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One Hall County man was bow hunting long before The Hunger Games
HollisCrockerBear
Hollis Crocker with a bear he killed with a bow and arrow in Alaska.

Thanks to the book series and movie, "The Hunger Games," a new generation of fans has been turned on to archery and bow hunting.

In the novel-turned-movie blockbuster, heroine Katniss Everdeen relies on her mad bow-and-arrow skills to survive in a deadly televised reality competition of a dystopian future.

Since the book trilogy debuted in 2008, some 36.5 million copies are now in print — a 55 percent jump this year alone, according to publisher Scholastic.

The new film, which grossed about $200 million in the U.S. in its first week, makes archery look cool, with long, loving close-ups of its star, Jennifer Lawrence, pulling back her bow string with a steely glare.

Hollis Crocker, a Hall County resident and avid hunter, was way ahead of the trend.

"I never hunted with a gun. Maybe when I was a kid, I might’ve taken a gun out to go squirrel hunting or something with my dad, but that’s it," said Crocker, who picked up archery more than 50 years ago.

"As a kid, I started making little bow and arrows and things. I bought a fiberglass bow back in the ’60s and just started shooting it."

Archery will stay in the spotlight with a superhero archer in May’s "The Avengers," a princess archer in June’s animated "Brave" and an elf archer in December’s "The Hobbit."

Sales of archery equipment have increased more than 20 percent in the last year, according to the Archery Trade Association, and attendance continues to rise at its annual trade show. And archery is expected to get more attention than ever at the Summer Olympics in London.

"Modern archery now, you use sights and a release that’s like a trigger that hooks the string. When I started, I was just shooting with no sights and release. That’s the way I still shoot.

"There’s hardly anybody that shoots like that anymore. I just got used to it."

And he’s a pretty good shot.

Last fall, he took down an Alaskan brown bear a mere eight yards away. According to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game, grizzly and brown bears are classified in the same species. Brown bears, due to their location on the coast and ample food supply, tend to get larger.

"Most people choose a gun because your chances are far greater of getting anything. You can shoot stuff a couple hundred yards away, but with a bow you’ve gotta be right there. That (brown) bear I got was only about 24 feet away. That’s about the length of a room," Crocker said.

"Most people think bears are big and clumsy, but they can run about 30 miles an hour for the first 100 yards. They move along slow, but when they wanna run, they can cut loose. They run down elk and kill them."

When Crocker and his guide first spotted the bear, it was ambling down the opposing bank of a river
several hundred yards away from their perch on higher grounds.

"We knew it was gonna cross the river, so we ran down there and I backed up into some bushes," Crocker said.

"He just kept walking and walking and finally he stopped right in front of where I was and turned and looked at me. That’s when I shot.

"I tell people it was around 1 o’clock and my first thought was he probably hasn’t had lunch yet, so I might wanna go ahead and shoot."

If you couldn’t tell, Crocker loves an adventure. Although many are planned, sometimes he just falls into them — especially on his hunting excursions in the Alaskan wilderness.

There was the time that a bear "ripped their raft to shreds" and he and his guide had to wade across a swollen river. He almost drowned when the waters came above his waist and filled his waders.

Then there was the time that bad weather forced a hasty retreat off Kodiak Island. The pilot of the small plane had to tape Crocker’s bow case to the wing of the aircraft to make room for Crocker, his companion and their other gear.

The pilot was only supposed to carry one passenger at a time and 50 pounds of gear.

"We were so low at first that the weeds and everything were hitting at us," Crocker said.

"I looked over at the gas gauge and the needle looked like it was on (empty). I asked the pilot about it when we landed and he said if we’d had much more fuel, we might’ve been too heavy to take off."

Because unpredictable wildlife and weather can make for a crazy time, you have to expect the unexpected.

"In Alaska, it’s more normal to have bad things happen. You don’t go looking for that stuff; it just does," Crocker said.

"If it was here, you’d have the rescue squads come out, but there, you just take care of it and go on."

He learned the importance of being able "to take care of it" when he and his hunting partner were almost stranded after dark on an island mountain, deep in the heart of Kodiak bear country.

"We forgot about the time and realized that we were supposed to be back on the shore three miles away for pickup," Crocker said.

"It was snowing and the wind was blowing. We tried to rush and get off. We were both slipping and sliding and he fell and broke his leg.

"That’s where being prepared really counted. He had a radio, so he called the lodge. They said we’d probably have to call the Coast Guard, but it would take a couple of hours for them to get there.

"We’d cleaned a deer and had blood all over us and we were in an area with a whole bunch of Kodiak bears, so they said the best thing we could do was to try and get to the shore. He used his rifle and a stick I cut for him as crutches. By the time we made it to the shore, they were riding the coastline looking for us."

Being prepared also means having the required guides and paperwork. As Crocker learned on one trip, Alaska state troopers will literally fly in to inspect hunting licenses when they spot groups from the air.

"In these little villages, there’s a couple main roads that go up to the (larger areas), but for the most part it’s just little dirt trails that go between the houses and that’s it," Crocker said.

"If you wanna go someplace else, you gotta fly."

His hunting adventures, dozens of them since the 1980s, represent the fulfillment of childhood dreams.

"When I was a kid, I remember seeing a magazine that had a picture of a elk on the side of a mountain out West somewhere and I remember thinking, ‘Golly it would be something just to see that,’" Crocker said.

"I hunted in Colorado for 20 something years. During that time, I also hunted in Wyoming, California, Montana, Utah and Iowa. I did all of that before I started hunting in Alaska in 2004.

"The first time I went to Kodiak Island, it was for a black-tail deer and fishing trip combination. If they said you don’t do nothing but just walk around, I still would’ve gone because I’d always wanted to experience Alaska."

Though the mounted trophies of deer, bear and other game in his cabin retreat showcase his archery prowess, Crocker says his adventures ultimately are bigger than the hunt.

"When I first started hunting, it was mainly to get something. Now, it’s gotten to the place now where I don’t hunt around here much because it’s the adventure of seeing new places, and all that gets me excited.

"You can have a great trip and not even get anything."

His favorite place is still Alaska.

"If I had a free trip anywhere in the world I’d take Alaska," Crocker said.

"There’s nothing like it. I’d be standing on the side of a hill staring at all this scenery and it was like you’d gone to another planet or something. There’s just silence because Alaska is so scarcely populated."

Alaska has only 720,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, some 200,000 fewer than Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous. Yet Alaska has 570,640 square miles compared to Fulton’s 526.

If hunting is on your agenda, Crocker advises stopping by the fish and game office so officials can inspect and tag your game to allow you to take it home. You should also try not to think too much about the dangers of coming face to face with a big ol’ bear.

Over the years, I’ve learned to just concentrate on lining up my shot, I don’t think about, ‘What if he eats me,’" Crocker said with a chuckle.

"That’s when you screw up — when you start panicking and thinking what if something happens."

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this article.

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