The atlatl's first season in Missouri comes to a close

Friday, December 17, 2010 | 8:04 p.m. CST; updated 9:08 p.m. CST, Saturday, December 18, 2010
Darts fly toward and hit a "flying pig" target during an atlatl practice session before a competition at the Columbia Bass Pro Shop on Saturday.

COLUMBIA — Gripping an atlatl made from his father’s old cherry tree, Eric Smith held his breath in the woods, motionless. He held up his arm, ready to pierce the heart of a deer with his spearlike weapon.

He saw a deer coming at him.

Atlatl diary

Atlatl diary, from Justin Garnett

"Opening Morning"

Deer season, 2010

This was the first morning of the first official atlatl deer season since the Late Woodland Period. I got up at 4:30 a.m. and painted my face to break up my features, got my gear together and set out to the woods. I took a Basketmaker II atlatl and three darts, each just a hair under six feet long and tipped with foreshafts of stone, sharper than commercial archery broadheads or even surgical scalpels.  I was using a portable “Blind,” a large sheet of camouflage burlap which can be staked out to provide cover while I squatted. You can’t really sit with an atlatl — well, not if you expect to hit anything.  Deer are very wary, and as such you have to make sure that there’s a minimum of motion for them to detect.

In the forest at night you don’t use a flashlight. You rely on your senses and peripheral vision to keep you on track.  I found my way through the forest, down ridges and gullies until I found my spot — I had staked it out weeks before and only visited briefly to avoid alerting the deer to my presence. It’s a good spot, the deer travel a well-worn game trail down a steep embankment and funnel up the middle of a small gully — I had a spot alongside the game trail where I knew the deer would have to go.  I positioned myself downwind from the trail, and sat behind my blind. 

As the sun came up, small birds landed in the branches around me, almost close enough to touch, seemingly oblivious to my presence. I crouched in silence until around 7:10 a.m. I was scanning the area for any signs of motion — and saw something. It was another hunter, about 250 yards away, upwind from me — I was in his scent column. He was very difficult to see, since he wasn’t wearing the required blaze orange. I contemplated shouting for a second, but opted just to retreat up the gully — I was very close to some large rocks and trees, which would provide cover. 

I got up and, as I did, a flash of white appeared between the other hunter and I — there had been a deer between us in the valley, and it ran toward him.  I ducked behind those trees and rocks without so much as a second look, and walked away from my blind. There is no sense in hunting so close to another hunter, especially when you’re hunting with a weapon as short-range as the atlatl. And it is a dangerous situation to be in the firing lane of another person — especially when there is game between the two of you! He didn’t fire on that deer. Perhaps it was moving too quickly or wasn’t what he was looking for. In any event,  I’m glad there wasn’t an accident.

I did a bit more scouting for other game trails and headed back home, and decided not to go back until the excitement of the season (and the high competition) dies off a bit. I’ll be going back out on the mornings later this week and this weekend. It’s a great feeling to be hunting with a weapon you make yourself, especially if you eventually get a deer. I count myself lucky to have been out and enjoyed that opening morning, the weather, bird songs, scents and sounds, to have seen a deer, and not to have been involved in a hunting accident. Even if the morning was cut a bit short, it was still a great feeling getting out there to join the hunt with the weapons of my ancestors.

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Fifteen feet away, an eight-point buck stood right behind a cedar tree. Smith thrust his atlatl at the buck. The dart landed right by its feet. The thickness of his gloves, he soon discovered, prevented him from having precise and total control over the atlatl. He decided to remove his glove.

Smith was close to being the first person in Missouri to capture a deer with the atlatl, a primitive weapon that became legalized for deer hunting in the Show-Me State this year.

Later, a doe sneaked up behind him, seven feet away. He couldn’t do anything because even a slight turn would scare the deer away. That day Smith went home empty-handed.

“It gave me a small taste of what it must have been like for Missouri's earliest hunters,” said Smith, president of the Three Rivers Chapter of the Missouri Archaeology Society. “I've taken deer with both gun and bow, but this was the ultimate test of all my hunting skills.” 

Though Smith and a score of atlatl hunters didn’t bring home any deer this season, they said that it was a good learning experience.

Many unforeseen problems, however, surfaced during this first year of atlatl deer hunting.

It mostly had to do with timing, they said. The atlatl could only be used during the firearms season in late November, which lasted 11 days. Many atlatl users agreed that if the atlatl could be moved up to the archery season — which typically starts in September and is four months long — things might go better for them next year.

Being allowed to hunt so late in the year makes it difficult for hunters to conceal themselves, said Ray Madden of Joplin.

"Once the weather gets cold and rain comes, you lose leaves," Madden said. "You’re too exposed."

Also, deer are more likely to be on high alert during the firearms season than in the archery season, Madden said.

Another problem is that hunters in firearms season are required to wear a blaze orange vest and cap. This poses a challenge for the atlatl users, because they have to be in close range with animals, generally no more than 20 yards away. The color makes them stand out. Even though deer are colorblind, they do see a solid color, said Smith.

In addition to external factors like the weather, some atlatl users said they realized that they need to hammer out a different hunting strategy for next year.

Madden said it was difficult to throw a long dart on a tree stand. Next year he will stay on the ground.

Curtis Waggoner of Sedgewickville agreed but said it won't be much easier to hunt on the ground.

"If I hunt on the ground with the atlatl," Waggoner said "I'll have to watch where I'm hunting because of the limitations of tree limbs and brush. It'll present some problems that will take some time to work out."

Waggoner said that he hopes he’ll soon be able to throw the atlatl in the archery season, which will give him more time to test different strategies. 

Unlike Waggoner and Madden, Chip McGeehan of Marshfield said he’ll stick with his tree-stand strategy: sit, watch and wait.

But like Waggoner, McGeehan, a member of the Conservation Department Commission, wishes the atlatl season were longer.

It will be up to the Conservation Department to decide whether to extend the length of the season.

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Michael Williams December 17, 2010 | 8:51 p.m.

I'm very familiar with atlatl's because of my hobby: flintknapping. I've been doing it for about 26 years. Every 3rd full weekend in May and September, about 75 flintknappers from all over the US assemble at the 111 mile marker on I-70 and flint knap. There are also a lot of atlatl enthusiasts and competitions. One guy, a professor of archeology from Grinnell in Iowa, can routinely hit a 6 inch target from 20 yards and more. I think he held the world's record in competition for a while.

There's a bunch of guys who hunt peccaries in Texas each year, but I'm unsure if they ever got one. Knowing these guys, most like the score is Peccaries-3, hunters-0. lol.

Me? I either "sky" it or stab my own toe. If I'd been a native, I'd prolly been a berry eater.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock December 18, 2010 | 7:11 p.m.

They should be allowed to hunt most of the year with this technique. It won't even make a dent in the population and it is not like we have a deer shortage.

(Report Comment)
Dan Claxton December 18, 2010 | 9:14 p.m.

Regina, that is some seriously cool stuff! -- Dan

(Report Comment)
Yves Montclear December 19, 2010 | 12:08 a.m.

Atlatl hunting...while I'm sure it gives the hunter a sense of old time authenticity, what does it do for the animal?

I'll be the first to tell you the deer population needs to be culled every year, but using this weapon to try and do that, seems to me to be cruel.

How many deer are going to get speared badly? Since the people in the article don't even seem to be able to hit a deer or buck with a atlatl, once they do get lucky enough to hit one, and then it runs away, who is going to keep it from dying badly, and in pain?

You think you can throw this thing and hit a deer right in the head or heart? Your nuts.

As an individual hunter, I see the use to this atlatl as some kind of sadistic, masturbatory fantasy for the hunter.
If you hunted in groups with it, I could see it working somewhat better, but not as a lone hunter.

And it is upsetting to me, that many animals will have to pay for your atlatl hunting entertainment, which you find 'nostalgic'. As their life ends in pain and suffering, once you have only seriously wounded, but not killed them.

In my glory days, I hunted, and have bagged just about every animal that is legal to take in Mid-Missouri. But I would never hunt with an atlatl.

I'd build traps to try and catch my dinner, simple snares, and even pits, for trying to catch dinner, before I would do that. You'd be surprised how well a tree snare works in catching an animal if you build it right.

That is truly getting back to the roots of hunting. You can use the atlatl to finish them off, once they are in the snare.

(Report Comment)
Justin Garnett December 19, 2010 | 9:13 a.m.

As an avid atlatl user of many years, I can attest to it's accuracy.  Not as consistent as a bow to be sure, but plenty accurate for deer.  I have taken many bullfrogs from 10 yards, and a bullfrog is somewhat a smaller target than a deer. 

The limitation here is the hunter's practice, not the weapon-as is the case with any other weapon also. I would stress that anyone using any weapon should use it routinely, get comfortable with it, and know their range limit.  This should obviously include being used to throwing in gloves should you plan on wearing them.  This greatly effects my accuracy as well, but I thought it prudent to test out different hand wear before taking my weapon to the woods.  

This again though returns us to the hunter, not weapon limitations.  One can say a weapon is less accurate than another at range x, but keep it's use within range x it's fine.

How many (I have met some) hunters never touch a rifle all year except deer season, don't sight or fire it before taking it to the field, and open fire on animals far outside their range?  Then there is the hunter who goes to the woods never having fired a shot in their life before pointing a weapon at a living creature. 

You are absolutely correct about team tactics increasing chances of take, as well, I am sure are numerous strategic subtitles which we are not aware of, since we are not a predominantly atlatl using culture. 

I am including a link to a video of an atlatl demonstration, these are in the hands of practiced experts, several of whom are friends of mine.

Justin Garnett,
Missouri Atlatl Association

(Report Comment)
Justin Garnett December 19, 2010 | 9:54 a.m.

Oh and appologies-not to inflate my own ability I meant "10 feet" above regarding frogs, not yards.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 19, 2010 | 11:13 a.m.


You know John Whittaker?

Good friend of mine. He attends the local flintknapping thingie twice each year. Do you attend? If so, we've prolly met, but I don't remember.

(Report Comment)
Justin Garnett December 19, 2010 | 7:15 p.m.

Yeah, I know John from our atlatl association events.  I can't place your name but I'm sure we've met-I've been at the last 3 Osage knappins.  I gave a little "stone tools woodworking" demo at the fall knappin this year, and plan on being to the rest of them in the future.

(Report Comment)
Devin Pettigrew December 19, 2010 | 8:12 p.m.

I am an atlatl enthusiast of NW Arkansas and a friend of Justin's and the other MO atlatlists. As Justin suggests the main advantage in the progression of most weapons technologies is ease of use. While the next best thing, such as bow or rifle, are much more difficult to produce, they are much easier to use. But this doesnt help the modern perception of atlatl hunting, since so much practise is needed to be a capable hunter and those interested enough to devote themselves to this ancient weapon are few and far between. The atlatl's prowess can be immediately proven by the fact that it was the main projectile hunting weapon in North America for 10,500 years, while the bow was in use for only 1,000 years before the introduction of firearms. During that time everything from mastodons to rabbits was hunted with the atlatl, and small groups settled down and grew into large communities.

The great thing about modern atlatl hunting is that not only does it develop a greater understanding and respect for the animals we are hunting, but by discovering effective tactics, which by necessity are much different than rifle or bowhunting tactics, we can develop a better understanding of ancient hunting practices, which allowed people to survive and thrive with the atlatl for thousands of years. As an experienced hunter with many weapons I am positive that the allowance of the atlatl in modern hunting will not increase the needless suffering of animals through bad shots, which is a direct result of inexperience and disrespect for the animal. This happens every year in large numbers during rifle season, while bow hunters are much more skilled and serious about their sport. Success for Missouri atlatl hunters however will require a longer hunting season and understanding and patience of the public.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire December 19, 2010 | 8:41 p.m.

And I might also add that my perspective is colored by the fact that I have been falsely accused of something by a what is possibly the most worthless example of a person that I know of, over politics. When this is cleared there will be no action taken against what I believe is another false accuser, because there never is. Lawyers are eager enough for work that they generally don't mind when someone is overzealous to the point that they abuse the entire court system for the purpose of their vendetta. Nobody cares.

(Report Comment)
Jim Daniel December 19, 2010 | 8:45 p.m.

For the record, I'm a North Carolina primitive weapons hunter, however I won't be hunting anything in Missouri with any weapon.

I concur with Mr. Montclear's concern over poorly trained and equipped hunters, no matter what the game or methodology.

However, the atlatl and dart have been demonstrated over a period of thousands of year to be fit for taking deer sized (at least) game when in the hands of a capable practitioner, which to all indications, Mr. Garnett typifies.

Please take a look at that video that was posted. The skill level demonstrated is equivalent to or better than what I've seen in years of hunting with the bow and with muzzleloaders.

Again, Mr. Montclear, I agree with your underlying premise and your sensibilities... I just don't understand why you would choose to attack Mr. Garnett and other atlatl hunters based on a supposition that none of them are capable of the accuracy and ethics you espouse when it's been demonstrated otherwise.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2010 | 3:11 p.m.

Justin: I'm usually in the Bob Hunt group where Whittaker drops his tools.

(Report Comment)

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