Joella Bates may not be the world’s most famous female archer, but she’s arguably the most accomplished.
As a 3-D target competitor, Bates holds an incredible nine world championship titles with both compound and recurve bows and has earned more than $100,000 in career prize money. And as a bowhunter, she has taken 80 species around the world. In 2001, she became the first woman bowhunter to take a Cape buffalo.
In 2004, she became the first woman archer to take a grand slam of wild turkeys. And in 2009, she became the first bowhunter (male or female) to take the entire African Big 5 — lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros — on a single safari.
Amazingly, Bates’ stellar archery achievements represent an unexpected “third act” that came after a successful collegiate athletic career in another sport and many years as a professional wildlife biologist.
Bates, 55, of Waverly, Tenn., still lives in the house where she grew up, just a couple miles from the shore of Kentucky Lake. Her father owned a boat dock, and Bates started fishing as soon as she was old enough to hole a rod and reel. And “as soon as he would let me shoot a gun, I started shooting.”
By the time she reached high school, Bates was an accomplished angler, hunter and crack rifle shot who earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Tennessee-Martin, where she became an academic all-American in small-bore rifle.
Bates earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology at UT-Martin and continued her studies at Tennessee Tech, where she earned a master’s degree in fisheries management. She spent many years working for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, first as a game warden and later as a fisheries manager and environmental scientist.
And though she had dabbled in archery at 4-H camps as a girl, it wasn’t until 1989 that Bates bought her first “real” bow – a High Country Trophy Hunter – and took to the field.
“My initial bowhunting experience was anything but successful,” Bates said. “The first day I went out, I watched a buck for over two hours before I got a shot, and I was so nervous the arrow flew before I ever got to gull draw. I must have hit the release, and it’s a good thing I had a safety belt because I was shaking so bad I think I would have fallen out of the tree.”
The following morning, Bates went back out and proceeded launch four arrows at a doe, missing every time.
“There was no point in a fifth shot,” she said. “I had one arrow left, but there was no way I was going to hit anything.”
Rather than being discouraged by those early failures, Bates was intrigued by the challenge archery posed.
“It drove me to become a better shooter,” she said, and “I did kill the next deer I shot at. So, the sixth shot worked.”
Given her successful background in competitive rifle shooting, it’s probably no surprise Bates soon turned her attention to competitive archery. She entered her first local 3-D shoot in July 1991 and experienced results similar to her early forays into bowhunting.
“I finished dead last, and I lost almost all my arrows,” she said. “But I bought a couple used targets, started practicing almost every day and won the very next competition I shot.”
The following year, 1992, Bates competed in her first IBO World Championship. Although she didn’t win, she gained valuable experience, and in 1993 Bates became the ASA’s female Amatuer National Champion and won her first IBO World Championship in the female bowhunter release division. She added five more major titles to her resume over the next two years, culminating with the ASA Women’s Pro Shooter of the Year in 1995.
With her competitive dominance firmly established, Bates started expanding her bowhunting horizons. In in 1998 alone, she took 16 different species.
“After that, I was looking for something new and something different – whenever I could go and whatever I could afford,” she said. “After having won five world championshps with a compound bow, it was pretty easy to get people to cut me good deals on hunting trips.”
As her bowhunting accomplishments mounted, Bates found herself training just as hard to hunt as she had to compete.
“I worked out a lot,” she said. “I was one of the charter members of the gym in my hometown.”
At her strongest, Bates was pulled an astounding 104 pounds of draw weight, and she took her African Big 5 in 2009 using a custom, 91-pound compound from Athens Archery.
Several years ago, Bates noticed declining eyesight was making it more difficult to see targets clearly while looking through her peep sight. So, Bates chose to focus on shooting instinctively with recurve bows, a method that eliminated the need for a peep and allowed her to shoot with both eyes open. In 2015, she competed in her first national competition since 2004, and in 2016, she won 3 IBO world championships in the women’s barebow recurve division as well as the Traditional Archery Society women’s recurve world championship.
On top of her many victories in competition and in the field, Bates is passionate about promoting the sport of archery and is heavily involved with Scholastic 3-D Archery as the programs’ National Training Specialist. She has personally trained 150 new S3DA instructors in the past two years.
“My way to give back to the sport is to take my knowledge and share it with others,” Bates said. “The quicker we get a person consistently hitting the target, the quicker they get addicted to archery. Success breeds success.”
As if all that weren’t enough, Bates was hired this February as assistant archery coach at Bethel University in Tennessee, where she is helping with recruitment and instruction.
“What rifle did for me in college was huge. It allowed me to go to school, and with my academic scholarships and athletic scholarship, I didn’t have college loans to pay back,” she said. “If I can help kids get a college education and expand their archery experiences, it’s a win-win for all of us.”