~ 7 Tips for the Primitive Hunter ~
by Mark Warren
It is the most natural thing in the world for people to invent ways to make jobs easier. Who wouldn’t want to pipe water into the house, rather than lug it from a well in a bucket?
Virtually every person I know today accesses water inside his or her home by the turn of a knob or the lift of a handle, and never have I heard one of them say, “Hey, you know what? I’ve got this hankering to haul my water in like my great-great grandfather did. I’m going to get hold of a bucket and return to the old ways.”
Crazy, huh? But not in the hunting world. I know from firsthand conversations that more and more hunters are interested in that wilderness arena that balances out the advantage-equation to a fairer contest between hunter and prey. Some of these retro-hunters want to feel the equalizing factor. Others long to act on their newly found DNA connection to the Cherokee or Shawnee or Seneca, etc. The fact is, no matter what a hunter’s lineage, we all have ancestors who carried a wooden spear and painstakingly stalked for his food. This stabbing weapon was tipped by a razor-sharp napped stone and bound to its shaft by strands of wet sinew or rawhide dried “to stone.”
Which means that every hunter is eligible to heed the call of atavism!
Atavism. Here’s its definition from my four-inch-thick Random House dictionary: “the reappearance in an individual of characteristics of some remote ancestor that have been absent in intervening generations.”
At my school of primitive skills in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, I have met many students of all ages who are answering that call from the past and are set on “hunting primitive.” Those folks especially flock to my workshops on archery and stalking wild animals. In talking to these hunters, I hear their stories of weaning themselves off of technology by degrees: scopes, then self-contained cartridges, then black powder, then guns altogether, commercial tree stands, chemical lures, etc.
There are many different levels to aim for in this throwback to self-reliance. Some people are content to continue with all their high-tech hunting gear but commit to boots-on-the-ground stalking. Others push it farther to include handmade weapons only. The purists take it to the limit by refusing to use anything sold in a store. So far, every one of these primitive hunters whom I have talked to has turned to the bow and arrow as the weapon of choice, so that’s where I will direct my thoughts on the page.
No matter what echelon of primitiveness you might strive for, here are 7 tips for the stalker-hunter:
- Eliminate as much of your body scent as possible. The impressive olfactory senses of long-muzzled animals is difficult for humans to imagine. Because you will necessarily have to move in close, every molecule of scent arising from you needs to be accounted for. Before the hunt, drop sharp tasting dishes and spicy foods from your diet. (Eat bland.) Mask body scents with safe materials from the relevant forest. Green pine needles will do. (Many outdoorsmen rely upon campfire smoke to mask their scent. I am not a believer in smoke as an acceptable smell to wildlife. Smoke is connected to forest fires and human campfires, neither of which is an animal-friendly subject.) Wash hunting clothes with baking soda and leave in the sun for days before putting them on. The Cherokees removed strips of hemlock inner bark and dried them in the sun until crisp. After grinding this to a powder, they applied it to their bodies before a hunt. Its antiseptic qualities absorb human scent. And here’s a long-term suggestion: The better physical shape your body, the less telltale aromas your pores exude.
- Choose your bow wood wisely. Learn what the native tribes of your area preferred. These ancient bowyers should be considered your mentors. If a bow is clunky and not quick and crisp in launching the arrow, that little delay of sluggish bow limbs can give an animal time to react to the twang of the string. The animal’s response movement may be just enough to cause the arrow to hit outside the kill zone, which may result in a tragic wounding and a resultant story of suffering. In my area the Cherokee’s wood of choice was yellow (now called “black”) locust. Juniper, white oak, and sassafras were also used. However the Cherokees liked to trade for Osage orange from western neighbors whenever possible.
- Choose your clothing for quietness. Aside from the design efficiency of camou or ghillie suits, make sure your clothing does not “whisper” when it moves upon itself. Some nylons, for example, swish when thighs rub together. The sound created by fabric-friction can be very high-pitched and might escape the ears of the wearer. This high frequency signal floats above the natural chirps, ticks, snaps, and rustling of the forest to stand out as an interloping sound. In fact, it is similar to the wheeze heard in a deer’s snort or blow, which is, of course, a sound of alarm.
- Quiet your mind. There is high drama in stalking prey up close. Every move that is made to approach the animal is a move that the hunter is responsible for. It’s a high accountability situation. One false move (a failure in balance, strength, or patience, a poorly chosen place to step, an attempt to cut a corner by a hurried move, a bumped sapling that waves like a flag, one pop from a bad knee, an involuntary sneeze) and away bounds the wary animal. This puts a lot of pressure on both a novice hunter or even a veteran who has chosen this more challenging style of hunting. That pressure translates as nervousness. (Think ‘buck fever.”) And though I cannot back this up with empirical evidence, I believe that a “case of nerves” radiates from the hunter’s body to be picked up by the animal’s “radar.” Perhaps the process involves electromagnetic waves, or maybe it’s due to pheromones—those chemicals of emotion that researchers have shown to emanate from the body. (Anthropologists tell us that, before the development of language, pheromones played a critical part of intercommunication between humans.) The great conqueror of “nerves” is confidence. Confidence comes from training, a large part of which is muscular strength and balance. Both can be improved by practice. But your greatest asset is patience—never allowing yourself to hurry . . . being in total command of your passage. If you think of yourself as lacking patience, take heart. It’s in your DNA. You just haven’t tapped it yet. You can.
- Don’t resemble the world’s most dangerous predator: a human. Think of your appearance through the eyes of a deer. Upright torso, standing on rear legs, front legs hanging to either side, egg-shaped head sitting on top of a stalk-like neck. Change all this to make yourself appear benign. Keep your legs close together, as if walking on a tightrope. From the animal’s point of view, the two leg shapes meld into one. Keep your arms inside the silhouette of your torso, holding your bow in line with your spine. Duck your head enough to make your neck disappear. When you “freeze” in this position as an animal inspects you, you may be surprised how you can deceive it and be accepted as part of the scenery.
- Don’t gawk. Two eyes that stare are intimidating. As a stalker you will be up close and personal with prey, and because of this your eyes will be a factor. No color stands out to sylvan animals more so than stark white, and because the whites of our eyes literally frame our irises we need to minimize that glaring ring by squinting. Sounds easy enough, right? But narrowing our eyes tests our balance. Few people (except the blind) are aware of how much we depend upon seeing our surroundings in order to keep our balance. The horizon around us, even the slants of hills and mountains, play a huge part in our everyday steadiness. If you’d like to prove this to yourself, try this: Stand on one leg, steady yourself, and try to get comfortable without moving. Now look not just up but straight up. You’ll feel a metaphorical knot loosen in your gut, letting you know you don’t have control anymore. You can improve sightless balance just like blind people do. Practice balancing on each leg with your eyes closed.
- Maintain respect for the animal, the place, and your part in the place. Too many times I’ve experienced thoughtless hunters who show disrespect for their killed “game.” This usually involves a dead deer wearing a hat for a photo . . . or something much more obscene. The Cherokees would see no humor in this. The last thing that a native hunter did before loosing an arrow at a deer was to say a silent prayer. If there was no time before the shot, the prayer was spoken over the animal’s dead body. The prayer involved humility and gratitude and appreciation for all the gifts that would be passed on by the deer: tanning chemicals from the brain; moccasins, shirts, and leggings from the skin; nourishment from the meat; waterproofing oil from hooves; napping tools from the antlers; sewing tools from bone and sinew; cooking vessel from the stomach, and more. Find your own way to practice respect for all the elements of the hunt. Let others hear you speak about this respect. Then you will be an example for those who lack this perspective. And best of all, you will discover what all my primitive-hunter students eventually admit to me: “I didn’t know it at first, but I entered this mode of hunting because I felt lacking in my life. I wanted to feel more connected to wildness.” And they achieved it. This method is a key to the door of intimacy with nature. Even if, on an excursion, you see no animals on your hunting list all day and you don’t use your weapon, the time spent stalking in the quiet of the forest elevates you from the level of spectator to participant. It’s a life-changer.
If this approach to hunting interests you, then you’re the kind of person for whom I wrote a series of books that covers these skills and more: stalking form, strengthening activities, track identification, tracking techniques, bow and arrow making, the secrets of archery form, plant usage, fire creation, and other survival skills. Check them out at: www.secretsoftheforestbook.com.For half a century Mark Warren has been teaching primitive skills at his school, Medicine Bow, in the mountains of north Georgia. He is the author of Secrets of the Forest (4 Volumes), Wyatt Earp, an American Odyssey (a trilogy), Two Winters in a Tipi, and coming in 2021 Indigo Heaven, Song of the Horseman, and Last of the Pistoleers.