Deer hunters usher in new crossbow era

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Paul A. Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, August 10, 2014


The sound of a projectile striking a target isn’t unusual at an archery club.

But this one was notable for its type and location. It was a bolt fired from a crossbow. And it took place at Racine Instinctive Bowmen in Sturtevant.

The event, a sight-in held before the 2014 Wisconsin spring turkey season, was a red-letter day for RIB.

For the first time since the club formed in 1952, it held a crossbow shoot.

Until this year, the equipment had been prohibited at RIB, where rules and philosophy long favored “traditional” archery gear such as longbows and recurves without sights.

But a Wisconsin law signed in 2013 started a cascade of events in the state. Beginning this fall, all legal hunters in Wisconsin, regardless of age or physical ability, will be able to use a crossbow to hunt deer in a season concurrent to the archery deer season.

Individuals, hunting parties, clubs, businesses and even the state’s hunting culture is in a time of flux and assessment.

Though the decisions are as varied as the number of hunters, the bottom line is clear: Beginning this year, crossbows will assume a higher profile in Wisconsin than ever.

“Might as well get on it before everyone else does,” said Keith Elliot of Raymond, an RIB member for 32 years. Elliot prefers to shoot a longbow, but he is realistic about trends in archery and supported the club’s decision to hold the crossbow shoot.

The Wisconsin law is part of a trend of states allowing greater crossbow use during deer hunting seasons.

The changes have been opposed by some in the archery community, including the Wisconsin Traditional Archers and at various times the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association.

Opponents have expressed concerns about potential shortening of the archery deer season as a result of increased deer kills by crossbow hunters as well as more hunters in the woods leading to a lower-quality hunting experience.

Opposition to crossbows has a familiar ring to it, according to many Wisconsin hunters who were around when compound bows became popular in the 1970s.

“I well remember people talking pretty foolish about how compounds were going to decimate the deer herd and ruin bowhunting,” said Al Hofacker of Athelstane. “Of course that turned out to be false.”

Hofacker, co-founder of Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, first bowhunted in 1969. He used a recurve in his first years, then bought a compound in 1975.

“You never hear those complaints about compounds these days, but the same arguments are trying to be used against crossbows,” Hofacker said.

If experiences in other states are any guide, Wisconsin hunters will increasingly adopt crossbows for deer hunting in the coming years.

Michigan has allowed crossbow use during its archery deer season since 2009. The first year, 19 percent of hunters used a crossbow during the Michigan archery deer season. In 2011, it increased to 37 percent; in 2012, it was 43.7 percent; and in 2013, it was 49.5 percent.

Ohio has allowed crossbows for a four-month archery deer season since 1982. According to Ohio data, about 55 percent of licensed deer hunters use crossbows.

“I think with crossbows, we’ll see more people hunting deer in September and October than we have in the past,” Hofacker said. “Unless you’re totally selfish, that’s a positive.”

The economic impact of Wisconsin’s crossbow season is another positive, especially for archery shops.

Wade Jeske has owned Lena Swamp Archery in Oconto Falls since 2005. His June sales had typically been about half his July numbers each year. But this year, June beat his best July ever. The reason? Crossbows.

Jeske said his overall business is up about 40 percent this year. Most of his crossbow sales are to hunters over the age of 50 who haven’t archery hunted in several years, Jeske said, and are getting back into it because of the law change.

“Many of them tell me the crossbow is making it possible for them to hunt with their grandchildren and children again,” Jeske said.

Jeske said he expects crossbow sales to peak in the next couple years, then stabilize at a lower number.

Crossbows offer an advantage to hunters principally because they don’t require drawing just before the shot, they are often fitted with magnified scopes and they can be shot on a rest.

But data show crossbows don’t devastate deer herds. In Ohio, the success rates of deer hunters using vertical bows and crossbows is the same, 15 percent. And the state’s deer herd grew as crossbows were increasingly used over the last three decades, said Mike Tonkovich, deer management administrator with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

“Contrary to claims by anti-crossbow groups of herd decimation and severe restrictions on hunting opportunity and harvest, Ohio has never adjusted harvest regulations as a result of the crossbow,” Tonkovich said. “Modern firearms have—and will always account for—the majority of the harvest and have the greatest impact on Ohio’s deer population.”

Tonkovich said his experience suggests crossbows might help retain and recruit new hunters, especially youth and women. And an Ohio deer hunter survey found that the crossbow is the preferred bow type of the state’s senior hunters (66 years and older).

The range and performance of crossbows are often exaggerated, Jeske said. For most setups, he recommends crossbow users limit shots to less than 40 yards.

Jeske said anyone who buys a crossbow should consider: size and fit of the bow, cocking mechanism, scope or sights, safety considerations of shooting and handling a crossbow, case, and warranty. He recommends all new crossbow owners shoot and sight-in the equipment before they leave the store.

Even in the hands of experienced shooters, the performance of crossbows often can’t match other archery equipment.

At the 2014 U.S. Archery Indoor Nationals and JOAD Indoor Nationals, the average score was 1,123 among the 10 male senior (adult) crossbow shooters. The top 10 male senior compound shooters averaged 1,184, and the top 10 male senior recurve shooters averaged 1,161.

At the Racine Instinctive Bowmen shoot in April, club member Mark Anderson of Racine used his crossbow in an attempt to hit a Ping-Pong ball placed 28 yards away.

Shooting with the benefit of a rest and scope, his two shots came close but didn’t hit the ball.

Lee Stephans, 68, a club member from Union Grove, grabbed his recurve bow and a quiver of arrows. His second shot pierced the ball.

“The crossbow and scope is no guarantee,” Stephans said. “I hope everyone who intends to hunt with one takes the time to be proficient with it and only takes ethical shots.”

Participation by crossbow hunters in Wisconsin as well as deer harvest data will only be known in the months to come.

Through last week, the state had sold 14,675 resident archery and 5,760 resident crossbow licenses, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

With the start of the fall deer season more than a month away, sales of thousands more of each license, as well as conservation patron licenses, which allow both crossbow and archery privileges, are expected.

Wisconsin wildlife officials will track crossbow data over the next two years, during which the crossbow season runs concurrent to the archery deer season. After that, the crossbow season could be modified.

But most Wisconsin hunters and wildlife managers expect, as seen in other states, there will be no biological or social reason to restrict crossbow use.

Even RIB, one of the state’s most traditional archery clubs, is making plans for another crossbow shoot, this one before the September crossbow season.

“If the crossbow helps get people in the woods, and helps keep people my age in the woods, then I guess it’s good to have it available as a choice,” said the 68-year-old Stephans. “For my part, I’ll keep using my recurve as long as I can.”


Paul Smith is the outdoors editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at psmith@journalsentinel.com.

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