Sticks & Strings & Wild Things
By Mike Tomano
© 2020 Fossil Entertainment Group
Christmas 1976: My parents gave me a gift that would change my life. Under the tree was a yellow fiberglass Bear Archery bow and a half-dozen cedar arrows. I was stunned. Matter of fact, I didn’t bother opening the other gifts! I took the bow out of its package and strung it up. I went to our snowy backyard and shot a cardboard box for hours. I kept it leaning against my bedpost that night, the vinyl hip-quiver dangling from its top limb.
I was in the backyard, flingin’ arrows through empty milk cartons and cardboard boxes after school. I wandered the nearby prairies and stump-shot all-day, almost every day. I became obsessed with archery and bowhunting. I had been fishing with my father since I was very young. That exposure to nature and the lure of the chase, along with stories in Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, fueled a desire to add hunting to my outdoor endeavors.
Though we lived in Chicago, our neighborhood was bordered by several miles of factories, behind which lay endless acres of woods, swamp and fields. The railroad tracks that ran along the edge of I-55 were rife with stretches of tall grass. For us city kids it was a woodsy wonderland. Behind The Factories..in Chicago. That was the unlikely place the wild would cast its spell upon me.
Day after day we'd head behind the Clorox, Philco and Azteca Foods buildings and find adventure in the adjacent undeveloped acreage. In the fall and winter months, we'd take our bb guns and hunt doves; rabbits, squirrels and pheasants with our bows and arrows. Summer days were spent catching garter and grass snakes and riding dirt-bikes on the trails. We'd head to the truck yard and grab a shipping pallet, bungee-tie a discarded truck-tire to it and float through the swamps, catching crayfish to use for bait. It was a Tom Sawyer Fantasy World and it was ours! We'd bring the game we shot home and have backyard barbecues. Life was not only wonderful, it was amazing!
After shooting the fiberglass youth bow for a couple of years, I was ready to upgrade. Pouring over the latest Cabela’s catalog fed my dream. My buddy Mark Lapen was already an avid bowhunter and had killed many rabbits with his Indian recurve. He had the latest Bear Archery catalog and I thumbed through it, marveling at the new line-up of gear. I was determined to save my chore-money and purchase a new bow.
My father took me to Archery Custom Shop in Forest Park, owned and operated by the slightly cantankerous Don Schram and his kind wife, Jean. They had a wide selection of bows, arrows and accessories. As we browsed, Don shared stories of hunting with the great Fred Bear. Don was a founding member of The Pope & Young Club. He opened his store in 1948 after Fred made him a regional salesman and distributor for Bear Archery.
With a pocket full of 8th grade graduation party cash, I jumped into the modern archery world with the purchase of a Bear Kodiak Special compound bow. Seventy-five well-spent dollars! I would shoot it all summer and hunt rabbits with it that winter. I really dug that bow. It’s metallic green riser and wood laminated limbs looked cool and it shot faster than my stick bow.
Fred Bear was, and still is, one of my great heroes. Throughout my youth, I read and reread his books. I still return to them frequently for inspiration and insight. I studied the photos of Fred in Alaska and Africa. Fred’s love of the outdoors and archery was matched only by his self-determination and entrepreneurial spirit. His “become a two-season hunter” ad campaign reached thousands of gun hunters who sought the increased opportunities and challenge of bowhunting.
Though I enjoyed my compound, reading of Fred’s prowess with his recurve triggered an interest in returning to “my roots.” Seeing ads in outdoor magazines, I was drawn to the Bear Kodiak Magnum recurve. It was a beauty, with its pine-green limbs and green-stained wood riser decorated with a blue stripe. It’s short 52” length accented its limb curves and sleek design. I began calling around to different shops to see if they had it in-stock. Archery Custom Shop had it for $95. That was disheartening, as my budget was $50. I resolved to work an extra-shift cleaning dishes at Gramma Josie’s or offer to wax the floor in addition to my window-washing at Midwest Department Store. On a hunch, I called East Side Archery, a sponsor of my favorite local tv show, Outdoor Sportsman with Joe Wyer on Chicago’s Channel 26. It was located on the far southeast side, a part of Chicago this thirteen-year-old boy was not familiar with; but I figured it must be close, 'cause it was in Chicago!
I called and inquired about the Bear Kodiak Magnum. “Yeah, I can see one on the wall,” the man told me.
“How much?” I asked.
“Ahhh..let’s see, what’s that say…looks like forty-five bucks.”
“Okay. My name is Michael. Hold it for me!”
I hopped on my Schwinn Stingray and headed out to find the address I’d written down. Passing Midway Airport, I spotted my Dad in his truck. He asked me where I was going, and I told him.
“Are you crazy? That’s twenty miles away!”
Reluctantly, he agreed to drive me.
When we arrived, I told the shop owner I was there to pick up the Kodiak Magnum.
“That’s ninety-five dollars plus tax” –
“Hold it. You told me on the phone it was forty-five dollars.”
He lowered his glasses to the bridge of his nose, “I did, didn’t I? I didn’t have my glasses on. That nine sure looks like a four, don’t it?”
I was bummed. “Okay, well, can you hold it a few more weeks?”
He smiled at me, “Nah. Can’t do that.”
I was really bummed.
“But I can give it to ya for forty-five.”
He did me a solid and I repaid the good fortune by shootin’ the hell out of that little bow.
Since those heady days of the 70s and 80s, I’ve owned numerous bows, traditional and modern. In the mid-80s, I got a job working at Ralph Cianciarulo’s Archer’s Choice pro-shop in Berwyn, Illinois.
Ralph’s place was the go-to store for archers in the area. Walter Payton would stop in and shoot his mighty Martin Cougar Magnum with a customized 90 lb. draw weight.
I cut arrows for Cubs left-fielder Brian Dayette and shared the range with super-athlete Bo Jackson. I would show up early on Saturdays and conduct Boy Scout lessons with Ralph’s wonderful mother, Arlene. I worked on bows, swept floors, cut arrows, sold gear, and soaked up every ounce of hunting and shooting wisdom from the crew and customers.
After hours, Ralph would work with me on my shooting technique. “Bear”, a hulking co-worker with a heart as big as his giant hands, would give me equipment tuning tips and expound on “visualizing” the shot. “Ma” taught me customer service skills.
Working at an archery pro-shop gave me hands-on experience with the “hot” new bows of the day. PSE was becoming well-known and their Laser and Citation lines were all the rage. Pearson introduced the awesome Grey Ghost and we all took turns shooting it when it arrived. I bought my girlfriend a petite Point Blank bow so we could bowfish together. Surrounded by new compound bows, and being a huge Chuck Adams fan, I wanted to shoot a Hoyt Pro-Vantage Hunter, with its innovative carbon limbs. I bought one at a discount from Ralph, with the stipulation that he could experiment with spray-painted camo patterns on it. No problem!
I loved that bow and used it for Illinois & Wisconsin deer, Tennessee hogs and countless rabbits, squirrels, coons and carp. It has fallen out of trees and been fished from the bottom of The Kankakee River. I still own it and use it! It has been lent out a dozen times, with the agreement that when the person purchases their own, it returns to be passed on again. That battered old Hoyt dinosaur changes lives.
In the new millennium, I began shooting my traditional equipment more frequently. As I had usually used hi-tech compounds for big-game hunting, I felt the urge to try using my old Bear Grizzly for deer. The challenge was monumental and my luck, hard-earned. The dedication getting my skills on recurves and longbows to match those on a compound took long hours, with plenty of frustration. I kept at it; shooting dozens of arrows daily. My limited shooting distance with stick-bows has cost me opportunities at game that would be within compound bow range. But, it feels right. And it’s paid off. I’ve been able to put meat in the freezer. Plus, I won first place at an archery tournament in Clifton, Illinois. That was cool!
In the late 80s, I met Ted Nugent. Ted was my favorite rocker growing up and my bedroom wall was decorated with posters of The Motor City Madman. I struck up a conversation with him at an outdoors expo in Dolton, Illinois. He did an inspirational, funny and passionate hour-long talk about his life of adventure in The Great Outdoors and frequently mentioned the need for sportsmen & women to get involved in keeping our heritage thriving through grass-roots activism. We write letters. We make phone calls. We promote. We recruit.
Over the decades, we've become great friends. I've shared many hunting campfires with him and his wonderful family. We are in constant contact regarding the rights of not only hunters and gun-owners, but of free individuals. No one has done more to spread the truth about, or recruit more people into, The Great Outdoors Lifestyle than Ted.
What breaks our hearts is that so many people who cherish their Second Amendment rights, love to hunt, fish and trap, support conservation and believe in American freedom cannot be bothered to contact their elected officials on legislation that strips of those rights. It's not difficult. Do it! Be heard. Make a difference.
We also are stunned (and pissed off) at how hunters and gunners can be their own worst enemy, arguing about methods, what guns a lawful citizen should be allowed to own, equipment choices and insane laws like whether or not hunting should be permitted on Sundays.
To me, shooting traditional and modern equipment just adds to the fun. As Uncle Ted says, “Tradition is what’s in your heart, not what’s in your hand.” Whether it’s a longbow, compound, crossbow, handgun, rifle or shotgun…whatever tool one chooses to pursue game in an ethical manner with is okay with me. The Hunting Collective has enough battles to win; in-fighting should never be one of them.
Bickering over equipment choices and hunting methods is a curse within our community. The more we divide from within, the easier it is for the antis to place wedges in our rights. Whether you spot and stalk, hunt over bait, self-guide, hire an outfitter or hunt on high-fence ranches, you are a hunter. To knock someone else’s choice because you don’t agree with it is stupid and detrimental to our cause.
In 1999, I hunted Tennessee, chasin’ wild hogs with hounds. Watching the dogs work was thrilling and the hunt was a success. I took a big hog with my bow. Reflecting on the long ride home, I decided I was glad to have experienced it, but prefer sitting in a blind or stalking my hog. I support hound-hunting hogs for whoever chooses it; and, if the opportunity to hunt bear or mountain lion with hounds presented itself, I would consider it. It’s all about experiences and the more, the merrier. Trying different approaches enriches our pursuits.
I have a garage and closets full of old gear. Recurves, longbows and compounds that bring back great memories. The real joy is taking one down and introducing someone new to the sport.
Use what feels best for you and gives you the most pleasure. Simple as that. My recommendation is to only shoot a bow that you can draw comfortably in every situation. If you find yourself raising your arm and struggling to reach full-draw, you are over-bowed and doing a disservice to yourself and the game you pursue. That 70# draw might be something you can draw on the range, but how about after sitting three hours in a treestand on a frigid November morning? Think of these things when purchasing a bow. I shoot between 45# - 55# draw weights on all my bows. I’ve taken a variety of big game with them. The trick is shot placement, razor-sharp broadheads and knowledge of range accuracy. Whatever you choose, practice! God Bless Sticks & Strings & Wild Things!