bowyers did when the longbow was the weapon of choice of British armies.
No matter the bow design, wood bow building takes thought and time. As Steve said, “remove too much wood and the bow could be ruined.” In wood bow building, Steve notes, “you’ve gotta be able to learn from your failures because that will make you a better bow builder.”
With Steve’s bows being displayed all over the country and as far away as China, he has certainly learned from any early errors. There’s a very good chance I’ll be stalking game with a wooden bow soon.
Especially, since Steve has a rattlesnake-skin-backed osage bow on his bow rack that sports a for-sale tag.
Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman who has been a freelance outdoors writer and photographer for more than 20 years. The Mankato resident since 1979 may be contacted at email@example.com.