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How Things Have Changed: Archery Hunting Then and Now

Pennsylvania held its first archery deer season in 1951. Only 5,542 people purchased the necessary $2 archery license so they could hunt in the bucks-only season. Those 5,000-plus hunters reported killing 33 bucks, which amounted to far less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the total deer harvest that year.

Archery hunting slowly grew in popularity. However, it was not until 1957 — when does were first allowed to be shot by bowhunters — that the reported archery deer harvest exceeded 1 percent of the total harvest.

It is unlikely that many of those archers from the early 1950s wore camouflage clothing. They all hunted with traditional longbows or the newer recurves. Good arrows were milled from Port Oxford cedar, fletched with turkey feathers and tipped with fixed-blade broadheads. Treestands were made by nailing boards to a tree and bowhunting from the back of a pickup truck was popular.

My, how things have changed.

Mossy Oak camouflage, trail cameras, antler restrictions, portable treestands, carbon arrows, scent-trapping clothing, illuminated nocks, ozone generators, crossbows, mechanical broadheads — if an archery hunter from the 1950s teleported to 2018, he would likely think that he had arrived on a different planet.

Camouflage clothing is popular casual wear today, even for non-hunters. It comes in a wide array of designs and colors. You can purchase camo everything, from bras and underwear to tuxedos. Even in the 1960s there was very little choice in camo patterns.

Hunting from a motor vehicle was outlawed in 1968. Compound bows were legalized for deer hunting in 1973, and crossbows were made legal for non-disabled hunters during the regular archery season in 2009. At the time, then-commissioner Russ Schleiden said, “Legalizing crossbows will expand hunting opportunities and give hunters a choice.”

And expand opportunities it did. Game Commission statistics from last season show that there are now well over 300,000 licensed archery hunters. Those bowhunters harvested an estimated 118,110 deer, or about 34 percent of the total harvest. Results from the most recent Pennsylvania Game Commission hunter survey show that approximately 61 percent of today’s archery hunters use crossbows all or part of the time.

Arrows have evolved from wood construction to aluminum and fiberglass, and more recently to carbon. Broadheads had two or three hand-sharpened blades, and then four. The next advancement was replaceable razorblade inserts, followed by today’s mechanical broadheads, which fly truer and expand on contact. Plastic has replaced turkey feathers as the fletching of choice. Crossbow arrows or bolts are around 20 inches long, as compared to 28- to 34-inch long arrows for recurves and the original compound bows.

Compound bows, with their pulleys, cams and cables, have allowed vertical bows to become smaller and more maneuverable for hunting. Their draw-weight let-off allows archers to more easily hold at full draw before releasing their shot. Compounds also shoot arrows faster and with a flatter trajectory. Mechanical releases, formerly illegal, provide a more consistent release of the arrow and make compound bows more accurate.

Crossbows can be cocked by most people and they stay ready to release an arrow with the touch of their trigger. They also shoot fast and flat, with most beginners even being able to place accurate shots at 20, 30 or 40 yards. However, in almost all instances, only one shot is possible, so it had better be accurate.

Most archers hunt from some type of portable treestand or from a ground blind — neither of which were available in the 1950s. Masking scents for deer hunting and deer lures now come in a wide variety of types and dispensing methods. Electronically heated scent or lure dispensers, and electronic devices that distribute ozone gas for scent control have just been made legal. Some archery hunters even use deer decoys, which was unheard of during the first 50 years of archery hunting.

Choices available for hunting boots and clothing make them more comfortable and quieter. Some clothing has scent-trapping capabilities, while other items are waterproof but remain breathable. More and more hunters are using trail cameras to enhance boots-on-the-ground scouting.

From the deer and deer management perspective, the 2002 change in antler restrictions, three-points-toa-side here in Centre County, have made a huge impact on the age and size of the bucks harvested. Gone are the days when a typical buck was 1 1/2 years old and sported spikes or maybe three or four pointracks.

Pennsylvania’s archery deer season began during the “one-and-done” deer hunting days — hunters could only harvest one deer. If you had already harvested a buck, you could not fill your antlerless tag. Beginning in 1988, with appropriate licenses, hunters could shoot an antlered or antlerless deer during archery season and then still hunt during a rifle season. Prior to that, many hunters were reluctant to arrow a doe and then not be able to hunt bucks.

In 1967, the statewide archery season was lengthened to include a winter season. More recently, the archery season was extended to six weeks — including the peak of the rut in early November. Hunters in the ‘60s and ‘70s could only dream of bowhunting during the mating season. An extra day was added to the season this fall to include the observed Veterans Day holiday. The 2018-19 archery deer season runs through Wednesday, Nov. 12, and the winter season is Wednesday, Dec. 26, to Saturday, Jan. 12.