Bowhunting: Best Shot At A Trophy?

Looking to kill a huge deer? Think about picking up a bow. It's a highly effective weapon, and the amount of land that our state affords bowhunters makes the option of archery an intriguing one.

Photo by T.C. Flanigan

Extolling the many virtues of bowhunting is one of my favorite seminar topics. I was in the midst of doing exactly that when a woman in the audience raised her hand. After assuring me that she was a "lifelong" deer hunter, she asked, "Now that firearms antlerless permits are unlimited (across much of the state), why would anyone waste their precious outdoor time bowhunting?"

Those who know me well won't believe this, but her unexpected question rendered me speechless. Fortunately, she quickly broke the awkward moment of silence by explaining why she had asked her question. To her, deer hunting meant getting the family together for the express purpose of literally "harvesting" deer as efficiently as possible. To quote her exactly: "Bowhunting simply isn't a practical way to kill deer."

Final statistics on permit sales weren't available at press time, but based on the past several years, it's safe to assume that slightly fewer than 100,000 archery deer permits were sold. Raw post-harvest data indicate that archers killed 35,988 deer. I'll bet you a dollar to a doughnut that Missouri's firearm deer hunters didn't come close to filling 36 percent of the permits they bought. That sounds at least relatively "efficient" to me.

On the other hand, I'm an inveterate record-keeper. My own statistics force me to admit that in 2003 and 2004 -- a two-year period during which the angel assigned to assist my bowhunting efforts must have been in a decidedly bad mood -- I spent more than 27 hours sitting in trees for every deer I tagged. Conversely, during the same time period, one deer fell to my rifle for every six hours of hunting time. Having been down similar roads before, I quoted the just-mentioned personal statistics, conceded her point, and got my seminar back on track. Happily, I don't have to take that tack today, because you're a bowhunter, too.

Maybe you're a graybeard like me (I bought my first archery deer permit in 1966) or perhaps you've only got a season or two under your belt. In either case, the fact that you're reading this article shows that the mystique of stick and string owns you, body and soul.

We bowhunters really do appreciate the many aspects of hunting that have nothing to do with killing game. Many of us begin scouting for the next season the day after the current season ends in order to obtain every chance of putting ourselves within 25 yards of an unsuspecting buck. During the season, we revel in solitude; we're avid bird and animal watchers; and becoming one with the natural world thrills us.

That's not to say that most of us aren't sitting in our stands hoping that we're going to get a decent shot at a deer. In that regard, several hunters have already contacted me to ask if 2004's record deer harvest will have a negative impact on bowhunters in 2005. On paper, that seems a logical question. Preliminary data would suggest that last year's total deer harvest was a record-shattering 309,893. As Missouri Department of Conservation biologist Lonnie Hansen wryly put it, "That's a lot of dead deer."

During the same conversation, Hansen told me that firearms hunting pressure is so intense on several conservation areas and blocks of state and national forest that deer numbers, especially buck numbers, have been reduced to the point that the population can't rebound to pre-season levels, let alone increase. Since Hansen's comment flies in the face of the conventional wisdom spouted by many self-proclaimed experts, a few words of explanation are in order.

Contrary to popular belief, it's virtually impossible to drive a whitetail deer out of its home range: It will literally stay home and get shot at rather than move. For the same reason, deer on nearby properties are slow to colonize the newly vacated public-land habitat. As one might expect, most of these overhunted public lands are either north or immediately south of the Missouri River. Archers planning public-land hunts in these parts of the state should contact the appropriate MDC district offices for the latest information.

That relatively minor bit of gloom and doom aside, things couldn't look better for the 2005 archery season. Deer are underharvested on most of Missouri's rural private land, in the band of private land and public parks surrounding the state's larger cities, and at many conservation areas.

To put last year's record-shattering overall deer kill in perspective, 310,000 deer is only 31 percent of the grossly underestimated statewide deer population of 1 million; thus, if there were 10 deer using the trail beneath your stand at the beginning of the 2004 deer season, seven were still using it when the last season closed. As if that weren't enough good news, those seven deer will have become at least a dozen when the 2005 season opens.

How can I be so sure of that, especially since I don't know which trail your stand guards? Well, Missouri is anything but a uniform landmass. The state boasts vast expanses of flat fertile cropland, thin-soiled prairies, loess hills, rock-studded mountains and lowland swamps. Even so, the state's mild climate and wide variety of (usually) reliable food sources have provided whitetail deer an ideal opportunity to occupy fully all of these habitats, and in most, albeit not all, cases, they have enthusiastically taken it.

Any experienced modern firearms deer hunter would agree that the concept of full occupancy doesn't mean that deer have spread themselves evenly across the state. The sheer number of hunters who participate in the November portion of the firearms deer season makes it imperative that each of them does his or her best to try to find the highest possible concentration of deer, even if doing so mean traveling long distances to hunt.

Likewise, there are poor, fair, and good places to bowhunt. The difference is that, owing to a relative lack of hunting pressure, there are "better" and "best" places to bowhunt in every county in the state. All it takes to locate these hotspots is dedicated at-home study of maps and statistics and many more hours spent afield scouting than you can "afford."

About now, somebody is thinking: That's easy for him to say -- he's a professional outdoor writer. I bet he can hunt wherever he wants. The sad truth is that, as of this writing, I'm clinging by my fingertips to a good-neighbor lease on 160 acres of private land. I've done all my firearms deer hunting there since 1997. I could bowhunt there as well, of course, but I rarely do. Instead, I spend virtually all my bowhunting time on public land. There are a number of reasons that bowhunting and public land go together like camouflage pants and

beggar lice.

For example, public-land deer are used to sharing their habitat with people the year around. Moreover, for eight months out of the year, even close encounters between deer and man are benign from the deer's point of view. Does that mean public land deer ignore human intrusion? Of course not. However, it does mean that public land can be scouted aggressively even during the season. After all, it isn't a deer hunter following a primary trail or plowing through a bedding area -- it's a squirrel hunter, a turkey hunter or a birdwatcher. Obviously, those comments are an oversimplification.

Another advantage of public land: It's yours. It's a shared ownership, to be sure, but you don't have to worry about arriving at your favorite hunting grounds only to be told that you're no longer welcome. To me, inveterate worrier that I am, guaranteed permanent access is a pearl beyond price. I've literally lain awake at night wondering if I'd be able to hunt the same private land this year that I had access to last year. On more than one occasion, those fears have been justified.

The final advantage of bowhunting on public land is, in my opinion, the most exciting. Some of Missouri's best public deer habitat is reserved for the exclusive use of bowhunters. In truth, the word "some" doesn't do justice to the amount of archery-only public land scattered all across Missouri. According to the latest available information from the MDC, there are 109 properties on which deer hunting is limited to archery methods only throughout the season. An additional 12 areas are archery-only except during the muzzleloader season.

Admittedly, these 121 public areas are not created equal from a deer-hunting standpoint. For example, several of them are river accesses, tower sites or community lakes. Given the small size of these parcels and/or their multiple uses, hunting opportunity at them is obviously limited. That said, a wise bowhunter would visit every one of these postage-stamp deer woods within driving distance, as some of them harbor bucks big enough to be scary.

At the other end of the scale are conservation areas like (to name just a few) Bob Brown (3,302 acres), Blind Pony Lake (2,207 acres), Coon Island (3,223 acres), B. K. Leach Memorial (4,315 acres) and Fountain Grove (7,154 acres), among others, which are big enough to eliminate from all but the most stubborn competition.

In between are scores of lightly hunted 80- to 300-acre conservation areas. Several of these are among my personal favorites. They're big enough to keep me from feeling penned in, but are small enough to make getting a deer pack to the parking lot solo possible. The archery-only areas offer superb deer hunting throughout the season, but many of the conservation areas without deer hunting method restrictions are every bit as good from opening day of archery season until opening day of the November portion of the firearms season.

In fact, there are worse strategies than to scout conservation areas governed under each set of rules. Then you can hunt the "open" areas during the first half of the archery season and switch to the restricted areas during the second half of the season. Missouri also holds archery-only managed deer hunts. In 2004, there were 26 archery-only hunts and four historic-methods hunts that allowed muzzleloaders and archery gear. These hunts begin in October and end in January with individual hunts ranging in length from two to 31 days. Slots in these hunts are awarded in a drawing, and time is of the essence if you hope to take part in one (hunters may apply for only one hunt) this year.

The relatively brief application period is probably open as you're reading this. Check the MDC Web site for information on applying, and on the odds of drawing a permit for each hunt, which in 2004 ranged from 7 to 100 percent. Both the hunt's location and its dates greatly influenced those odds. In other words, if you're willing to be flexible, you can all but guarantee yourself a permit. On the other hand, the most popular hunts got that way by producing big bucks. You might only have to get lucky enough to draw a permit once to take the trophy of a lifetime.

For 2005-06, as has been the case for several years now, participation in any of the managed deer hunts will require a separate managed deer hunt permit; your regular archery hunting permit and bonus archery antlerless permits are not valid during a managed deer hunt. On the other hand, deer taken during these special hunts do not count toward the hunter's season limit. This has become a moot point in the case of antlerless deer; but this rule raises a bowhunter's potential season limit for antlered deer from two to three, and a firearms hunter's season limit from one buck to two.

Fellow bowhunters, the stage is set. We've got more public hunting land at our disposal than we could make use of in several lifetimes. Landowners fed up with crop damage are becoming increasingly amenable to the incursions of responsible bowhunters, and our virtually spotless safety record makes us shine in that department. Deer numbers are at record highs, and hunting regulations and limits have never been more liberal.

Now the ball is in our court. Have we spent the spring and summer practicing with our bows until we're the best shots we can possibly be? If not, putting in some serious range time -- starting today and continuing after the season opens -- is a lot better than nothing.

Are we in the best possible physical condition? If not, daily walks and a doctor-supervised exercise program begun now will be better than doing nothing. If you need motivation to get off the couch and get started, ask yourself what you intend to do if your dreams come true, and you kill a trophy buck a half-mile back in the timber?

Finally, learn something from the lady I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Firearms deer hunting is supposed to be serious business, especially for those of us who depend on venison as our sole source of red meat.

That's why on opening morning of last year's muzzleloader season, I shot a doe from a position so twisted that I knew in advance the scope was going to hit me in the middle of my forehead. There were more deer in front of me, so I tilted my head to keep the blood from running into my eyes and reloaded. When a second doe gave me a shot requiring the same contorted shooting position, I shot her, too. I figured the scope wouldn't hurt as bad the second time. Boy, was I wrong about that!

Bowhunting shouldn't ever be so painful. Bowhunting is supposed to be fun. Count every day you see a deer as a successful one, and don't take yourself too seriously -- leave that to the firearms deer hunters!

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