Combining Modern Gadgets with Ancient Weapons for Hunting and Fishing

Some new Possibilities for Sportsmen:

We kept our atlatls ever ready, searching the depths for Talapia, the boat gliding slowly across the dark waters on that moonless night.

Among the weeds in the deep, clear water, we made out shapes of various creatures. Some were alligators; most were Gar or Bass, lingering in spaces between the lumpy masses of algae. They were all well lit by lamps fastened to the bottom of a shooting platform on the bow of Wooly’s boat.

Sometimes we could make out strange animals like rays, and an occasional Plecostemus, an overgrown algae eating escapee from someone’s aquarium. Painted turtles with multicolored shells sometimes materialized, only to quickly disappear into the green masses at the bottom of the stream.

We were fishing the pristine North Florida waters, which flow in a stream, from Salt Spring to Lake George. The harpoon tips of our darts were fastened to a 12-inch foreshaft and inserted into the large end of a six-foot ash shaft.

The shallow dimple on the dart’s back end rests against a small bone hook at the end of the atlatl. The atlatl is a two-foot long device that helps the shooter to propel his harpoon deep into the water. Atlatl darts penetrate the water to a depth of 10 or 12 feet, whereas arrows shot from a bow barely go half that deep.

Now and then, Leggs or I would shoot into the water at the quickly fleeing Talapia. Talapia, another fish transplanted to Florida waters, appear dark blue beneath the water. They also have a fairly scaly body. Wooly, a.k.a. Wendell Adams, navigated with the low power electric trolling motor as we went, while Wooly operated a high-powered portable halogen lamp, lighting things of interest in the stream’s unbelievably clear waters. It was a little noisy with the Honda generator’s constant hum. Our catch for the night was a Catfish, a few Gar and a Plecostemus.

In 2002, we hunted fish in the Rainbow River that flows into the Gulf of Mexico on the opposite side of the State of Florida. I managed to land a 53″ Gar. It was the second large Gar I shot. The first one, which was much bigger, broke the dart and got away. We also got two nice sized Bowfin, a rather formidable predatory fish, with teeth as sharp as those of the gar.

What a contrast of equipment: high tech electric motors and lights for the purpose of hunting fish with the ancient spear throwing weapon called the atlatl. Such is the interesting, on going evolution of the atlatl. The atlatl is a weapon, that only a dozen years ago was relegated to museums, the backyards, and college quads of a few archaeologists who would bring out the implement to demonstrate it to students.

For those who are not familiar with the atlatl, it is an ancient weapon that predates the bow and arrow.

The atlatl is a handle measuring approximately the length of the thrower’s arm that hooks into the back of a large arrow-like spear commonly called a dart, or when fishing, a harpoon.

The handle amplifies the power and the accuracy of the thrower by allowing him to apply power to the dart over a longer period of time.

I’ve seen darts that were anywhere from about four to eight feet long, with most of them being six or seven. In my experience, hunting darts work best if they are long and heavy, and made from hardwood such as ash. For hunting I use seven-foot darts that weigh about eight ounces. They are fletched with full-length turkey wing feathers and pointed either with stone or steel. I often use stone points for aesthetic reasons.

Many atlatlists who shoot target darts prefer cane shafts that are half the weight of hunting darts. I tend to shy away from the light stuff because it affects my hunting when I change to the higher weight.

I use a braided 200-pound test line on my harpoon darts that is about 30 yards long, attached to a small float that I keep in my pocket. I hold the line loosely in my left hand so I can play it out when I shoot.

Atlatls resurfaced in earnest about a dozen years ago as small groups of atlatl wielding enthusiasts started finding each other, through the Internet, The World Atlatl Association, and at knap-ins. Knap-ins are gatherings where people get together to make flint arrowheads. (A phenomenon in its own right.) The World Atlatl Association is an organization that has four or five hundred members who get together for competitions and other events, with the objective of furthering the knowledge and use of atlatls.

The art of hunting and fishing with atlatls was virtually lost as a cultural expression to the world, except to a few scattered indigenous people where its use has lingered, until several people from Michigan, New York, Kentucky, and Georgia came together with the idea of trying atlatls out on wild boar.

Lou Becker of Michigan was the first person I knew to kill a wild pig with an atlatl. His efforts lit a few fuses and the explosion was on. I took the baton next and experimented with atlatls and darts that were designed to work well for taking down wild boar and deer. It took several years to come up with equipment that worked well. We tried both flint and steel points. Both worked well, but the discovery that made the most difference in our success was finding the right combination of length, weight, material, fletching and diameter for our darts.

I have hunted a lot of different ways in my life, but my all time favorite way to hunt is with an atlatl. I enjoy the whole experience of it, from knapping the flint points and hafting them with traditional handmade cordage to tracking the animal after its been hit. I like the excitement of getting close to the prey and trying to figure out how to get the best shot. I enjoy the hours of solitude, sitting high above the forest floor in a tree stand or the act of silently stalking a wild boar through a swamp. It’s also fun to relate the stories of my deeds and misdeeds with the atlatl. (I have more stories about my misdeeds.)

I guess one reason I get such a thrill out of atlatl hunting is that I can manage to harvest fish or big game animals with a weapon that is both simple and effective. The atlatl has the power to bring me back to my primal roots, letting me use my instinctive skills to feed my family and myself. I find incredible satisfaction in doing that, gaining an immense sense of self-confidence and accomplishment.

Deer and wild boar hunting offer the most challenge. Both can be hunted from the ground or from a tree stand with an atlatl and the hunter needs to practice different throwing techniques for each. The difference is that you cannot typically take a full step into your shot from a tree stand, whereas from the ground you can shift your entire weight into the shot.
The distance that I am comfortable shooting at large game is less than 20 yards. The closer the better. The close distance requirement is a major factor that makes atlatl big game hunting so challenging yet so interesting and exciting. It takes a lot of skill to get that close to deer and wild boar.

I have spent hours on my hands and knees crawling in the underbrush to get closer to a heard of wild boar, only to have them discover me and scatter seconds before I could get a good shot off. I have also had deer so close to me that I could almost touch them with the tip of my dart. I have touched alligators with the tip of my dart in an act of counting coup, like the Indians, because we didn’t have a permit at the time to take an alligator. Once I accidentally shot a 5-foot alligator when attempting to shoot a gar. We released the alligator only slightly wounded in the tail. It was however an interesting event that proved to me that alligators could be harvested with an atlatl.

Success rates with the atlatl are fairly good, if the hunter is willing to put in some time practicing. It has been my experience that if you feel confident when you go out in the morning on your atlatl hunt you will make that critical shot. It’s the same with any weapon, I suppose. Practice and confidence, coupled with a desire to succeed will get you to the place you need to be to take your quarry.

A small group of intrepid atlatl hunters gathered in Moundville, Alabama the spring of 2002 to plan and execute hunting forays into the deep, dark backwaters of the hog infested swamps of the Tombigbee River Basin. Since then we have had many success stories to tell.

Several people in our small group have been looked over aerial photographs and topographical maps, checking out likely places to hunt. Hunting parties composed of members of our group tentatively calling themselves the Alabama Atlatl Hunting Association, formed up at the Moundville Archaeological Park, and headed out to either scout for or hunt wild boar. We plan to do a little atlatl rough fishing in the process.

We chose Alabama as one of our hunting venues because it is legal to hunt deer and wild boar there with an atlatl. It is also legal to hunt wild boar in several other states such as Texas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and possibly several others. Before hunting with an atlatl check with your local authorities.

This sport may be far from the mainstream of outdoor activities, but every person on the face of the planet probably had in his or her background an ancestor who has survived because of the atlatl or a weapon closely resembling it. Anyone who wants to know more about the atlatl can search the net under the word “atlatl” and find 1500 pages of information about it.

2 thoughts on “Combining Modern Gadgets with Ancient Weapons for Hunting and Fishing”

  1. Great post. People don’t realize that the atlatl essentailly changed how people hunted. The only hand held throwing weapon prior to this was the rock and the spear. Thanks for sharing.

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