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Crossbows and modern deer hunting: More time in the field in Illinois


A crossbow rests at the ready, a more common sight since the legalization of crossbows for more general use in deer hunting last year in Illinois.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

KNOX COUNTY, Ill. — A red-tailed hawk sliced through the last hanging leaves, then crashed the underbrush after prey.

I didn’t hear any screaming mammal, so I guessed it was a clean kill.

That’s the hunter I want to be: savage, striking out of thin air.

I’m not. Not even close. But I love deer hunting more than anything else in the outdoors.

Last year, my hunting expanded with the legalization of crossbows for deer hunting in Illinois.

Last fall, I tried it for the first time with Jeff Lampe and found a new love of bowhunting. At least bowhunting with a crossbow, though purists might quibble.

As the rut builds across Illinois, I was back Thursday with Lampe, the publisher of Heartland Outdoors and some weekly newspapers, to hunt the small farm he and his wife own.

Apparently, I’m an anomaly with regard to crossbows and bowhunting. I assumed other people also began bowhunting because of crossbows. Preliminary data doesn’t show that, however.

‘‘Based on some analyses that I did on last year’s successful archers, it appeared that most successful crossbow hunters (except for very young ones) were previous holders of archery deer permits, meaning that they didn’t just start archery hunting,’’ forest wildlife program manager Paul Shelton emailed. ‘‘It looks like the majority of crossbow users are former compound users that changed equipment.

‘‘There’s no evidence yet that the new crossbow regulations are recruiting new hunters, but multiple years of data will give us a better idea as to the answer to that question (as well as whether crossbow use might impact success rates). I do note that in Ohio, success rates of ‘vertical bow’ users and crossbow users are very similar.’’

That’s something I will explore another day.

With much anticipation Thursday, I climbed into the stand Lampe picked for me on a timber neck between two picked fields.

An owl hooted in the distance. At dawn, a cock pheasant crowed on the other side of the creek. The first fox squirrel came out at 7:30 a.m. Fox squirrels are layabouts. Some wild turkeys wandered around, just out of sight in the brush.

I love morning coming in the woods — a good thing, considering I saw no deer. Lampe had three bucks pass him, including one he debated shooting.

Late in the morning, we took a break. Back at his house, he pulled up trail-camera photos — something I find fascinating — from the secretive big bucks to the progression of turkey poults to the eyes of raccoons at night.

That heightened my hope for the afternoon.

A pair of hunting barred owls hooted ‘‘Who cooks for you?’’ back and forth already at 4:30 p.m. on a gray day. A large flock of blackbirds, whooshing back and forth to feed in the picked corn, scattered at the hooting.

More than a dozen fox squirrels hopped brazenly around. Several ventured into the cornfield to lug leftover ear corn back. My guess is that the red-tailed hawk was trying for one of them.

Just before sunset, the evening burned to an orange glow suddenly, vividly. Rustling in the downed leaves across the creek caught my attention until I spotted a raccoon lumbering along.

A deer snorted in the last of the light, then another one across the cornfield.

It was time. I climbed down carefully.

Walking out, a big-bodied deer bolted across an open field, barely visible in the darkness.

It figures.


The view from above at sunset during a deer hunt with a crossbow.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times