Island bowhunters keep their strings tight in the off-season.


“It’s really all about being graceful,” bowhunter Brian Welch said as he nocked his 100-grain field-point arrow to his bowstring. “Like any of the shooting sports, it’s all about practicing the technique so you can be ready to land that shot when the moment comes.”

Welch is a lifelong hunter, and range officer at the Martha’s Vineyard Rod & Gun Club, and he told The Times during a blustery Sunday visit to the range that, although bowhunting adds new challenges to the experience, there’s no other way he’d rather hunt. 

Welch has been practicing archery since he was a kid, and he’s been bowhunting since he was in his early 20s. The St. Pierre Summer Camp (now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum) in Vineyard Haven offered a number of outdoor activities and sport programs during Welch’s youth: badminton, sailing, swimming, and of course, archery.

He immediately signed up for the archery program, and found out he wasn’t half-bad with a bow. “Pretty soon after, I realized I could go hunting with it, and that was how it started,” Welch said. 

There are all kinds of pros and cons to bowhunting — you get a neater kill (as long as you take the right shot), but you have to be much closer to the animal; arrows can be recovered, sharpened, and reused, but quality broadheads can be expensive. All in all, Welch said, the greatest satisfaction of bowhunting comes from hard work and precision shooting, paying off in many pounds of delicious, highly nutritious, ethically killed meat to fill the freezer. 

For anyone looking to start out using a bow, Welch suggests getting set up with some custom gear from a reputable dealer. The friendly folks over at Reedy’s Archery in Middleboro can help you get fitted with a bow that has a draw weight and draw length that corresponds with your body size and shape. 

“You have to get the right gear that’s made specifically to fit you. That’s the best way to go,” Welch explained. “You can get longer bows for targets, and then shorter bows are usually for hunting.” He said a smaller, lighter bow is more maneuverable when hunting inside a ground blind and when perched atop a tree stand. PSE and Matthews both make great bows that will last a lifetime, and nothing says you need to spend $1,000 to get a serious setup. Welch said folks should be able to get a very high-quality, custom-made bow for around $500. “And that’s just the bow, then you need arrows, sights, quivers, rests, tree stands, and blinds. It’s an investment, but it’s all worth it.”

When dealing with so many variables, and usually with just a split-second opportunity to take the successful shot, keeping your gear consistent from range training to actual hunting is essential. For example, Welch practiced with 100-grain field-point arrows, and his hunting broadheads are the exact same weight. “If anything is out of alignment, it can throw everything off,” Welch said. 

Right before archery season starts in early October, Welch ramps up his training. But he shoots consistently throughout the off-season, and said he hopes other bowhunters do the same in order to maintain the muscle memory and the draw strength. “All the serious hunters keep up with it,” Welch said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot, but it really helps so you don’t have to play catch-up when the season gets close.” 

Welch has always hunted shotgun season as well as bow season, but said he prefers the challenge of using a bow. Additionally, a sharp broadhead arrow shot accurately is pretty much guaranteed to end in a clean kill that preserves the most meat, compared to buckshot or a bullet. 

Although Welch is highly skilled with a shotgun as well, and has tagged his fair share of deer with them, he said the gratification that comes from the additional physicality of bowhunting and the need to be close to the animal is something he enjoys. 

Bowhunting takes a certain level of persistence, dedication, and patience in order to be successful. It’s not all stalking through the woods to sneak up on a herd, like you see on television, however. Welch explained that this kind of hunting is more reserved for out West, where there are more open spaces to spot animals. On the Island, the process is more about studying the animal to determine where they sleep, where they eat and drink, and what time they’ll be in each area. 

“A trail cam is great, and now they have ones that send you cellphone pictures in real time, right when they see a deer or anything. That’s great because whenever you go in to check that camera, you are disturbing the area,” Welch said. “Once a deer figures out it’s being hunted, it’s a lot harder to get.” Once you know the area is trafficked by deer, the next step is to determine when they’ll be in the area during legal hunting hours, and sneak into position.

There are a few elements to consider: noise, sight, and smell. Even if you’re perfectly quiet and far above a deer’s sightline, oftentimes your scent will give you away in short order. That’s why it’s necessary to make sure your target is not downwind of your position. Welch said he will often hunt different tree stands he’s set up, depending on the wind direction. “I will never hunt with the wrong wind — it’s just as bad as fishing the wrong tide,” he said. 

For Welch, the most important concern when he is out hunting is safety. Sometimes a tree stand will be upwards of 20 feet in the air (20 is the benchmark), and bowhunting can be extremely solitary, so there’s no one to assist if a hunter falls. For this reason, a full-body harness is a must. Welch uses a lineman’s climbing belt to attach himself to the tree while he secures his stand, then sets up a lifeline system that allows him to remain safe from the moment his feet leave the ground to the time they return. This keeps hunters safe during unexpected situations, which are ever-present when out in the field. “I’ve fallen asleep in the stand before. I wake up a little later and there’s a deer 30 yards away from me staring at me,” Welch laughed. “I thought, ‘How did that deer even see me?’ Oh, that’s right, I snore like a bear.”

Once you shoot a deer, being able to locate it after it dies becomes the most important focus. Many folks, according to Welch, will get too excited after landing a good shot and lose track of the animal. After the shot, deer are known to run up to 75 yards or more before they drop, which is a significant distance when hunting in a heavily wooded area. There are all sorts of tracking techniques that Welch employs — he uses his phone compass to track, and suggests carrying a spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide to reveal blood traces that are difficult to see. 

Although the State Forest is a popular place to hunt, and the Land Bank and Sheriff’s Meadow both have hunting programs, Welch suggests folks get connected with landowners who want hunters to draw deer off their property in a mutually beneficial relationship. He explained that fellow hunter Brian Athearn has several properties that he brings people to hunt on, and it’s all part of one big, coordinated effort the group has deemed “Hunt Club.” By managing the property as a group, hunters aren’t stepping on each other’s toes, which avoids contention and potential danger from stray shot or arrow.

For new bowhunters, Welch said checking in with Environmental Police Officer Scott Opie is always a good first step (along with taking a trip to Reedy’s for gear). 

Welch says hunting is exciting, and the mental aspect of scheming and planning is all part of the fun. “If you can outwit a mature doe, you have done something extraordinary. If you can score on a big deer with a bow, it’s like winning a game of chess,” Welch said. “When you make that nice shot, and the next thing you know, you’re eating this amazing meat, it’s hard to beat that.”


  1. Brian Welch is one of the kindest, smartest, most passionate people I know. He’s not just a hunter, he’s a gatherer.

Comments are closed.