The 2016 rut was just getting underway, but for Carl Higgenbottom, the season was already off to a rough start. Carl’s truck had broken down two days before, but, fortunately, his friend Tony Langley agreed to stop by early that Sunday morning and give him a ride to their hunting land in Haralson County.
Carl was eager to get a shot on a deer with his new release, and he had spent the night before getting his hunting gear in perfect order. Carl awoke the next morning, gathered his gear, and decided to step outside and enjoy the brisk morning air while he waited on Tony to arrive.
Much to his horror, he opened the door to see the sun peeking out over the horizon. In anticipation of the hunt, Carl and Tony had forgotten about the time change and were now well behind schedule.
Undeterred, the two set out for the woods as the sun rose over the hills. They soon reached the hunting club and hurriedly parted ways to their chosen spots.
Carl slipped quietly through the woods, careful not to spook anything as he headed to a tree he had picked out earlier in the season. As the sun crept higher in the sky, Carl made his way up the tree and finally locked his stand in place. He hung his bow on a nearby limb, sat down, and breathed a sigh of relief as his eyes scanned the surrounding hardwoods.
Minutes later, he heard the leaves rustle behind him. He slowly turned, and saw four does headed directly toward him. Excited to finally get a shot with his new release, he reached to grab his bow while his eyes remained fixed on the deer.
As his hand grasped the riser, he heard something fall off his bow. He looked to see his release—which he had spent months working on—falling to the ground with a small thud in the leaves below. Frustrated, Carl watched the does saunter by and disappear into the woods.
Before he could climb down to retrieve the release, Carl received a text message from Tony alerting him to a trespassing hunter walking along the powerline back toward the road.
Carl planned to confront the hunter if he caught sight of him, but he soon heard a truck crank near the road and assumed the trespasser had made his exit. He scampered down the tree, tucked his release deep in his pocket and climbed back up.
As Carl reached his stand, his stomach dropped as he realized he had left his safety harness at the base of the tree.
At this point, some hunters might have given up, but Carl is no stranger to overcoming obstacles. Determined to see that his efforts that morning were not wasted, Carl again climbed down, retrieved his harness and went back up the tree.
He sent another message to Tony, informing him of the morning’s blunders. Carl laughed off his poor luck and continued the hunt.
Not long after settling in his stand, Carl heard another deer making its way down a trail behind him. He turned and saw a buck, barely more than a spike, walking along the edge of a thicket nearly 40 yards away. Realizing the buck would present him with a broadside shot, Carl positioned himself and waited on the deer to come within range.
He attempted to grunt at the deer to stop him but was unsuccessful. His chances of getting a shot were starting to fade, and Carl was faced with a difficult decision. Deciding to take a shot on the moving animal, he held the pin in the kill zone as the buck walked by, and Carl triggered his release.
His arrow entered near the buck’s hindquarter. The deer bounded a few leaps and came to a stop about 15 yards away from his stand. Instinctively, Carl nocked another arrow and carefully drew back. He placed the sight-pin just behind the buck’s front shoulder, steadied his aim, and fired his release once again.
The shot was perfect.
The buck ran away through the hardwoods and dropped about 80 yards from his stand. An old, familiar excitement rushed over him. Carl’s hands trembled with exhilaration as he took the release out of his mouth, and placed it back on his bowstring.
Much of Carl’s life has revolved around archery bowhunting. He began learning to shoot at the age of 12, and he soon grew to love the sport.
“I’ve had a passion for archery since I was very young,” says Carl. “I love the challenge of archery, and I’ve always loved the outdoors. My dad got me started hunting and fishing at an early age. He owned a bow shop, and he really taught me the mechanical side of archery.”
Carl once owned a trucking company, but he always had a passion for archery.
“I would work on people’s bows in my spare time after I got off work,” said Carl. “I never charged them anything—I just get a lot of enjoyment out of fixing peoples’ bows.”
Carl eventually made a career out of his love for archery. For the past eight years, he has been a store manager at Treetop Archery in Carrollton.
“The best part of my job is getting people set up and watching them hit that dot for the first time,” says Carl. “I love seeing the smile on their face. I’m fortunate to be able to work in this industry and also enjoy the sport of archery myself.”
Carl is known for his expertise in both shooting and technical knowledge in bow mechanics. He has traveled the country with his wife, Leandra, competing in archery tournaments across the United States.
The two experienced a great deal of success in the sport. Leandra was a Georgia ASA champion and IBO Southern Triple Crown winner while Carl took first place in Alabama’s ASA Championship. His love of archery was taking him to new heights, but in 2014, he suffered an injury that nearly ended his shooting days for good.
“I was experiencing pain in my shoulder and eventually went to the doctor,” says Carl. “They told me I had a torn bicep tendon and labrum and needed surgery to fix it. I had been shooting heavy poundage since I was very young, and that repetitive motion with that much weight had badly damaged the joint in my shoulder over time.”
Carl went through the surgery, hoping to have a speedy recovery and get back to shooting again. But instead of healing, his shoulder was more painful than before. Carl told his doctor that his pain was worsening, but his concerns were dismissed.
“The doctor just told me to continue stretching it, and to double up on my pain medication,” says Carl. “I should have known then that something was wrong with the treatment I was getting.”
Weeks later, the pain had become unbearable, and Carl returned to the doctor.
“They realized that I had gotten an infection since the surgery,” says Carl. “They sent me to the hospital right then for emergency surgery.”
The infection had eaten away all of the soft-tissue in Carl’s shoulder. The surgery was successful in removing the infected tissue, but Carl remained in the hospital for 7 days, experiencing blood clots and other complications.
After the surgery, Carl received some crushing news. Due to the removal of all tissue surrounding his shoulder joint, doctors said he would never shoot again.
“Archery is his life. I’ve known Carl for almost 20 years, and it’s just who he is,” said his friend Tony. “When he learned that he couldn’t shoot a bow, it just devastated him.”
Carl’s friends and family tried to console him, but the news had taken a heavy toll. During his recovery, Carl was out of work for weeks at a time. He required additional surgeries, and medical bills began to pile up. Carl was forced to sell much of his archery equipment to make ends meet.
“They told him he could shoot a crossbow, but that’s the last thing he wanted to hear,” says Tony. “Carl is an archer. He didn’t have any interest in crossbows. To him, that’s the same as a rifle.”
Carl was eventually able to go back to work, but the joy of his craft was all but gone.
“I got to be around bows, work on them, and help people shoot better, but I wasn’t able to shoot myself,” says Carl. “It was torture for me.”
Carl thought about quitting the bow shop for another job, but things changed in the summer of 2015.
“A guy came into the shop, and was missing an arm,” says Carl. “He had a strap that went around his neck that he drew the bow with. He actually fired a release using his tongue. I was absolutely amazed, and it just hit me. If this guy—who had just one arm—could find a way to shoot, I knew I could come up with something similar. So, I got to work right away.”
Carl’s idea was simple. He first experimented by holding a release strap tightly between his teeth and pushing the bow forward to draw. After adjusting his peep-sight, Carl drew back, and released his first arrow.
“I almost hit the dot on the first shot,” says Carl. “I was so excited, I couldn’t contain myself. On the sixth shot, I Robin-Hooded an arrow, and I almost lost it. I could shoot again. I thought I had lost something that I had built my whole life around, but from that point forward, things just took a 180-degree turn.”
He went to the drawing board and came up with a simple mouth-piece design. Carl contacted a local dentist, and avid bowhunter, Dr. Craig Widener.
“I helped design the mouth-piece release with my lab technician, Terry Williams,” says Craig. “We were able to fabricate a mouth appliance that married an upper and lower splint together to combine them with a buckle in between them to hold a buckle and strap from a wrist release.”
Craig says the device allows Carl to pull back with his upper and lower teeth while using his jaw muscles to stabilize the release. His mouth functions like the wrist of a normal compound bow archer.
“It really functions much like a wrist-strap release,” says Craig. “It created a very consistent anchor point for him that never moves. It’s a great advantage for him. All he has to do is use his finger to release the arrow.”
Craig says he is in the final stages of developing a more efficient mouth-piece release for Carl, and he hopes to soon have it ready for the upcoming bow season.
“Carl is a great guy, and this is his livelihood, his joy and his passion,” says Craig. “It was like a light bulb went off for him when he was able to shoot again. It was very gratifying for me to be able to help him because he’s such a giving person.”
Carl now shoots with his release regularly.
“I can shoot with the same back-tension style method I used before,” says Carl. “I think I actually shoot better now.”
After having surgery on both shoulders, and experiencing a nightmare that almost ended his shooting career, Carl has advice for fellow bowhunters.
“Turn the poundage down,” says Carl. “I can’t stress that enough. If you shoot heavy poundage—and shoot as much as I have over the course of my lifetime—it’s only a matter of time before you injure yourself.”
He now encourages his customers to follow suit in lowering the poundage on their own bows.
“I have gotten lots of my customers to go down to 60 pounds, or lower, and they are all thanking me,” says Carl. “Archery is meant to be graceful, not forceful. When you’re not straining to shoot 70 pounds, you can really enjoy shooting so much more. You have steadier aim, and it’s much more comfortable. The technology of bows is now so advanced that there’s just no sense in shooting more than 60 pounds.”
Carl now enjoys practicing with his bow every day. Tony says the two are happy to be back hunting together.
“I’ll never forget the look on his face when I got to him after he shot that buck last year with his release,” says Tony. “It was like a kid who had shot his first deer. He was so excited he was still shaking when I got to him, but he was all smiles. It was a great day. I think I was more excited than if I had killed a deer myself. After what he’s gone through and everything, it meant the world for him to be able to do that.”
Once again, Carl is preparing for another bow season and looking back on what got him through the toughest obstacle he’s ever faced.
“Never give up,” says Carl. “If anyone hears my story, and takes anything from it, just know the power of perseverance. Never give up.”