Outdoors: crossbow hunting at a crossroads

Photo by Patti Tatum A crossbow like this Horton Vision 175 with four power scope, shouldered by James Hastings, handles more like a rifle

The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners today voted down a proposal that would have placed restrictions on crossbow use for the 2009-10 seasons. The 4-4 tie vote is not sufficient to give the proposed rulemaking the final adoption needed, so the previously approved regulations governing the use of crossbows for the 2009-10 seasons - as outlined in the 2009-10 Digest - will remain in effect.

I first started hunting deer with a sting and stick back in the mid-1970s. By string and stick, of course, I mean the bow and arrow. My first bow was a recurve model, a Bear Kodiak Magnum to be exact. I toted it along on countless bowhunting excursions, but never once released an arrow at a whitetail deer.

Although bowhunting represented an exercise in futility back in those days, I could always rely on my annual opening-day trek to rugged and rocky Fulton County and a well-placed shot from my 30-06 to fill the freezer with venison.

But then archery technology took a quantum leap forward with the perfection of the compound bow with all of its inherent bells and whistles -- the cams, wheels, pulleys, sights, mechanical releases, composite a

With the explosion of our local Chester County whitetail deer population at about the same time and my trusty compound bow in hand, I began collecting my yearly supply of venison (both antlered and antlerless) right here in my own backyard.

Then, in the last few years, crossbows started to make the Pennsylvania hunting scene. They gained an important inroad when they became a legal weapon of choice during certain firearm seasons and were also approved for disabled hunters during the regular bow seasons. More recently crossbows were legalized for use throughout the archery season here in our neck of Penn's Woods, ostensibly because it gave the Game Commission another tool by which to whittle away at our still-burgeoning southeastern deer numbers.

But the real controversy hit the fan this past year when the Commission moved to legalize crossbows statewide throughout all the regular archery seasons. This did not sit well with the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania (UBP) and other organizations who had lobbied long and hard against the crossbow. Despite their efforts, the Game Commission finally gave the weapon the official green light and that, as they say, was that.

The basic argument against the crossbow is that it is not a "bow" in the traditional sense. It is hardly a "string and stick." When hunting with a crossbow, the bow is already cocked and loaded. All the hunter has to do is aim and pull the trigger. With a "vertical" bow, the archer must nock an arrow and draw the bow while in close proximity to the quarry.

A lot of other things can go wrong during this process - the arrow may fall off the rest or the action may produce a squeak or creak that may alert the deer. This is a critical moment of truth since the wary game animal is just as likely as not to detect the motion or sound of the archer drawing back and immediately head for the hills. Crossbow hunters do not face these problems. This "crossbow advantage" is at the heart of the argument promoted by crossbow detractors including the UBP and others.

Crossbow advocates counter that opponents who claim to be archery purists have another think coming. Unless you are hunting with a traditional crossbow or even a recurve, they say, your argument is moot since your modern compound bow actually boasts more sophisticated weaponry technology than a rudimentary crossbow.

Now I can see merit in both sides of the argument and have written, more than once, that a separate "crossbow season" might be the ideal compromise solution. But now that legal use of crossbows during archery season is the new law of the land, there's nothing to prevent archery traditionalists from going out and purchasing a crossbow of their own. There are plenty of models out there - in fact, if you just page through the Game Commission's 2009-2010 Pennsylvania Hunting and Trapping Digest you'll find no fewer than four full page advertisements for crossbows.

I don't really consider myself an archery elitist, but I've enjoyed enough success with my Hoyt RazorTec compound bow that I've been perfectly content to eschew the temptation to purchase a crossbow. Until now, that is.

It all started this May in Oil City where I attended the Spring Conference of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association. That's where I ran into a representative from Horton Crossbow who introduced me to some of his company's current models. The one that really caught my eye was the Vision 175 - a scoped, compact, radical-design crossbow that had the look and feel of a modern assault rifle.

When I put it to my shoulder I discovered that, in terms of size, weight and balance, it fit me like a proverbial glove. I wasn't really in the market for a crossbow, but when my wife Patti offered to buy one for me as a birthday present a few months later, I just couldn't say no.

So, on my 60th birthday, July 2, I phoned a factory representative at Horton and placed the order. The rep cautioned me that the Vision 175 was a popular model that would be backordered for me. Delivery might take a month or more. After six weeks I prodded the company with a few e-mails and, at long last, UPS dropped it off in my driveway last week. It didn't take me long to try it out. After some basic but minimal assembly, it was time to indulge myself in this guilty archery pleasure.

Next week: some personal revelations about the crossbow versus compound controversy.

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