Deer the hard way

A bowhunter in pursuit of deer has a fair chance of success — if a number of things go just right.

It’s no cinch, but whitetail pursuits by bow are back on

Kentucky’s archery deer season, the longest — and least efficient — hunting season for the state’s favorite ungulate started Saturday.

There are larger Kentucky mammals to pursue. In the southeastern part of the state, the re-established elk population offers real big game, but it is for a relative few. Only those drawn for highly sought elk permits offered through the annual lottery can participate.

An even smaller number of black bears can be taken in the closely relegated bear hunting that is nowadays possible in the mountainous eastern region where the bruins have seeded themselves from populations in surrounding states.

Whitetails, meanwhile, are the poster critter big game for all Kentuckians. They are not necessarily huge, but in some cases, they are larger than the hunters that pursue them. In an environment that in pre-whitetail days was dominated by rabbit and squirrel hunting, yes, deer legitimately can be considered big game.

Archery hunters get plenty of opportunities at that. Admittedly, bowhunters must compete — or at least be in woods and fields at the same time — with hunters bearing more advantageous weapons. At different times they must co-exist out there with modern firearms hunters, muzzleloading firearms hunters and, most of the time, with crossbow hunters.

But while bowhunters must share some prime times with gun hunters, they do have the longest of the seasons, the first Saturday of September through the third Monday of January, Jan. 17. It runs concurrent with all those shorter seasons.

Archery hunters sometimes are purely opportunistic, hunting with hardware that gives them the best legal odds of success. Often, one starts hunting with a bow early in the archery season, then that hunter may shift to a muzzleloader when that season comes along, then a rifle when the modern firearms season ensues.

Then again, there are some who continue archery pursuits even when gun seasons overlap the bow opportunities. Call them purists or hardheads. Or maybe just call them bowhunters. There are some who choose the more difficult path over the more efficient weapons just because they like the feel or the challenge of the bowhunting game and how it is played.

The differences in equipment come down to the level of difficulty. Firearms, even muzzleloading firearms, have the advantage of reach. Depending upon the operator, a modern gun hunter might do business with a deer at 100 yards, 200 yards, perhaps more. A muzzleloader is limited to one shot before lengthy reloading, but shots at 100 yards or more are possible.

A bowhunter, meanwhile, is best suited for opportunities within 30 yards, and shots at 20 yards or closer are preferred. Compared to a rifle bullet, an arrow has a looping trajectory that makes long range shooting at game both inefficient and irresponsible. Even at relatively close range, an animal that moves at the time of the shot can change the point of impact; the deer can be in a different position by the time the arrow arrives.

There is “jumping the string.” Bowhunters long have been known for shooting slightly over the back of deer when they thought they were dead-on with shots to the vitals mid-way or lower in the chest. What commonly happens is that deer, especially deer alert to human presence, at the sound of an arrow being released and a drawn bow’s limbs flexing their energy forward, react to flee. The deer in a split second drops to gather its limbs to spring away.

The deer’s sudden crouch to bound out of there causes its body to suddenly drop several inches, capable of moving the entire deer out of the path of the arrow in the tiny amount of time that it takes the arrow to get to the point of aim. It seems incredible, but the age of videos has confirmed the phenomenon over and over.

One might add that the longer the shot for the bowhunter, the greater time it takes for the arrow to arrive on target. This compounds the possible target movement problem.

Before a bowhunter can take a shot, the bowstring must be brought to full draw. That can be a problem in itself. To get a deer close enough for a hopeful archery harvest, a hunter generally has to be pretty sneaky. Stand hunting in a tree or in a blind, one of the greatest flaws is moving when an approaching deer might detect the movement.

Many a bowhunter has found himself in great position to take a nearby deer — until he moved to draw the string. Whitetail eyesight doesn’t match their sense of smell, but they see movement just fine. And they certainly will look up. If you can see their eyes, they can see you.

These limitations are why archery hunters are allowed a hunting season of about 4½ months. Kentucky modern firearms hunters have been known to harvest around 100,000 deer during the annual 16-day gun season. There aren’t nearly as many archery hunters but there are plenty, and it takes them September until mid-January to harvest a fraction of that.

Last year, bowhunters claimed 17,989 deer during Kentucky’s marathon archery season.

Compared to firearms opportunities, archery deer hunting is still the hard way. Yet, for some it is still the favorite way.

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