The beginner’s guide to archery hunting.
A bow hunter glasses a field at sunrise.
It’s not that Curt Lytle has anything against hunting deer and other game with a firearm — he grew up doing that. These days, he simply wants something more, something that gives him a stronger connection to the natural world and a greater challenge. That’s why Lytle made the decision to give up gun hunting in 2007 in favor of bowhunting.
“I feel like I am participating in nature instead of observing it when I hunt with a bow,” says Lytle. “I can walk over a hill and see an animal, and shoot it from 300 yards away with a rifle, but with a bow, I have to get in its personal space. That’s not easy. Carrying a handmade bow through the woods is very fulfilling, and having a successful hunt is even more rewarding.”
There’s another reason the 48-year-old Suffolk, Virginia, resident traded in his gun for a bow: Most states offer separate archery seasons that start before general firearms seasons. That means he gets a few weeks or even a month or more to hunt before countless other hunters descend upon the woods. Deer and other game are more likely to follow a routine and move during daylight hours. Bowhunters also have a better chance of drawing a limited big-game tag in states that restrict non-resident hunters.
“I’ve hunted elk in places that a non-resident gun hunter may never get to hunt, because the tags are so hard to get. Not as many people bowhunt, so the odds of drawing an elk tag in some parts of Colorado or New Mexico are much better,” he says.
Be warned, though. Hunting deer, elk, feral hogs, or any other game with a bow is arguably the most challenging type of hunting you can do. If your only goal is to fill your freezer with meat, bowhunting may not be the best method. Success requires getting close to the animal, and hunters occasionally leave tags unfilled.
Getting close is just part of it. The most important part of a bowhunt is making a good shot. Arrows kill quickly by hitting a vital organ. Miss by a fraction of an inch, and you could wound the animal in a non-fatal way. No one wants that to happen. In order to avoid it, you must practice, and practice often. Shooting a compound or traditional bow is as simple as drawing back the string and releasing it. Actually hitting a target the size of a small paper plate, or better, consistently? There is no substitute for practice. The most successful bowhunters aren’t just skilled hunters, they are excellent shooters, too. They practice daily in the months leading up to hunting season. They even shoot during the season itself to stay consistent and ensure proper form.
Even with lots of practice, it’s important to understand your own limitations. While some can hit a small target at 40, 50, even 60 yards or more, some of us can’t; at least not consistently. But if one knows their ability, you can avoid those shots and wait for an opportunity within an ethical range for the specific hunter.
Lytle’s personal range limit is 30 yards. That’s because he shoots a recurve bow, which is little more than a string and a piece of curved wood with a shaped grip and arrow rest. He started out with a compound more than 30 years ago, but sometime around 2000, he picked up a recurve and never looked back. To him, the simplicity of using a piece of wood, a string, and an arrow just adds to the appeal of bowhunting. So does the primitive aspect of it. Longbows, another type of traditional or “stick” bow, are nothing more than a single, narrow piece of wood shaped into a functional, effective bow. They are likely what the first hunters used.
That simplicity is reflected in their price. A good recurve or longbow can cost less than $200, although some sell for two or three times that. Some hunters actually make their own stick bows.
It depends on the shooter, but generally, traditional bows are not as accurate as compound or crossbows, which is why Lytle limits his shot distances. You can put a sight on one, but he and many other hunters don’t. They shoot by instinct.
“It takes a lot of practice to shoot accurately and consistently, but that’s what I like about it,” he says.
Far and away the most popular type of hunting bow, compounds use a combination of cables, wheels or cams, and the bowstring itself. The physics of those parts are similar to a block and tackle, which allows you to lift far more weight than you would with a simple rope and wheel.
As you draw the bow, the cams roll over, which reduces the force necessary to pull the string back. That reduced force is called let-off, which can be approximately 70 percent less than the bow’s actual draw weight. So if your bow has a 60-pound draw weight, you’ll only need 18 pounds of force to hold the string at full draw. This is an advantage, as it allows hunters to hold the arrow back longer as they wait for a shot.
That’s not the only advantage. Because of the mechanics, compound bows tend to shoot faster and have a flatter trajectory. That leads to more accuracy, better arrow penetration, and a more efficient tool overall.
Because of all the moving parts, compound bows typically cost more than a standard stick bow. By the time you add up such things as a sight, arrow rest, stabilizer, and other accessories, you can spend well over $300 and as much as $1,000 or more. What you spend depends not just on the bow itself but on the quality and number of the various additions you put on your bow. Plus the arrows you choose.
Editor’s note: Some, like Caleb Regan, Grit’s editor-in-chief, find the investment to be well worth it. One thing to note, the best brands offer warranties, some even lifetime.
Both traditional and compound bows require a fair amount of upper body and arm strength to draw and hold. That’s one reason crossbows are gaining in popularity. As the population of America’s hunters age, fewer people have the physical ability to draw and hold a compound bow. Crossbows also take less time to master, a factor that has led to an avalanche of criticism and derision from vertical bowhunters.
It’s true that crossbows are topped with scopes, and perhaps they take less practice to master. Shooting one is similar to shooting a gun. However, as hunter numbers decline, it’s critical to offer new opportunities to attract and retain new hunters.
“I’m not sure what the fuss is about,” says Lytle. “A guy with a crossbow on the other side of the fence has no more or less impact on me than a guy with a recurve or compound. I can’t ever see myself using one, but if someone else wants to, go for it.”
After years of debate, it’s clear that a growing number of people agree. At one time, they were legal only for those who had physical limitations or handicaps. Now, 25 states have no restrictions on them. In half of all states, anyone can use a crossbow during any legal hunting season. In some states, crossbows have actually overtaken vertical bows in popularity. More Ohio bowhunters use crossbows than vertical bows, and they kill more deer.
When they first entered the equation, crossbows were the subject of a number of myths and misconceptions. They still are, but not to the same extent. The “bow guns,” as some critics have called them, are no more or less accurate than a compound. Surveys conducted by the Ohio Division of Wildlife found nearly identical wounding rates, successful shot rates and shot distances, and near identical tracking and recovery distances and times. It’s possible to shoot beyond 50 yards with a crossbow, but a hunter with a compound bow can shoot that far, too. That doesn’t mean either one should, of course. Practice is still the key.
Unlike a stick bow, crossbows are heavy, noisy, and cumbersome. It’s usually one and done, after one shot the prey will either be hit or spooked. Although it requires no effort to hold the string back once it has been drawn and locked in place, crossbows can be difficult to cock. Pulling the string requires arm and lower back strength.
These aren’t cheap, either. Expect to pay close to $1,000 for a high-quality outfit complete with a scope, arrows, and quiver, although you can find lower-quality packages for $300 or $400. One crossbow retails for over $2,500.
What you buy and how much you spend is less important than actually learning how to use it. Whether you choose a recurve, a compound, or a crossbow, there is no substitute for practice. You not only owe it to the animals you hunt, but to yourself. Bowhunting may be a fun and relaxing way to spend time outdoors, but there’s not much fun in it if you can’t hit anything. If you can’t practice, you might as well stick with a gun — although gun hunting requires practice, too, at least for the skillful and ethical hunter. And practice should be all part of the fun.
If the idea of hunting with a bow and arrow sounds appealing, one of your first steps should be a visit to a dedicated archery shop (after checking state regulations and taking a hunter safety course). Unfortunately, big-box outdoor retailers and their related web commerce sites have put many independent bow shops out of business. Plenty remain, though, either as stand-alone shops or as part of a mom-and-pop hunting and fishing store. Use them at every opportunity, not because they charge less (they likely won’t), but because they are an invaluable asset to the archery community. You’ll get personal instruction, hands-on help, and expert advice you can’t get anywhere else.
What to Hunt
Whitetail deer are the most popular quarry for archery hunters, but only because they are the most available and abundant game animal. No other game species is as widespread as whitetails, which live in all or parts of the Lower 48 states.
What’s the easiest to hunt with a bow?
That depends on who you ask, but really, there is no such thing as “easy.” Wild animals survive by avoiding predators. They rely on their eyes, ears, and noses to detect danger. Some animals have incredible eyesight, while others have outstanding noses. It’s challenging to beat those senses from 30 yards away.
With that said, feral hogs are a great animal to hunt with a bow. They are also great table fare. They have relatively poor eyes and marginal hearing, but outstanding noses. It’s all but impossible to approach a wild hog from upwind, but if you move slowly, they won’t see you draw your bow. Hogs are abundant, too — and sometimes problematic for landowners and farmers — with a range that covers most of the South. California also has them.
David Hart lives in Virginia with his wife, Navona. When he isn’t working to improve the wildlife habitat on his land, he can be found hunting or fishing.
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