feature By: Jack Ballard | September, 18
About the time flittering leaves on the aspen trees in the backyard begin their transformation from green to gold, fly fishing for trout enters some of its best weeks of the season. It also marks the beginning of many big-game seasons across the West for rifle hunters. From Labor Day to Thanksgiving it’s a sprint from one outdoor activity to the next. For a fellow who scratches a livelihood scribbling articles for readers who cast flies, flush grouse and track bucks, the adage “make hay while the sun shines” applies most appropriately to autumn.
One particular invitation came in September amid an already compressed fall schedule. Could I join a pair of other writers and a host for a whitetail hunt in Nebraska in early November? By shortening an elk outing on the front end and delaying a mule deer hunt on the backside, it was a go. But there was a catch. I would be hunting with a crossbow, an implement I had never before fired.
A package arrived from Cabela’s a few weeks before the hunt. It included a crossbow, bolts and points. I had been informed by a friend that a regular archery target is insufficient for a crossbow, so a target was ordered as well. There was a modest amount of assembly required, but I was most focused on the instruction booklet accompanying the rather intimidating piece of equipment. It proved to be a pleasant reminder that looks are frequently deceiving. In about 30 minutes I found myself confidently cocking and firing the novel hunting implement. Sitting on a folding chair, supporting the crossbow on a tripod, bolts remarkably stayed within a few inches of the bull’s-eye at 50 yards.
Eager to learn more about the new “toy” and other places I might hunt with it after the Nebraska venture, I searched the Internet for education. State regulations governing the devices are all over the map (pun intended). My place of residence, Montana, allows crossbows during the firearms season. They are illegal during archery hunts, with no provision made for outdoorsmen who cannot effectively draw a vertical bow due to previous injury or other disability.
In about half of the 50 states, crossbows are legal during archery seasons with some restrictions in terms of draw weight and other configurations. Others relegate them to muzzleloader and centerfire hunting seasons. Many states offer an exemption for physically impaired hunters to use them during archery seasons. Oregon takes a very dim view of crossbows, where they are illegal for hunting, period.
Crossbows, it turns out, are controversial. Vitriolic commentaries (primarily from users of vertical bows) denigrate their use during archery seasons, arguing they represent an “unfair” advantage, a technological advance unbefitting the primitive nature of bowhunting. Several anti-crossbow posts are downright deceptive. One asserts that crossbows provide sub-minute-of-angle (MOA) accuracy at 100 yards. Another “compared” the range and trajectory of a crossbow versus a modern compound bow. The catch was, the compound in question was set to 60 pounds of draw weight (versus 70 pounds commonly used in industry testing) shooting a relatively heavy arrow. Its match was a crossbow with a draw weight of 200 pounds that required a mechanical cocking device, not exactly the sort of crossbow typically used in hunting.
In a confused sort of way, I wondered how vertical bow purists justify the technological advances of compound bows that have exceedingly increased their range, accuracy and ease of use in the last two decades if archery seasons are to be kept “primitive.” At last I stumbled upon an enlightening commentary by the hunting editor of a specialty magazine who uses both implements. He concluded that the best crossbows have an effective range that is about 20 yards beyond their compound bow counterparts, but they are more awkward to carry and best used by stationary hunters.
The Sandhills sprawl across north-central Nebraska, accounting for just over a quarter of the land area of the Cornhusker State. As the name implies, the hills and hummocks of the region are sand dunes draped with a carpet of grass, junipers and shrubs. Despite their sandy bowels, the Sandhills are productive cattle country. A number of robust rivers wind through the vales and along the periphery of the area. Their bottoms are fertile, nurturing crops like alfalfa and corn.
My southward journey to the hunt coursed through the heart of the Sandhills on a clear, sunlit autumn evening. The sinuous ribbon of asphalt dipped and raised through knolls and creases in the grasslands. An infinite horizon of cured flaxen pasture and long shadows accentuated the bold textures of the landscape. Just at sunset, a small flock of sharp-tailed grouse glided just above the windshield, their wings cupped in the last golden rays of daylight as they settled into the neck of a shaded coulee.
Our hunt commenced the next morning on a ranch near Arnold, a soft-spoken agricultural hamlet near the geographic center of the state. David and Ben were my hunting partners. We spent the first day on an extended tour of the portion of the 55,000-acre property we would be hunting. It was a “semi-guided” hunt, which can mean about anything. In this case, we could hunt from a number of ground blinds or tree stands placed by Hidden Valley Outfitters’ guides or hike about on our own. The hosts would assist with game retrieval and offer advice. It was up to the hunters to make it happen – my kind of hunt to the core.
The practical boundaries of our hunting area encircled croplands intersected by wooded draws and ravines near a river bottom that faded into prairie grass and junipers on the hills above the lowlands. Two of America’s iconic game species were plump and plenteous at every turn: wild turkeys and white-tailed deer.
Before bedtime, I uncased the crossbow to fire a few bolts at a target. With a rest, I decide I could confidently shoot to 50 yards under windless conditions in a clear shooting lane. Firing offhand was a bit tricky. The crossbow is differently weighted than a rifle, and the protruding limbs require an unfamiliar need to balance the stock and forearm at a 90-degree angle. From a standing position it seemed nothing beyond 20 yards was a sensible shot.
In the inky interim between darkness and dawn, I hiked from a county road to a steep ridge. Its northern flank dropped away in a snarl of ravines and tors, eventually yielding to croplands. In these early days of November, whitetail bucks are on the move, wandering in search of does during the “pre-rut” that have yet to come into estrus. I expected the travels of at least a few bucks would take them from fields to the near-forests of junipers jostling for moisture in the draws. My plan was to move, observe and hopefully locate a trail upon which I might set up to intercept a buck later in the hunt.
Halfway between the ridgetop and the fields, I happened upon a hump that offered an expansive view of the terrain below. Settling in to reconnoiter, I heard the telltale peeps of a covey of bobwhite quail. Deer began to amble from a large cornfield a half mile away. A young buck with four tines on each antler appeared not 200 yards below my position. I reached for a pair of rattling antlers tied to my pack. Beams bashed and tines clashed in the cacophony of a mock fight. The buck appeared in very short order, thrusting a curious head atop a swollen neck around a large juniper not 20 yards below my bootheels. It tiptoed a rod closer while I played statue and suppressed a chuckle. Catching human scent, its legs uncoiled in a huge bound as an indignant snort and erect tail displayed its displeasure at my presence.
In the next hour, two bucks of note were spotted. One was cruising the edge of the cornfield on a course taking it away from my position. The other was glimpsed wandering up a shallow draw into the hills. Though visible for just seconds, its body appeared weighty. Its antlers were nearly bone white except at the bases.
My post was abandoned at 10:00 a.m. in favor of a hike to scout some intriguing territory to the east. By midafternoon I was back in the vicinity of the morning vigil and had made a notable discovery. Three well-used deer trails converged in a saddle on a low ridge between two broad ravines. The location was very close to where the light-antlered buck made its appearance earlier in the day.
A bushy juniper thrusted a drab, twisted trunk not far from the convergence of the trails. Its lower branches were broad and dense. Seeing an improvised blind in the making, I pulled a collapsible saw from my pack and underwent construction. An hour later I had burrowed into the aromatic evergreen, cutting branches to form a low screen behind which I could hide. The tree itself shielded my form from the sides and above. With the enthusiasm of a schoolboy entering a homemade “fort” of sticks and discarded lumber, I crawled inside, arranged my pack and checked the crossbow’s clearance at all available angles. The rattling antlers were taken up in the hope of enticing bucks within range.
It seemed the perfect setup, but by the time deep shadows portended a setting sun, I still had not spotted a deer. Not wishing to tramp back to my vehicle in the dark, I carefully assembled my pack and poked my head from the juniper. The form of a buck deer with light antlers on the trail up the side draw momentarily took my breath and halted my movement. It stared in my direction but did not seem alarmed. I quickly concluded that I had escaped the deer’s eyesight, and eased back into the blind. Only after the crossbow was readied did I briefly and lightly rattle my antlers.
Almost before I was ready, the light brown body of the buck trotted into sight and stopped almost directly in front of the blind. It looked boldly in my direction. I could see glistening black between its nostrils and faint rings of pale hair around each eye. Nearly white antlers sprouted from the smooth hair atop its head. Their dimensions were no longer a concern.
The buck exhaled and looked away. I slowly raised the crossbow and brought the proper dot in the scope to rest behind the buck’s shoulder. The twang of the string was startlingly loud. The orange and white fletching on the bolt disappeared into the deer’s fleshy ribcage. It bounded away like an unharmed deer and ducked into the junipers on the off side of the draw.
After “reloading” the crossbow, I counted 30 paces to where the buck stood at the shot. The bolt, covered in blood, lay on the grass just beyond. A broad trail of crimson spattered the grass in the direction of the animal’s flight, and I found the dead deer in short order. Its final dash carried it an estimated 100 yards.
I have not since found the time or opportunity to squeeze an archery hunt into the normally frenetic fall schedule. If it occurs in the future, it will likely be with a crossbow. A trio of shoulder injuries sustained while skiing makes repetitive drawing of a vertical bow impossible. But that’s okay. A crossbow, it seems, is a pleasurable and practical complement to other types of hunting.