The giant skunk stood between two trees 33 yards away. I had a narrow lane through the branches and saplings to try to weave my arrow through for a clean shot. I drew, aimed, and released and watched my arrow sail harmlessly over it’s back, whisk through some leaves and disappear into the valley beyond. I lowered my bow, disappointed by another 0 on my score card and, undoubtably, lost arrow. I stared down range for a moment at the intentionally difficult target and then joined my group as we walked to collect arrows that had gone every where but into the skunk. It wasn’t a real skunk. It was a foam rubber 3D archery target skunk. We were shooting the Leupold course at the Total Archery Challenge in Seven Springs, PA. The Total Archery Challenge (or TAC) is a recent and popular development in the archery community and it asks archers to stretch their world a bit offering much longer and more difficult shots than most archers are used to taking and scenarios beyond the realm of most hunting experiences. TAC holds about a dozen events that span the calendar year, and the country. Each event is held in unique places with challenging terrain to go with the fun and difficult shots. It behooves the archer to shape up a bit and fletch plenty of arrows before tackling TAC.
My friends and I had been talking about doing this event for a couple years dating back prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, we missed the brief sign-up period before the event was full but that event go cancelled anyway courtesy of COVID-19. Each TAC event runs for four days and offers five different courses of varying shot lengths. These events are often held at ski resorts. Needless to say, they can accommodate a lot of shooters. The fact that they sell out in hours is a testament to their popularity. I’ll digress for a moment to provide a bit of history around target archery for those that many not be familiar. (Apologies in advance if this part is a little boring).
I grew up as a self taught archer and bowhunter. I began shooting a plastic recurve/longbow as a small tyke. (Somewhere I have a picture of me flinging arrows in the backyard.) I began bowhunting in the late 1970s in the early days of compound archery. The big sport then was field archery. Field archery involves 28 targets of varying distances from 10 yards to 80 yards. Each target is a traditional paper target placed on a backstop but clubs used the terrain, shadows, and elements to be able to create challenging, fun courses. In field archery, the archer shoots four arrows at each target, sometimes changing position between each shot. Field archery was incredibly popular when I started shooting. Club shoots would get as many as 100 shooters for a small, weekend shoot. Field archery was (and is) great practice for hunting allowing the archer to hone in their skills for different distances and angles.
Sometime in the early 1990s, someone somewhere began to make lifelike animal shaped targets out of foam rubber. In those early days, these targets were made by club members and mostly resembled “a woodland creature” more than any specific animal. My club got on board early and we built foam rubber “deer” with one flat side and replaced our paper field targets with the 3D-ish deer. As 3D targets gained popularity, this new sport took off. Commercial targets and new archery organizations geared toward 3D appeared. The popularity of field archery quickly waned as 3D grew. The appeal of 3D was that most rules around the game limited shooting distances to 50 yards or less but the distances were unmarked whereas Field archery stretched shots to 80 yards but all shooting distances were known. 3D targets are also free standing with no backstop. You miss the target your arrow is probably lost. This challenge combined with the unknown distances and lifelike targets was supposed to help the bowhunter be better prepared to make good shots in the field.
This all makes sense, right? I can say I jumped fully on-board and shot 3D shoots at every opportunity. 3D archery grew like crazy through the 1990s and early 2000s. Archery clubs rolled in money as shooters poured in to participate. 3D target makers came on board and built ever more fun and creative targets. And then the popularity of 3D slowed dramatically. It is still the most popular recreational style of archery in the US, with Field archery being on life support, but it does not have the popularity it did 25 years ago. So what happened? Mostly . . insert dollars here. Like most sports, the moment money and prestige are introduced the sport fundamentally changes. Specialized gear, cheating, and long waits to shoot a few arrows took their toll as did the modern, busy lifestyle. Ultimately, 3D just got a little mundane and boring. As bowhunting evolved, 3D didn’t change to match it.
In the woods, hunters now had cheap and accurate laser rangefinders available. Suddenly, there wasn’t really such a thing as guessing of yardage. Between this new technology and better bows and arrows, the unknown distances of 3D weren’t so important anymore. To the non-hunter, the application of all this technology may seem unethical but, on the contrary, having flat shooting arrows and being certain of the distance allow hunters to make good shots with quick, clean kills. A couple yards off one way or another can cause at best case a miss, at worst unneeded pain and suffering for a target animal. The rules of 3D archery were slow to change. The top divisions at big shoots put on by organizations like the ASA (Archery Shooters Association) and IBO (International Bowhunting Organization) still require competitors to guess yardage. It is a learned skill and something to be proud of for those that do it well but frankly, completely unnecessary from a hunting perspective. Most hunters can, do, and should use a rangefinder and know the distances in the field.
All of that mumbo jumbo was to emphasize that 3D archery has, for a lot of people, moved away from what people want from their archery practice. With rangefinders, and bows and arrows capable of shooting much longer distances, they want to stretch out a bit. These days, fewer hunters are looking for the big competition at a weekend shoot and just want to have fun shooting their bows.
Wow. That was some detour but I felt it was helpful to give a bit of recent archery history before coming back to the Total Archery Challenge. As archery and hunting have changed there have been several new events that have come along to support that change and give archers and bowhunters a new outlet to simply have fun without worrying about an intricate set of rules or posting a poor score on the results page. One manufacturer of 3D targets, Rinehart, started a series called the R100 which is a fun event featuring sine unique targets they produce just for these shoots. There are other singular events around the country and some other series that haven’t become as popular as Total Archery Challenge. But good people with good skills have built Total Archery Challenge over the last 8 years and they are definitely doing it right.
Phew. Enough of that boring background stuff.
Thursday June 3rd found me rolling west-bound on the the Pennsylvania Turnpike (aka the world’s most expensive toll road). The plan was to meet my buddies Joe and Andy at Joe’s brother’s camp near Somerset, PA. Jim’s camp is a beautiful little one room affair that sits in the middle of a quiet forest. Conveniently, there is a winery a half-mile up the road and . . oops . . sorry. Got distracted there for a moment. Jim’s camp would be perfect lodging for our few days of archery fun since it is only about 20 minutes from Seven Springs Ski resort where the Pennsylvania version of TAC was held. We had signed up to shoot two courses, shooting the Leupold course on Friday morning and the Yeti course on Sunday. With participants deferring from 2020, it was difficult to get Saturday or early “nock times” (compare to a tee time in golf).
On paper, the Leupold course appeared to be the easiest course with Yeti a close second. A few years ago I’d have been all about shooting the longest, most difficult course. But back then I owned a stable full of bows for any occasion, enough arrows to stock Geronimo’s people for a year, and shot nearly every day. As it was, none of us would be super-prepared other than to have fun. Unfortunately, Jim would not be able to shoot due to having had some unplanned shoulder surgery, and of the three remaining archers in camp, I was probably the most experienced archer with Andy being the least. He had prepared himself by buying almost enough arrows to have one for each target and, admittedly, had not really been shooting his bow. I almost felt sorry picturing the number of targets he would miss.
For my own preparation, I had attended a couple local 3D shoots where I had hoped to use the practice ranges to sight in my longer sight pins. Since I have only been bowhunting white-tailed deer for the last few years, I haven’t bothered to sight in or practice longer than 30 yards. I’m very proficient at those distances and, having been lucky enough to have killed a couple hundred deer in my life, don’t need to be taking shots any farther than that. I’ve also reduced my stable of bows to one and it is more or less setup as a close range hunting bow. To get ready for TAC, I needed to work on those longer distances. Unfortunately, there was little opportunity to shoot at longer distances at either of the clubs I went to. But, no worries. Total Archery Challenge offers a full practice range with targets out to 115 yards. If you aren’t an archer, you can’t imagine how ludicrous it would be to try to hit a target at 115 yards with a 60 yard sight pin. Picture trying to water a plant 200 feet away with a 25 foot hose. Needless to say I had no plans to shoot at any targets that far and chose to concentrate on trying to set my 50 and 60 yard pin before we hopped on the ski lift for our nock time. It is not surprising that we were not the only ones on the practice range and the time between shooting, arrow retrieval, and setting pins was lengthy. I got a little impatient and, when I felt I had my pins close enough, I called it good. In hindsight I probably should have spent a bit more time on the practice range.
As it was we collected our gear, and wandered the small vendor area a bit prior to getting in line for the ski lift that would take us to the start of the Leupold course. I was mildly surprised by the few number of vendors. In my archery experience, this shoot dwarfs many other “big” shoots as far as number of participants and there was only about a dozen vendor tents setup. Considering we almost all bought things through the course of the weekend, I think vendors are missing a big opportunity here. Also, despite the virtual shopping experience that was 2020, there is something to seeing products first-hand. I know I am considering purchasing products I’d either never thought of or had ruled out based on the on-line experience but now that I’ve seen them “live”, they are on my radar.
Our nock time for Leupold was 11:30 so about that time we joined a few other folks with similar times and got in line for the proper ski lift. The lift would take us up the mountain (’cause that’s what ski lifts do) and then we’d walk about a 1/2 mile to the start of the course.
This was my first time on a ski lift and I hoped I wouldn’t drop my bow, arrows, pack, or me. Andy confidently snapped a selfie of he and Jim (who went along as score keeper) on the ride up. I didn’t have the nerve. I’m certain I’d have dropped my phone. As it was, I enjoyed the views including the birdseye view of an incredible number of baby ground hogs. They seemed to be everywhere.
Weather for the day was perfect. It was clear and sunny with temperatures in the high 70s in the sun. Happily, the Leupold course was almost entirely shaded so it made the day very nice. Once off the lift, we mounted our packs and made our way to the first target. Unlike a traditional 3D shoot, the rugged nature of most of the TAC courses makes carrying a back pack much more practical then using a belt-mounted quiver. In our packs we had water, tools for bow repair, rain jackets, plenty of arrows, snacks and lunch. Lunch!? We forgot lunch! Oh well. None of us were in danger of starving and we did have snacks along. We decided we’d probably survive.
June has been a whirlwind and I am writing this post about 3 weeks after the TAC weekend. Even had I chosen to write it sooner, I doubt I could remember a target by target play by play. All I can tell you is that Joe and I shot really, really bad. Somewhere at Gold Tip Archery headquarters, the head of sales rubbed his hands and smiled as Joe and I sent one arrow after another into oblivion beyond the target or demolished them on trees, rocks, and roots. In fairness, while the Leupold course might have the shortest distances, there was not an easy target on the course. All were set in challenging ways where the archer was a fool or a hero. There was not a single target less than 30 yards away including the 18″ tall frog target at 60 yards across a pond with a giant rock behind it. Amazingly, we all hit that one. But what of young Andrew? Certainly if Joe and I, the experienced archers and 3D shooters struggled, Andy who hadn’t shot much at all and had just had dose #2 of his COVID vaccine must have been miserable. Except he shot brilliantly! I don’t believe he missed more than two targets all day. Granted there were some 5s and some “barely hit” targets but they were hit. And, given the circumstances, the sound of arrow striking foam was a win. While TAC doesn’t have an overall scoreboard or results, within our group, Andy cleaned our clocks. There is a testament there to young eyes and not enough archery experience to have yet developed the awful affliction of target panic but regardless our young friend shot very well.
I knew the archery would be difficult especially given my lack of preparation. They don’t call it the total archery challenge lightly. Happily, I’m still in good enough physical shape that the 5 mile walk up and down the hills wasn’t a factor. But at the end of day one, I knew where I was headed: The Practice Range!