April 04, 2023
On the surface, it seems like an easy question to answer, the query as to how many bowhunters there are in America.
But like many things in the world, what seems easy on the surface sometimes is not. And when it comes to the task of quantifying bowhunter numbers, the Archery Trade Association recently tackled that task, taking a deeper look at the topic and trying to shed some light on the issue after working to gain an accurate picture of what the nation’s stick-and-string landscape looks like with modern bows, traditional bows, and crossbows.
Collaborating with the National Deer Association and state wildlife and natural resource agencies, ATA put together a complete list of bowhunter numbers by state. When the number crunching was finished, a news release e-mailed out from Allison Jasper, senior director of marketing and communications for the Minnesota-based organization, indicated that there were more than 3.7 million licensed bowhunters nationwide for the 2021-22 season.
In addition to the complete number noted above, the organization best known for hosting the annual ATA Archery Trade Show each winter — which the Petersen’s Bowhunting staff travels to and works hard to provide start-to-finish show coverage every January — also provided a state-by-state breakdown of bowhunter numbers as well as harvest figures. More on that in a moment, but for now, it’s worth stepping back and appreciating what the ATA and their partners have undertaken to provide here — the answer to a frequently asked question that for years had only vague answers in back corner booths at ATA Show dinners and local coffee shops in wildlife rich locations.
“This is the most reliable single-source of bowhunting participation data generated to date,” said Jeff Poole, president and CEO of ATA, in a news release. “We are pleased to share this information and know the data serves as a benchmark to inspire growth nationwide.”
Keep in mind that since state agencies use such information and numerical trends to set seasons, bag limits, and management policies, such number crunching is important and then some. Add in the fact that ATA members use such information for business decisions and hunters use such figures as well as they plan out a year of bowhunting adventures in the woods, and you can see that a comprehensive look at total bowhunter numbers is quite important.
But simply wanting reliable and consistent information is one thing, actually obtaining it is something else. According to ATA author Cassie Gassaway, figuring out such bowhunting figures and any numerical trends being shown is actually quite challenging since “…each state collects different information and has rules regarding who needs to purchase licenses and which ones they must possess to legally hunt.”
One example of this might be the state of Texas where I live and primarily hunt. On the surface, it might seem easy to understand how many bowhunters there are in the Lone Star State since to legally hunt with archery gear during the archery-only season or in one of several archery-only counties across the state — including the one I live in — you have to have an archery endorsement on your hunting license.
The problem of figuring up how many archery endorsements have been sold for $7 each, not to mention gaining an accurate understanding of how many bowhunters there are in the state of Texas, is a bit more complex than looking at a simple bottom line number.
One reason for that is many of the state’s hunters purchase the Super Combo license package every August before the Sept. 1 dove season opener. That Texas Parks and Wildlife Department licensing package is quite popular because it comes at a discounted rate versus buying everything individually, and it gives hunters and anglers a one-stop shopping option to gain everything they need to get outdoors and hunt and fish in Texas.
But as you might also realize, hunters looking for licensing ease and to save a few bucks in the process will purchase the Super Combo license package, get an archery endorsement (required for archery hunting residents and non-resident who are 17 years of age and older) even if they don’t bowhunt, but will still get counted in the process anyway.
That inherent difficulty noted above with the example from my home state is compounded by the fact that in addition to states having different licensing structures, requirements, and products, there are also other independent surveys and collection agencies that might try to answer the question of how many bowhunters there are with their own efforts.
But such surveying efforts are also faced with challenges in gathering information, compiling it, and getting it ready for presentation in the tight annual cycle that natural resource agencies operate in every year.
And with different information caveats in play, including how questions are asked and how answers are interpreted, and data sets from private parties and even national organizations can be complicated and dated very quickly from one year to the next.
ATA’s Cassie Gassaway points out some of this in a separate news release on the complexity of answering such questions, noting that most surveys from state agencies and other independent organizations have significant margins of error that can range from 1% to 5% depending on the sample size, methodology used, cost of the survey, etc.
“The margin of error tells you by how many percentage points the survey results may differ from the real population value,” writes Gassaway. “So, if a 2018 survey finds that 13% of Americans hunted and the following year the same survey finds 12% of Americans hunted, it seems safe to say that the number of hunters declined by one percentage point from 2018 to 2019, right? Maybe, but maybe not."
“Here’s why. If both surveys had an almost impossible 1% margin of error on a national survey, the real population value might be the same for both years. In other words, the 13% reported amount could have been 12% and vice versa for the second survey.”
Gassaway indicated that many archery and bowhunting industry representatives have questioned previous numbers released from nationwide surveys because of varying methodologies and issues like those noted above.
And as we saw three years ago, even trusted data can change very quickly — remember the swelling of outdoors recreation numbers from the COVID-19 pandemic year when millions were a part of national and local shutdowns and suddenly had a lot of free time on their hands? Undoubtedly, there were a few more bowhunters in the woods that year, but how do you gather and interpret such information in a muddied context?
To tackle that perplexing situation and find an answer to how many bowhunters there are in America, ATA set out to gain a full understanding of the topic and to provide credible information here, becoming the first organization to attempt to do so.
In addition to information from state agencies, ATA also compiled information from other sources including the National Deer Association in its 2023 NDA Deer Report and from the National Wild Turkey Federation in its 2022 NWTF Spring Hunt Guide.
While the report recently issued by ATA provides a snapshot look at where things stand in March 2023, there’s also something of a realtime look at this data going forward since ATA, the American Sportfishing Association, and various natural resource agencies have partnered together to provide a live-look licensing Data Dashboard that is said to update frequently and provides year-to-year information.
It’s worth noting here, however, that ATA reports that just more than 20 states actually have the software to participate in real-time fashion, so you might want to take such current real-time numbers with a grain of salt, although they should still be in the ballpark of accuracy.
With that backstory now in place, and the total number of bowhunters nationwide currently approximated at 3.7 million archers, what does a deeper breakdown of the ATA bowhunter data in America look like?
Right off the top, the place with the most bowhunters is the hunting tradition-filled state of Pennsylvania with some 331,000 bowhunters (using bows and crossbows) according to ATA.
Rounding out the Top 5 states with the largest bowhunter numbers is Wisconsin at No. 2 with 307,450 bowhunters, Michigan at No. 3 with 304,278 bowhunters, New York at No. 4 with 244,226 bowhunters, and Missouri at No. 5 with 202,726 bowhunters.
Looking at other members of the Top 10 in the ATA report, Illinois checks in at No. 6 with 173,710 bowhunters, Ohio follows at No. 7 with 172,947 bowhunters, Texas is No. 8 with 168,301 bowhunters, Arkansas comes in at No. 9 with 128,810 bowhunters, and Minnesota rounds out the Top 10 list at No. 10 with 104,711 bowhunters.
Interestingly enough, no other state checked in with more than 100,000 bowhunters, and Kansas — home to some of the nation’s top whitetail hunting — didn’t make the Top 10. Instead, the Sunflower State checked in far down the list with 58,334 bowhunters, far behind southeastern states like Alabama’s 97,580 bowhunters, Georgia’s 83,314, and even Mississippi’s 78,254.
With so many of the Top 10 states being in the deer-rich Midwest, as well as having some of the highest overall deer hunter participation rates and highest deer hunter numbers per square mile, I’d add as an aside here that it’s also easy to understand why the 2022 ATA Show was in Louisville, the 2023 show was in Indianapolis, and the 2024 show is traveling to St. Louis. Most of these annual shows have been in the Midwest, and the numbers suggest why.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Aloha State of Hawaii, home to no native whitetails and only exotic animals like axis deer, checks in at No. 50 on the ATA bowhunter numbers list with 1,384 bowhunters. Still, hiking the lush mountains of the nation’s 50th state with the deep blue Pacific Ocean as your breathtaking vista more than makes up for limited bowhunting opportunities in a state better known for epic surfing and sandy spots like Waikiki Beach than big game animals and wild turkeys roaming the tropical woods.
Other states on the smaller side of the ATA bowhunter participation list include Rhode Island at No. 49 with 2,351 bowhunters; Nevada at No. 48 with 3,121 bowhunters; Wyoming at No. 47 with 4,063 bowhunters; California at No. 46 with 8,646 bowhunters; and Alaska at No. 45 with 11,175 bowhunters.
As you can see, the number of bowhunters varies in America, but regardless of how big a state is in population size, how much or how little bowhunting opportunity is found there, and whatever the seasonal and bag limit structures are, the U.S. is made up of a rich and varied population of bowhunters who are thrilled to get out into the field every fall, winter, and spring.
That’s why we are here at Petersen’s Bowhunting are trying to make the bowhunting world an easier one to understand, an easier one to participate in, and occasionally, even helping bowhunters find some well-earned success at the end of a broadhead tipped arrow.
And as the late Fred Bear might think of all of this, may it ever be so.