Leafing through the pages of Traditional Bowhunter, you could easily swap out the dates from today to twenty years ago and not notice an obvious difference between the images and content covered then and now. To be clear, this is not a knock against this venerable publication. In fact, Traditional Bowhunter and the stories, images and articles featured in its pages are a breath of fresh air in an industry where antler and horn size typically seem more important than the pursuit itself. If you’ve ever felt like you’ve lost perspective on why you hunt, Traditional Bowhunter will bring you back to the heart and soul of hunting.
All the while, compound bow manufacturers fight tooth and nail every year for faster arrow speeds while compound archers are increasingly able to accurately reach out farther than ever before and make ethical kills at distances previously reserved for open sight rifles and muzzleloaders. Yes, when you compare the innovation in the archery industry to that in firearms there is no comparison. For both the aspiring and accomplished bowhunter, speed and distance are the name of the game in the twenty-first century.
Yet amongst all the pomp and circumstance in the compound world however there is one man and one company “keeping trad cool”. South Cox and his company Stalker Stickbows are leading the charge in the online and social media space when it comes to keeping traditional archery relevant in the age of “speed kills”. And in so doing, keeping the challenge and skill of bowhunting close to its roots. Is South an accomplished bowhunter in his own right? Damn straight. And does he have his fair share of beautiful early season mulies to his name? No question. But if you spend the time to get to know South or watch his latest film “Stalkers in the Backcountry”, you’ll learn he’s not only one of the most skilled bowyers around today but he’s also deeply passionate about the mountains and the animals that inhabit them and quite simply one hell of a good guy. Is he the only bowyer out there producing beautiful and capable stickbows? No, but he is one of the only bowyers spending the time and resources to keep us thinking about picking up a recurve or longbow each and every year. Absolutely!
And that sure qualifies him as a trail blazer in our books!
First off South let’s get into your personal hunting story. In your bio on the Stalker website you mention that you did not grow up in a hunting family but still managed to not only become a very successful bowhunter but also find a career in the hunting industry, a dream for many of our readers. Let’s hear the story.
Like you said, I didn’t start out with anyone to really guide me on that path and it’s interesting that I was so drawn to it because, if anything I was surrounded by an anti-hunting community let alone a non-hunting community when I was young. But it was like a magnet for me. I was always out there in my imagination at least, hunting something. Whether it was with that bow I found under my neighbour’s house or slingshots, or spears or whatever contraption I could make in my mind’s eye into a weapon, I was always hunting. I built my own self bows when I was a kid. There was a book – a fantastic book – it had to have been written in the twenties or something called “The American Boy’s Handy Book” and it was like a Bible for me. It had all kinds of stuff in it from building a raft to making traps for trapping animals, so I read it backwards and forwards when I was a kid and was always making stuff from that book.
As I got a little bit older and my woodworking skills were a little more refined, I started making self bows. By then, that recurve I’d found was long gone so I got into crafting my own stuff and I did that for several years, making arrow heads out of bone or antler points, or rather pieces of antler that I fashioned into points. I was really drawn to archery from a young age. When I got old enough and got to have BB guns and pellet guns and eventually a .22, I was a very interested in firearms and hunting with a rifle but wasn’t so supported by my Dad. I remember I was maybe fourteen and I desperately wanted to deer hunt so I asked my Dad about getting a centre rifle. I had a .22 at that time and he said no but allowed me to get a compound bow. That decision by my Dad strongly steered me in the direction of archery and in hindsight it was pretty funny. I literally knew nothing about compound bows. As an example, at the time I remember thinking that since there were three strings on the bow you could draw any of the three strings to shoot it!
It was an absolute miracle that the bow I bought actually fit me from a draw length and draw weight standpoint. I had to back it all the way out. It was a Bear compound, one of their youth models, and I shot it for a couple of years until I was sixteen and then bought a Bear Whitetail II as my first legitimate adult compound. That’s the bow I eventually shot my first deer with about a year later and at that point, I was hooked and there was no going back! I was really proud to have taken one with a bow and, to this date, I haven’t killed an animal with a centre fire rifle. It’s not that I have anything against hunting with a rifle, I certainly don’t in fact, but I’ve got a deep passion for archery and have managed to be pretty successful consistently with stick and string so I haven’t had a need to hunt with a rifle.
I think one of the primary factors that has kept me bow hunting all these years versus even dabbling in rifle hunting is how much I love the experience of getting out into the woods and seeing animals. I’ve hunted plenty with my bow during the actual rifle seasons and the difference between the early archery seasons and later rifle seasons relative to how many animals you see in a given week of hunting is a stark contrast. To be honest, I think in a lot of ways rifle hunters have it more difficult than bow hunters do.
From the standpoint of commitment, if you’re out there for a one week or ten day hunt during rifle season and you only see one or two bucks, it’s a lot harder to stay committed and stay out hunting hard versus when you’re out there with a bow and in that same time frame see thirty or forty bucks or maybe even more. Although your chances of shooting one of those deer may be lower and it may be more challenging the fact you’re seeing animals every day will get you out of the tent and keep you going.
To your point, in your “Stalkers in the Backcountry” film the sheer number of opportunities you were getting on great bucks was unbelievable. To our readers, if you haven’t seen South’s “Stalkers in the Backcountry” film you’re missing out on some incredible footage.
The two areas I was hunting in the film are both incredible. They’re both within designated wilderness areas and that of course keeps a lot of people out since you can’t drive in there. The only way in is by foot or horse and both locations are between eight and ten miles or maybe even further back into these wilderness areas, so you’re really getting away from a lot of the people and I think that’s key to a quality experience. A hunter can spend a lot of time and effort hunting off a road system and maybe even more total effort than what I’m putting into a backcountry hunt. If every morning you’re getting up, leaving your base camp and have to hike for several miles on a daily basis back and forth that takes a lot of time.
Right, and with our readership that’s going to be a sentiment that most will agree with. There’s always a time and a place for a quality “Hunt Camp” experience where multiple generations of hunters are present and the hunting may be a little less serious, but for the majority of us, the deeper into the wilderness we can be the better. You touched on your woodworking skills earlier, what is your background in woodworking?
I graduated from high school in 1987. I’d worked for my best friend’s older brother the previous few summers installing hardwood floors, so he offered me a job when I graduated. I went to work for him and gradually started sanding and finishing my own flooring and after seven years I decided to go out on my own and start my own company doing stairs and handrails and eventually opened up a cabinet shop doing a lot of high-end stuff just North of San Francisco in the Santa Rosa area, Marin County. I worked there until 1996 and then moved back up to Humboldt County where I live now and kept my business going down South in the Bay Area. The company eventually grew to thirteen employees, and in 2007 I bought Stalker. At that point I’d been doing construction for twenty years and was starting to get a little burnt out, not from the woodworking part – I really enjoyed that – but I was building all the staircases, I had a crew that was doing the hardwood floors and I had a crew that was building cabinets and then I did the cabinet installations, and laid out the cabinets myself. I was also doing all the bids and estimates and of course some of the paperwork in the office.
This meant murderously long days managing employees and keeping up with everything and eventually it was the drain of managing the people more so than the business itself that burnt me out. And that’s when the Stalker opportunity knocked. One of my friends had started Stalker Recurves as it was called back in 1987, right around the time I got into woodworking and he’d built it over ten years before deciding to take a job as a construction superintendent and take home a more stable income. The company (Stalker) sat dormant for about nine years before my friend and his wife decided to sell it. He called me up one day and offered me the company. I had just sold a rental property and I had the money to invest but I wasn’t really looking for another business, I certainly had my hands full where I was. But I had one of his bows that I’d owned for years and really enjoyed shooting it and really just loved the product he was producing. So when he offered the business to me at a fair price I decided to jump on it with a plan to eventually transition into doing it full-time. That’s how it unfolded. So in 2007 I bought the company and trained with him. Over the next couple of years I made some tweaks to the designs and refined my skills as a bowyer, then in 2008 I really started marketing them. I started to lean on the gas pedal and get Stalker re-launched.
Well there’s no question your marketing efforts have been successful. If you look at the serious backcountry hunting or mountain hunting segment there are not many traditional archery companies marketing to our niche. There are certain companies, like Blackwidow for instance, that most archery hunters will at least have heard of but they’re not dedicating any real attention to us mountain hunters. In your case, you’re on Facebook and Instagram and staying relevant amongst the high-end technical compounds and technical apparel. As mentioned in the intro, you’ve made a concerted effort to keep trad “cool”.
It’s been kind of interesting to play around in the social media game over the years. Instagram especially has been a great tool for me in that it seems largely devoid of some of the negativity that’s present in the other social mediums. It’s just a lot of people sharing pictures and some comments and, I think it’s a lot more valuable for hunters as far as sharing their images without having to get into so much commentary. The pictures are fantastic because as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. I can sit there and write stuff all day long but ultimately, if I show somebody a picture of one of my bows even if they are a non-hunter or someone who’s never picked a bow up before, I think that most people will say, “Wow! That is a beautiful bow”.
I have a buddy I built a bow for a handful of years ago down in Arizona and he called me up after it arrived and told me he’d showed his wife the bow and even though they didn’t have any mounts or guns displayed in their house, his wife saw the bow and immediately said “We’re hanging that in the living room!”
Wow! Well there’s no question that the bow and limb pictures you post up on your Instagram account are incredible. Anyone with an appreciation for the beauty of wood and woodworking skills is missing out by not following you.
Thank you! It was pretty flattering to hear that from my friend and I really think that’s what I try to do, balance aesthetics and performance. You can build an ugly bow with solid performance characteristics that will do the job as well as a “pretty” bow, but ultimately I think the draw to shooting a stickbow is the warmth and beauty of wood and when you have a metal bow in your hand, to me that feels more like a machine when compared to the natural beauty of wood. Each person is entitled to their own opinion and I would never knock a guy for shooting a stickbow with a metal handle but for my tastes, I just love the look and feel of wood. I suppose a big part of that comes from being a woodworker for, really, my entire life.
One of the ultimate ironies of the social media and online marketing game is the best marketing has always been and will always be a good product so as the online space becomes more and more cluttered and as people are inundated with more and more information, it is the simple things that tend to break through. At the end of the day, a beautifully crafted bow like you produce is literally a sight to behold and in many ways transcends hunting. You don’t have to be a hunter to enjoy the natural beauty of an aesthetically crafted stickbow.
Right and to go back to the statement you made about putting the cool back in traditional archery, even though I shot a stickbow as a kid when I was initially learning, for many of my years I shot a compound. I dabbled in traditional archery all along but there were a number of years where I shot wheels and was really happy doing it. When I bought Stalker, in all honesty, I was very nervous about putting down my compound and dedicating myself to traditional archery. It was pretty funny, the first year (2008) I took my stickbow out on a serious elk and deer hunt I was nervous so I actually backpacked in with both my compound and my stickbow figuring I would elk hunt with my stickbow and use my compound in the more open country for mulies. I ended up shooting a mule deer on opening morning with my stickbbow and spent the rest of the week with it in my hand hunting elk. It really showed me just how effective a stickbow can be.
But when I came over from the compound industry and took up traditional archery, I didn’t really identify with the guys that had been shooting stickbows since the ‘50s and wore plaid and Fedora hats. That really wasn’t my style, nothing to take away from them as I’m sure if I hadn’t picked up a compound and instead continued to hunt with a stickbow my whole life, I would have been right there with them but that’s not the way I developed as a person or as a hunter. I kind of looked at it from a different angle and I went out on a limb and started marketing Stalker stickbows which was Stalker Recurves but marketing Stalker as more like somebody would market something in the compound industry.
I’m also a hunter and a back country hunter, and I think that a lot of people appreciate that when researching their options. They know that they’re buying something that will stand up to the abuse of a mountain hunt. I’m not easy on my equipment by any stretch, and I don’t “baby” any of my equipment, especially my bows. I remember taking a compound bow on a trip to Catalina Island to hunt goats on a three day hunt. At the end of the hunt, it looked literally like my bow had been tied to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged down a gravel road.
I’m hard on my stuff so I naturally don’t want any failures with my bows or any of my equipment in the field. I think that guys can relate to if it’s tough enough for what I’m doing, it will stand up for what they’re doing. The only real comfort I afford my bow is at night, I put it underneath the back side of the rainfly of my tent. And that’s more in case it rains and I want to keep my feathers dry than it is to protect the bow. Aside from that, it gets used as a walking stick or as a weapon. My bow has saved me from some nasty falls and rock slides before and come up a little scarred but still gets the job done.
Wow, you wouldn’t think a stickbow would hold up to that much abuse! For somebody into your style of hunting, and most of our readers will fall into that category, do you have a model that is most appropriate to the demands of the mountains?
Any of the bows I build will withstand the type of hunting that we do. Two things I would say is if you’re doing a lot of travelling to get to your hunting areas, a takedown model is more convenient than a one piece longbow. So I would take that into consideration. I shoot almost exclusively takedowns because I do a lot of travelling myself. I do have one piece bows obviously that I build that I enjoy shooting as well but I do like the convenience of a takedown model. I would say if you’re getting into shooting a stickbow, the Coyote model that I build is a good option. You can interchange limbs from bow to bow without having to ship the handle back to me to have the limbs fitted. That model in particular, makes a lot of sense to me, even if you’re not necessarily a beginner but want to have an extra set of limbs or you envision getting an extra set of limbs down the road, it’s convenient. You can just call me up, order another set of limbs and then just bolt them right onto your bow rather than having to ship the whole bow back to me to have the limbs fitted like you would on the Wolverine model. So, in my line the Coyote model makes a lot of sense for a good, durable bow that is also very functional as well.
What are some tips for someone looking to make the leap into hunting with a stickbow?
Getting started, properly in traditional archery is probably a bit tougher than getting started shooting a compound these days. Most archery pro shops do not have a lot of knowledge specifically about longbows and recurves, unless they shoot one themselves. Local archery clubs are a great resource to find someone who can help out with questions about shooting form and such. I haven’t met a stickbow shooter that isn’t eager to help get a fellow trad shooter started in the sport; it really is a tight-knit, supportive community. There are a series of videos, Masters of the Barebow is one, that are excellent resources for getting started as well. You Tube has a lot of content, though some of the people aren’t the most qualified to be giving instruction. On my website, Ryan Sanpei put together a series of videos that are great for getting the beginning archer started. He also has additional content on his site, ryansanpei.blogspot.com so check out the beginner’s resources in the column on the right-hand side.
Excellent. So to finalize things, as we always do with our interviewees, let’s go through a few “rapid fire” questions. What’s your favourite species to hunt?
Mule deer. Without hesitation.
Within your proverbial quiver, what is your go-to model? Is it the Coyote? Or your “signature” bow, the Wolverine?
I shoot both the Coyote and the Wolverine. This season I hunted with a Wolverine but the last several I hunted with a Coyote. I was testing a new limb on my Wolverine and that’s the primary reason I was shooting that bow this year.
What is your number one “bucket list” hunt?
If I could do it one time and then wipe the temptation from my memory, I would love to do a sheep hunt but I’m scared to death to hunt them because I do NOT want to catch sheep fever! So to be honest, it’s very difficult to think about giving up any of my time hunting mule deer to do anything else. I would be very happy if that were the only species I got to hunt from here on out. To me the ultimate is a combination mule deer and elk hunt like I get to experience regularly in Colorado. If I can have an elk tag in my back pocket and a mule deer tag in my front pocket…man, I’m happy to do that for the rest of my life.
Are there any figures in the history of archery that you draw inspiration from? Or if you could hunt with one of the pioneers of archery hunting, who would it be?
Larry Jones, and unless you’ve been around a little while you may not be familiar with who he is but he’s actually still going at it and he’s in his seventies! I first learned about him back in the mid-eighties, he had a company out of Oregon, Wilderness Sound Productions. He still currently hunts and videos for Bowhunter Magazine. He was a big inspiration for me back in those early years and I’ve been lucky enough to hunt with him since then. He is the one that got me hooked on mule deer with one of his videos he did in the late eighties in Nevada. He really inspired me to hunt mule deer and to this day continues to inspire me. Since I’ve already hunted with him though I would say, if I was going to go back and hunt with somebody from way back then it would have to be Fred Bear. I had a chance to meet Fred Bear, when I was like eighteen or nineteen but I was too scared to go up and introduce myself and I forever kick myself for not taking that opportunity now.
About the Editors
If you’re even remotely considering making the jump into traditional archery you’d be hard pressed to find a selection of stickbows that blend performance, aesthetics and true mountain toughness as well as the Stalker line up. South’s obvious skills as a bowyer are matched only by his deep love for hunting early season mulies in the high country of the Western United States. His film “Stalkers in the Backcountry” is a must watch for any serious or aspiring bowhunter. Check out his bows and the film at www.StalkerStickbows.com.