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Inside the outdoors: Deer hunter group now even cooler on crossbows

A 65-35 percent majority of 66 chapter representatives voted against MDHA supporting the use of crossbows as an option for all hunters during the entire archery deer season, which typically begins in mid-September and runs through the end of December. Two years ago the vote was 52-48 percent against, so this year's vote can't be interpreted as anything but a further stiffening of opposition.

It's been little more than two months since the end of the regular Minnesota deer hunting season, with archery hunting ending on the last day of December. Interest in whitetails at this time of year is most often focused on their surviving the winter. The major worry is deep snow that can restrict access to food when they are at their most stressed and vulnerable. Late winter snows duel with thawing temperatures in a contest to determine when the threats winter poses to our deer will be past.

Truth is, it doesn't take much to pique the interest of serious deer hunters, no matter the month or season. One of these "piques" occurred in late February at the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) annual meeting in Grand Rapids. This gathering is not just for fun and games, but to determine what will be the group's stance on various deer management issues. MDHA has considerable lobbying clout, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources takes their collective opinions seriously.

At that meeting, a 65-35 percent majority of 66 chapter representatives voted against MDHA supporting the use of crossbows as an option for all hunters during the entire archery deer season, which typically begins in mid-September and runs through the end of December. Two years ago the vote was 52-48 percent against, so this year's vote can't be interpreted as anything but a further stiffening of opposition.

Any deer hunter in Minnesota can use a crossbow as an alternative to a firearm during the regular November firearms deer season. Those who are age 60 or older, or are younger and have a physician-certified physical disability, can use a crossbow during the entire three-and-one-half month archery deer season. Prior to 2014, only those with a certified disability could do so, but the legislature broadened eligibility to include the 60 and older crowd beginning that year.

For the less familiar, a crossbow resembles a conventional recurve bow or compound bow in just one respect: a bowstring propels a pointed projectile toward your target. But unlike the recurve or compound bow — which must be drawn and the bowstring held at full draw by the archer's muscles — once a crossbow is cocked, the device holds the string with no more effort on the part of the archer.

The crossbow's bowstring is released by a trigger, just like a firearm. Indeed, the limbs of a crossbow are typically mounted to a structure that bears a striking resemblance to a gunstock. These bow limbs mount to the stock horizontally, whereas the limbs of a conventional bow are vertical when in shooting position. The projectile fired by a crossbow is about half the length of a typical arrow, and is called a "bolt."

A crossbow can be cocked manually, but even this is done with greater ease than conventional bows. Many crossbows have a "stirrup" that allows a shooter's foot to hold the crossbow down while the bowstring is pulled back to cocked position with both arms, not just one. Other cocking devices generate even greater draw force, including winch-like designs not much different from the winch that hauls your boat onto its trailer. The draw weight of a conventional compound or recurve bow may be 70 pounds, whereas that of a crossbow can be as much as 185 pounds, a result of its special draw advantages. Not surprisingly, the projectile fired from a crossbow will have greater speed and energy than an arrow shot from a compound or recurve bow, and therefore greater effective range.

The common gunstock configuration of crossbows makes them well-suited to mounting telescopic sights, like those you'd mount on a rifle. Scopes excel not only in low light conditions, but also at longer distances, thus maximizing the range advantage crossbows may have over conventional recurve or compound bows.

Of course, greater aiming precision has come to conventional bows, too. Sights for recurve and compound bows can be had with illuminated dots, and with windage and elevation adjustments, all of which aid in aiming and hitting a target. But the power and ease-of-shooting advantages clearly lie with the crossbow.

Some may ask just how primitive archery deer hunting has to be to justify a season three and one half months long, when firearms hunters are limited to a much shorter season. Over the years conventional archery hunters have seen design advances that helped them be more successful, too. Longbows. like those used by America's Plains Indian tribes, gave way to more powerful recurve bows, and recurves were abandoned by many for compound bows. These — with their pulleys, cams and spider web-like bowstring configurations — made archery deer hunting easier, too. Where do you draw the line? Who cares if a crossbow might make it even easier to kill a deer than with more conventional bows?

Apparently not only MDHA, but others, too, feel there's reason to care. For one, the Pope and Young Club — which tracks world records set by archery hunters — does not recognize record animals taken by a crossbow, stating that the devices are not truly bows. Some feel that archery deer hunters are granted a very long season because the range limitations, and the skill and strength needed in conventional archery, make killing a deer more difficult.

Deer seasons are set based on the intersection of several factors, including estimated deer numbers, the number expected to hunt and an anticipated success rate for these hunters. Change any of these variables, and the outcome — deer harvest — will probably change. While a crossbow does not have the range of a rifle, some feel it is much easier to learn and become proficient with them compared to conventional recurve or compound bows. Therefore, giving crossbow deer hunters a three-and-one half-month season could substantially increase deer harvest, and require new restrictions. So these opponents say.

Not to be ignored is a very different motive, perhaps a selfish one, among some who are opposed to opening the lengthy archery deer season to crossbow users. Archery deer hunting is partaken in by far fewer than those who hunt deer with firearms. Seclusion, and the lack of serious competition and hunter pressure, are characteristics of archery deer hunting as Minnesotans now know it. One factor is its steep learning and skill acquisition curves in order to be successful. Some fear these qualities could be lost by allowing "anyone, any time" crossbow use among archery deer hunters.

Reasonable minds may differ, but the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association seemed to be expressing these concerns unequivocally at its recent annual meeting.

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