August 26, 2022
Hunting public land can be a blessing and a curse. On one hand, archery enthusiasts have millions of acres available to hunt, hike and play with few restrictions. The downside? Everyone has access to these same parcels.
There are several ways to approach a public-land hunt with a crossbow to give yourself an advantage; however, the best advice is to keep things simple.
Use Shooting Sticks
Crossbows are heavy and often touted as advantageous because you can be at full draw before encountering an animal. But for you to have that advantage, a rest or shooting sticks are required. Anyone who doubts this should try holding an 8-pound crossbow in position for a minute or two and see if they can keep the reticle steady on target.
Hunt From the Ground
A treestand locks you into one place and allows other hunters to learn from your scouting, while hunting from the ground allows you to set up differently every day or make a move depending on changing environmental conditions. When I find a treestand, the first thing I do is assess why it is there. Game trails, water, prevailing winds and food sources all work into the equation quickly, without you having to do all the legwork. Of course, when hunting public ground, it’s best to leave no trace or clues as to why you are hunting a specific spot.
I once hunted black bears with an outfitter who didn't use treestands. He said bears were more apt to locate you in a tree than concealed on the ground. But, the biggest reason for this eye-to-eye approach is it allows for the best angle and penetration from a bolt.
An animal shot through the vitals leaves a blood trail on both sides. Eliminating the angle means reduced chances of catching one lung or misreading the shot placement. In short, a level shot can reduce tracking time.
Hunting pressure moves wildlife out of regular patterns, and staying mobile allows you to think like the critters and adjust accordingly. Learning the game trails, escape routes and travel corridors between food sources and bedding areas allows you to stay one step ahead of everyone else.
Time spent scouting can tell you about the habitat and animals before opening day. Watch for spots to set up on the ground and use natural cover. Blinds can also work, but not all wildlife accept new features on the landscape without suspicion.
Take Advantage of Others
One of the most challenging things to plan for on public land is other hunters, so finding and setting up in areas where animals will naturally head to escape pressure is a significant advantage. The predictable movements of other hunters, and their impact on wildlife, allow you to be proactive. Count on them to push wildlife and then set up near the funnels you think are best.
Determine access points, where other users may approach stands or hunting locations and what this will do to animal movement. Then decide if you need to adjust your tactics. Having a crossbow means you can move on the fly and reset anywhere.
Remain Concealed & Ready
The benefit of hunting with a crossbow is being ready to shoot without moving. You can kneel, stand or even shoot from a sitting position. So, plan accordingly and use this advantage to hunt intelligently.
Tying back a few limbs on a cedar or using your favorite turkey chair for hunting deer keeps you hidden and reduces your profile. Being mobile on an elk hunt can be an advantage, but always set up on shooting sticks before a bull shows up. The goal is to be stable and ready in the shooting position before the action. A pivoting head on your shooting sticks allows for slow movement to anticipate shooting lanes. Think ahead, create your advantage and generate as many benefits as possible from your hunting gear.
Know Your Range
As with all archery hunting, knowing your equipment is paramount to success. Crossbows are noisy compared to vertical bows, and there is no better teacher for this than experience.
Crossbows are sometimes touted as long-range archery tools, and the Internet is brimming with videos of people shooting 100 yards with them. The reality, however, is that hunting in quiet conditions mean reduced range.
I recently harvested a buck on an evening without any wind and the silence made it difficult to move without making noise. When the deer showed up broadside at 36 yards, I quickly lined up the crosshairs on its vitals. My bolt broke its spine and knocked him to the ground. The lesson I learned from this was the buck "jumped the string" at 36 yards, and even though I was shooting an extremely fast bow, the deer was faster. The farthest I have shot at an animal is 46 yards, and it was on a windy evening and the buck never knew what hit him.
There is a wide range of habitats and conditions on public land, and scouting is the only way to hunt a spot effectively with archery equipment. Knowing your crossbow well helps to determine practical and ethical shooting ranges; you should also learn to carry and use shooting sticks or support.
Spending time on the practice range is as crucial as scouting. It’s important to know the trajectory of your bolts to avoid problems in the field, and to practice shooting from the ground and ensure your bow is level.
As far as the noise factor, try downloading a decibel meter to your phone to learn for yourself how noisy your bow is when launching a bolt. Another tip is to mark one of your bolts with the width of your crossbow uncocked and then use the bolt to determine your limb clearance in tight spots so you can hide effectively but still shoot with confidence.
Last but not least, hunters need to respect others on shared landscapes. Yes, it can be frustrating when you encounter more individuals than you expected, and most hunters have at least one story of disappointment. Hopefully, however, staying flexible and having alternative routes and plans will lead to more opportunities and fewer regrets afield.