I was perusing the pages on an old, yellowed newsprint publication recently — the February 1951 issue of Sportsmen’s Guide. Several things caught my attention, but one in particular was an item about how Maine sportsmen interested in hunting with bows and arrows had requested a special season set aside for them to hunt deer one week before the opening of the regular season. The item noted that the request was not granted.
With curiosity sufficiently piqued I searched out a timeline history of Maine deer seasons. Apparently those bowhunters were not easily dissuaded because Maine’s first special archery season was established that year — 1951 — for October. It has remained that way ever since, though bowhunting has seen some significant changes over the years.
Back in the 1950s Maine’s deer herd was in particularly good shape with annual harvests around 40,000 and a postseason population of roughly 275,000. Despite some critic’s complaints, the impact of a monthlong bow season on the deer population was negligible. It’s not so surprising when you consider that hunting bows back then consisted of little more than stick and string, and arrows were typically cedar shafts tipped with a two-blade steel broadhead.
Things began to change in the 1960s when a fellow named Holless Allen received a patent for the first compound bow. Using a system of cables and pullies to bend the limbs gave the archer a mechanical advantage and greater arrow speed than a recurve of equal draw weight. He subsequently joined forces with Tom Jennings and they started producing bows for the general public.
Though they were eagerly received by the archery industry, these newfangled contraptions were not universally accepted by archers. In fact, many traditional archers damned them as the ruination of bowhunting, claiming the 15 percent mechanical advantage would devastate deer populations.
Obviously that didn’t happen. In fact, deer populations across much of the nation began increasing significantly over the next several decades, ultimately reaching levels that probably never existed in history. And interest in bowhunting rose along with deer numbers, outside of Maine.
Through the 1960s Maine’s statewide archery kill remained under 25. Relatively speaking the harvest took a significant jump over roughly the next decade but remained under 100 until 1979. By the early 1990s it was around 500, but didn’t hit 1,000 until 1995, when the total deer take was 27,384. The statewide bow kill subsequently dropped to around 700 the next couple years.
The next big change occurred in 1997 with establishment of the expanded archery season. It provided bowhunters with additional opportunity to hunt and take additional deer in areas where firearms hunting was limited or prohibited, and deer-human conflicts were on the rise. Expanded zone bowhunters killed 258 deer the first year, but the take was up to 1,531 by 2000. Meanwhile, the archery take during the statewide special season was only 567.
Like compound bows, the expanded season was not universally embraced, particularly by some firearms hunters. Maine’s deer herd is a finite resource and giving a larger share to one group means taking it away from another. Still the impact has not been significant, though last year’s expanded season take was just under 2,000, nearly 10 percent of the overall kill.
Changes in the hunting world tend to be trendy. The latest trend across the country is liberalization of crossbows. The number of states allowing their use during some or all seasons has increased dramatically over just the last five years. Where that occurred, deer populations have continued to thrive.
As with compound bows in the 1960s and the expanded season in the 90s, crossbows have their critics here in Maine. That’s particularly true of bowhunters, most of whom now use compound bows with as much as 85 percent let-off, shooting carbon arrows at speeds approaching 400 feet per second. Adding crossbows to the list of allowable weapons would certainly cut into their share of the pie.
It’s understandable that folks would be resistant to something new and different, particularly in a state like Maine, where change does not come easily. Crossbows are currently legal during the firearms season, and hunters took 32 deer with them last year in Maine. However, allowing their use during the archery season would almost certainly lead to a significantly higher kill. Given the current state of the state’s deer herd, it may not be prudent to take such a bold step, at least not now.
Perhaps one day someone will pick up an old, yellowed copy of the Maine Sunday Telegram and be amused to read how we were only killing 20,000 deer, and hunters were demonizing crossbows as the next ruination of the herd and the sport. Hopefully our herd will return to its once robust levels and we can legitimately consider setting another seat at the table for a slice of that pie.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: