Sitka Mountain Gear

By Pat Lefemine

A candid interview with the founder of Bowhunter Magazine


What got you interested in bowhunting?

I'd always messed around with bows and arrows, making my own and shooting them as a kid in rural southern Illinois, finally saving up money from my chores to buy my first "real bow" when I was 11 or 12. I ruined that store-bought longbow by accidentally sticking its upper limb tip in the spokes of my bike as I rode to a friend's house. Talk about being heartbroken! In high school I shot with a friend at a local archery range and we stalked woodchucks together around our hometown. By the late '50s I'd started going to weekend National Field Archery Association (NFAA) tournaments and dabbling in bowhunting small game like squirrels and rabbits and varmints (there were no deer in Wabash County in those days). I'd grown up hunting with a .22 or 12 gauge shotgun and found it getting too easy. Filling a bag limit of bushytails, cottontails, quail, doves, or waterfowl became routine. One squirrel season I took 25 squirrels with 25 shots just to prove I could do it by taking my time and taking only good shots. I started seeking more of a challenge and eventually turned to the bow and arrow for my hunting excitement. During the early '60s I got serious about bowhunting and went along with my high school buddy to a deer camp in Pope County, Illinois. I was in college in Indiana at the time and recall cutting Friday classes to head out bowhunting for the weekend. The first full season I bowhunted deer (1962) I somehow managed to stalk within 20 yards of several good bucks -- and yet I never got a shot. With a firearm it would have been a snap. I was hooked. I'd finally found a true hunting challenge.

Tell us about the first animal you shot with a bow?

The first animal I shot with a bow was a fox squirrel. As I've already suggested, I used to be an avid squirrel hunter, and I mostly used a scope-sighted .22, but taking a daily limit of 5 bushytails was not all that tough. Hunting squirrels with my bow and arrows was much more challenging. I loved it! The first big game animal I killed was a whitetail buck arrowed in 1963 in Warrick County, Indiana. It was the last November evening of the statewide archery season. I jumped a small herd of deer not far from where I'd parked my car. Trailing after the whitetails in hopes of seeing them again, I bumped into a rutting buck that was acting goofy as he trailed a hot doe. I was able to sneak up within 20 yards and shoot him as he grunted and herded that doe though a briar thicket along a dry creekbed. I was shooting a 48-lb. Colt Huntsman recurve, cedar shafts, and Bear Razorheads. That old whitetail wore a huge 6-point rack that made the Pope and Young record book (the P&Y minimum was 115 back then and my deer's rack scored 118 3/8 with basal circumferences of nearly 7 inches). He was a great trophy for a novice bowhunter and the first 6-pointer to ever make the bowhunting record book. In retrospect, I realize that very little hunting skill was involved. Lady Luck sure smiled on me that day. But from then on I was a committed deer hunter.

What made you decide to start a bowhunting magazine?

I wrote a piece about that buck called "Beginner's Luck." It was published in ARCHERY, the NFAA's official monthly publication, in 1965. That started a friendship with Roy Hoff, the magazine's founder and a future member of the Archery Hall of Fame. Roy encouraged me to send him more of my hunting stories, and I did. I'd sold my first stories to national magazines when I was 19 and worked part-time for daily newspapers while going to college. My early writings were mostly pulp fiction, Westerns and murder mysteries, but as I started going on more and more hunting trips it was natural to write about my hunts. The money I earned from selling those stories helped me buy more archery tackle and go on still more hunts. Anyway, from the mid- to late-1960s I wrote numerous articles for ARCHERY, ARCHERY WORLD, and BOW & ARROW, as well as other outdoor magazines like FUR-FISH-GAME. I couldn't wait for each new magazine to arrive in my mailbox, but in those days the three national archery magazines devoted only part of their content to bowhunting. Since I didn't care who won which tourney or which new bow was being tested, I found about half of each issue of little or no interest. I wanted bowhunting stories -- and so did most of the guys I hung out with. Archery was okay, but bowhunting was great. It seemed a shame to me that there wasn't a national magazine devoted exclusively to bowhunting big and small game.

In 1970, while I was working as Communications Manager for The Magnavox Company in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I befriended three other Magnavox employees -- Don Clark, Bob Schisler, and Steve Doucette. We had started a local archery club at the Izaak Walton Club grounds north of town and while working on the range or shooting together we agreed it sure would be nice if there was an all-bowhunting magazine for guys like us. Not knowing any better, we decided to start one. I already was a published writer and professional editor. Don and Bob were engineers, but they volunteered to sell ads and handle subscriptions. Steve, a graphic artist, said he'd be glad to do layouts. We soon put together an info packet and started talking to various archery/bowhunting organizations like the Professional Bowhunters Society, the Pope and Young Club, the Indiana Bowhunters Association, as well as with potential advertisers. We received lots of encouragement and incorporated as Blue-J, Inc., Publishers of BOWHUNTER Magazine, in February of 1971. The first issue of BOWHUNTER, subtitled "A New Magazine for the Hunting Archer," appeared in August of '71. It had 48 pages and cost 60¢ per copy. A 1-year subscription cost $3.00 or you could order 2 years for $5.50.

What were some of the early days at Bowhunter Magazine like?

The early BOWHUNTER days were exciting. The timing for introducing an all-bowhunting magazine was perfect. An ugly looking contraption called the

Related Resources
Bowhunter Magazine

"compound bow" was just bursting on the archery/bowhunting scene. Also, interest in hunting with bows and arrows was growing, thanks to Fred Bear, Howard Hill, Bob Swinehart, and other bowhunters who shared their adventures with an eager, admiring audience of magazine readers and television viewers. We printed 15,000 copies of that initial issue and BOWHUNTER was well received from the outset. Our newsstand sales soared and subscription orders poured in. Don, Bob, Steve, and I would work at Magnavox all day and spend off hours putting together the next issue of BOWHUNTER. I can remember meeting magazine deadlines by staying up until 3 or 4 a.m., taking a shower, catching a nap, and going back to my Magnavox office. It's a good thing we were young back then (in our 30s) because 60- to 70-hour work weeks were the norm. It's a cliché to say it, but BOWHUNTER was truly a labor of love for all of us. As each issue was set to be mailed, we'd gather with our wives and kids (who helped us a lot) and have a "magazine stuffing party" which amounted to typing address labels and putting thousands of magazines into envelopes. We soon outgrew such do-it-ourselves mailing methods, but as I said, the early days were fun. We took considerable pride in having created a magazine that was so widely accepted.

Fred Wallace, an Ohio-based salesman, joined us in 1973, and we made Fred a partner a few years later after his ad sales efforts paid off big time. Each year BOWHUNTER grew in size and numbers of readers. But we kept plowing profits back into the magazine, none of us drawing any salary for the first 5 years we were in business. By that time the magazine was on great financial footing, and in the coming years we "retired" from Magnavox to become full-time BOWHUNTER employees (all of us except Bob who worked at Magnavox for over 30 years before retiring). Interestingly, at the beginning we'd been told by publishing "experts" that it would take $2 to $3 million to create and publish special interest magazine. Unfortunately, we didn't have that much in our checking accounts. But we were stubborn and so we decided to prove the experts wrong. And we did! Believe it or not, we didn't ever have to borrow any money (except for a couple of thousand dollars necessary to pay one postage bill), yet we paid our invoices on time and still had cash left over to invest in the growing company. It was a heady, rewarding time for all of us. And before we knew it , thanks to good people and hard work, our little company had grown into a multi-million dollar publishing operation. By the end of 5 years we were printing over 80,000 copies and had a paid circulation of over 57,000. Our ad sales topped $1 million for the first time within 7 or 8 years. In due time our paid circulation eventually reached 225,000.

You've hunted all over, what would you consider to be your favorite game animal to bowhunt and why?

My favorite game animal is the whitetail. Always has been. Always will be. They're found almost everywhere across North America and truly are "Everyman's Deer." Big bucks are almost a separate species of big game and epitomize the term "challenging." Also, these deer don't care if you're a millionaire or jobless and on welfare, they treat everyone equally. You can spend as much money -- or as little -- as you want and still have a memorable time hunting them. And bowhunting whitetails can be the most satisfying, rewarding outdoor undertaking you can ever imagine. Yet at the same time hunting these beautiful deer can be the most frustrating, disappointing experience there is. I love it! I love whitetails!

Dick Idol, my pal and a Montana neighbor who is known as one of America's most serious deer hunters, has said a successful deer hunter can travel all over the world and hunt all kinds of animals, but in the end he's going to return to whitetail hunting. I believe Dick's right on target with that comment. I know it's certainly true in my case.

Tell us about your most memorable bowhunt?

I've had a number of memorable bowhunts, but one that immediately comes to mind is a caribou hunt in the Northwest Territories back in '93. My wife Janet, our son Dave, and daughter-in-law Norma had flown north of Yellowknife ahead of the mid-August hunting season opener for some lake trout fishing before Dave and I tried to fill our caribou tags. One day Dave and I both arrowed bulls. As our Indian guide was field dressing Dave's bull his knife slipped and he stabbed himself in his inner thigh, severing the femoral artery. We worked together using hand pressure and a tourniquet to staunch the blood spurting from the deep wound. We also radioed for help rather than try to carry the guide several miles over uneven tundra back to our boat. A helicopter from a nearby mining company and a float plane heard the SOS calls and rushed to help us. The chopper landed on the tundra within 30 yards and rushed the injured guide, Norma, and me across the lake to camp where the float plane was waiting. The plane immediately took off for Yellowknife where emergency surgery was performed to save the guide's leg -- and life. Afterwards, his doctor said we'd done all the right things to keep our guide from bleeding to death. Our guide recovered and was back in caribou camp the following year. I wrote a story about the hunt called "A Very Good Day." It was. That near-tragedy was one hunt none of us will ever forget. It makes you realize just how insignificant hunting success can be when a man's life is nearly lost in the process. That experience really put things in perspective for me.

How has bowhunting changed for you since those early days?

Bowhunting has changed dramatically from those early years when we learned to bowhunt mostly through trial and error and we hunted deer from ground level rather than climbing trees. But the biggest change, without question, has been in the equipment used. The compound bow forever changed the face of bowhunting, for better or worse. The replaceable blade broadhead was another significant bowhunting invention and milestone, as was the widespread use of tree stands. Also, there's a wealth -- or glut -- of information available today. We didn't have good books, magazines, videos, seminars, and websites telling us how and where to hunt. Back when I started bowhunting it was said it took the "average bow and arrow deer hunter" 6-7 years to take his first animal, and the nationwide success rate was less than 5%. We only had stickbows in those days, of course, but we still did pretty well. Even today, with the advent of compound bows and a plethora of how-to information, the national success rate still averages only a bit over 15%. That fact underscores bowhunting's inherent difficulty. Even with all the advancements in technology and information, it's still not easy to take game with the bow and arrow. That's just how I like it, too. Most serious bowhunters agree.

In my own case, bowhunting is now more of a business than ever before. Each year I go on numerous hunts that are made with a particular article or television show or video in mind. I'm not complaining, mind you, just stating facts. Some guys think that all I do is hunt (which isn't true, although I do bowhunt more than most people because writing about hunting is what I do for a living) and a few people would kill to be able to go the places I go and hunt the game I hunt. I feel I have the best job on earth, hands down. But the reality is there are certain business trips and certain personal hunts which I truly enjoy. I can candidly admit that there are times when I'd much rather walk out my door and hunt from a backyard tree stand than get on a plane and travel across the continent to some distant hunting camp. Believe me when I say it's possible to get burned out from too much of a good thing. Today I try to be more and more selective about the hunts I make, but I also understand the need to represent BOWHUNTER in certain camps. That's business. I much prefer to hunt for the sheer pleasure and challenge bowhunting offers.

One quick example of the difference I'm talking about: A couple of years ago I hunted whitetails in over half a dozen states and traveled thousands of miles in the process. I took some good bucks but shot the best deer of the season less than 150 yards from my house on a Montana mountainside. Guess which deer meant the most to me. I didn't even write about that hunt. I simply enjoyed the fact I was on my own, without a video camera or deadline pressure facing me, and I was hunting where and when I wanted, not because I had a magazine assignment.

With such a long bowhunting career - have you ever been in a situation where you were in danger or your life was threatened?

I've received occasional death threats from hunter-haters off and on for over 30 years, but I've not taken many of them very seriously. As far as life threatening situations, I've been in a few hairy places while goat hunting where I knew that one wrong step could mean falling hundreds of feet. That's made me nervous a time or two, especially when the rocks were wet or icy. And I've been in bush planes and boats during bad storms when prospects of getting back on firm ground in one piece didn't seem too likely at the time. On several other occasions I've almost been run down by deer, elk, bears -- and that one Alaskan moose my pal Larry D. Jones arrowed (anyone who has seen the footage on TV or in our HUNTIN' ACTION video knows how close that bull came to bowling over the camera and me). But all in all I've not had many close calls. I worry more about driving to town and back than being done in on some bowhunting adventure.

One might say that you're in the middle with regards to equipment.  You use and promote modern archery tackle, but you're also in favor of limiting technology and do not support the general use of crossbows during archery season.  How did you arrive at that position and have your views changed through the years?

My all-time favorite bow is still a Black Widow recurve the Wilson Brothers made especially for me over 30 years ago. And I have a couple of other Widows I really like that my buddy Ken Beck made up for me. I just ordered a new longbow although I still use and like the Bighorn Ram Hunter I've had for years. At the same time, I just got a new Jennings compound and I've been shooting Browning and Mathews one-cams for the last several years. I use some bows because of the business I'm in; I use other bows because I simply choose to use a certain make and model because I like 'em.

Some of my best friends and hunting buddies are traditionalists; others use the latest high-tech tackle. Personally I don't care what you use as long as you use it well. I've met stickbow shooters who shouldn't be allowed in the woods to hunt because they can't hit the ground 3 shots out of 5; and I've seen accurate compound-toting speed freaks who don't have a clue about taking a responsible shot at reasonable ranges, flinging arrows at distant animals they seem to regard as little more than flesh and blood 3-D targets. Believe me, there are jerks on both sides of the equipment issue.

Bowhunting is serious business -- or it should be. I advocate using the bow, arrow, and broadhead setup that suits you best. I agree with my old friend and huntin' buddy, G. Fred Asbell, who says that using a longbow or recurve should never be an excuse for shooting poorly. I'd much rather see someone shooting a compound accurately than a stickbow poorly. At the same time, I think it's foolish to continually tinker with a compound, adding every new gadget that comes along, and trying to coax every possible fps out of the bow. As my good friend and technical guru Dave Holt says, "It's better to hit a target with a slow arrow than to miss it with a fast one." My own compounds mostly shoot around my hunting arrows 230 to 250 fps, which is plenty for the game I hunt at the yardage I shoot. Most pull about 70 pounds and I mainly shoot Easton 2315s, although I've used carbons on some hunts with good success. My favorite hunting heads weigh 125 grains and come in either 3- or 4-blade designs. Being from the old school of bowhunting, I personally dislike ultra-fast bows, light arrows, and tiny broadheads.

But compounds and technology are here to stay. Those chest-thumping traditionalists who put down bows with "training wheels" and the people who use them, yearning to revert to the days of stickbow-only hunting, are living in a dream world. Likewise, those gadgeteers who want to reinvent the gun and use modern archery tackle that takes all the human factor out of shooting a bow are completely out of touch with the reality of what bowhunting is all about. The best bowhunters I know would be successful regardless of what they hunted with. It's their ability and attitude -- not the bow they carry into the woods -- that matters. The my-way-or-no-way attitude I hear from both traditional and modern bowhunters is, in my opinion, stupid. Fighting among ourselves delights the antis, creates hard feelings among groups of hunters, and serves no useful purpose.

Can there be too much technology in bowhunting? Of course. But I've heard some extremist traditional shooters put down other traditionalists because they shot a recurve, not a longbow or selfbow. As Gene Wensel, another old pal might say, "Give me a break!"

Crossbows are not bows and in my opinion have no place in regular archery seasons. Manufacturers who attempt to get crossbows legalized in statewide archery seasons are wrong; they're putting potential profit ahead of what's best for bowhunting. But bowhunters who claim that compounds are "vertical crossbows" are wrong, too. They're not and won't be until you're able to cock and shoot them with minimum movement. Crossbows are different. Period. In field tests I've proved I can shoot a modern crossbow more accurately at longer yardage than any conventional hunting bow I own. I've found shooting a crossbow easier, pure and simple. If people want to use them to hunt deer, fine -- but not during archery seasons. Put 'em in with firearms or in a special primitive weapon season, if necessary. But keep them out of bow seasons. The people who'd use them are mostly those who simply want to kill a deer, and killing is not what bow and arrow hunting is all about. If you have to kill something on a regular basis, use a gun and visit a game farm. By the way, my sole exception to the general no-crossbow rule would be a very limited number of severely physically challenged individuals who otherwise would not be able to hunt. Such truly handicapped hunters would be welcome in my camp at any time, even if they were using a crossbow.

I base these judgments on over 40 years of personal and professional experience hunting most big game species across much of North America.

If you could go on only one hunt a year, what would that be?

Only one hunt? I'd probably opt to hunt whitetails not far from home, alone or with my son Dave or another good buddy. My corner of Montana has some great deer hunting opportunities -- and some great bucks.

What bowhunts do you have planned for 2002?

I've got a couple of turkey hunts and bear hunts slated this spring. On one hunt I'll be with ol' pal Jim Dougherty chasin' gobblers. Later I'll be sharing bear camps with BOWHUNTER Editor Dwight Schuh up in Canada. In early August I'm off to California to chase blacktails, then I'll head to the Northwest Territories for a mountain caribou hunt. In mid-September I'll be in Wyoming for deer. Then it's more whitetail hunting in Nebraska, Saskatchewan, Illinois, Maryland, and a couple of other states, time permitting. I have invitations to hunt deer in Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. And I'll hunt some here in Montana, too. All I have to do is find the time.

Where do you see bowhunting in the year in 2025?

I wish I had a crystal ball. It's possible we could be legislated out of existence by then, but I certainly hope that's not the case. I want to believe bowhunting will still be alive and well. If it is, it'll likely be more limited than it is today because there's a finite amount of hunting land available and today's public woodlands already are becoming increasingly crowded with each successive season. More and more private land will be posted in the future as landowners close their property to hunting or lease it to hunting clubs or outfitters willing to pay top dollar for the privilege to hunt. Bowhunting everywhere will be more pricey, too. Many guided hunts will be out of the price range of average folks (that's already happening!), and everything from hunting licenses to tackle to travel costs will be more and more expensive. Hunting as we know it today will eventually end, but I hope not during my lifetime. I've been truly blessed to see and be a part of what I call "The Golden Age" of bowhunting which spanned the last half of the 20th century and continues to this day.

Frankly, I'm looking forward to 2025. I killed my first mule deer with a bow in 1965, and I arrowed my best muley buck 30 years later in 1995. Seems Lady Luck smiles on me every three decades when I'm hunting mule deer, so it's likely I'll be due to collect a real monster muley in 2025. I'll only be 85 at the time and tagging another big mule deer buck would be a great birthday present.

  • Sitka Gear