Maine deer hunters will have a new tool at their disposal this fall. After a somewhat contentious process, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife approved a measure to allow the use of crossbows during the regular archery season.

Regardless of which side of the debate you sit on, it will almost certainly encourage greater participation. But if you’ve never used one before, there are a few things you should know about the crossbow.

First, it is most definitely a bow. Opponents have long argued it’s not, but the weapon is essentially a bow: riser, limbs, wheels or cams, strings and cables mounted horizontally on a stock. That stock has a safety mechanism and trigger much like a firearm, but there is no powder or combustion involved in firing it, and it propels an arrow, not a bullet.

The crossbow does offer certain advantages. One is that it can be used in areas where firearms hunting may be unsafe or impractical. The other is that unlike conventional vertical bows, the crossbow is held at full draw mechanically, so the shooter does not have to draw back the bowstring when game is close at hand. The differences pretty much end there.

Something many hunters who are new to the crossbow might be surprised to learn is that it does not offer any significant advantage in terms of effective range. Makers and sellers of some of the newest high-speed, high-energy bows make boastful claims of effective range out to 100 yards. They are legitimate claims, but a proficient compound bow shooter could make the same claim.

Considerable comparative testing has been done, and both compound and crossbows all fall within roughly the same parameters in terms of speed, energy and trajectory. Except in the hands of the most proficient and practiced archers, they are short-range weapons, with an average effective range under field conditions of about 30 yards.

Some of the top-end crossbows can fire an arrow at up to 400 feet per second. That’s still only about a third of the speed of sound, meaning the sound of the shot (which is louder with crossbows) will reach a deer’s sensitive ears before the arrow does. And the odds of a deer “jumping the string” increase at longer ranges. Furthermore, the shorter, heavier crossbow arrows drop faster than compound arrows at longer ranges, so determining range to target becomes more important.

Safety is another concern sometimes associated with crossbows. Like any tool, the crossbow is only as safe as the person using it. That’s partly why IFW requires crossbow hunters to take a crossbow-specific safety course. Crossbow manufacturers have also gone to great lengths to ensure their products are safe. Use and maintain the bow properly, and you should have no issues with safety.

Perhaps the biggest difference will be realized by firearms hunters who are taking up crossbows as a means to spend more time pursuing deer, as it may require a change in tactics. Again, it is a short-range weapon, which means the hunter will have to get closer, perhaps much closer to an animal than they are accustomed. More accurately, they will have to allow game to get much closer to them, which calls for stealth and meticulous scent control. One big benefit there is that the more time you spend watching deer, the more you learn about them. Furthermore, those close encounters are what make for a successful hunt, whether game is taken or not.

Firearms hunters tend to be more mobile, stalking and still-hunting along in hopes of a shot opportunity. A far more effective technique for bowhunting the dense woods of Maine is to sit still and quiet in an elevated treestand. The more you scout and the more you learn about the habits of the creatures you pursue, the better the odds of putting yourself in the right place and time.

Time will tell what effect the addition of crossbows will have on Maine’s deer hunt. It’s likely there will be more bowhunters in the woods, and it’s not unreasonable to presume more deer will be taken. Given the number of any-deer permits being issued by IFW, that shouldn’t be an issue from a wildlife management perspective. Hunters often pick bowhunting as an alternative that offers more solitude and a chance to pursue deer in uncrowded woods that have yet to experience the level of hunting pressure they will during the firearms season. Surely there will be more new bowhunters in the woods this fall.

Whether that has a detrimental effect on the quality of the hunt remains to be seen. It will be interesting to learn.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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