April 03, 2018
By C. J. Winand
The compound bow hit the market during the early 1970s. Many older hunters may recall the division it caused between traditional bowhunters and those
in favor of the new "pulley" bows. I can still recall a hand-painted sign at our archery range that read, "NO compounds allowed." Back then, as a 16-year-old boy, I remember making a vow to take my first deer with traditional equipment before moving on to those newfangled compound bows.
Back in 1970, nationwide bowhunter numbers were estimated at 760,000. Last year, an estimated 3.4 million bowhunters hunted throughout North America.
Obviously, the sheer number of bowhunters has changed the way we hunt, and the way every state/provincial wildlife department manages their deer herd.
Even though bowhunter numbers were still relatively low in 1991, Bowhunter Conservation Editor Dr. Dave Samuel wrote, "Bowhunting equipment has become more sophisticated in the last two decades. The potential concern of a bow becoming too efficient and effective is shared by bowhunters and many state wildlife agencies."
In addition to advances in compound bow technology, hunters have benefitted from improvements in gear such as portable treestands, laser rangefinders, mechanical broadheads, and trail cameras, just to name a few categories. Additionally, the average hunter is much more educated about deer management than just 10 years ago. This wave of educated hunters can be attributed to efforts from groups like the Quality Deer Management Association. Without a doubt, quality deer management principles have swept across North America.
It wasn't too long ago when some older deer biologists told me, "The chances of bowhunters having a significant impact on our deer herds are slim to none." As of last year, 10 states have 33 percent or more of their total deer harvest being taken by bowhunters. In 2017, over 1.1 million deer were harvested by bowhunters throughout North America. Clearly, these biologists (who were primarily firearms hunters) were dead wrong.
But, just like Dr. Dave stated in 1991, questions still remain. Are bowhunters becoming increasingly adept at harvesting whitetails? Have the archery industry and TV shows gone astray with sponsor equipment that promotes high-risk shots? Has your personal maximum shooting distance increased over the years? As the season progresses, do you take lower-percentage shots? Do your personal ethics and morals change when hunting other states where the bag limit is more than one deer?
All of these are great questions that only you can answer. In an attempt to answer some of these questions, specifically about bowhunter success rates and shooting distances, we need hardcore data. Since 2002, the nationwide deer success rate for bowhunters has remained unchanged at about 23 percent. Additionally, about 18.5 percent of the total number of deer harvested in North America are taken with archery equipment. And, just like the nationwide success rate for bowhunters, this figure has remained consistent for the last 15 years. Will the inclusion of crossbows into many bow seasons significantly increase these percentages in years to come? Most likely not, but many biologists are watching these figures very closely.
On an individual level, what has happened to your shooting distances over the years? Can we assume your effective shooting distances have increased from 15 years ago? Probably so. But has this shooting distance transferred into actual hunting scenarios? Data on this question is very hard to answer.
The only organization to collect this data is the Pope and Young Club. Since 85 percent of all P&Y bucks are harvested from treestands, has this helped to increase the distance for a first shot? Most agree that mechanical broadheads fly better at longer distances than fixed-blade heads. Since 48 percent of all P&Y bucks are now harvested with mechanical heads, does this increase our effective shooting distance? At the same time, ground blinds are more popular than ever. Even though they only make up six percent of all P&Y buck entries, are they decreasing or increasing our shot distances?
One of the questions when entering a buck into the P&Y Record Book is the distance of your first shot. Data indicates that 77 percent of all first shots at P&Y bucks are 29 yards or less. When you compare this data with 15 years ago (and with all the advanced technology), there's no significant difference between the years. Although this data surprised me, I then regrouped the same data set into 20-yard increments. And, just like the 10-yard increment data, there was no significant difference between the years.
Has the industry, and the technology it promotes, increased our shooting abilities? Probably so. But whether or not this translates to in-the-field shooting experience is not conclusive.
The P&Y Club gets a tip of the Bowhunter hat for collecting this data, but there are still some unanswered questions. For example, did all bowhunters from 1999-2014 estimate yardage correctly? Obviously, some hunters use laser rangefinders and others do not. Of the hunters who use laser rangefinders, do their models all incorporate angle compensation? Of course, this is splitting hairs in the name of accuracy.
Currently, the P&Y Club is attempting to take their huge database of first-shot distances for whitetails and see if there are differences between North, East, South, Midwest, and Western sections of the country throughout the years. Even when the first-shot distance is dissected into regions, I don't believe there will be any differences within the data. Why? In short, Western hunters will always take longer shots than big-woods bowhunters in the East. No matter where you hunt, the primary limiting factor in shot distance is habitat, and not necessarily technology. Compared to our firearms friends, bowhunting will always be a short-range activity.
C.J.'s Summary: Obviously, our own personal ethics and morals dictate whether or not we take low-percentage shots. As all bowhunters know, every arrow we release can lead to "the lowest of lows or the highest of highs." Experience at the range and in the field determines whether or not you end each day on a positive note. Surely, every animal we draw on deserves our utmost effort.