By Bob Humphrey
Whether they shoot horizontal or vertical bows, I think it's fair to say the vast majority of bowhunters spend their time afield waiting on an elevated platform for a whitetail to wander within range.
It’s a popular and effective tactic, but if you choose it as your only method, you may be missing out on a world of opportunity.
Whether you’re waiting for whitetail season to open, bemoaning its passing or merely looking for a change of pace, consider a few less-common crossbow-hunting options.
Let’s start where many of us began our hunting careers, at least most of us older folks: small game. Squirrel hunting was once far more popular and a great way to teach youngsters things such as patience, stealth and woodsmanship. You have a couple of options, including slipping slowly and silently along or sitting stationary on the ground — the latter is often the better choice, especially when hunting with a crossbow.
Obviously, your opportunities are more limited, as upward shots should not be considered. Without the loud report of a gun, though, you may get more opportunities to collect some “limb bacon.”
Upland birds are another option. It isn’t uncommon for a woodcock hunter to spy a timberdoodle holding tight before bursting into flight, especially when hunting with dogs. Where I live, it’s standard practice to ride the logging roads looking for ruffed grouse as they pick gravel on the roadside. In that situation, a crossbow makes a suitable substitute for headshots with a .22 rifle or a .410 shotgun.
In northern and mountain states, spruce grouse are sometimes referred to as “fool hens” for their proclivity to allow hunters to approach within close proximity. Should you find yourself even farther north, ptarmigan can also be downright foolhardy at times.
Tooth & Tail
Varmints represent another undervalued category in the crossbow world. Anyone can pick off prairie dogs with a rifle from a prone and distant position; try doing it up close and with a crossbow. A ground blind or a ghillie suit might come in handy.
The same generally applies to predator hunting. Long shots are the norm, but some folks occasionally try to lure foxes, bobcats and coyotes within shotgun range, which is also close enough for a crossbow.
Bills & Beaks
Yet another option is waterfowl. Archery tackle is legal for hunting waterfowl according to federal regulations, but you should check state regulations, as many states permit conventional archery tackle but not crossbows.
If crossbows are legal where you hunt, forget hitting flying fowl. Limit yourself to ground or, if you don’t mind losing bolts, water shots. Small-game heads are best for ducks, but you have more options with geese, including conventional mechanical broadheads or even the guillotine-style broadheads used for turkeys. Just make sure your bolts are long enough to clear the stirrup or any other up-front paraphernalia, and practice with the actual broadheads you’ll be using, as bolt flight could be quite erratic with higher-poundage rigs.
Speaking of turkey hunting, crossbows are well suited to the sport. You’ve got to get them close regardless of what weapon you choose, but unlike conventional archery tackle, you don’t have to draw a crossbow once you do.
Regardless of which path you choose, there are some additional considerations.
One is equipment. While you can use your regular deer-hunting crossbow, a smaller, less-powerful one is a better option for small game. That’s especially true if you’re introducing youth or small-framed adults to hunting. It will make for a better starter crossbow for them and a dedicated small-game crossbow for you and your kids after they’ve grown up.
You may also want to consider a recurve crossbow, as they offer more options in terms of lighter draw weights and lower kinetic energy. Having a dedicated small-game crossbow won’t break the bank either, as you can find several models under $200.
As for projectiles, most any small-game blunt head will suffice. For predators, go back to your conventional broadheads. The same goes for turkeys, with the aforementioned guillotine broadheads as another option.
As misses and even hits often result in your bolt hitting the ground, you may want to go with cheaper projectiles. Save the expensive carbon bolts for big game and use aluminum or less-expensive carbon ones for small game. Don’t forget to practice with them to ensure your crossbow is properly sighted in and that they are properly spined for your crossbow’s poundage.
Heavier bolts are also a better choice. Most shots at small game are at close range, so you’re less concerned with trajectory and drop. They’ll hold up better to striking hard ground or trees and are more likely to meet or exceed spine-strength requirements for your lighter-poundage rig.
Another important consideration is safety. Lying in wait to ambush passing game is standard practice when crossbow hunting, but spot-and-stalk or run-and-gun hunting require more attention to detail.
In the former case, you will likely have your crossbow cocked and loaded. Keep your finger out of the trigger guard and make sure the safety is engaged at all times. Move slowly and carefully, paying special attention when passing through thick brush.
In the latter case, when moving quickly from one location to another, you will be much safer not loading a bolt until you come to a stop. If circumstances permit, it’s also better if you can wait until you stop to cock your crossbow.
The world of crossbow hunting continues to expand. Some hunters are content to stick with deer and other big-game species, but a growing number are looking for new and different reasons to carry their crossbows afield. Whatever you pursue, be sure to check the regs and, as always, hunt safely.