Marty Kovarik describes himself as an unashamed venison hunter. Instead of targeting big bucks, his self-imposed challenge is to stalk to within 10 yards of any deer—usually a doe—before carefully drawing and taking it with his wooden longbow and homemade arrows.
“It brought the fun back into it,” says Kovarik of his switch from modern compound bows, made five years ago. “No one picks up my longbow and shoots it without remarking how light it is and how much fun it is to shoot.”
Kovarik, 59, is a freelance writer and photographer living near the Upper Peninsula town of Skandia. He started shooting arrows before the age of 10, using a longbow. In 1978, with a new, state-of-the-art compound bow, he harvested his first good buck, one of a few that are mounted on his walls. He figures that in the years since, he’s arrowed at least 100 deer, in large part to feed his growing family of five. About six years ago, he started contemplating a switch to a longbow from one with pulleys and cams, recalling how much he enjoyed shooting a simple bow as a child.
“I guess I was getting a little bored with it,” he says. “Plus, with the sights and mechanical release, when I was ‘on,’ I was like Robin Hood with a compound, but when I was wrong (about distance to the target) I was missing the deer and shooting the arrows into the next county.”
About six years ago he started contemplating a switch back to a classic, wooden longbow. As luck would have it, he found a Howard Hill Big Five model bow at a yard sale. Kovarik said he paid a fraction of what such a bow would cost new, paired it with arrows he made himself out of aluminum shafts and feathers from turkeys he’d harvested and “just started shooting it.”
He’s never looked backed, getting at least one deer each season with it.
“It’s always been up close and personal for me,” says Kovarik, noting that he didn’t change his approach to bowhunting much after adopting the more primitive bow. “I’d rather spook a deer that’s 10 yards from me than take a longer shot. I’d rather put the challenge into getting close to them than putting the challenge into making a long shot.
Lightweight and without sights or mechanical release, the longbow, he says, becomes an extension of a person’s body, and shooting it accurately becomes instinctive.
“It’s like throwing a rock or shooting a slingshot. When you hit what you aim at, you don’t know exactly how you did it.”
He shoots the bow year-round as much for recreational fun as for practice, sometimes at 3D targets of deer and sometimes at homemade foam targets that mimic grouse and rabbits. A favorite pastime is heading into the woods with one of his sons for friendly competition, shooting at distant stumps, arrows tipped with blunt “judo” heads. These tips have small, spring wire appendages to keep them from burying into the ground or skipping off beyond the target.
“I’ll shoot 100 to 150 arrows a day during the summer,” Kovarik says.
His Big Five model is made of bamboo laminate and weighs mere ounces, yet has a draw weight of 65 pounds. At five feet, eight inches tall, Kovarik has a short draw length and had the bow shortened by Steve Turay of Northern Mist Longbows in Ishpeming, Michigan. Taking about an inch off each end increased the draw weight sufficiently to make it an effective hunting tool.
Kovarik always hunts deer from the ground.
“I like still-hunting or stalking better than sitting, but if I see a good deer trail, I’ll sit,” he says.
The key to success, he says, is moving extremely slowly when the quarry is in range.
“You can draw your bow right in front of a deer without it detecting you—you’re just moving really, really slow—it might take you 30 seconds or more to draw your bow,” he says. “And you can’t blink or you’ll be busted for sure. Just close your eyes really slowly if you have to. It seems to me those deer are looking for the eyes of a predator. If you blink, they’re gone.”
Kovarik, who I first met about 20 years ago, is an unassuming sort of outdoorsman, laid-back, friendly, and helpful. Talk to him about the longbow and it quickly becomes obvious the tool has become a mild obsession of sorts. He’s started collecting books about longbows and how they helped shape the course of history, for example, giving armies that had them an advantage over those that didn’t. He’s also read up on the adventures of Howard Hill, who founded the company that made Kovarik’s bow. Before his death in 1975, Hill hunted all over the world and used his longbow to harvest a plethora of animals, from African elephants to mountain goats, alligators, and sharks.
Kovarik says he has also taken the longbow into the bear blind, but no bruins have offered a shot yet. He’s also shot at ruffed grouse.
“Key words there are ‘shot at,’” he says, chuckling. “I’ve gotten pretty close.”
He said he appreciates hunters who like the latest and greatest new high-tech archery tackle. It’s just not for him anymore.