ST. CLOUD (AP) -- Twenty years ago, archery enthusiasts could be divided into two basic groups.
Group one, of course, was the hunters, a select group of strong-armed die-hards, thought by many gun hunters to be a bit too intense about deer hunting. The fact that they put fox urine on their boots didn't help their reputation.
The other group was made up of competition shooters -- talented, dedicated archers who were often self-taught and didn't like to give away the secrets of their craft.
''All you had then were recurve bows,'' said Mike Allen, a two-time Minnesota grand champion archer and owner of Mike's Archery in St. Cloud. ''That was an elite, small group of people.''
Things have changed.
Every Friday night, up to 24 men and women drive past night clubs, bars and movie theaters to gather at Mike's Archery. They laugh, eat home-made cookies and brownies, and swap stories about their children.
Between snacks and stories, however, they also put enough arrows in the bullseye to make it clear that deer in central Minnesota would do well to steer clear of each and every one of them.
Nancy Nieters, a stay-at-home mother of two from Sartell, has been shooting in archery leagues for five years, and Friday night she told a story that many women later repeated.
''My husband wanted to start shooting in the league, and we decided it would be a great thing to do instead of going to the bars,'' she said. ''Hopefully, our kids will do it with us someday.''
There weren't any kids at Mike's Archery, but a mix of men and women, hunters and non-hunters, experts and relative novices took turns stepping up to the shooting line and taking aim at the targets, which stand 20 yards away.
Tom Brausen of Foley is just getting started in league shooting. He admitted that he had some catching up to do.
''I think I probably had one of the lowest scores the first couple weeks,'' he said. ''Still, I thought I shot okay.''
Brausen, who has hunted deer with a bow for five years, is using the league to increase his confidence as a hunter.
''In the past, I've shot at the deer's head or neck, because I'm afraid I won't make the good killing shot,'' he said. ''I've taken one deer with a bow, and in six years, I've had more opportunities than that. So I think it's just a real good idea to get practiced up, so that hopefully I'll be more likely to hit the deer when they come by me.''
Not everyone in the league is a hunter, however. Lisa Fitzpatrick of Becker, a mother of two and wife of an avid hunter, has never drawn her bow on a deer.
Fitzpatrick, however, thumped arrow after arrow into the 5-point bullseye. On any given night, she averages a score of 280 out of a possible 300 for her three-match total.
For you bowlers, that's the equivalent of an 840 series average.
''It was a 'If you can't beat 'em, join 'em' kind of thing,'' Fitzpatrick said as her husband, Mike, took his turn at the shooting line. ''My husband's really into it, so this is a chance for us to get out together.''
Obviously, a major shift has happened in terms of who is participating in archery. You no longer need to be particularly strong to shoot accurately, nor do you need to devote years of practice to the sport.
The reasons are obvious: better technology and vastly improved instruction.
''Right now we can take a brand new shooter, and in a couple week's time he'll probably be shooting as well as an older shooter did after years of shooting,'' Allen said. ''The bow technology and the arrows have changed so much. Things are twice as easy as they were ten years ago.''
Improvements in bow technology have made a difference, but perhaps no single invention has revolutionized archery more than the trigger release.
Years ago, hunters and target shooters alike pulled the bowstring back with their fingers. To a beginner, this could make extended practice sessions painful, even with a protective leather tab. Furthermore, it is difficult to release both fingers smoothly at the same time while holding the bow perfectly steady.
The majority of today's shooters, however, could easily shoot their entire quiver of arrows without touching the bow string with their fingers.
Instead, they strap a mechanical device to their wrist, a device that grips the bowstring for them. The device grips the string as they pull it back, and when they're ready to shoot, they simply pull a trigger. The device releases the string, sending the arrow on its way.
''The releases really make a huge difference,'' Allen said. ''They just make shooting so much more automatic.''
Several of the shooters Friday made the sport look automatic indeed. Allen said that three of the 20 competitors were capable of shooting a perfect 300 on any given night. That's 60 consecutive bullseyes.
''Ten years ago, if you knew one person who was capable of shooting a 300, that was good,'' Allen said. ''Technology and education have just changed everything.''
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