Subscribe for 99 cents

JEFFERSON COUNTY • Some say shooting a deer with an arrow is a sacred experience because it’s primitive, a method that takes brute strength. The animals need to be scouted, then drawn in so close even a leaf crunch will spook them.

Others describe bow hunting in desperate terms.

“It’s a freaking sickness, an addiction,” said Austin Eaves, 32, a machinist from Hillsboro. “Kind of like golf.”

The slightest tweak in technique can make a huge difference in success. It’s a discipline that has earned a certain reverence among hunters. So much so that during Missouri’s unofficial holiday — deer season — bow hunters are granted early access to the herd, weeks before firearms season begins on Nov. 12.

Now, a game changer has arrived, courtesy of the Department of Conservation.

For the first time, the masses are allowed to use crossbows during archery season. The change has brought new energy to bow season, even while giving pause to the purists.

+2 
Deer find a haven at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery

A buck jumps into the brush when visitors get too close at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2014. Deer hide in the woods during the day and come out as the sun goes down. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

Crossbows are held like rifles. The devices fire arrow-like projectiles called bolts, some at 350 feet per second or more. There’s a scope and trigger. The drawstring can be cranked back and stay cocked for hours, ready to fire at any moment like a firearm.

“I am not going to call it cheating to use a crossbow, but there is arguably less skill involved,” said Josh Utt, 23, a salesman at Dunn’s Sporting Goods in Pevely, which has been selling crossbows like crazy this year.

There’s anything from a $350 clunker to a $2,000 “Vapor” that has a carbon fiber barrel. The middle of the line, a “Lady Shadow,” with pink camouflage stock, signals that scruffy men aren’t the only ones playing.

Crossbows have also splashed into pop culture, thanks to “The Walking Dead,” a television show in which a main character uses the weapon to slay zombies.

“Some of your diehard bow hunters have mixed feelings, but it’s a good thing,” said Nathan Dunn, of the same sporting goods store in his family’s name that dates to 1958. “It’s definitely getting more people in the woods.”

That’s not including Chance Gotsch, 17, of Festus. He recently had a compound bow fixed that he’s had since he was 14 and is using it again this year.

“I like being more involved, pulling it back,” he said.

His father, however, is leaning the other direction.

“I don’t have the patience to be proficient with a compound bow like he does,” said Tom Gotsch, 54. “He practices [pretty much] every day.”

Missouri deer biologist Barbara Keller said crossbows had been allowed beforehand for people with physical limitations. About 10,000 hunters make a medical case to use a crossbow each year.

“We just want to remove that hurdle for hunters to participate in archery season, especially as our hunter age is increasing,” Keller said.

Archery accounted for 18 percent of the 274,500 deer harvested in Missouri last season, a rate that is growing.

Keller said Missouri was following the momentum of 25 other states that already allow crossbows during archery season for everyone. She said it was unclear why kill rates aren’t dramatically different between the two methods.

For instance, in Wisconsin, crossbows first came into play in 2014. That year, 113,293 crossbow hunters killed 26,891 deer, for a rate of 23.7 percent. Meanwhile, 232,629 bow hunters killed 54,810 deer, for a rate of 23.6 percent. One year later, crossbow hunters there had only a slightly better edge.

There are skeptics.

“What about the wounded rate?” asked avid bow hunter Jeremy Mason, 39, of northwestern Missouri. “There’s no way of tracking that. How many animals were shot and not successfully harvested?”

Unless deer are hit in the heart or lungs with an arrow, injured animals can run for miles and get secondary infections. Because crossbows are cocked and ready, Mason said, more shots are probably being fired at deer.

“People that have those things think they can shoot farther at an animal, and you start getting into the ethics,” he said.

The Missouri Bowhunters Association tried to keep crossbows out of archery season.

“We were opposed to it because we are mainly just an archery club and didn’t feel like it was true archery,” said Bill Brookshier, 66, a longtime member of the association.

He said the association supported allowing crossbows for older adults and people with handicaps, but “big money” opened it up.

“They sell a zillion more tags, and the Bass Pros and Cabela’s, all of them, they wanted to sell products,” he said.

Hunting is already a massive industry in Missouri, one often hidden from view to residents in the state’s large metropolitan areas.

Nearly 1.3 million deer permits are acquired in Missouri each year — thousands more than the number of votes President Barack Obama got in the Show-Me State last election. Officials estimate that deer hunting contributes $1 billion to the state and local economy through the purchase of gear, licenses, lodging, fuel and food.

Bow hunting gear constitutes just a part of that industry. Still, new equipment constantly hits the market that makes bows quieter, faster and easier to pull back and hold for a clear shot.

Change is happening quickly, similar to when traditional bow hunters were tempted by the widespread availability of compound bows, which are more powerful and easier to hold back than traditional bows.

Nelson Scherrer, 67, chief of Jefferson County Bowmen, is a new convert. Last weekend when a deer got close, he struggled to pull back his compound bow. He started to shake while holding back the drawstring.

He missed the deer. Soon he was on the way to Dunn’s Sporting Goods with about $1,000 to spend.

“My mind was made up when I went there,” Scherrer said. “I finally had to give in.”

There are still primitive options available.

An atlatl, a lever-like device used to throw a light spear by hand, is allowed during any of Missouri’s various deer seasons, which collectively run from Sept. 15 to Jan. 15.

Dunn’s doesn’t sell them.

Jesse Bogan is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.