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"Panhandle Pride"

By Brandon Ray

Bill Forman shaping a bow riser in his Pampa, Texas workshopIt was early June. I was driving east towards windy Pampa, Texas in the eastern Texas Panhandle. A faint rainbow caught my eye in the blue sky. My destination was Great Plains Bow Company on Foster Avenue. Clouds were building in the afternoon sky and the promise of rain was undeniable. Fighting the drought like the rest of Texas, rain would be a welcomed guest in the small town. The gold at the end of the rainbow for me was a new take-down Rio Bravo recurve I'd ordered earlier in the year.
    Driving down Foster, I found the store front much as I remembered it from a similar visit ten years earlier. The only change was now there was a small sign out front to indicate the business behind the dust-covered windows. Before, there was no sign, just workers busy as bees in a hive behind dusty windows and blank doors. Ten years earlier, rain was also in short supply. Some things never change in the Panhandle.
    Inside, workers were bent over sanders and jigs with a dozen bows lying about in every stage of completion from raw blanks to finished, beautiful works of art. I suspect Santa's work shop would be the same. Not a glitzy showroom, but rather a cluttered space with lots of production and history. Saw dust filled the air and no one even noticed me as I stepped inside off the streets.
    Soon enough, Bill Forman looked up from a recurve riser he was sculpting and met my eyes with a smile and then a handshake. “Hi Brandon, how ya doin?” Bill's voice like that of an old friend.
    My finished left-handed recurve lay on a work bench at the back of the building. When I held it, I knew I was in trouble. The grip fit like it was made for my hand and the finish and craftsmanship were superb. I knew I'd be ordering another one just because two are better than one!
From construction to bow making
Bill & LindaThe year was 1989. I was graduating from Highland Park High School in Dallas and moving to the dusty plains of West Texas in Lubbock as a freshman at Texas Tech University. I was 18 years old. I thought I knew everything.     The same year, Bill Forman left a lifetime of construction work, cabinet making and uncertainty doing work tied to the oil business. He put his extensive wood working skills to the test, designing, building and starting his own traditional bow company called Great Plains in his hometown of Pampa, Texas. He was 40 years old.
    A few years later, I saw my first-ever Great Plains Bow catalog. The handsome recurve bow on the cover, The Woodland Hunter, caught my eye. Somehow, even as a broke college student, I saved the cash and ordered one.
    I remember that bow as a sweet shooter and so good-looking I spent as much time looking at it as I did shooting it. That bow started the debate I struggle with to this day. Compound or recurve? But I was a dumb college kid, and like most college kids I got broke and needed cash. I sold it. One in a long list of regrets I have of bows I've loved and sold too soon.
    In the early 1990's, Bill Forman's new company got a big break when it negotiated a deal with Three Rivers Archery. After talking to the owner over the phone about possibly stocking his new Great Plains traditional bows in the catalog, Forman decided to heck with doing business over the phone. He jumped in his truck with a dozen of his own bows and drove to Indiana to meet company owner Steve Free. He showed off his complete line of custom made stickbows in person. Recognizing fine work, Free made a commitment to sell the Great Plains Bows in his traditional-only tackle catalog, a name as recognizable today as Cabela's or Bass Pro. Steve Free later sold the business to the current owner, Dale Karch. Three River's commitment to stock Forman's bows gave the fledgling bow company stability whereas before, sales were sometimes spotty. The rest as they say is history.
Rabbit & Plains Rio Bravo recurveA few years later, still regretting letting that first custom bow go, I bought another Great Plains recurve. The new bow arrived, looked and shot just as good as I'd remembered. But I got broke and sold it. Is there a pattern here? Great Plains was now one of the premiere traditional bow companies on the map.
    Today, some 23 years later. Bill Forman, 63, is still crafting some of the world's best recurves and longbows from the same dusty work shop in Pampa, Texas. Bill's wife, Linda, helps with the bow making process as do two other full-time employees. They still take custom bow orders over the phone, but they also stock bows for distributors as far away as Europe and Russia.
    Walking around the shop, Bill and I discussed bow designs and how things have changed over the years. Materials are more expensive and demand for his bows is as high today as ever. The sound of machines buzzing and sanders grinding meant we had to talk loud to hear each other.
    "I used to shoot 60-65 pounds, but nowadays I shoot mid 50's weight bows," he told me.
    "Most of the bows we sell today are in the 50-55 pound range. And our older customers often order bows 45 pounds or so. With a fairly heavy arrow and a close shot, you just don't need a lot of poundage for deer hunting. If I over think the shot, that's when I make a bad shot. When I let instinct take over, I usually hit the mark."
    TIP: For newbie traditional bow shooters, consider dropping the poundage from what you comfortably pull on a compound by 10-15 pounds. Draw length is usually 1-2 inches shorter with a stickbow.
    Hunting with traditional bows is a close range sport. I keep my shots under 20 yards. Bill relayed similar thoughts.
    "The longest shot I ever made on an animal was 28 yards. Most of the deer and hogs I've shot have been under 15 yards. I've shot a lot of deer at 7-8 yards."
    Today, both recurves and longbows are equally popular in the bow line. The SR Swift take-down recurve like the one I ordered is among the brands most popular options. It features a 16-inch riser and overall lengths of 56, 58 and 60-inches. I ordered my 60-inch bow with custom axis deer antler tips on the limb tips. The one-piece bow of the same design is another looker to consider.
Testing tackle
Bow RackIt was barely 24 hours later that I strung the new 50 pound, left-handed recurve and sent shaft after shaft zipping at my 3-D deer target. The bow's grip was comfortable, the draw cycle smooth, the bow quiet at the shot and the arrows hit where I was aiming. If it's even possible, the bow's Cocobolo and Zebrawood riser and wild grain Bocote limb veneers looked even better than it shot. The limb woods so stunning under clear glass I wanted to lick it. There were a couple of hours of daylight left, so I decided to break the new recurve in the best way possible, on real game instead of boring foam.
    I flung a familiar leather back quiver over my shoulder with a dozen arrows in it. Each one tipped with either a metal blunt or a Zwickey judo point. Not far from the house, an old barn, scattered farm equipment and brush piles creates ideal cottontail habitat. For such hunting, I actually prefer a smooth-drawing, fast shooting recurve.
    I rounded the corner of the old tin barn as the evening sun was slanting through ominous grey clouds. Sunning itself in a ray of light was an unsuspecting cottontail. The string came back to my cheek and an instant later the heavy carbon arrow thumped fur at 15 paces.
    Nearing a pile of old fence posts and tall weeds, I spotted the black eye and short pink ears of another bunny blending into the junk pile. At ten steps, my arrow glanced off an unseen rock. As I nocked another arrow, two more bunnies busted from cover and made a mad dash for the security of more rusted junk and stacked boards. I took a hurried shot at a running hare and missed spectacularly, the arrow flying two feet over its head.
    At sunset, I snapped a few photos of my take next to an old post; the handsome recurve leaned next to the kill. The graceful lines of the simple bow, the bristled feel of the Trueflight feathers on my arrows and the tanned leather of the old school quiver a reminder of why I can't get completely away from the romance of traditional tackle.
    After 20-something years since ordering my first one, it was good to be back shooting another fine Great Plains bow. This one ain't for sale! It's a bow I'll own for a long time with the same Panhandle pride that built an American company from nothing to the top of its class.

Bill Forman and Great Plains Traditional Bow Company can be contacted at 314 W. Foster, Pampa, Texas 79065. Phone 806-665-5463.

This article appeared in "The Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters" Nov/Dec 2013. Reprinted with permission.

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