You probably have to be a little crazy to hunt jackrabbits with a stick-bow and hand-made arrows, but here I was sneaking through eastern Oregon’s Great Basin sagebrush trying to get a shot at a black-tail. Primitive bow hunting for jackrabbits is about like archery hunting for quail, except you rarely see the target.
I'd left blacktop and four-wheeled about 10 miles out into the sage country. Now, as I eased through the brush, arrow on the cordage string. I saw a huge red-tailed hawk circling overhead. I’d been told this was jackrabbit country, but I rarely saw one as they spooked in front of me. None of this jump the bunny, whistle, it stops ten yards away broadside, and you shaft it. No, these jacks exploded from cover about 25 yards ahead with a twenty-mile-an-hour burst. Their five-inch long hind feet gave them all kinds of starting traction. Then they’d settle into an easy lope, and most of the time I only sensed their motion. I almost never saw a whole rabbit. I'd see a blurred streak out of the corner of my eye as one took off. I'd see black ear tips bobbing above the sage. I’d see them make a high sailing leap now and then to see where I was, but a whole rabbit? No way.
Black-tail jackrabbits are really hares. They live in most western states, and are prolific, with populations peaking in roughly seven-year cycles. The more rabbits there are one year the more coyotes the next. Then the rabbit population declines and the cycle starts over. This must have been about the middle of the cycle because there were plenty of rabbits, but not as many as the old-timers said there had been a few years back. Blacktails have two to six litters a year with one to six little ones in each batch. Add to that the fact that they are mature, and sexually active, in 7 months, weigh 7 or 8 pounds, and you’ve got a problem if you’re a rancher. Jacks have voracious appetites because of their rapid metabolism. Estimates vary, but one source said 15 rabbits can eat as much graze as a cow. That’s why no one raises an eyebrow if they see you hunting. There’s a lot of BLM, public land, in the Oregon dessert. You can hunt all of it, and the ranchers don’t mind if you thin the rabbit population. Of course, with a primitive bow I wasn’t worried about doing much thinning. In fact, I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get one at all.
I was mostly out for the adventure, but I still wanted to get at least one. Invariably the more I hunt the more I learn, and after a day of walking miles in the sagebrush, and breathing the clean desert air, I figured that I was jumping these jacks out of their mid-day resting nests under the sage clumps. Then they were circling me and waiting for me to pass by as they sat snickering at me from under a different sagebrush clump. They have excellent vision with their telescopic bug eyes and, since there was no sneaking up on them, I decided to try an old antelope-hunting trick my dad taught me.
“Don’t walk towards an antelope, son,” he said, “Just sidle along looking out of the corner of your eye, like you don’t see him, but keep walking parallel to him, always angling to get a little closer all the time.”
I could just about tell where a rabbit stopped because I didn’t see his black ear tips bobbing any more on the other side of a bush, so I’d sneak along keeping an eye on the sagebrush clump where I thought he stopped and sure enough, I started getting a shot here and there. This was snapshooting at its best. I’d aim first. Then I’d draw and release in one swift motion. I hit a lot of sand, anthills, gravel, and twisted sage wood, but no bunnies.
Normally I hunt rabbits with blunts, and occasionally with stone-tipped arrows. My bow on this trip was a 25-pound juniper D bow made for me by Joseph Dabill. I was experimenting with some new “ferroulithic” tips that looked like knapped black obsidian, but were cast of high-carbon tool steel. I lashed them on my shafts with real sinew and so far they were performing flawlessly. I’d hear one clink off a rock now and then, but they weren’t damaged at all. I was happy with their durability, except that I hadn’t gotten any blacktails yet.
A couple of months back a friend told me about a company in Oregon called theBLADEMAKER.com. They sell steel arrowheads that look like knapped stone called “ferroulithic,” (say ferro lithic) or steel-stone points. I decided to try them out and got a set of three. The BLADEMAKER, his real name is Gary Kelley, also makes early American knife blades for reenactors and knife makers.
Kelley is a primitive archer, like me, who got tired of breaking stone tips, and didn’t like using the modern turned steel field points we are usually stuck with. So he made his own. When I emailed, he told me that he didn’t expect to make any money on arrowheads, because of the expensive process, but he made some for his own use, then friends wanted some, and their friends did too, so he gave in and made a few to sell.
His first project was a target point followed by a field point style. He noticed that at primitive rendezvous archers were using modern arrow tips that looked out of place on 1800’s gear, so he molded a point from an actual stone arrowhead. His steel-stone field points are about the same shape as a commercial field point so they can be easily pulled out of straw or foam without damaging the targets, and they’re about the same weight. He puts half-inch tangs on the points, which are about as thick as two hacksaw blades. That’s what he uses to slot his shafts. The points can be lashed on a shaft with hide glue and sinew, or a few strands of artificial sinew. Personally I always strip the artificial sinew into finer stands so the wrap won't be so bulky.
The front of the shaft rests on those two shoulders, while the end of the tang rests on the center of the arrow slot.
Kelley’s ferroulithic points are made of S5 high carbon tool steel, a shock
resistant steel used for jackhammer bits and punches. They are tempered at
Rockwell 57 for ultimate toughness. He proved it by hammering one into a
cement block just to be sure they would hold up. I’ve used up several shafts
in practice. The steel-stone point never split a shaft, but when one did
break I’d just put the point on another shaft and use it again. I guess
they’d last a lifetime if you didn’t lose any.
I asked about the term ferroulithic and he explained. “I made up that word to describe these particular points. Ferrous is from Latin, and means something that contains iron, like steel. Lithic, comes from Greek and means stone. So put them together and you have something that’s steel and stone. I call them ferroulithic.”
Positive field testing reports are coming in and Kelley says he’s hopeful these steel-stone points will be accepted as authentic-looking projectile points primitive archers can use with confidence. Right now he only has the field point available, but by the time this article gets in print he plans to have an eared point for display arrows, a larger one that can be legally used for hunting big game, and some atlatl dart points.
one of his field testers, I’m happy to report that I was impressed with the
ferroulithic points. I suggested a modification, (notching the side of the
tang to give better purchase for the sinew wrap) which Kelley incorporated.
One thing I noticed was that the bluing wears off after a few shots in sand.
Oh yes, in case you were wondering, near the end of the second day I finally did get a jackrabbit. I had jumped several by mid afternoon and later, as I eased out of a gully with the sun at my back; I actually saw one sitting still. He must have been daydreaming because I was able to get into a shooting position before he saw me. I knew I didn’t have long so I made a quick shot, and the steel-stone point did its job. I have the photo to prove it.
After skinning the big jack, for a future-tanning project, I placed the
carcass atop some leafless gray sagebrush, a plains-Indian style burial, to
complete the circle of nature. Most people don’t eat jackrabbits in desert
country unless it’s a survival emergency. The sage and creosote bush bark
they eat makes their flesh unpalatable.
It was nearing
dusk as I headed for the Jeep, and the long drive home. I reflected on the
past two days. It had been a good hunt. I was tired but rejuvenated. My
spirit was at peace, and I was ready to return to civilization, reluctantly.
I pulled off the dirt road onto empty blacktop and looked back in the
mirror. Against a dark sky, golden sunlight glinted off a magnificent red
tailed hawk as it swooped down and fluttered to a landing atop a dead sage