You need to get in close without letting them smell you, says Mitch Sowl, “twenty yards or less.” Sowl hunts in the forests of Kaua‘i for pig, goat and black-tailed deer in the old, old-fashioned way: with a longbow. Unlike a gun or even a compound bow, which uses wheels, cables and sights, a longbow is basically just a “stick and string,” says Sowl, who calls it the purest, most challenging way to hunt.
Sowl’s a purist in more ways than one: For the past eighteen years the bowyer has designed and fabricated his own bows, arrows, strings—even building the tools and jigs he needs. He started making bows in 1979, learning the art from master bowyers in Carson City, Nevada.
Each bow requires about ten days to complete. They’re functional, of course, but they’re also beautiful. The limbs are made of finely sanded red elm and maple epoxied between fiberglass laminates, and the “handle risers,” or grips, are made of native koa or exotic woods like purpleheart, osage and cocobolo. Sowl even makes his own bowstrings from Dacron and fletches arrows from Port Orford cedar (he prefers wooden arrows to aluminum or carbon because they’re heavier and have better penetration; one shot can fell an animal as large as a mouflon sheep, and they’re less likely to cause a nonlethal injury.) Once all parts of the bow are sanded, filed, planed to one-thousandth of an inch and clamped into a bow form, Sowl cures them at 150 degrees for four hours, fusing all materials to ensure strength and durability. And they are strong: “I’ve never had one break on me,” says Sowl.
Prices range from $125 for a kid’s bow to $475 for an adult’s. And while he offers to teach buyers how to string a bow, some, he says, don’t want to know. “They buy them as art to hang on the wall,” he says. But to Sowl, longbows are tools—ones that take a lifetime of practice to master. Sowl can show you how to string a bow, but he can’t teach the instincts you need to be successful at hunting with one. You just have to know, he says. “When it’s time to shoot, it’s time to shoot.”