As New Hampshire hunters braced for the white-tailed deer muzzleloading season that began on Saturday, their enthusiasm reflects a surprising aspect of modern hunting: fewer people are doing it, but they are using a greater variety. of methods when they do.
Last year, in fact, hunters killed more deer in Granite State with a bow and arrow or muzzleloader than with modern rifles. But these were not the bows or blunderbusses of centuries past.
“It’s like cell phones: the technology keeps increasing,” said Peter Beard, 71, president of Deering Fish and Game and longtime hunter.
Consider muzzle-loading pistols, which are firearms whose power and bullet must be pushed down the barrel with a rod and fired by a separate primer. Modern ammunition combines all of those into a single bullet that can be loaded through the breech.
This brings up footage of a Pilgrim’s wide aperture pistol that was fortunate enough to hit the wide side of a barn after a slow and laborious loading, and only if the power hadn’t been wet. Moisture-proof powders are available today in the form of “in-line” pellets and guns that allow easy handling of the primer.
“It started out as primitive guns. People hunted with flintlock rifles, a cap and a bullet, most of the time with a smoothbore rifle. It has become a high tech science, ”said Beard. “I have a muzzle loader that will shoot 100 yards with a one-inch cluster… It’s really no different from a single shot rifle.”
Rifles are much more accurate at long range than muzzle-loading rifles, but that is less important in New England.
“In New Hampshire, where our antlers are quite thick, most hunters rarely get long range shots. … Current muzzle loaders are very accurate to within 100 meters or more, ”said Dan Bergeron, deer biologist and NH Fish and Game Department Hunting Program Supervisor.
“Most of the deer I have caught have been caught during the muzzleloading season,” he added.
As for bows, this ancient weapon has undergone even more changes over the past four decades.
“In the ’70s, if you were hunting with a bow, it was with a longbow or a recurve bow,” Beard said, referring to the types of bows used for millennia. “Today you have these compound bows. “
Compound bows use a pulley and cable lever system to help pull the string, allowing much more power to be exerted without more effort, and for the bow itself to be made stiffer and longer. coherent. Combined with sights and other technologies, they are much more effective.
Or you can even go further.
“I am 71 years old; I had shoulder surgery. I have a crossbow, ”Beard said. “I don’t like to use it… but it (shoots an arrow) at over 400 feet per second, and with the scope you can shoot an arrow at 100 yards.”
The growth in use contrasts with hunting as a whole, which has been in decline here and in the United States for decades. Since a peak in the late 1960s, the number of people licensed to hunt in New Hampshire has fallen by more than 40%, from around 99,000 to 55,000.
The decline has been attributed to many factors, primarily the increasing urbanization of society and the increase in competing outdoor and indoor activities. During pandemic closures, when people desperately sought out socially remote activities, the number of hunting licenses increased by around 10% last year to 60,000, although it is not clear whether the increase will be. will maintain. The number of fishing licenses sold last year increased again, by almost a third.
Over the past few decades, the number of people who purchase the state license or tag to hunt with a bow and arrow or muzzleloader rifle has increased from virtually nothing in the 1960s to between 25,000 and 30,000 muzzleloading licenses each year and approximately 20,000 archery tags by the turn of the millennium. Numbers have remained at this level for two decades even as total hunting declines.
Most of these different licenses go to the same people, i.e. muzzleloading and archery hunters are usually also rifle hunters. But hunters seem to spend more time, or at least get more results, with the old technology.
In 2020, 5,798 deer were killed by firearms compared to 3,785 by archery and 3,166 by muzzle loading.
For doe hunting, archery is by far the most effective method.
Even with new technology, it’s easier to catch a deer with a rifle, so if your goal is to quickly get game or a trophy, you’ll be avoiding the old ways. Hunters use them partly for the challenge but also because it prolongs the season.
Archery, which has the lowest success rate per hunting trip, has the earliest and longest deer season, starting September 15 and lasting two months. Muzzleloading comes next, starting in late October and spanning 10 days, while gun season does not begin until November 10 and lasts for about three weeks. Details vary depending on where you are in the state and whether you are looking for deer with or without antlers.
“I see it as an extra 10 days to be in the woods,” Beard said.
Getting out early is a different experience in many ways, and not just because of the warmer temperatures. There are more leaves on the trees, so it is more difficult to spot the game, but the deer have not been scared off by weeks of hunting, so they are more laid back in their ways. Males may still be in heat, which can make their baiting easier.
The cost of equipment and ammo is generally lower for muzzle and bow magazines, although a hunter can spend a fortune if they get carried away no matter what they use.
New Hampshire’s deer hunting seasons are adjusted annually by New Hampshire Fish & Game (the legislature did this decades ago, but the deer herd has plummeted and biologists have managed to wrest control). The goal is to keep a healthy herd. This is why hunters are now allowed to kill more deer in southern New Hampshire, where the herd is becoming a pest as much as part of the wild, especially in Rockingham County.
It is not clear whether changing hunter habits and improving technology will require larger changes in the future. In the meantime, be sure to wear a bit of bright orange clothing when heading into the woods through December.
(David Brooks can be reached at (603) 369-3313 or [email protected] or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)