Archery Talk: Hunting The Shoulder Seasons

archery-talkRegardless of the season, a plethora of extracurricular shooting opportunities abound.

Pressing the button on my rangefinder, it read 34 metres to the mound. I waited patiently and, minutes later a small beige head emerged from an adjacent hole in the ground. Cautious but eager to soak up a few rays, in short order, the slender rodent threw caution to the wind, stretched out, and then sat upright on its haunches. I raised my Carbon Element and hoped like crazy that the gopher wouldn’t spook and retreat to the safety of its hole. Locking my sight pin on its tiny chest, I dedicated all of my concentration to making the shot. Anchoring, aiming, and letting go, I concentrated on maintaining my form and allowing the bow to fall forward naturally. After all, it had been a long winter and while I was rather pleased with shooting, I could always use the practice. The Judo tip lifted the small rodent off the ground, killing it instantly. Such is the life of an archer in Alberta’s gopher fields.

Fringe Archery

By the time this issue hits the stands, spring bear and turkey seasons will be underway. Hopefully you’ve been diligent with your practice time, and are ready to make the shot count should the opportunity arise. Congratulations if you have. If it just wasn’t in the cards, I’ll bet as soon as the snow melted, you blew the dust from your bow and hit the gopher fields or some such shooting venture to retune your skills. In my neck of the woods, gopher hunting is one of most valuable fringe benefits that spring time offers. In fact, as you read this, I’m probably scouring my favourite pasture, flinging arrows at an overabundance of moving targets — and gaining favour with landowners for doing it!

I love bow hunting bears and during the spring. I also remember many years ago when spring fishing seasons allowed archers to bow fish during the spring spawn in Alberta. The thaw offered a chance to launch arrows at suckers and other sportfish species as they worked their way up shallow streams and cruised in shallow spawning bays; it was just another fringe benefit activity that helped fill our days between the morning and evening bear hunts. While bow fishing opportunities are still available, they are indeed more heavily regulated nowadays.

Then comes fall; that magical time of year that every hunting archer dreams of. Even though a big buck or bull might be the primary object of our desire, other more incidental game species, can also be taken during any outing. I have to say, those incidental smaller game species can be just as much fun to hunt and they offer great opportunities to continually hone shooting skills along the way.

Where I typically hunt, game is plentiful. On any given day, I’ll see white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and if I’m lucky maybe even an elk. One of the perks to hunting game-rich areas is that the hunter can often hold an assortment of tags. On more than one deer hunt, I’ve had moose wander below my stand. Thanks to a general tag in hand, they have been there for the taking (with archery tackle) in many of the management units I hunt. Incidental they can be, but when the opportunity arises, they can also a huge fringe benefit. More the exception than the rule, other big game species certainly present themselves from time to time, but it’s the smaller, more prolific species that I consider true fringe benefits — more precisely upland birds and coyotes.

Small game animals make great target practice. Since I began bow hunting 23 years ago I’ve taken both grouse and coyotes from my deer stand — several in fact with my bow — but not long ago I had a picture-perfect scenario play out just below my stand.

Crawling into the tree well before daylight, the sky was clear. A gentle northwest breeze kept the frost at bay and the rising sun promised a warm day, the kind beach-goers love and deer hunters hate. It was so warm in fact that the whitetail movement seemed to have ground to a halt. Just after 10:00 a.m. I heard rustling in the trees to the north. Clearly they were footsteps but they sounded too subtle and constant to be deer. Sure enough as the sound grew louder, I noticed a gorgeous coyote skulking through the woods. Scouring every nook and cranny, it was on the prowl. Coyote populations are out of control where I hunt and they must be culled. Waiting in anticipation, it lingered in one small area just out of range for 10 minutes before finally making his way down the hillside toward me. Grabbing my bow, I carefully locked my release on the D-loop, quartered my stance on the base of my tree stand and waited. As coyotes do, it sniffed and probed the ground for mice. When it finally committed to moving across my shooting lane at 12 metres, I drew, and centering the pin on its chest — I released. At approximately 300 fps, the arrow passed through his torso and he broke into a dead run vanishing in the tall grass in a nearby slough bottom. Confident in my arrow placement, I gathered gear and climbed down out of the stand. After following the heavy blood trail, I collected one of the finest coyotes I’ve ever arrowed.

Coyote hides make a great pelt and are a true trophy for the hunting archer, but more than that coyotes must be thinned out, particularly in areas where predator numbers are too high. For the hunting archer, a big advantage to taking fringe benefit game with a bow is the virtual absence of sound. Bows are quiet to draw and the snap of the string is barely audible. No loud bangs to scare aware your primary target species; one quiet release of the string and it’s all over. While I wouldn’t dare discharge a firearm to collect small game during a firearm deer hunt, I don’t even give it a second thought with the bow.

Other than coyotes, upland birds like grouse and partridge are my second favourite fringe benefit game. In many areas they are abundant and offer great table fare. Likewise, they are small, offering excellent shooting practice opportunities. As long as bird game seasons are open, I take every opportunity to harvest ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, pheasant and even Hungarian partridge while bowhunting whitetails. On a recent caribou hunt, a similar fringe benefit opportunity arose. Thankfully, the outfitter had informed me that there would be many incidental opportunities to shoot ptarmigan as we hunted for a bull caribou. In the end, I was glad I had purchased a ptarmigan licence as they were indeed abundant. For small game, particularly upland birds, I’ve learned to keep one arrow, armed with a small game Judo tip, in my quiver. More often than not, I get to use it; sometimes on the ground, sometimes high up in a tree and most commonly at distances of less than 20 metres.

The most important thing to remember about fringe benefit small game species is that their vitals are just that — small. On a coyote, the kill zone is little more than 13 centimetres in diameter. On grouse, it’s even smaller at three centimetres or less. This calls for pinpoint accuracy. Equipment must be well tuned, and the shooter must be on his or her game to score on these small incident fringe benefit species. I’ve missed my share over the years, and I have to constantly remind myself to concentrate on an exact spot before sending my arrow on its way.

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