Crossbow Deer Hunting 101

Crossbow Deer Hunting 101

Just about everyone who owns a crossbow uses it to hunt for deer. Ready to get started?

By Aaron Carter

You might be wondering how to get into this exciting sport of crossbow hunting.

We've made it easy for you to take the next steps.

crossbow hunting
Unlike vertical bows, with a crossbow you can be hunting in a matter of days or weeks not months. (Photo by Aaron Carter)


As with most laws, license requirements vary greatly from state to state. You may need to take a hunter education course too, depending on your age.

To ensure compliance, check out the website or regulations pamphlet of the game agency where you want to hunt.

If you're still unsure what's needed or just to double-check, call the game department and speak with its personnel; a conservation officer there will be able to provide an answer. If you don't know how to get in touch with your state game agency, go to

To illustrate how states differ, let's look at Virginia and Nebraska.

To hunt whitetail deer with a crossbow in Virginia, you'll need three licenses: basic hunting, big-game hunting and archery. If hunting on state or national forest land, you'll need those permits, too. Completion of a hunter education program is required. You could be exempt under certain circumstances, like if you are over 65 or hunting on your own land. 

In Nebraska, though, you'll need to have successfully passed the Hunter and Bowhunter Education courses, and you'll need to purchase a hunting license, deer permit and habitat stamp. 

Don't assume that the guy helping you in the sporting goods section will provide you with everything you'll need. Understand that if you're shorted a license or tag, you will be held responsible, not the employee.

Although some states sell licenses or tags over-the-counter, others have draws and require ample preference points (earned from unsuccessful draws) to secure a coveted whitetail tag. 

Start researching the state requirements now. If you wait until the last moment, you might miss out. Some deer seasons, like those in California, are probably under way right now! And what's really cool about crossbows is that you can be out in the woods in just weeks.

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It should go without saying that you must practice with your crossbow before heading afield after whitetail deer. Remember, a broadhead-equipped arrow kills via hemorrhaging — not via shock like a gun — so it's imperative that you can accurately place your shot every time you make one.

There is little margin for error in archery. Just like shooting with a vertical bow, the crossbow arrow, sometimes called a bolt, drops a considerable amount over distance — it's not a high-velocity bullet from a rifle.

Frequent practice allows you to quickly choose the proper aiming point to use for every distance within your maximum effective range, which is only determined (and extended) through practice. Shooting beyond your maximum range — the distance where you can consistently hit a small area of the target — is unsportsmanlike and reduces the chances of the animal being killed quickly and humanely.

Practice from an elevated position or the ground blind — wherever you'll be hunting. Moreover, through repetition you enhance trigger control and safety (not placing fingers in the string's flight path, for example), and, in general, you build familiarity with your weapon. 

Lastly, practice with the simple field tips but take at least a shot or two with your hunting broadheads to confirm you'll hit your mark when it counts.

Finding Land

If you don't have your own land to hunt, it can still pay dividends to simply ask a landowner if you can hunt private land. Offer to exchange work or provide assistance for permission. I've secured access by trapping and removing problematic beavers, for example. 

You could find your hunting heaven through joining a hunting club or leasing your own land. As for public land, opportunities exist in most states.

Game department websites are a great source for locating wildlife management areas (WMAs), also called game management areas in some states.

You can also locate walk-in areas, state and national forests, and military bases. Limited hunter quota hunts on national wildlife refuges and state parks are typically offered through reservation or draws and are often only open to crossbow and vertical-bow hunters.

Some of my best and most memorable hunts have occurred on these relatively unpressured public properties. 

Hunting land can be found but it requires legwork in order to be successful.

crossbow deer hunting
Ahhhh. Finally you've got the license, land, gear and practice under your belt. Now, where are those deer? (Photo by John Geiger)

Before Pulling the Trigger

Now that you have access, a license, permits and practice under your belt, you might think that you're ready to go hunting. Not yet. You need a game plan. You need to be able answer the following questions:

  • Once you kill, recover and tag a deer, do you know how to dress it (remove the entrails) to prevent spoilage?
  • How are you going to move it? Do you have a game cart or ATV, or can you drive a vehicle to it? Will you have to drag it? 
  • Are you going to butcher it or have a local processor package up your meat? 

None of this is rocket science, but you should be able to answer these questions before you go. 

As with most pursuits, there's a learning curve to hunting whitetails with a crossbow. Hopefully, this info helps ease the process and gets you in the field faster and better prepared.

Read more articles about Crossbows

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