It was unseasonably warm, even for south Texas, on a mid-February afternoon as I settled into my ground blind to see what might turn up. The first three blind shifts had been unproductive only in that I had yet to have an opportunity at something I was hoping for–a nice axis deer buck, and later, a fat doe. Axis meat is without question some of the finest wild table fare on the continent, and after something of a lean fall my freezer was a little low and Cheryl was starting to grumble. You know the drill, the one where your spouse gives you that look that says, “I thought you were a decent hunter and could keep us in meat, but maybe I need to head for Costco and stock up.”
I was at the plush 13,000 acre, 5-star JL Bar Ranch & Resort as a guest of Browning to field test their new-for-2016 OneSixTwo from the company’s line of ZeroSeven crossbows. The game plan was pretty basic. Up long before dawn, eat breakfast and be in the blind 30 minutes before first light. Hunt all morning, come back for lunch and some work, back out in the evening, hunting until dark, then feast on some of the JL’s incredible food. Rough, huh?
On evening two, an hour before what we would have considered “prime time,” two axis bucks showed up. We had moved locations, and it paid off. I had my choice. One buck was youngish, but fat and prime. The other? Well, he was a lot like me, older, gray in the face, with a sway back, knobby knees, moving a little slower than he used to.
The decision was easy. Take the older guy, he needed to be removed from the herd, and besides, I felt a bit of kinship with this 9-year old stud. I rested the crossbow on the Bog Pod tripod sticks, settled the 30-yard mark on the scope’s reticle on the sweet spot, and squeezed the trigger. The hybrid GraveDigger broadhead cut a massive hole, and the buck was down and out within 75 yards. The next morning I took a fat doe and, just like that, I had enough superb meat to make Cheryl happy.
Telling this story to a colleague who knows of my passion for bowhunting, he asked, “Crossbows? You really hunt with one of those?”
I do, unashamedly so. And today, so do literally millions of others.
Back in January, as I walked the floor of the 2016 Archery Trade Association (ATA) trade show, something seemed different from years past. It wasn’t until the show was almost over when I figured out what it was. During a meeting I had with ATA staff, the group’s president and CEO, Jay McAninch, told me that there was more display space allocated at this year’s show to crossbows and related accessories than any other single category.
Think about that. Not compound or traditional bows, not arrows, not broadheads, not optics, not ground blinds, not clothing–crossbows and crossbow accessories.
That’s sort of an antithesis to the other interesting gear fact found at this year’s show, that being that the sale of recreational archery equipment is also up, with target shooting participation growing at a smart pace, while the participation in bowhunting remains somewhat static. Except for crossbow hunting, which is exploding.
The reasons for this growth are many. There’s the “cool factor;” crossbows just look cool. There’s also the “age factor.” Generally speaking, the age of hunters in America, including bowhunters, is trending older. As they get older, many aging archers find it too difficult to draw their compounds back–but they can use a crossbow, no sweat. A crossbow with a scope sight reminds many riflemen of the guns they are familiar with, and so they find that with a crossbow they can now participate in a lengthy archery-only season without trying to master a compound bow, something many just can’t do. By default, that extends their time afield many times over. And as whitetail numbers continue to explode in urban and suburban areas, game managers need as many deer killers as they can get in the woods during the season. Crossbow hunters help biologists manage their deer herds in places were sharpshooters cannot.
The number of states that allow the use of crossbows during archery-only seasons is expanding, too. As of December 2015, it was legal to use a crossbow during an archery-only season in 25 states, and during a portion of archery season in three other states. Florida allows their use in archery season on private land. Wisconsin made it legal during bow season in 2014, but will review that after three years. In the rest of the states save one, crossbows are legal for hunters with physical impairments, over a certain age or during firearms seasons. Only Oregon bans crossbow hunting completely.
As you might imagine, there is opposition to the use of crossbows during archery-only seasons. Some state bowhunters’ associations oppose their use. The Pope & Young Club has also come out strongly against their use during archery-only seasons. That opposition, however, is unlikely to affect the continued expansion of crossbow use.
A crossbow does have three big advantages over a compound bow–it is pre-cocked and, thus, you do not have to draw the bow as an animal approaches; you do not have to use muscle power to hold it all full draw; and you can rest the crossbow’s forearm to give you a stable shooting platform. On the downside, they are unwieldy, making spot & stalk hunting very difficult. You need a steady platform to make an accurate shot. And they are slow as molasses to reload, making quick follow-up shots almost impossible.
I am old enough to remember when old-school recurve and stickbow hunters vehemently opposed the inclusion of compound bows in archery-only seasons. While some die-hard traditional archers still feel compounds are not “real” hunting bows, the vast majority have gotten over it, and the bowhunting community is stronger for it. I am hoping the same will soon be true for crossbows. After all, a crossbow is not a traditional bow, nor is it a compound bow–it’s simply a crossbow. They’re fun, they’re kinda cool–and they’re here to stay.–Bob Robb