Crossbows. The mere mention of the word can stir a heated debate in any hunt camp or club. I had listened to the debates before, but I'm not one to take sides until I actually learn the truth for myself. All I can say is that during my first crossbow experience, I had a great time, I learned much about the benefits of crossbow hunting, and I discovered it was quite a bit more challenging than I thought it would be.
I was first introduced to the crossbow at White Oak Plantation in Tuskegee, Alabama, during a hunt sponsored by Horton Manufacturing Company. I had attended numerous bowhunts at White Oak before where I had used a compound bow and was looking forward to trying out something new. I'm a small-framed woman, and my spindly arms have always had a difficult time pulling back a compound bow. In fact, I can't pull back the legal weight required to hunt in many states. I hoped that the crossbow would provide me with more hunting opportunities during the bow season.
My First Lesson
A few minutes after arriving at the lodge, Ottie Snyder, media specialist with Horton Manufacturing Company, took the other hunters and me out to the target range to sight in our bows. My first couple of shots hit low. Snyder informed me that I was making a mistake common to new crossbow shooters. Right after I'd shoot, I'd jerk up my head or "peek" as he'd call it to see if I'd hit the target. This would cause my shot to be off.
"You have to keep your head down and watch your arrow hit your target before you lift your head," Snyder said. While observing and instructing us, he had to remind me a couple more times not to peek, but finally he got it through my thick skull. We practiced a few more minutes until we all could shoot four or five arrows in tight groups; then we were ready for our hunt. Feeling pretty confident about my newly developed skill with a crossbow, I headed to the woods.
The first day, I saw some deer, but none came within 40 yards. The next day, a nice doe walked within 25 yards of me and started feeding casually among the brush to the right of my stand. Feeling pretty confident in my shooting ability, I lifted up my crossbow, aimed and fired. The second I shot, I knew that I had missed. Without Snyder standing behind me to remind me not to peek, in nervous thoughtlessness, I raised my head too soon after I shot. I watched as the doe casually lifted her head then ambled slowly into the woods unscathed. Very frustrated with myself, I returned to camp where with kind patience Snyder worked with me until I was shooting in tight groups again. I didn't get another shot at a deer that week, but I knew I'd soon get another chance.
My Second Chance
A few weeks later, I got to hunt again with my crossbow at M&M Outfitters in southern Ohio. I had never before hunted that part of the country and was amazed at the number and size of deer that I saw. The first day in the stand, I saw five nice bucks, but none came within range of my stand. I was feeling a little more nervous because of my previous miss at White Oak, and I knew I had to calm my nerves in order to experience success. The next day, a nice buck came within 30 yards of my stand presenting me with a perfect broadside shot.
This time, my heart was pounding hard in my chest, and I could feel my arms shaking under the weight of the bow. So, I took a deep breath, held the crossbow as still as I could and fired. To my horror, the buck just stood there. I had missed! Of course, I knew right then what I had done -- I had peeked again. Even though I knew not to, I was so nervous that it didn't cross my mind until after I shot. I was extremely frustrated with myself. I returned to camp and practiced again and again hitting the target dead on each time.
Third Times a Charm?
I knew I could kill a deer with my crossbow, I just had to concentrate so that I wouldn't make that same mistake a third time. The next day, I had another opportunity at a nice deer. This time, before I pulled the trigger, I made a mental note not to jerk my head up as soon as I shot. I aimed, pulled the trigger, kept my head down and watched in horror as the arrow went right under the deer. "What in the world did I do this time?" I thought.
After ranging the spot where the deer had stood, I realized that I had misjudged the distance by a little more than five yards, which caused me to miss. I had ranged the patch of grass that morning at approximately 28 yards. When the buck came in, he stopped to the left of that patch of grass, which I guessed was still within 30 yards. When I ranged that spot again, I realized it was about 36 yards. As Paul Vaicunas, director of sales for Horton Crossbows, explained to me after I returned to camp, misjudging the yardage by as little as five yards can result in a miss.
So, I had had three opportunities to take a deer and missed all three times. Each time, nerves played a big factor in my misses. So, for those critics who say crossbow hunting is a done deal, I'm here to say that it's definitely not a sure thing. Even though the crossbow is an extremely accurate weapon, as I learned during my practice shots, outside factors, such as nerves and misjudging distance, can still cause you to miss, just as those factors can cause a hunter to miss with a gun or a compound bow.
For me, the biggest obstacle to success afield has always been my nerves. Any time a deer comes in range of my stand, I get a raging case of buck fever. I get so nervous that in times past, I've actually had to pass up on a shot because I couldn't stop shaking long enough to get a steady aim. I'll have to face this obstacle whether I'm shooting a compound bow or crossbow, but at least with a crossbow, I can steady my shot with the assistance of a rail or a tree.
Growing the Sport
Despite my many misses, I enjoyed shooting the crossbow for a number of reasons. First of all, with the assistance of an easy-pull device, I can cock my crossbow with little effort. For this reason, crossbows are the biggest recruitment tool in all of the hunting industry. Now, small-framed women, children, elderly and disabled hunters can all enjoy hunting during the warmer, more pleasant bow season, which was not always an option for many in these groups.Crossbows enable children to hunt the bow season at a much younger age. Young children often don't participate in hunting because they're scared by the loud bang of a gun or are unable to pull back a compound or recurve bow. The crossbow eliminates both of these problems thanks to an easy-pull device and a much quieter fire. As we are beginning to see, crossbows are effectively introducing more and more children to the sport of hunting, and others are benefiting as well.
I'll have to face this obstacle whether I'm shooting a compound bow or crossbow, but at least with a crossbow, I can steady my shot with the assistance of a rail or a tree.
Hunters like my father who can no longer pull a compound bow due to severe arthritis in his shoulders, can continue to hunt during the bow season thanks to the crossbow. My father shot a crossbow for the first time and loved it. After shooting it, with a broadening grin on his face, he said, "This is just what I need."
In order to secure the future of hunting for generations to come, we've simply got to get more hunters into the woods, and in my opinion, the crossbow is "just what we need" for the job.
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Editor's Note: This was originally published April 25, 2006.
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