In American history, bow hunting has not always been as closely correlated with sex appeal as it is today. Fortunately for Paul Ryan, the swimming-pool-eyed vice-presidential candidate and expert marksman, his sport of choice is basically synonymous with rugged, panting, anti-authoritarian teen virility right now.
It was easy enough to pick up the thread last week. Romney’s selection of Ryan came at the end of two weeks of NBC’s Olympics telecast, the undeniable star of which was that actress from Revolution who ran around saving humanity with a crossbow during every single commercial break. And then came Ryan bounding onto the national stage on Saturday morning: the conservative Katniss Everdeen in a blousy gingham shirt.
The pictures of him smiling in his hunting gear telegraphed all the hopes and dreams of the libertarian right: a good old-fashioned American dad who loves Jesus and the Second Amendment and who shows it by exerting dominion over the animal kingdom. He was just like goateed, crucifix-rocking archer Brady Ellison, who helped bring in the first medal, a silver, for the United States two weeks ago. Except he actually kills stuff.
“He’s a very passionate outdoorsman,” says Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, on which Ryan served. Crane has been shooting, but not bow hunting, with the congressman and describes him as a “good shot. Not top gun, but a good shot.”
People who find hunting repellant will scoff at yet another Republican candidate beloved by the NRA. But a serious bow hunter will tell you there’s an important distinction between a sportsman who can spend weeks stalking his game and, say, a person who shoots wolves from a helicopter.
Bow hunting requires dedication, sharp vision, clear eyes, and steady hands. It suggests greater acuity and skill than a person who just runs around the woods with a firearm. There are between 3.5 and 4 million registered bow hunters in the United States, according to a study by the Archery Trade Association. The average bow hunter is a white male in his 20s or 30s, of higher income and education level than a typical hunter, according to the report.
Archery is growing in popularity as a recreational pursuit, now comprising more than a fifth of hunting licenses sold nationwide. The biggest growth has come from young people, thanks in part to the National Archery in the Schools Program, which sends training kits and other resources to help schools start indoor archery programs. It is sponsored by an array of hunting and conservation organizations, and the Army National Guard.
“The fundamental attraction is to the challenge and also the simplicity of it,” says Kevin Hisey, executive secretary of the Pope and Young Club, a nonprofit group that advocates ethical bow hunting and conservation. “It promotes the values of patience and persistence. It takes the development of muscles and hand-eye coordination. And there is the challenge of understanding wildlife and being in the outdoors.”
As a pastime, bow hunting has a more refined history than other modes of recreational animal killing. This is not the sport of snarling Charlton Heston; it is a pursuit for gentlemen. The father of modern bow hunting was a man named Saxton Temple Pope, a doctor, teacher, and outdoorsman born in the late 19th century. He took up the sport after developing a close relationship with the last member of an isolated Native American tribe. “It’s not the killing that brings satisfaction,” he wrote in 1923. “It’s the contest of skill and cunning.”
Ryan himself has brought that cunning to the halls of Congress. “I remember the first time I gave a speech on the floor,” he said in a radio interview. “You know it’s kind of a big deal when you go give your first speech. And as a big bow hunter, whenever a deer is walking, you know, within my shooting range, then I’m going to shoot, whether it’s a doe or a buck. My left leg just starts shaking. It’s just a weird thing ... My heart starts beating. Bow hunters understand the nervousness, the excitement that you get. My first speech on the floor of Congress that’s exactly what happened. My left leg just started shaking out of control. But after that first speech it stopped shaking. And I kind of got it under my belt.”
Little wonder Ryan’s fans are quivering in their breeks.
“Paul Ryan—avid bow hunter. That automatically makes him a great American,” tweeted Florida Rep. Dennis Ross the day Romney announced his pick.
Asked what he liked about the prospective veep, conservative rock god Ted Nugent told Newsmax: “He’s an addicted bow hunter. He loves the mystical flight of the arrow.” Nugent described the act of bow hunting as “borderline impossible.” Said Jay McAninch, president of the Archery Trade Association: “[T]ake just one look at Paul Ryan holding a bow at full draw, and you know he's the real deal, a hardcore bow hunter.”
Perhaps some young hunters are helping to goose the Republican ticket’s fortunes. A weekend poll by John Zogby showed more than 40 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds plan to vote for Romney-Ryan, a significant uptick Zogby attributed to Ryan joining the ticket. Maybe it’s just a fluke. Or maybe it’s the bow-hunting bump.