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Archery season offers more hope for hunters

Posted: Thursday, August 16, 2001

SANDY, Utah (AP) -- The first full-contact sport of fall is about to begin. Shop professional Roger Hutcheon loves his fellow archers, but he looks like he just wants to go home. It is almost 9 p.m., closing time and deer season is still three weeks away, but Sportsman's Archery is filled with milling hunters. The scene resembles one of the Utah wildlife managers' bizarre deer-permit fire sales.

Hunters stand in painted shooting lanes and pull back their bowstrings, sending carbon and aluminum arrows thumping into a long wall covered with targets. Others peruse the latest camouflage, face paint and scent eliminators, but most are having their bows or arrows worked on.

Bowhunting business is up this year due to expanded archery deer and elk seasons, which sent a ripple of optimism through archers' arrow quivers throughout the state.

A gigantic bull elk steps out of the timber in the end of a dark hallway to the right of the target range. The bull throws his head up and belts out an ear-piercing bugle at Michelle Nicolett. She smoothly draws her Easton bow, takes two seconds to aim, and sends a laser tipped arrow straight into the dark spot behind its front leg.

Whock! -- the arrow strikes the movie screen, and the Techno laser game scores Nicolett a bull's-eye. Were it a real elk, like the nine or ten others she has killed in northern Utah over past seasons, it would be wearing her tag.

She is one of the best instinctive shooters you will see, meaning she does not use sight pins nor a string-release trigger, aiming instead with the computer she was born with and the fingers on her hand.

It is a smooth, natural way to shoot a bow. Her score on the video game lags behind her teammates, but skilled instinctive shooters -- a very rare animal -- do better in the field because they don't have to calculate range with sight-pin gadgetry, though they are more limited in effective distance.

They simply pull back and let go when it feels right, shooting better in low-light conditions, on moving targets, when shot opportunities are brief and with less mechanical failures.

In a sport with abysmal success rates, the 36-year-old woman is a killer. She is one of few women in the shop, but few of the men have taken nine or ten elk, about 5,000 pounds of venison, on the hoof. Including a trophy five-point bull. Throw in the 20 or so mule deer she has killed and she is rare company. Sports-''man's'' archery, indeed. Determined women make deadly bowhunters because they are smaller, quieter and often more patient than hard-charging men.

All the venison is just a bonus, however. September in the high country may be the nicest time of year.

''Ahhh, it's the sounds they make (elk) when you're out there in the fall, the crisp air, the colors, there's nothing like it,'' she said.

Archers have a responsibility to the animal to practice. She shoots every week for two months prior to the season. Nobody is oblivious to buck fever, and she still gets excited when a big game animal has been tediously stalked to rock-throwing distance.

''If you don't practice, you'll be all nervous,'' she said.

Nicolett has also missed dozens of animals, including another five-point bull, but she has a knack for stalking within 20 to 30 yards of her prey, which is the great challenge of hunting with sticks and strings. Rifle hunters enjoy an effective range of more than five times as far. It is the last 30 yards of approaching an animal that are monumentally difficult.

Elk, especially, because the herd animals have so many sets of ears and eyes. For that reason, bowhunting participation fell off drastically the past two years, when wildlife officials backed the bowhunt up and shortened the season, moving archers away from the breeding seasons and into hot weather, when game animals are inactive.

Hunters numbers dropped by 15 to 30 percent, and success rates dropped much more.

Enthusiasm is high this year because big-game managers lengthened the elk season from Aug. 23 to Sept. 14. The season still only bumps the rutting season, when elk begin to vocalize, making them easier to find. Idaho, Colorado, Montana and most western states have seasons that span the month.

But the biggest news is the deer hunt. Archery season is now statewide, excluding limited entry units, so hunters willing to forego a firearm are not limited to one of the state's five buck regions.

''We're seeing a big increase over last year,'' Hutcheon said. ''It's the statewide deer ... they're (hunters) going everywhere.''

The deer and elk herds are the healthiest in years, but the woods are dry this time of year. Hunters will do well to key on water holes or take stands at natural animal funnels relating to terrain or foliage, rather than stalking.

''I love being out in the fall when the leaves are starting to change and it's cooling down,'' he said. ''We saw nine bears down on the Manti La Sal last year. Bow season is less crowded, less hectic, and our routine is, we fish in the middle of the day and hunt the evening. It's a great time to be out, the best camping of the year.''

He is also seeing an increase in his peer-group's interest in archery with the statewide deer season. ''It's just great. It offers the person who only has a few days a chance to still go out,'' he said, ''and the success rate is so low it doesn't impact the herds but allows a lot of opportunity, so it's a win-win deal.''

Back behind the counter in the archery pro shop, a half dozen employees hustle to help hunters work the quirks in their gear. Some fine tune arrow fletching (feathers), work on cables, sight pins, or tweak arrow rests.

Archers give new meaning to ''disappearing into the woods.'' Instead of blaze orange vests, they wear headnets, camo face paint, gloves and camo right down to their bows, arrows and boots. They douse themselves in doe urine and other stinky scent masks in an effort to get kissing close.

If Nicolett fails to bag a buck or bull for the first time in her archery career, there is always the Techno hunt she shoots with Shon Johnson, a Lehi archer who gave up instinctive shooting ''because I was tired of buying dinner for guys who shoot with pins (sights).''

The $50,000 video game costs $24 an hour for three hunters to rent.

''It's so realistic,'' Johnson said. ''It's as close as you get to the real thing. It makes you wait for just the right moment to shoot.''

In addition to elk, deer and bear, there are rabbits, quail, rattlesnakes and other impossibly small critters in the game. ''You get this one bull elk that steps out, looks at you, and then takes off like a bat out of hell,'' he said. ''Just like the real thing.''

Still Time to Tango Archery buck-only deer season kicks off Aug. 18 and runs through Sept. 14 and elk (either sex) runs Aug. 23-Sept. 14, but Utah hunters are blessed with a long special Wasatch Front-only season (see regulations) that runs into December, offering extraordinary hunting opportunities in areas where rifle hunting is limited because of human encroachment. Utah has a shortage of archery pro shops, but new hunters can go to Sportman's Archery (9000 South and 450 West) during off-peak hours and get instruction. Up north, Bountiful Archery on Main Street. has a helpful staff working long hours this time of year, as well as an indoor range. There are still many archery deer and elk tags available.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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