Wilkes-Barre, Pa. — There’s no denying that when the Pennsylvania Game Commission approved the use of crossbows during the archery season in 2009, it benefited hunters.
Depending on the skill level of the shooter, crossbows exceed compound, recurve and longbows when it comes to accuracy and speed. Unlike their traditional archery counterparts, crossbows can be pre-drawn, which reduces fatigue and are shouldered and aimed like a rifle.
But can crossbow use in archery season become too much of a good thing?
That’s a concern that is on the mind of Commissioner Jay Delaney, of Luzerne County, who represents the northeast region on the state’s Board of Game Commissioners. He points to the spike in the archery harvest after crossbows were legalized for all hunters in 2009.
Prior to that time, crossbows could only be used by hunters possessing a disabled permit or hunters in three very urban wildlife management units in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh areas where the deer population is a chronic problem.
After crossbows were allowed statewide, the overall archery harvest has increased by more than 25,000. Since 2008 – the last year crossbows were prohibited – the number of archery hunters has also increased over the same span – a hike of 37,000 since 2008.
“A crossbow is a different hunting tool,” Delaney said. “And we now have more hunters taking more deer during the archery season.”
Specifically, Delaney wonders if the use of crossbows is resulting in too many bucks being taken in the archery season before they have a chance to breed. It’s an issue that Delaney believes affects rifle hunters and those who hunt with flintlocks and muzzleloaders.
For the 2012-13 season, the antlered deer harvest was 42,220, an increase of almost 11,000 since 2008. The archery harvest for bucks has increased every season since crossbows became legal statewide, and last year crossbows accounted for 48 percent of the overall archery harvest, according to Game Commission figures.
“The number of bucks harvested in archery season continues to go up, and when the rifle hunters aren’t seeing the bucks – that’s one reason why,” Delaney said.
“We have to balance things for rifle, archery, muzzleloader and flintlock hunters. One thing we need to continue to watch is when does it become too much?”
The answer is now, according to Ed Krystofosky, owner of The Archery Zone in Larksville. Since crossbows became legal for archery season almost four years ago, Krystofosky said he has sold more in his store each year.
“It stunned me,” he said. “Almost every store has seen an increase.”
Krystofosky, who is an avid archery hunter and uses a recurve bow, said longtime archery hunters didn’t necessarily shift to using crossbows. The hike in sales is the result of another group of hunters.
“It’s mainly those who never hunted archery before are the ones now getting into it. They’re using crossbows because it’s easier. It’s basically a modified gun,” he said.
“To me, a crossbow is definitely a more efficient way to kill.”
In addition to their accuracy, Krystofosky noted that crossbows hold an advantage over regular bows in that the string can be pulled back and locked in place, ready to shoot.
“With a regular bow, if a big buck sees you draw back, it’s gone. All you have to do with a crossbow is raise it to your shoulder,” he said.
While the increase in the archery deer harvest signals a boost in archery hunter numbers, Delaney said it’s a good thing that more people are out hunting.
But there may also be a downside, he cautioned.
“Are we taking too many pre-rut bucks?” he said. “The commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management is monitoring this, and they haven’t brought anything to the board yet.”
Agency spokesman Travis Lau pointed out that there’s no specific number that the agency watches to determine if the harvest is too large, but changes would be recommended if the monitoring turned up any biological impacts on the deer herd.
“In general, we don’t really see hunting with crossbows as being different than hunting with other sporting arms,” Lau said. “The antlerless harvest largely is controlled through allocation, so whether a doe tag is filled with a bow, rifle or crossbow doesn’t matter from a management standpoint.
“The buck harvest – more directly, the percentage of the buck harvest coming from crossbows – probably would be more likely to influence a recommendation. But at this point, with crossbows accounting for about 15 percent of the total buck harvest, it’s nowhere near any level of concern.”
While the archery harvest has increased since 2009, the more telling factor behind the impact of crossbows may be the recovery rate.
Sweet Valley resident Chris Denmon, an avid archery hunter and president of the North Mountain Branch of the Quality Deer Management Association, believes crossbows have improved hunters’ efficiency and, as a result, reduced the amount of deer that are hit and not recovered.
When it comes to archery, Denmon said, some hunters don’t log as much practice time as they should and are more prone to making a poor shot. Many times that animal isn’t recovered, he said, and thus it’s not reflected in the harvest report.
“With a crossbow, there is a better chance of that same hunter making a good, ethical shot and recovering that deer,” Denmon said. “I believe the recovery rate has improved with crossbows. The accuracy is better even with less practice than is needed to hunt with a bow.”
Since crossbows became legal for all hunters in 2009, the sale of resident archery licenses has increased every year. The first year crossbows were permitted archery license sales jumped by more than 14,000 over the year before. In 2012, there were 37,000 more archery licenses sold than in 2008.
As far as crossbows swelling the ranks of archery hunters, Denmon doesn’t believe that will have a significant impact on the overall buck harvest. If a crossbow hunter didn’t harvest a buck during the archery season, he will likely be out there hunting again in the rifle deer season, he said.
Denmon has taken plenty of bucks with a compound bow but switched to a crossbow in 2009. He hasn’t thought about going back to a compound.
Still, Denmon cautioned that crossbows do have their limitations.
“There’s a misconception out there about their capabilities,” he said. “They’re not a lot faster than a traditional bow and you still shouldn’t take a longer shot with a crossbow that you wouldn’t take with a regular bow.”