Updated: Mar 17, 2021
In 2017, Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 2893 into law allowing all archery permit holders the option to use a crossbow for the entire Illinois deer season. This followed the expansion of crossbow use in 2015, allowing those with an archery permit to use a crossbow beginning on the Monday following the second shotgun season until the close of the archery season. Previously, crossbow use was only available to those over the age of 62 or with disabilities. So, how have the harvest numbers changed in the past three years?
As of this posting, the full breakdown for 2020's season has not been released. However, the preliminary harvest numbers were released on 2/1/2021. The preliminary total for 2020 shows that 162,575 deer were harvested across all seasons. This number follows an upward trend that began in 2016, following a steady decline after the record setting harvest in 2005 of 201,209. While that is a solid sign of a recovering deer herd, the big takeaway from this press release is the record setting archery harvest of 75,544 deer. Is this a sign of an increasing number of crossbow hunters?
Since we do not have the full breakdown for 2020, I pulled up the 2019 season summary. Sure enough, the archery harvest breakdown for 2019 shows a strong upward trend in archery harvests since 2016, when crossbow use was officially expanded. The total archery harvest jumped from 56,767 in 2015 to 67,743 in 2019. That's 11,000 more animals taken with a bow, and now with the record breaking 2020 archery harvest of 75,554, that is nearly 20,000 more archery harvests in only five years! The 2019 summary breaks this down by type of bow used and sure enough the correlation we thought would happen, did. In 2015, 14.1% of all archery harvests were with a crossbow. In 2019, it was 44.8%. That's right, nearly half of all archery harvests in Illinois were with a crossbow. Will the 2020 breakdown show that crossbow harvests have broken 50%? I believe the chance is good, and as soon as I have those numbers, I will share them here at Essential Outdoorsman.
The Crossbow Effect
Crossbows are quite obviously becoming more popular with laws being passed to allow their use in general archery seasons. The graph above spells it out... plainly. They are easier to use, require less practice and knowledge to become proficient with and are much easier to fit in a blind or maneuver during the moment of truth. It's obvious why they are being used by bowhunters who have decided to give up the compound bow. Here is the interesting part. Data proves to us that crossbows are creating record numbers without a huge spike in tag sales. 210,291 archery tags were sold in 2019, up from 208,555 in 2015. That means that in 2019 bowhunters harvested 11,000 more animals while only purchasing 1,700 more tags. Is this evidence that crossbows are more lethal? There are a lot of compound bow hunters that are not a fan of crossbow hunting, for fear that people may become unethical with the extended range and shot opportunity potential. Another perception is that crossbow hunters may not become as familiar with their weapon due to it's perceived ease of use and may be more likely to make a marginal shot decision. However, the data seems to show that when the percentage of hunters using crossbows goes up, so does the success rate. Does this mean less animals are wounded or missed, and successfully harvested because of the efficiency of crossbows? Or does it mean that archery range is effectively lengthened, allowing for more opportunities? Interesting points to consider.
What Do These Numbers Mean To Illinois Bowhunters?
With record archery harvests now a reality, and a larger portion of bowhunters using a crossbow, what can we expect? In the long term, as more bowhunters transition to crossbows and the effectiveness of archery tags goes up we may see a few changes. Tag lotteries and shorter seasons could be a possibility, but don't freak out just yet! If history tells us anything, we should not be in danger of Illinois cutting tags any time soon. With total harvest numbers still climbing and some counties still employing CWD and late season antlerless quotas, it would appear that state biologists still believe that herds are healthy and not in danger of being reduced to unsatisfactory levels. At the end of the day, I have faith that biologists will monitor these changes and adjust as necessary, creating a healthy balance between hunter and prey.