Across whitetail country far and wide, crossbows are here to stay. In a report earlier this year, Patrick Durkin detailed that many states are now harvesting more deer with crossbows than vertical bows. In Ohio, for example, 67 percent of its archery deer were taken by crossbow hunters in 2019. In Wisconsin, where I do most of my deer hunting, 54 percent of archery deer were killed by crossbow hunters.
Diehards from state bowhunting associations, many of which pushed back against allowing crossbows in regular archery seasons, might look at this data and say “See, we told you so. Now bowhunting as we knew it is dead.”
Not so fast. I’ve dabbled in crossbow hunting, and I’ve since come back to my compound bowhunting roots. While I’m sure that I’ll deer hunt with a crossbow again someday, I’m also certain there will always be a healthy population of us bowhunters. And here’s the simple reason: Bowhunting is more fun.
Hunt with a Compound Bow or Hunt with a Crossbow?
Let’s take, for example, my last successful crossbow hunt, and compare it to my most recent bowhunt.
I was sitting in a treestand three seasons ago, crossbow in hand, when I heard a buck crunching through the timber. A moment later, I spotted him marching through a hardwood flat on a trail that would take him right by my stand. I brought the crossbow to my shoulder and waited for him to enter a shooting lane. When he reached 20 yards, I leveled the reticle behind his shoulder, bleated to stop him, and THWACK. The buck was dead. That’s all I can remember.
This fall I was hunting with a compound bow along a field edge. I was watching a little doe chew on weeds beneath me when she perked up and looked into the field. In charged a nice buck, grunting with every other step. The doe bounded off while the buck continued his march. I scrambled for my bow. He was going to pass my stand at 10 yards. But at the last second, the buck cut into the woods, pausing behind a massive deadfall. I had my release clipped on my D-loop and I stared hard through the deadfall, trying to gauge if the buck was a shooter. I decided he was and went to full draw. He stepped from behind the cover, and I bleated loudly to stop him. But through my peep sight and the falling darkness in the timber, I couldn’t find my spot on the buck. I took my eye off the peep, saw the crease behind his shoulder clearly, and returned to my anchor point. I squeezed the release and felt the shot break beautifully. I heard the distinct thud of a well-placed arrow, the buck bounding through the timber, and a faint, distant crash. This happened more than a month ago, but I remember each detail as if it had happened a minute ago.
And that’s the real difference. When you shoot a whitetail deer with a bow, you see, hear, and feel the shot all at once. Executed properly, it’s one of the most thrilling and natural moments in all of hunting—and maybe in the entire modern-human experience. Then you carefully follow the blood trail, hoping the whole time that your shot was as good as it felt. When you find the deer, piled up not more than 100 yards away, you feel relieved, thankful, and proud. This is true of the first deer you kill with a bow and it’s true about the 20th deer you kill with a bow.
That experience—drawing, holding, squeezing through the shot, watching the arrow arc in flight, and hearing it hit home—is not the same on a crossbow shot. And enough of us bowhunters will want to relive this experience year after year, until we can no longer draw a bow.
Let’s End the Bowhunter vs. Crossbow Hunter Battle
But let me be clear: I don’t think hunting with a vertical bow is somehow more righteous than hunting with a crossbow. Hunting with a crossbow is perfectly ethical and for many people, it’s more accessible.
And still, there’s a prevalent attitude in the hunting community that hunting with a vertical bow is the only real form of archery hunting (don’t even ask a trad bow person about this). The idea is that crossbow hunters are endangering the sport by making it too easy to be successful. A few years ago, there were even discussions within the Archery Trade Association about re-defining crossbows as non-archery equipment. But members quickly voted down that initiative.
Ultimately, trying to kick crossbow hunters out of bowhunting gives vertical bowhunters way too much moral credit.
Yes, it takes more practice to get good at shooting a bow. And yes, executing an accurate shot on an animal is more difficult with a bow. But just because something is more difficult doesn’t mean it’s morally superior.
I spend many hours each summer practicing with my bow so that I can make clean kills with it in the fall. But do the hours I spend shooting make me superior to the crossbow hunter who can shoot just as accurately, and instead spends his summer, I don’t know, taking his kids fishing? I think not.
I shoot a bow because it’s fun. I know there are real mental and physical health benefits to archery, but for me, I just like to see the arrow arc down range and then bury itself deep into a target. I think most of us are out there shooting and bowhunting for a similar reason—it’s a good time. And doing something for fun, even if that thing is very challenging, does not give you moral high ground.
Most biologists across whitetail country are not worried about crossbow hunters decimating deer populations. States that have allowed crossbow hunting during the regular archery season aren’t seeing crashes in deer populations. So, if crossbow hunters aren’t damaging deer populations, and they’re using their gear responsibly, they should have their fun, too.
In that report I mentioned earlier, C.J. Winand, a Maryland biologist who tracks bowhunting data for Bowhunter magazine, said crossbows generally become the archery season’s “weapon of choice” within three years of legalization, but crossbow usage generally plateaus near two-thirds of the archery harvest.
Many crossbow states have now reached that plateau, or they’re close. In other words, the crossbow hunting surge has come, and there are still plenty of hunters like me who aren’t giving up their bows.