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When Is a Crossbow Better Than a Rifle?

When Is a Crossbow Better Than a Rifle?
Rattled & Grunted: Author Joe Byers could have used a rifle this day, but chose a crossbow instead. Good call. (Photo by Joe Byers)

Tight woods? Pressured deer? Here are three situations in which you're better off with a crossbow.

By Joe Byers

Many hunters hang up their crossbows when gun season starts. I don't. If you "stick to the thick," use rut tricks, and let crossbow karma do its thing, I am convinced you will have a better success rate this season.


Rattling and grunting are great ways to bring a deer to you in gun season, especially when you're hunting tight cover. 

My buddy Bill McKinley sat in a stand in suburban Maryland and watched a big 8-point cross a field and enter his woodline 100 yards out. When the buck turned away, McKinley made a single grunt, and the buck reversed direction and then fell to an arrow at 18 yards.

Rattled & Grunted: Author Joe Byers could have used a rifle this day, but chose a crossbow instead. Good call. (Photo by Joe Byers)

Likewise, I had a record-class buck come to a grunt call but then hang up when it met the blood trail of a doe I'd just shot. As the buck moved away, I grabbed my rattle bag and "clanked the planks." The record-class buck paused, turned and took 30 full minutes to approach me. He stood for a shot, and I missed. Buck fever.

Two weeks later a blizzard was forecast for the Dakotas and I drove four hours to be at the right spot when it hit. I knew that the howling winds would drive deer into a thick creek bottom. I had a rifle and an archery tag. I chose to use a bow due to the thick cover.

Deer are very willing to come to a call in the Midwest, and that makes the Great Plains one of my favorite places to hunt. Back in Maryland, I had rattled and missed that record-class. Now in Dakota, I rattled in a 6-point three times in one morning. 

My favorite spot is along a creek that's lined with cedars. Last year, I grunted five small bucks in a single morning, and this year my first grunt series brought in a very respectable 9-point. For the first time, I watched the buck "wheeze." It came in the first 10 minutes of a three-day hunt. Letting it walk was difficult.

The howling blizzard limited my stand duration to about three hours. When deer activity lulled around 10 a.m., I chose to head back to camp, warm up and return later.

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Back in the stand, I grunted and rattled in two more small bucks and had several sets of does pass by. Suddenly, I saw legs moving through the brush and a whopper buck sniffing the ground toward my only shooting lane. The Ravin crossbow scope was set on 6-power and the buck was moving steadily through dense vegetation. I put the reticle on its shoulder and watched the brush go by until it reached the clearing. 

The Rage Hypodermic crossbow head created an awesome blood trail. The arterial spray was easy to follow. At the end of the trail lay the largest buck I'd taken in 50 years of whitetail hunting. 

I've always wanted to take a buck with tall tines, and these measured 11 inches with a score of 163 2/8 inches. Fantastic! 

Rattling and grunting work well from a tree stand, yet the three bucks described in this article came while I sat on the ground. Being perched above a deer's natural line of sight provides an advantage, yet hunting the Great Plains sometimes involves miles of walking to new spots, often in cold, snowy conditions. The added weight of a climbing stand is cumbersome. Because I've hunted these areas for the past 10 years, I've learned the best ambush points and concealment strategies. Forty years of bowhunting experience helps as well.

When luring deer with calls, vision is critical. I always sit with my back against a tree to hide my silhouette and face the wind. My first step is to take out the laser rangefinder and figure out the distance of objects, such as distinctive trees or rock, and commit them to memory. I begin calling with a minimum of movement and get ready for an instant response. The moment I see a shooter buck, I raise the bow, remember the range, and concentrate on the shot. I won't take a quartering-to shot, yet the full-frontal angle, just above the brisket, is lethal.

Last-minute buck: The author didn't need a ground blind or tree stand to take this buck. A crossbow and a tree to sit against were all it took. (Photo by Joe Byers)


It easily could have been "Miller time," yet I had one hour of shooting light left so I headed for a promising tight spot where a bluff overlooks a series of trails.

My overlook put me about 40 feet above the ravine trail, the ultimate "tree stand" for prairie country. Only 10 minutes had passed when suddenly I saw a buck walk through a treeline and move behind me.

I repositioned and readied for the point-blank shot. I waited tensely for about five minutes until I believed that the buck had gone elsewhere and returned to my perch.

Soon, I caught more movement and saw the same buck returning. I knew the range was 20 yards, and I waited until the buck walked behind two pine trees.

I pushed off the safety and sighted the crossbow on the spot where I expected to see the deer as he walked into the open again. As soon as the buck stepped out, I gave a verbal "baaa," the deer stopped, and the arrow hit home. The hit from the Mission MXB was right on. 

With darkness coming on, I chose to walk back to camp to get help trailing the deer. Two pickups rolled up. Rifle hunters on their way back to camp poked their heads out and I gave them the report. 

One said, "I've hunted all day with a gun, and you shot a buck behind camp with your bow?"

After dinner, four volunteers and I walked behind camp, trailed and recovered the buck, a high-and-heavy 8-point that would have had any of the rifle hunters happy.

Driven deer: This buck saw the hunter a moment too late. Wear orange when driving deer, even if the local regs don't call for it. (Photo by Joe Byers)


Deer drives are typically the tactic of rifle hunters, but they can be very successful for archers, especially in late season when rut and stand tactics diminish.

While most rifle drives have a dozen or so hunters, archery drives can work with two or three people. Small numbers work because you want to push very selective areas and position one or two standers along the most likely escape routes. 

For safety, double-check that everyone wears the required blaze orange and establish exact stander positions. Before you get into position, decide on a specific time the drive should start so everyone is on the same page. Drivers should move silently, almost stalking through cover, because the purpose is to push deer, not panic them. 

Wind direction is critical. You won't push a big buck if the wind is at his back. The wise buck will double back at the first opportunity.

Likewise, if you push him into a nose wind, he'll smell a stander. So a swirling or crosswind is best. 

Finally, don't feel slighted if you are a driver. Often you will catch a buck off guard or encounter one of those woods masters that had dodged drives in the past and survived. 

These exact tactics netted my first big Dakota buck. By my watch, the charade had barely begun when I saw long legs moving below the cedars and caught a glimpse of a tall white rack. The buck was just feet from my shooting lane, yet refused to step into the open, and for nearly a minute it stood testing the wind and seeking escape. Next it doubled back, passing through a small opening. Knowing that the buck was a shooter, I had the safety off and the red-dot scope squarely on its shoulder waiting for it to clear the brush. As he stepped beyond a cedar bow, the buck noticed me sitting against a small tree just as my arrow crashed through its ribs. 

Finally, a second, even-larger buck followed, yet it doubled back and vanished among the rifle-toting drivers. A deer for another day.

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