Changes to deer season to benefit older bow hunters

Two does rest in a patch of woods on a January afternoon.
AP Photo/The Duluth News-Tribune, Sam Cook

As bow hunting season opens Saturday morning, white tail deer will be in the crosshairs of a new group -- aging hunters armed with crossbows.

Minnesota lawmakers passed new regulations earlier this year that allow hunters over the age of 60 to use crossbows during the regular bow hunting season, which opens Sept. 13 and runs through December. Previously, the state allowed crossbows only during the rifle season, and permitted a few thousand disabled archers to use them during the longer bow season.

Steve Merchant, wildlife manager for the state Department of Natural Resources isn't sure how many crossbow hunters will head out this season. There's no way to track the numbers yet, but he hopes crossbows will entice older hunters back out into the field during the early season.

"We're an aging society," Merchant said. "This is a way we can potentially retain some archery hunters that would otherwise drop out of the sport."

There is no official age limit for traditional archery but the number of licenses show there aren't that many bow hunters over 60. In 2012, nearly 2,300 50-year-old archers bought deer hunting licenses. That same year, only half as many 60-year-olds bought tags.

Most years show the same trend, DNR Hunter Retention Coordinator Jay Johnson said. He thinks the new regulations will cause an increase in bow season tags for one simple reason.

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"Crossbows are easier to shoot," he said.

Crossbows are a controversial topic among archers. They're known by some as the poacher's tool of choice.

Greg Sovde, of Walker, said a lot of archers look down on crossbows.

Sovde has been hunting with a crossbow for a decade, ever since he broke his neck in a workplace injury. He can still walk through the woods, but drawing back a traditional bow gives him migraine headaches.

Crossbows are cocked in advance with a crank or pulley system, then held like a rifle. The bow is released with a finger trigger that requires about as much practice as the average firearm.

"I'd rather shoot a traditional bow," he said. "Watching the arrow go is almost spiritual. It's not with a crossbow."

Still, he said allowing older hunters to use them makes sense.

Even without the neck injury, Sovde, 54, said it would be painful to draw a traditional bow.

"When you get up near 60," he said, "you start to get arthritis."

While it's too early to predict the impact crossbow hunting will have, Merchant has some general ideas.

Five years ago, Michigan relaxed its crossbow regulations. Merchant said officials there saw an increase in bow license sales, but no appreciable increase in the number of deer taken during the season.

That's because roughly three quarters of bow hunters also buy rifle season tags, essentially spending twice the money for a single deer.

If the same thing happens in Minnesota, crossbows could give the DNR a funding boost.