GRAND FORKS — Hunting with traditional archery equipment is a passion for Gary Savaloja, but he’s not against the modern gear many bowhunters prefer to use these days.
There’s just something about longbows and recurve bows, Savaloja says, that he favors over the crossbows or compound bows with their cables and pulleys, fiber optic sights and other high-tech features that have made archery more accessible and enjoyable for many enthusiasts.
Nostalgia is part of the attraction, along with the challenge of shooting “instinctively” without the benefit of sights, he says.
That takes practice and lots of it, Savaloja says; he likens it to a pitcher throwing a baseball into a catcher’s mitt.
“That’s pretty much what you do with traditional archery,” he said. “We like to say, ‘Pick a spot on the target or the animal and just bore a hole through that spot.’ (That takes) really intense concentration.”
Savaloja, 67, of Grand Forks, says he’s one of “thousands of guys across this country” who have not given up on longbows and recurve bows and moved on to modern archery equipment.
“Many of us are well into 60 years old and older,” he adds.
Traditional archery has been a way of life since 1965, Savaloja says, when his parents gave him his first legitimate hunting bow. He doesn’t use that bow anymore, but he still has it.
“It is one of the most important pastimes of my life,” said Savaloja, who was born in Wadena, Minn., and lived in several northern Minnesota communities before moving to Grand Forks with his family in 1966. “I was blessed to be able to hunt with my dad as I grew up.
“He’d take me with, and so it was kind of a family heritage or tradition, I guess.”
Traditional archery equipment falls into two camps: longbows and recurve bows. A longbow, in very simplest terms, is one straight length with no real curves, Savaloja says; a recurve, by comparison, has forced curves at both ends, giving the bow a shape that’s similar to the numeral “3.”
Generally speaking, a recurve gives the arrow more speed because of the power stored in the curves.
As with most archery deer hunters, whether they hunt with traditional or modern equipment, Savaloja says his ultimate goal is to shoot a trophy buck, a quest that remains elusive.
With a self-imposed limit of 20 yards — “I am very serious about that,” he says — the odds definitely aren’t in his favor.
“I have not taken very many deer with a bow,” Savaloja said. “Most years, I end up empty-handed, and I am OK with that.”
Once, while hunting in Colorado, Savaloja says he called in a bull elk to within about 30 yards but resisted the temptation to shoot with his traditional bow.
“Twenty yards would be a long shot for me, and generally, I like to be around 15 yards or so,” he said. “I don’t know how far crossbow shooters can accurately shoot, but I’m guessing it is a lot farther than 20 yards.”
Getting that close to the quarry is part of the challenge — and the attraction — he says. Legendary bowhunter Gene Wensel might have put it best, Savaloja says.
“(Wensel) made a comment that not many traditional hunters get really big trophies, because the average big buck is smarter than the average bowhunter,” Savaloja said. “And I think that’s probably true.”
Not that he hasn’t had his chances.
“One night, I had a buck right under my tree; I could have spit on him,” Savaloja said. “And he must have caught a little bit of scent or something because he stopped and stood there for about 15 seconds.”
What happened next was like watching a train engine backing up on a track, Savaloja recalls.
“That’s exactly what he did, he just took one step straight backwards,” Savaloja said. “And then he got out about 30 yards, and he went on to wherever he was going.
“Things like that are always interesting to watch.”
North for bears
Savaloja has had some of his best success with traditional equipment hunting bears in Manitoba. He took his last bear in May 2017 during a spring bear hunt in western Manitoba he booked through Stickflingers Manitoba Bowhunts near Swan River, Man., which specializes in guided archery hunts.
He used a 48-pound recurve bow and a 600-grain wooden arrow to shoot the bear at about 15 yards. The bear traveled 20 or 30 yards before falling.
That’s just one of the memorable moments Savaloja has had with seeing bears up-close-and-personal during his Manitoba hunts. He has numerous stories of close encounters watching and marveling at bears, highlight reel-type moments that had nothing to do with drawing back the bow.
“I’ve been up there twice, and each time in four to five days of bear hunting, I've seen in excess of 20 bears,” Savaloja said. “Four or five a night is not really even a big number, and the color phases are unbelievable.”
He’s also hunted bears in Ontario but says he prefers Manitoba.
Archery season at hand
North Dakota’s archery deer season opens Friday, Sept. 4, but Savaloja says he doesn’t go afield until later in the fall to avoid the heat, the mosquitoes and the ticks.
There’s something about being out when there’s a bite in the air, and the woods have that distinct smell of fall; everyone who hunts knows the smell.
“October and November, those are the real special months for me when I really want to be out in the woods,” Savaloja said. “When the pre-rut is starting and you can start to see scrapes and rubs on trees and the deer are starting to get a little more excited.”
North Dakota’s archery season continues through Jan. 3, and unlike rifle and muzzleloader seasons, archery hunters can buy tags without being drawn in a lottery. In the past five years, archery hunter numbers in North Dakota have ranged from 25,703 in 2015 to 28,824 in 2018, according to the Game and Fish Department. Success rates have varied from 35% to 43% — a testimonial, perhaps, to the effectiveness of modern archery equipment.
Savaloja says he tried hunting with a compound bow for a couple of years but it wasn’t the same so he returned to his first love —traditional archery.
To each their own, he says.
“I do hunt with friends that use compound bows and crossbows, so it does not matter to me what others choose to use,” Savaloja said. “My only concern is I would hate to see the bow seasons shortened because of the success rate for guys using modern weapons.”
ND archery trends
Here’s a look at North Dakota archery deer license sales and hunter success since 2015:
2015: 25,703, 35%.
2016: 26,755, 43%.
2017: 28,481, 39%.
2018: 28,824, 39%.
2019: 27,582, 41%.
Source: North Dakota Game and Fish Department