It was not my aim to be part of a national hunting trend.
Yet that’s what happened when I sighted-in a crossbow this fall.
As a new member of a growing fraternity, I now hunt deer with a horizontally held bow that fires an arrow — more accurately, a bolt — 300 feet per second with stunning accuracy out to 40 yards.
For a long time only three states — Ohio, Arkansas and Wyoming — allowed hunting with a crossbow. Then times changed, starting a solid decade or so ago. That is when wildlife agencies began to loosen the reins on crossbow regulations. They did so, in part, because deer numbers had been trending up, hunter numbers had been trending down, and states that legalized crossbow hunting had not experienced the problems opponents predicted: increased poaching, decreased archery season length, or substantially higher harvest by crossbow hunters than vertical bow hunters.
Also, state wildlife agencies during this time began to focus on regulation changes that could potentially recruit young hunters and retain old ones. The crossbow fit in the cross hairs of that goal.
Today, crossbows are legal for hunting in 44 states under certain conditions (Missouri joined on Dec. 11 for the 2016 deer archery season). My “certain condition” is I am old, or at least north of 60. In 2014, Minnesota law changed so those age 60 or older can hunt deer with a crossbow during the entire 3 ½-month archery season. Previously, unless a deer hunter held a disability permit, a crossbow was legal only during the far shorter firearms season.
Wisconsin crossbow law changed in 2014, too. In Wisconsin, any legal-aged hunter can use a crossbow during the deer archery season. That’s similar to about 25 other states, primarily to the east and south of us.
So what did I learn during my inaugural archery season?
One, I became a better hunter. I practiced more. I scouted more. I hunted more. I experimented more with scents, calls, stand locations and trail cameras. I roamed farther, too. That felt good. It felt good because during recent firearms seasons other hunters have filled the timbered void that once surrounded me. As a result, I felt more like a sentry climbing into a post than an active hunter.
Two, I had fun. I felt no pressure to take a deer for fear that if I didn’t, someone else would. So I haven’t taken a deer, at least not yet. Still, I watched deer that were legal to harvest for many weeks with a new fascination and patience. A long-faced and deep-bodied doe often came past my stand just before sunset. Also, a pair of yearling does were frequent visitors. Sometimes they fed so close I could hear the cracking of acorns in their teeth. All the while I relaxed in nature’s symphony — loons offering melodies, pileated woodpeckers drumming a rat-a-tat beat, trumpeter swans erupting into rousing off-key choruses for no apparent reason. Good music. Comfortable seating. A different concert every day.
And three, I had plenty of time to ponder the realities of hunting. One of those realities is that I am unlikely to harvest a deer this year because I have been holding out for the broad-racked buck I’ve seen on my trail camera. If that buck eludes me through Dec. 31, the end of the archery season, that is fine. If he doesn’t, then patience and perseverance will have been rewarded.
Regardless, I’ve discovered that archery hunting is incredibly time-consuming, and time is a valuable commodity. In retrospect, I spent too many days sitting in a tree and not enough days afield with Storm, my Labrador, in pursuit of grouse and pheasant. I will likely spend less time with a crossbow next year.
Nationally, hunters are spending more time with crossbows. Jay McAninch, chief executive and president of the Archery Trade Association said a recent ATA survey determined 25 percent of archery hunters now use a crossbow. Regarding their manufacturing, crossbows surpassed the 30 percent mark of bow production in 2012. By 2014, crossbows represented 38 percent of manufacturing. Compound bows account for about 60 percent of manufacturing, and recurve bows about 2 to 3 percent.
Crossbows are popular in the Midwest. Michigan, which liberalized crossbow regulations in 2009, has more than 150,000 crossbow hunters. Wisconsin sold 47,449 crossbow licenses in 2014, the year it loosened crossbow regulations.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources does not track crossbow hunter numbers but anecdotally believes they are increasing. The DNR has sold more than 107,000 archery licenses this year, a slight increase from last year but similar to 2013.
An obvious question for me is, do I feel like an archer? The answer is no, not really. I have not paid the practice dues required by skilled vertical bow archers. Indeed, I never will. The mechanics of my bow and its easy-to-use scope made quick work of the learning curve. We’d be listening to 10-year-old Eric Claptons galore if the electric guitar had a crossbow-like option.
Still, I look forward to being classified as an archer and participating in future archery seasons. While I refuse to admit I am in the autumn of my life, I openly accept autumn’s pull on my soul. And if the law allows me to enjoy autumn days by drawing a string horizontally rather than vertically, I am good with that. It wasn’t my aim but it became my opportunity, and seize it I did.
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer from Baxter, Minn.