Out There: Bows and boys

The author looks on as his son Zach prepares to release an arrow. Archery provides safe, fun shooting practice. 

I was 12 when I purchased my first bow, an impressive-looking, 62-inch, 45-pound Ben Pearson recurve. It seems I mowed a hundred yards that summer to pay for it at the Western Auto store, the only business in the county in those days that had anything like a sporting goods department.

I'm not saying I'm old or anything, but that wonderful bow — a bow I would shoot for nearly 20 years — set me back a grand total of $65, including six arrows, a quiver, an armguard and a finger tab. It seemed like a fortune.

The Western Auto man special-ordered it for me direct from the company, which was then located in my home state of Arkansas.

I stacked hay bales in the backyard, drew circles and bull's-eyes on some paper plates, tucked the plates behind the strings on the bales and started shooting.

By the time the sun set the first day, I had broken two of the wooden arrows and lost the other four, including one I shot straight into the sun. Not to fret, though.

There were plenty more yards to mow, and the $2.50 I earned for each one would buy five new arrows.

The year after I bought my new bow, a fantastic thing happened. Less than a half-mile from my house, an archery range opened.

This was no ordinary range, at least not in those days in a small northeast Arkansas town.

Twenty targets (hay bales and animals- on-paper targets) were scattered along a half-mile trail through the rolling woodlands, each offering a unique setup to test the archer's skills.

At one station, you could shoot from a treestand. Another featured a moving target that passed from right to left or vice versa when your shooting companion cranked a special-made, bicycle-wheel pulley system.

There were 10-yard shots and 50-yard shots, shots through the brush, shots in the open, shots up and shots down, and everything in between.

In short, for a 13-year-old kid with too much time on his hands, it was heaven. I mowed four yards, paid the $10 annual membership fee, and the fun began.

The second year the range was open, I began shooting competitively with the men in the club. And with distinct pleasure, I won more rounds than I lost. The cash prizes meant less time mowing, more time on the shooting range.

This was also the first year I went bowhunting for deer, a pastime I would enjoy for decades.

When the season opened each October, my hunting buddies and I would load our camping gear and head off for a weekend or week-long hunting trip.

We didn't kill many whitetails back then, but those hunting trips are some of the most memorable moments of a long, fulfilling life.

When he turned 12, my son Zach got his first bow — a nice compound made especially for young, just-learning-to-shoot archers. With its pulleys and cables and fiber-optic sights, it's a far cry from the simple recurve I started with almost 40 years ago.

He shoots carbon arrows, not wood, and he shoots them not at a paper plate tucked beneath the strings of a hay bale but at a modern, three-dimensional target sculpted to resemble a trophy whitetail buck.

The Friction Foam material from which the target is manufactured actually stops arrows. Zach hasn't lost one, yet.

One thing hasn't changed, though. The magic of archery has as powerful an attraction for Zach as it did for me.

A youngster who once came home from school and turned on the computer, the television or a video game now walks in, grabs his bow and arrows and hollers, "Dad, let's go shoot."

I bought Zach's bow primarily because it provides an outdoor pastime the two of us can enjoy in our suburban back yard without prompting complaints from the neighbors. Archery is safe and quiet. If we want, we can do it every day.

And that's exactly what has happened. We're out there shooting together every day. And I do mean every day.

This is good because archery has provided a means for Zach and me to strengthen our father-son bond and reconnect more fully with the out-of-doors.

In just a few weeks, I watched Zach's transformation from frustrated novice to proud competitor. His groups got tighter and tighter from farther and farther away. And he started looking for new ways to challenge himself.

One day, I found him standing on the luggage rack of my van shooting the target from 30 yards instead of his usual ten. I suppose it's time to buy him a tree stand, too.

Last night, when the sun went down and he came inside, Zach headed straight for the bookcase and pulled out a copy of Stoeger Publishing's "Archer's Bible," a book that showcases hundreds of products made especially for archery enthusiasts.

For the next two hours, flipping through its pages on the kitchen table, we discussed stabilizers and 3-D targets, tree stands and shooting releases, peep sights and broadheads.

Zach wants it all, and if he finds enough yards to mow, I'm sure he'll soon have it.

Now he's eager to go on his first bowhunt for deer, and if all goes well, that will happen sometime this fall. He has more patience than I ever did at his age. And despite his youthful energy, he can remain incredibly still on a stand for hours on end.

These traits enabled him to quickly kill his first deer with a gun last year. And I have no doubt these qualities and his shooting skills will put venison on our table when Zach first draws a bow on a whitetail.

Thinking back on it now, I realize archery played an incredibly important role in the development of my character. Shooting a bow taught me that patience, diligence and hard work can be rewarded with immeasurable satisfaction.

Archery has provided a means for teaching my son these things as well.

And now, it has enabled me to establish a rapport with him that will make both our lives vastly richer.

Shooting bows and arrows is a magical sport that can transform lives in ways we seldom take time to consider.

If you are looking for a fun, character-building pastime to enjoy with a youngster, give archery a try this season. You'll both be glad you did.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.