Outdoors | New Minnesota law lets anyone use crossbows for archery deer season

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Minnesota’s archery deer season starts Saturday, Sept. 16, and, for the first time, anyone who wants to hunt with a crossbow can use one.

Legislators last spring changed the state law, which previously limited crossbow use during archery season only to people over age 60 or who had a physical impairment that would prevent them from using a traditional bow.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials will be monitoring crossbow use over three seasons and are then required to report back to lawmakers on whether the expansion causes any major issues.

The law allowing crossbows for everyone sunsets, or ends, after three years, after which point the Legislature would have to reapprove it to keep it going.

If other states that have allowed unlimited crossbow use are any example, tens of thousands of Minnesota hunters are expected to eventually pick up and use crossbows for their archery season deer hunting over the next three seasons. And it’s not hard to see why. Crossbows are more lethal at longer distances, potentially more accurate and much easier to use.

Crossbows bolts — a shorter, arrow-like projectile — can reach speeds of over 400 feet per second, faster than an arrow from a traditional compound bow. The heavier bolts also remain lethal at longer distances, well past 50 yards and more, whereas traditional archers generally try to keep their shots to 40 yards or less.

But perhaps the biggest advantage is their ease of operation. The crossbow firing mechanism is easily cocked, or drawn back mechanically, and then locks in place at the start of the hunt, before any target approaches, ready to shoot with the simple pull of a trigger, at a second’s notice, at any time during the hunt. With a traditional bow, the archer must pull back and hold the arrow, just as the target approaches, and then hold that pull until the perfect shot appears — all while trying to avoid the target reacting and running away.

John Chalstrom, owner of Chalstrom’s Bait and Archery Pro Shop in Rice Lake, just outside Duluth, noted that, after his staff assembles the crossbow and adjusts the telescopic site, he can sell it to a customer ready to use “out of the box” — very accurate and requiring little or no practice. (Last month, Chalstrom watched as two novices shot 60-foot bull’s-eyes on their first-ever crossbow shots.)

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John Chalstrom loads a bolt into a Mission crossbow at Chalstrom
John Chalstrom loads a bolt into a Mission crossbow at Chalstrom’s Bait and Archery Pro Shop in Rice Lake, Wis., on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

“It’s amazing how easy this is. You can arm it and then sit there all day, and be ready for a shot at any time, quietly. … There’s no movement, other than bringing it up to your face to look through the scope,” said Chalstrom.

He said his shop probably sold 10 to 12 crossbows per year in the past. “We sold three last week alone. … It’s starting to pick up as people hear about this new law,’’ he said.

So far, Chalstrom hasn’t heard much grumbling at his archery range from traditional archers complaining about the coming influx of crossbow hunters during their season, but there likely will be some. The same arguments were made by traditional musket muzzleloader deer hunters as new, inline rifles with scopes became available and legal during the state’s muzzleloader deer season. It’s also the same complaints heard 50 years ago when compound bows with pulleys began replacing longbows.

“Some guys say they will never pick up a crossbow, and that’s fine,” Chalstrom said. “But maybe this will keep some guys (hunting) out there, or maybe bring in a few new people.”

New law leaves data gap

Because of how the law was written, the Minnesota DNR won’t know how many hunters going afield are using crossbows because the license is exactly the same for traditional archers. Barb Keller, the DNR’s big game program leader, said the agency will be asking hunters who are registering a deer to list whether it was killed with a bow or crossbow.

“We will not know who intends to use a crossbow or vertical bow. The spirit of the legislative change was to allow anyone who purchased an archery license to use a crossbow during the archery season, so creating a separate season or license where hunters could only use a crossbow wouldn’t be meeting that objective,” Keller said. “We can also assess the increase in archery license purchases compared to past years and license history of ‘new’ archery hunters to draw some preliminary conclusions about the effect of the legislative change on archery season participation.”

DNR officials will use a randomized questionnaire mailed to license buyers after the season to try to get a better handle on crossbow use, Keller said.

The DNR anticipates a number of both traditional archery deer hunters and firearms deer hunters will gradually shift to hunting deer with crossbows during the archery season. But DNR officials aren’t expecting any major influx of truly new hunters or any major increase in the total deer harvest — just in the method of harvest.

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Keller said hunters in most areas will still be able to shoot only one buck per year, no matter their weapon of choice, but that DNR officers will be closely watching for any increase in antlerless deer harvested in lottery areas where antlerless permits are limited for firearms hunters.

“We will be closely watching the effect of this change on antlerless deer harvest in lottery areas, since archery hunters are allowed to take an either-sex deer in lottery areas without going through the lottery,” Keller said. “Otherwise, we are taking a wait and see approach and will propose rule or statute changes as necessary.”

In Wisconsin, more crossbows every year

The popularity of crossbows has grown fast in Wisconsin over the past decade after Wisconsin lawmakers changed their state law to allow anyone to use crossbows starting in 2014.

In 2014, 47,812 crossbow licenses were sold in Wisconsin. By 2022 that number had grown to 122,002.

Crossbow hunters surpassed traditional archery hunters in deer harvested after just a few years, and that trend shows no signs of diminishing. Last year, crossbow hunters registered 64,432 deer in Wisconsin compared to 38,017 for traditional archery hunters. (The state’s total 2022 harvest was 340,282, with firearms hunters taking 251,425 of those.)

While apparently not having a major impact on the resource — on the number of deer killed — Wisconsin has seen a dramatic shift in how and when hunters go afield, said Jeff Pritzl, deer program coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR. Total harvest during the archery season stood at 87,628 in 2013, before unlimited crossbow use. By 2022, it was at 103,449.

While it’s hard to compare harvest years due to weather during the season and the number of antlerless permits available, the additional deer shot during archery season by crossbows in recent years appear to have come in large part from deer previously shot during the firearms season.

“It really represents a shift as we look back over 10 years now, but not so much a weapons choice shift as a shift in the time of year when people want to hunt,” Pritzl said. “It seems people want to hunt deer earlier in the fall when opportunities and weather may be better.”

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Wisconsin DNR data indeed shows that a good number of firearms hunters appear to have shifted to crossbows, changing their weapon and even changing when they hunt, more likely in October rather than during the traditional nine-day firearms season over Thanksgiving week in late November.

“Maybe there are more deer moving in October, during the rut, and it’s just nicer to be sitting in a deer stand then,” Pritzl said.

The addition of crossbows for everyone has pushed archery season hunters above firearms-only hunters (many do both), a shift that would have been unheard of before crossbows. Out of about 600,000 deer hunters in the state, more than 300,000 now hunt during the archery season, Pritzl said.

Prtizl said that there has been no increase in hunting related accidents since crossbows became widely used during Wisconsin’s archery season.

Pritzl added that while crossbow popularity could have led to many more deer being harvested, especially in agricultural areas where multiple doe permits are available, so far that hasn’t happened. Only about 10% of Wisconsin archery season hunters take more than one deer.

“There’s a social acceptance level of how many deer people are willing to harvest, and how much time people have to spend in the woods,” Prtizl said. “The numbers show that the vast majority of people really don’t want more than one deer in the freezer.”

Chalstrom, the archery shop owner, said he will be one of Minnesota’s new crossbow users. He’s too busy processing customers’ deer into venison to hunt during Minnesota’s firearms deer hunting season. And he said he doesn’t have time to practice to prepare himself for traditional archery hunting. Chalstrom said he used to participate in the late-season muzzleloader hunt, but that there were fewer deer to be seen then, after the traditional firearms season ended.

“I’m going to have one of these and do my deer hunting in October now,” Chalstrom said while holding a crossbow. “When the weather is nicer and the deer aren’t spooked.”

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>