by Phil Phillips - Thursday, February 4, 2021
This is a description of my first compound bow, a 60-pound Browning Compound Hunter. As hyped in the 1975 Browning catalog, it could shoot your arrow up to 50 percent faster than a recurve bow of equal draw weight, and at full draw it gave you a then-impressive 18 to 25 percent reduction on draw force for longer, steadier holds. Manufactured under Holless Wilbur Allen’s patent No. 3,486,495, it was equipped with an overdraw cutout on the back of the handle so you could use “slightly lighter, shorter arrows to achieve more speed.” Allen’s innovative pulley-and-cable design helped hunters of all physical statures get in the game as traditional bows had no let-off and required more strength to hold at full draw. So years later when I got a bow with 50 percent let-off, I thought that was really something.
Of course, with bow manufacturers driven by new technology, advancements eventually led to compound bow let-offs of 65, 80, 90 percent and more. But for decades, the topic of how much let-off and innovation in general should be permitted in the field has ignited contested debates between bowhunters and the state wildlife agencies that oversee hunting regulations. The issue of let-off was debated again in December when the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) regulation review committee proposed eliminating the state’s let-off regulation, which currently permits bow let-off up to 80 percent.
As reported by the Billings Gazette, the proposal was shot down in a 3-2 vote. Two MFWP commissioners supported it as did some state-based bowhunters, partly to aid hunters with shoulder injuries to continue to hunt. The other three commissioners and members of several hunting groups opposed it, including the Montana Bowhunters Association (MBA) after a poll of its members showed they were “overwhelmingly opposed” to the change.
Sharing his views opposing the regulation change was MFWC Chairman Shane Colton, who openly refers to his modern-day bow as being “more technologically advanced than the first Apollo mission.” “I think it’s important to recognize that we have a special season for archery for a reason, and it’s because we are hunting (elk) when they are most vulnerable,” he said. “With the advance of technology, it does get easier … but I do think there needs to be limits.”
In fact, the article noted that Colton would prefer to have the regulation move in the other direction, mandating less let-off. Of course, one may wonder how a wildlife law enforcement officer could determine let-off in the field to enforce such a rule.
So while being able to spend more time at full draw is let-off’s clear advantage, for now traditionalism in Montana prevails as many “Big Sky Country” bowhunters likely predicted. But either way, bowhunting is all about challenge, and success is no easy feat. Even in my home state of Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife boasts only a 10 percent success rate during bow season.
As for other bowhunting issues in Montana and across the country, the MBA also has squelched legislative attempts to permit the use of crossbows during archery season. The fact this particular issue is often more hotly debated than restrictions on the amount of let-off is due to the fact a key to success is getting close to the animal and going through the motion of drawing your bow without being seen. “The industry-driven technology creep is blurring the lines between archery equipment—bows and arrows—and crossbows and air guns,” said MBA President Steve LePage.
In my experience, as LePage noted, I think the real controversy does come in when people start comparing crossbows to traditional and compound bows. The one major difference between the two hunting methods is getting the bow to full draw once you see the animal vs. having a crossbow already drawn and locked that you only need to aim and shoot. I have undoubtedly lost more opportunities at mature big-game animals from being caught drawing my bow than by doing any other thing. But this is a debate for another day.
Background on the Let-Off Debate
Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the Pope and Young Club (P&Y) is the official repository for records of North American big game animals taken with a bow. In promoting bowhunting’s more primitive aspects, in the late 1980s, it decided that any game animal taken with a bow that had a let-off of more than 65 percent was not eligible for the P&Y record book. The intent was to set a limit on what met the criteria of a primitive hand-held, hand-drawn tool.
But Mathews, Hoyt, PSE and other bow makers of the era naturally were driven by innovation and consumer demand and continued to roll out bows with even higher let-off. Advance a few years to when I started my “Phil’s Bowhunting Adventures” guiding and outfitting operation in Colorado for antelope. Every year I had numerous P&Y members and bow and arrow manufacturers in camp, including many senior voting members as repeat clients. We would sit around the fire debating the use of bows with more than 65 percent let-off. My opinion always was that if it’s legal where you hunt, it should be okay to put the animal in the books.
In the early 2000s when I started hosting outdoor television, the let-off debate reached the point where P&Y had to find a solution. As founding editor of Bowhunter magazine and a past president of P&Y M.R. James noted on Bowsite.com, the club needed to accept the reality of a changing bowhunting world and that it was wrong to exclude legally licensed bowhunters and the animals they harvest. P&Y’s voting members finally eliminated the let-off rule but made a compromise. Big game animals killed with compound bows having let-offs of more than 65 percent would have an asterisk next to their scores. As the old saying goes, “You can’t stop progress … but you can help decide what is progress and what isn’t.” Fifteen years later you can click on websites such as Archery Talk to see how the debate continues.
Pros and Cons of Let-Off
For hunters who aren’t bowhunters, there is an easy way to explain let-off. If a traditional bow has a draw weight of 65 pounds, for example, it takes 65 pounds of force to pull back the string and keep the bow drawn while aiming and shooting. Compound bows aid the effort through what is referred to as let-off, expressed as a percentage, because bow cams and cables are designed to maintain the energy while decreasing the amount of weight that must be held at full draw. So in the case of Montana, which permits 80 percent let-off, a bowhunter will have an easier time holding the bow back longer while waiting for the precise shot opportunity. A heavier draw weight is important because, compared to a draw weight of say 45 pounds, the 65-pound bow will launch an arrow with greater force, maintain a better trajectory and lose less speed over longer yardages.
That said, a lot of bowhunters and target archers including myself will argue too much let-off makes a compound bow tougher to shoot accurately so there is a fine line regarding how much let-off is too much. I find that at much more than 70 percent, it gets spongy at full draw, causing it to be a little more difficult to keep a steady pull and ensure a smooth release. But in reality, while you can hold a higher percentage let-off bow longer, it certainly would never be practical or safe to sit in your treestand or walk through the woods with a bow at full draw.
How Popular is Bowhunting in Montana?
The Billings Gazette noted that MFWC data shows bowhunting is increasingly popular, in step with much of what we hunters hear in the rest of the country. In 1953, Montana issued archery stamps to 535 hunters. In 1973, the number reached 10,000-plus and increases annually. More than 53,000 bowhunters bought hunting licenses in 2020, 44,400 of them residents. Not only is bow season longer than other shunting seasons but it caters to those with an interest in modern-day technologies such as faster bows, smaller diameter carbon arrows and advances in broadheads that help us to shoot even more accurately at longer distances. But as noted earlier, skill remains the most essential element of all. Yes, technology only gets you so far.
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