By Jeff Barnard, AP environmental reporter for 30+ years (now retired) who blogged about going deer hunting for the first time last year. Here, Jeff talks about hunters who choose bows over rifles. Oregon’s statewide archery season for deer and elk opens Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017.
Bill Bars started hunting with a rifle when he was 12, but by the time he reached his 30s, he switched primarily to hunting with a bow. At first it was about reducing the competition with other hunters, and not hearing all those rifle shots on opening day. But as he learned more and more about being stealthy and hunting deer and elk on their own terms, his primary goal went from the kill, to the hunt.
“When I started bow-hunting, I had to learn more about what it meant to be a hunter,” said Bars, who works as an applications scientist for a company in Grants Pass that makes scientific instruments.
“The most important lesson I learned was how to use the wind. You have to learn to be patient and quiet, how not to sound like a predator, how to use all your senses — hearing, sight and smell — equally. The animal’s job is basically to live and survive in the woods every waking moment of the day using every instinct they were created with. And I love bow hunting because you’ve got to hunt them on their own terms.’’
He has killed elk, deer, grouse, rabbits and even quail with his bow, a single-cam compound. Unlike many bow hunters, he doesn’t use a tree stand. He spots his quarry, they stalks it. He also shoots instinctively, with no sights, and draws with his fingers, rather than a mechanical release.
“What I like about hunting with a bow is, I think you get a little more in tune with the surroundings, with the woods,” he said. “It’s hard. And when you do harvest something, I don’t care if it’s a quail or an elk, if you are harvesting with a bow and arrow, I feel like you are harvesting a trophy.”
One good reason to try bow hunting is that in most of the state, you get a month-long season without having to draw a tag. The first season runs from the end of August to the end of September, before Western Oregon general rifle season. Parts of Western Oregon also have a second season in November and December, after rifle season is over and during the rut. Statistics generally show higher success rates during early bow season, perhaps because the deer haven’t been shot at for a month.
The numbers of deer hunters — rifle and bow — were rising in Oregon until 2008, when both began to drop off. In 2016 there were 114,685 rifle hunters for deer, and 34,790 bow hunters for deer. Bow hunters have lower success rates, too. In 2016 the success rate for all bowhunters was 18 percent vs 28 percent for all rifle deer hunters. Muzzleloaders do even better.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife hopes to expand bow hunter numbers and has a new archery coordinator. She is Miranda Huerta. A Midwesterner, she is new to Oregon and shot for the United States at the 2012 Olympics in London. She is focused on developing archery programs in elementary schools and YMCAs to expose more kids to the sport. Eventually, she hopes to expand the instructional programs to older kids and even adults.
Jim Akenson is conservation director of the Oregon Hunters Association, and has been hunting with a bow for 47 years. He regularly horse-packs into the Eagle Cap Wilderness for deer and elk to get away from other hunters.
Akenson hunts with a recurve bow, with take-down limbs that he can pack more easily. He started hunting with a bow as a kid because his parents wouldn’t let him have a firearm. If he does hunt with a firearm, he prefers historic calibers, like the .45–70 and the .30–30, despite their lower velocities, and the fact they are often found on lever-action rifles with iron sights, which makes long shots more difficult than with a scope.
“It’s all about how close you get,’’ he said of success as a bowhunter.
Akenson ranks bow hunting as far more difficult than rifle hunting. That’s because instead of taking a shot at 100 to 200 yards, you need to be around 20 or 30 yards from your quarry. Fifty yards is a very long shot, though if you practice, are confident, and use a powerful bow with a heavy arrow, it can still be an ethical shot.
Besides just being farther away and harder to hit, a deer 50 yards away may take a step, duck or turn in the time between the arrow release and reaching the target — enough time to make a good shot into a miss or worse.
You can find videos on YouTube of deer ducking under an arrow as they spring away, and even advice on how to overcome this issue. It is pretty incredible to see and speaks to the survival instincts of deer and the value to the hunter of getting close.
Akenson figures good equipment will run about $500 minimum for the bow and another $200 for arrows, broadheads, strings, release, quiver, and shooting glove or tab. But a new hunter can easily spend $1,000 or more. Used equipment can be had cheaper, but you should know what you are after. Then it is a matter of practice to build up the muscle memory to make a good shot in the field. Akenson shoots his recurve nearly every day, but figures you can get away with once a week with a compound bow. Bars tries to shoot daily during hunting season, and likes to tune up with one of the 3-D shoots various ranges offer.
If you are going to hunt from a tree stand, you need to practice shooting from it. Shooting at a steep down angle will change the trajectory of the arrow.
Akenson considers the compound bow the easiest to become competent with. The cams allow you to hold at perhaps 20 percent of the draw weight, so a 50-pound bow, the minimum legal for elk, might hold at as little as 10 pounds, making it much easier to hold steady while sighting. There are also sights — a peep hole in the string and pins on the side of the bow that can be lined up with the target.
“You want a bow you can shoot accurately,’’ said Jeremy Beeks, who works at Dewclaw Archery in Medford, where I went for advice on gear. He figures most men can draw a 50-pound bow, especially a compound. And with practice they can be accurate enough to hunt out to a maximum of 50 yards. But at that distance, Beeks warns that an animal can hear the shot and duck, or just take a step in the course of feeding and a well-aimed shoot will turn into a miss or worse, a wound that means a slow death for the animal, and hours of tracking for the hunter. So I would figure on getting within 20 or 30 yards. That is pretty tough, and will require a fair bit of work and attention to detail.
Bars shoots a compound bow with a 67-pound draw weight, but it holds at 20 pounds.
“I have a long bow and I have a compound,’’ he said. “The compound gives me better penetration on an elk,’’ which translates into a more humane and efficient kill.
“With a recurve, if you are holding 50 pounds for any length of time, it is hard to maintain a sight picture without shaking,’’ adds Beeks.
When it comes to buying a bow, I think it is a good idea to go to a good shop, rather than ordering over the internet, even if it means driving a long distance. Find one that carries the kind of gear you are interested in. You want to be able to draw and shoot it before dropping that $500 to $1,600, especially if this is something new. Also, a shop will have an indoor shooting range, and staff can give expert instruction.
Compound bows can be adjusted for draw and hold weight. Recurves and longbows can’t.
If you go with sights, Beeks recommends upgrading to metal for about $90, because it will be more durable in the woods than the cheap plastic sights the lower-end bows come with. A decent release will run at least $45, practice arrows around $8.50. Heavier hunting arrows that deliver a harder punch will be more. And four broadheads will be $30 or more.
It is easy to run up a hefty bill. Kind of like walking into a fly fishing shop. Hard to get out without spending $40.
You can choose, like Bars, to shoot your compound with fingers instead of a release, and without sights, but a release, which loops around your wrist and hooks the string, letting go with a trigger, is easier to shoot accurately.
It all comes down to just how hard you want to make it for yourself.
I am not sure whether I want to take up bow hunting yet. I have an old fiberglass bow I bought when I was a kid. I took it to the guys at Dewclaw, who set me up with a string, told me the draw weight was 35 pounds — enough for turkey, but not for deer — and sold me five practice arrows, an arm guard and a shooting glove. I spent $70. As for how to shoot, there are plenty of videos on YouTube. Practice will be key.
“If people aren’t super-dedicated, they tend to drop out of bow hunting,’’ Akenson said.
So what’s the attraction?
“I enjoy it,’’ said Akenson. “The challenge. The connection with nature. And applying traditional skills.” For Akenson, that means more than just using a traditional bow. “I use horses and mules to gain access to remote places. Then when I shoot something, I use mules to pack them out. It’s a time-honored way of hunting remote places.’’