3 Ways To Get Better Tags

There are a number of reasons why you shouldn't pick up primitive weapons -- compound bows, recurve bows and muzzleloaders. Not one of them's a good reason. Expand your big-game hunting opportunities now! (June 2007)

Photo by Tim Curry.

When my home state of Oregon began controlling centerfire rifle tags in the early 1990s, I never imagined the time might come when I wouldn't have a deer tag in my pocket every year and a rifle slung on my back.

However, times change, and I knew that I'd better change with them.

My first order of business was a compound bow. Ever since, I've been an avid archery hunter and have used my bow to take both deer and elk.

A few years later, I tired of trying to draw a rifle antelope tag and threw my preference points into the hat for a muzzleloader permit. After I drew the tag, I purchased and learned to shoot the primitive firearm -- and took a good pronghorn. Now I have points in for a couple of trophy mule deer hunts that are available only to those who tote muzzleloaders.

Soon after, I learned to shoot a recurve bow, and that has opened up even more hunting opportunities.

As I look back, it's plain to see that learning to shoot and hunt with all three of these tools -- compound bow, muzzleloader and recurve bow -- has made me a better hunter and kept me in the woods every fall.


Most rifle hunters naturally make the switch to a compound bow when they realize that their rifle has spent the past two autumns in the gun case. Archery seasons are still liberal in most Western states, and archers get many more chances at big game than the gun-only group.

Two common misconceptions intimidate many would-be bowhunters: that bows are difficult to learn to shoot, and they dramatically reduce your chance of success.


With the many developments in compound bows and accessories, the learning curve for archery has never been straighter. Today's bows are faster, lighter, smaller, quieter, easier to draw and aim, and more durable than their predecessors. Peep sights, fiber optics, mechanical releases, and foolproof arrow rests make a very effective hunting package.

A bow should fit the individual shooter like a good pair of hunting boots. The most important things to consider when fitting are draw weight and draw length. For this and many other reasons, I highly recommend visiting a local archery shop, instead of shopping via mail or online.

The money you might save in the short run isn't worth the frustration and wasted time of shooting a bow that's not quite right for you.

Once you establish a relationship with your pro shop after that initial purchase, you'll always have that resource to go to for tips or help when your shooting or equipment goes awry. If there's no pro shop near you, then talk to a bowhunting friend, or try to locate a local archery club for advice from an expert on both setting up your bow and shooting technique.

The fastest track to accuracy is to buy a compound bow that has at least 60 percent let-off (the release of tension on the bowstring once the bow is fully drawn) and has sight pins in increments of 10 yards with a peep.

This sighting system is similar to iron sights on a rifle. Once you've established a consistent anchor point (which any archery pro can also help you with), you'll be deadly accurate.

Instead of drawing and loosing the string with your fingers, start out by using a mechanical release. Most experienced hunters shoot mechanical releases because they yield consistency -- and thus, accuracy.

There are some disadvantages to a mechanical release. For one thing, it is mechanical and therefore, can break. But you can decide on the switch to finger shooting later, after you've mastered the release.

Once your bow is set up properly and you've had some instruction on shooting technique, there's the simple matter of practice. Of course, it depends on the individual, but with sights and a mechanical release, it takes only a modest amount of target time to learn to shoot.

If you can put three arrows inside of a circle the size of a CD at 30 yards, you're on your way. That is adequate for hitting the vitals on a deer or elk.


A second misconception is that the success rates with a bow are very low. Nonsense! There are a number of actual advantages to bowhunting, beyond the rewards of a clean kill at close range with an ancient tool.

First, the timing benefits hunters. Many archery seasons precede rifle seasons so hunters get first shots at game. For elk, bow seasons in many states coincide with the rut, which makes calling a very effective method of luring bulls into archery range. Some states allow archers to hunt during the mule deer, whitetail, or blacktail rut as well.

I was thrilled to finally have the chance to hunt antelope again in my home state, nearly 15 years after pulling my first rifle tag. However, there was a catch.

The tag I had drawn was a muzzleloader permit.

Also, archery hunters are afforded much longer seasons than the gun-toting crowd. In general, fewer hunters take to the woods during archery season, and that makes for a more pleasant outdoors experience.

Many successful bowhunters use strategically placed tree stands to get within bow range of deer. They map out well-used game trails leading to and from food and water sources. Then for their stand, they pick a tree 20 yards from the trail and wait for the game to come to them.

This is the preferred method of bowhunting whitetails in the Southern states, and it works equally well for whitetails out West.

Blacktail deer hunters are also finding out the advantages of tree stands for hunting these elusive deer in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Another whitetail tactic that is now successfully employed by blacktail hunters is grunting and rattling during the rut. In Oregon and Washington, the general archery seasons reopen and extend late into the fall and through the blacktail rut.

One of hunting's biggest challenges is taking a mature trophy mule deer with a bow, especially in the open high desert of Eastern Washington, Ore

gon and Northern California.

True, I've tried for years to take a big mulie with my bow. Three times I've come close, but have never succeeded. This is the ultimate challenge in spot-and-stalk hunting, and I don't regret not using a gun.

The fun here is to locate a buck moving to his bed at first light and watch him until he beds down. The hunter then sneaks into range and waits the deer out, until he gets up to re-bed or go for a midday drink. When the buck stands, the hunter can take his shot.

Sounds easy? But the winds of the high desert usually alert the deer well before a bow can be drawn. Clothing that controls your scent is a huge advantage.

Playing the wind and controlling your scent are tactics that many rifle hunters are not familiar with. I can honestly attest that in my early years of roaming the hills with a .300 Magnum, the wind was never a big consideration of mine. But it is now, no matter what weapon I've got.

That is one of the great things about becoming a bowhunter: It makes you a better hunter overall. Bowhunters learn to be stealthy. Not only do they learn about controlling their own scent, but they get better at using features of the terrain and landscape to get close to game. They understand that the only shot to take is the one that they can make the first time.


For two years now, I have been shooting a recurve and haven't hunted with my compound bow since I have become a competent, instinctive no-sights shooter. This year, I harvested my first deer with my traditional bow. That doe represents my most rewarding accomplishment as a hunter. The 20-yard shot was perfect, and she died within seconds.

I switched to a traditional bow not only for the added challenge and pleasure that instinctive shooting brings, but because I believe that this bow yields the hunter some advantages, especially when calling elk.

Hunting with a compound bow, I have had bulls inside of 10 yards on a number of occasions. But because of obstructions or low light conditions that made sighting difficult, I have been unable to draw and shoot.

Recurves and longbows can be drawn and fired quickly. You can shoot from all kinds of positions and angles, and hunt into the low-light conditions of dawn and dusk.

Of course, the compromise is with distance and arrow speed. With a compound bow, I have harvested deer at 50 yards. With my recurve, my maximum range is 20 yards.

In addition, it takes serious dedication to become competent with a traditional bow. I shot my recurve every day for six months before I felt ready to take a shot at a live animal. I hunted that entire first season without ever getting an opportunity that I was comfortable about taking.

Traditional archery takes serious patience and diligence, but the rewards are great. I know a few true traditional archers who construct their own longbows, make their own arrows from cedar shafts, and even carve their own broadheads from obsidian. (Stone broadheads are illegal in some states.)

These hunters wouldn't consider my recurve and graphite arrows to be very "traditional." But I draw my bow with my fingers and shoot without the aid of sights, and consider this to be a very traditional form of archery. The bow isn't really aimed, and I compare the judging of the shot as similar to throwing a baseball.

Through repetition, shooting becomes accurate -- deadly accurate. I still have a long way to go, and would like to stretch my range by another 5 yards eventually. This year, I was able to kill seven out of eight grouse with my recurve with arrows out to 20 yards, and made a heart shot on that whitetail. I'm starting to feel like a pretty effective hunter with my bow.

Some states now offer additional and separate opportunities for hunters shooting traditional archery equipment. For example, Oregon allows traditional archers the chance to hunt mule deer in the famed Trout Creek Mountains simply by applying for a guaranteed tag. In contrast, drawing a rifle tag for the Trout Creeks takes about 20 years!


A few years back, I drew an antelope tag for the Catlow Valley in southeastern Oregon. This unit is known to harbor some big bucks, and I was thrilled to finally have the chance to hunt antelope in my home state again, nearly 15 years after pulling my first rifle tag.

However, there was a catch. The tag I had drawn was a muzzleloader permit. I didn't own one, nor had I even fired one. I planned on borrowing my father's Hawken if I drew. But now that it was a reality, I didn't have complete confidence in that old piece of art that adorned his mantle.

I knew that my friend and fellow writer Nick Rinn hunted with a muzzleloader, so I gave him a call. He advised me to purchase a more modern firearm, and soon I had my hands on an Austin and Halleck bolt-action rifle.

This particular firearm is designed to be fired with shotgun primers. But Oregon does not allow this type of percussion cap to be used to ignite the powder. It came with fiber-optic sights, but I had to pull these off because of another restriction.

The rage in muzzleloading projectiles is sabot and jacketed bullets, but the Beaver State doesn't allow these either. So I settled on some solid lead bullets. I took the gun to the range and, after some tinkering, was able to keep three shots within a dinner plate at 100 yards.

That became my personal maximum range with iron sights.

The unnerving thing was that the No. 11 percussion caps ignited the charge only about 80 percent of the time. Going into my antelope hunt, I was faced with the reality that when the moment of truth came, there was a 20 percent chance that the gun wouldn't fire.

But fortunately, at the end of a three-hour stalk -- most of it on my belly along the uncomfortable high-desert floor -- the muzzleloader fired, and the slug found the lungs of a nice pronghorn buck.

Obviously, one of the challenges of muzzleloading is navigating all the restrictions, which differ from state to state. Also, muzzleloaders come in a variety of designs and can be ignited using flintlock, matchlock, wheel lock mechanisms or percussion caps.

The modern muzzleloader is the in-line, which is ignited by the caps. These are legal in California, Oregon and Washington, but the latter two states require that the breech must be exposed to the elements. Washington and California allow 209 primers, while Oregon does not.

None of the three states allows scopes on muzzleloaders. Oregon takes this one step further by outlawing fiber optic sights.

Carefully read the regulations of your state to determine what you can stuff down the barrel, aim with, use as a projectile and use to

ignite your powder.

Muzzleloaders give hunters excellent opportunities to tag a record-book Pacific Northwest mule deer.

The muzzleloader is my favorite tool for spot-and-stalk hunting. The effective range, given the restrictions, is about 100 yards for most shooters. One shot is usually all you will get, and with a muzzleloader, I personally would never take anything other than a broadside still shot.

Muzzleloaders have twice the effective range of a modern compound bow, and they can be fired from the prone position after a long belly-crawl.

When you pull the trigger, of course there's always the chance that the powder won't ignite. I experienced this very recently after a long stalk on a whitetail doe. At the range, I had fired my muzzleloader 50 times without a single misfire, and was hunting in a state that allows 209 shotgun primers. But after a long belly-crawl and a patient wait for her to turn broadside at 90 yards, all I heard was the pop of the primer.

Still, these guns deserve a second look. I probably wouldn't have even been there hunting if I used only a rifle. In fact, there are some great trophy mule deer opportunities open only to frontstuffers. California's M3 Doyle Muzzleloading Rifle Buck hunt and Oregon's Northeast Whitehorse are two that come to mind. Washington has an entire general deer season for muzzleloader hunters.

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