St. Cloud man was inspired early on by Fred Bear
It is the dead of winter. The holidays are over, the football season is done, and the snow is shoveled for the time being. In anticipation of warmer weather and another hunting season ahead, one St. Cloud man uses some spare hours to make arrows.
As a kid, Steve Nelson went with his dad to the Holloway Rod and Gun Club and watched an eight millimeter film of famous archer and sportsman, Fred Bear, shooting at targets and hunting deer, bear and Dall sheep. Bear’s talents made an impression on him.
“Fred Bear bow hunted in far away places, and I dreamed of doing that too. He used a recurve and so did my dad.”
Nelson believes that traditional archers have more challenges because they have to be better hunters to get in close for the shot. (Nelson had the opportunity to meet Fred Bear in 1983 when he made an appearance at a sporting goods store in St. Cloud.)
Growing up on a farm near Appleton, Nelson spent a lot of time hunting rabbits and gophers using his own recurve bow. When he graduated to larger game, he continued shooting a recurve to bowhunt until the early 1980s when compound bows became popular. “They were new and innovative and easy to use,” he said. “You put the appropriate sights on, and pull the bow back and shoot. Because of the pulley system and cables you hold less weight and you have more time to aim at your target.” He eventually bought a compound bow, which was much larger than the ones available today. One drawback to the compound bow, he states, is that it has movable parts which need to be replaced every few years. The industry is constantly improving the bow so the arrows fly faster and flatter, but upgrading to a new bow can be costly.
Nelson used a compound bow for about ten years. One day he was cleaning out some archery stuff and he picked up a recurve, pulled back and hit his mark. This surprised him. “What I had learned as a kid returned just like that. It was like throwing a baseball,” he said. Before long, he was back to shooting a recurve. “When shooting a recurve, you shoot without sights. It is all practice and memory and skill. You practice until you can visualize the path of your arrow before you release it.”
After returning to the traditional bow, Nelson started out by using aluminum arrows but he soon decided he wanted to go back to using cedar arrows. “I wanted to do it the old-school way, like when I was a kid.” He ordered Port Orford cedar shafts, and he bought taper tools, a fletching jig and fletches (feathers), broadheads and target points, paint and adhesive.
He also did some research, reading from The Archer’s Craft by A.E. Hodgkin. The book has a bit of everything in it on the ancient crafts of the bowyer, fletcher, arrowsmith, stringmaker and hunter. A bowyer is a maker or seller of archers’ bows. A fletcher and arrowsmith refer to a maker of arrows and a stringmaker makes the bowstring.
Arrows consist of the shaft or body of the arrow, the head, the “shaftment” area, where the three feathers are, and the nock, where the bowstring fits.
Nelson begins the fletching process by choosing the straightest shafts. He also looks closely for straight wood grain throughout the arrow, which will determine how strong or weak it will be. He chooses only the best to make arrows from. He cuts the shaft to 30 inches before tapering it. The length of the arrow depends on the draw length, or reach, which is different for everybody. A draw length is measured while in full draw position.“I draw 30 inches, which is less than what I could draw in my youth,” he said. The ends are then tapered in order for the nock and the broadhead to fit on the shaft.
Nelson sands the arrows and puts on a finish before painting crests on them to personalize them. He uses light colors which makes the arrow more visible as it flies through the air, allowing him to follow it better.
The fletching refers to the three feathers attached at the back of the shaft which serves to make the arrow fly straight. Feathers or plastic vanes can be used as the fletches. Nelson uses turkey feathers, which are dyed and can be purchased in many different colors—red, blue, green, gray, black, purple. He usually chooses bright colors like yellow and orange so it is easier to find them in the leaves or grass. “All the turkey feathers need to be from either the right wing or the left wing. You can’t mix them.” He has used wild turkey feathers in the past, but they are more difficult to glue and trim.
A fletching jig is used to hold the feathers in place while the glue dries, about 15 minutes a feather. It takes Nelson about an hour to make one arrow, and he usually makes six at a time. Some people who make handmade arrows consider the process to be tedious and time consuming, but he thinks of it differently. It’s more of a hobby, and it brings back memories of the past.
He figures the cost for each arrow he makes to be about $1.50, a lot less than a purchased arrow ,which may cost from $5 to $15 each depending on whether it has any “extras” such as a lighted nock or expandable broadhead.
“Because wood warps, I spin test my arrows by setting them on edge and spinning them to see if they wobble,” Nelson said. “I mark my best two or three arrows to be used for shooting at deer. The others I use for practice.”
Rain, snow and humidity can cause “fletching failures” when the feathers pop off so it’s important to keep arrows dry.
Nelson makes arrows during the winter so he is ready for target shooting in the spring. “To lob an arrow at a can or shoot at a leaf or a target–that’s what is fun. It’s not just about that one shot in the fall.”
Nelson has had successful hunts using his traditional gear, including a Black Widow recurve, which he has owned for 25 years. Getting an elk in Colorado and getting in the Pope and Young book with a whitetail deer from Minnesota were hunting highlights for him.
He and his family toured the Fred Bear Museum in Gainesville, Fla., in the 1990s. He recalls the life size tiger and bear mounts and the large collection of Bear’s other hunting trophies and archery artifacts. One thing that stood out to him, though, was a Kodiak bow. “I remember seeing the Bear Kodiak recurve test bow there,” Nelson said. “It had been dry fired, fired without an arrow, thousands of times without breaking.”
He explained that dry firing can ruin a bow because, by taking away the arrow, the energy is transferred to the bow.
After that trip, he was inspired to give bow-making a try. But, it didn’t turn out the way he had hoped. “I only use it for shooting carp nowadays.”
Nelson has no intention of giving up his traditional bow and handmade arrows. So this time of year, he turns on the hunting channel, throws together a few arrows and makes plans…Hunting trips require lots of planning.