EL TORO MARINE CORPS AIR STATION — Whether the target is a 1 1/4-inch paper bull's-eye or a 900-pound elk, Orange County's archers say nothing compares to the taut release, the long zing and the subtle thump of an arrow hitting its mark.
Jogging or bicycling may be more mainstream sports, but county archers note that humans have been slinging bows and arrows since hunters and gatherers first roamed the earth. And anyway, archery is just as fun and challenging.
"If you improve your scores or if you win a tournament, it's a sense of pride in the effort you put in," target shooter Doug Steed of Irvine said.
Steed and his fellow archers, however, have had only limited success in convincing others of their sport's appeal.
Dave Ferrario, president of the county's only archery club, El Toro Archers, puts the number of active archers in the county at 2,500--a number that has not changed much over the past few years. El Toro Archers counts about 260 adult members, and about one-fourth are women. Another 60 children shoot regularly.
Archery may be one of the oldest sports, but today's archer typically owns a pricey piece of equipment made of high-tech metal and fiberglass components.
And given that most archers are hunters, summer is an especially active time as people polish their skills for the peak hunting season that runs through late summer and fall. According to Ferrario, nearly 70% of local archers also are hunters, and some travel across the country to track everything from badger to bear.
The El Toro archery encampment lies at the end of a dirt road on the Marine Corps Air Station. Jets flying overhead often drown out the sound of arrows hitting bales of hay and high-density foam animal targets.
Otherwise, it is silent as archers pull back on bow strings until the strings are next to their lips. Their feet spread just inches apart, archers hold the stance for a couple beats, then release the arrows.
"You can get out an hour or two before your muscles get tired," said Rick Mawhorter, a 37-year-old carpenter from Lake Forest who was shooting targets tacked onto bales of hay one recent afternoon.
With 75 pounds of pressure on the bow, Mawhorter said, archery can eventually take its toll on the back and shoulder muscles.
But, he added: "It's a nice way to relax before you do the dinner, and kids, and all that. I'm on my way home from work."
Mawhorter and Ferrario both are hunters, and Ferrario excitedly talks of the thrill of the hunt.
Even though many bows come equipped with cross hairs or rows of small metal sight pins, half the battle is finding the animals and getting close enough to hit them with an arrow. While rifle hunters can sometimes stand 300 yards away from their targets, archers must get to within 50 feet.
"You have to get in the animal's back yard," said Ferrario.
Ferrario, a painting contractor by profession, also fishes. By attaching a line to his arrow, he is able to reel in his catch.
At the end of a successful hunt, the 37-year-old Ferrario said he feels "a little sadness for the animal, and a little happiness for the goal I have achieved."
In Orange County, hunters and other archers can practice their shots at a handful of ranges.
Public sites include Santiago Park in Santa Ana and Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley. The public can use the El Toro Archers range about once a month on designated days. On weekends, Ferrario said, more than two dozen shooters frequent the range.
Other nearby locations include the Oranco Bowmen range in Chino and El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach.
The most popular bows, compound bows, are made of metal and fiberglass and sell for from $150 to $900. Arrows are made of wood, fiberglass, aluminum and carbon, said Phil Cotton, a salesperson at Arrow Manufacturing in Costa Mesa, which makes and sells archery equipment.
Some archers, however, favor traditional wooden bows referred to as longbows and recurves. Cotton said there has been a renewed interest in such bows, which cost from $150 to $700. Both wooden and compound bows are used by hunters, he said.
Wooden bows weigh about three pounds, Cotton said, while compound bows weigh from six to eight pounds.
Hunters have added expenses for clothing, especially foul-weather gear, and hunting permits. For California residents, a general hunting license is $25.45, while out--of--staters pay $88.70. Deer tags, in turn, cost state residents $16.80, but non-residents pay $152.50.
Some archers, such as Steed, started out as hunters but have since turned to target shooting. Depending on the event, bull's-eyes range in size from 1 1/4 inches, he said, to five inches.
"It doesn't do anything for me," Steed said of hunting. "I don't need to do it to eat, and I had my taste for it when I was younger."
Steed said that during the peak October to June target tournament season, he competes almost every weekend.