Bowhunting for Roebuck in the rut is far more complicated than it seems

Story and photos by Stefaan Rothier

really left the stage. Not only indigenous hunters to this day still use the bow, but a new generation of ethical hunters are pursuing their quarry with its modern versions. These bows made with cutting edge materials and technologies are besides being highly accurate, powerful enough to pass through an African buffalo. An American trend with a matching growing industry that followed, it didn’t take long to hit the European mainland. France, Finland were one of the first nations which regulated the use of bow and arrow. Nowadays there are more European countries with legal forms of bowhunting than there are where it isn’t allowed yet. And numbers are growing. Bowhunting in Belgium’s Wallonia happened overnight. A loophole in the hunting legislative texts, “hunting by shooting” does not exclude by definition bowhunting, making it possible to legally use a bow and arrow. An estimate average of 1500 bowhunters in a total of 15.000 hunters are bowhunting in Belgium. This year the government made a slight change to the rules by excluding the bow on driven hunts. Since a bow is not really suited for fast travelling game, this was a good decision. There are no extra licenses or courses if you want to bowhunt in Wallonia. You have to pass your hunting course and tests and those are done with rifle and shotgun, but that’s about it. Flanders has yet to follow. The main issue here is that all legal hunting tools are described in the Flemish hunting directives, making changing or adding tools, such as a bow a political matter. Together with some friends we are currently lobbying to get things legalised.

For me, as for a lot of other fellow bowhunters, it’s the close proximity that makes bowhunting so intriguing. Average shot distances range well under 30m and shots from less than 15m are pretty common. That being said, it takes a whole set of skills besides knowing how to shoot your bow, another great reason why a lot of hunters change from the sureness of the rifle to the handicap of the bow. Besides a very safe hunting weapon, the bow doesn’t make a lot of noise, so animals are less scared off compared to the shot of a rifle. Some less informed might think this makes it a perfect tool for poachers, but this is far from the truth. Difficult to use at night or almost impossible from a car, it takes training and it has the potential to leave a lot of evidence. Poachers need something small and quick, easy to use and easy to hide, most of the time these are small calibre rifles with silencer and scopes with even night vision. In Belgium and France, it’s rare to almost non-existent, cases where poaching was related to the use of bow and arrow.

Almost all game species are being successfully hunted with bow and arrow. But for me, roe deer is the perfect game animal to hunt with bow and arrow.

 Every hunter that goes after roebucks and who has a selective game management plan, knows that this is a full time job. Those who venture out unprepared, the first day of the season, will not see a living soul, let alone a roebuck in their prime. A good hunter who gets his buck has to find the balance between career, family and hunting. It’s not only the countless hours stalking or in the stand, but also the times scouting off season, checking and changing trail cameras and going through tactics and strategies on long evenings and short nights. If you make the conscious decision to go after roebucks with bow and arrow, you will have to come to terms with the limits this offers but there also lies the challenges we pursue as fair chase and ethical hunters.

For me the ball starts rolling in May, when roebuck season opens on the first of the month. Most of the roe deer will start moving to feed and bucks will start cruising their territories. It’s also the perfect time to select smaller bucks that don’t have potential so you can remove them from the gene pool before they get a chance to breed. Since you’re hunting and covering a lot of ground, it gives you an idea where the females are and this will eventually lead to a big buck. I had enough encounters from a fixed treestand looking over a meadow and equal good opportunities when stalking the ferns and oak forest but besides a clean miss, I couldn’t seem to bag a roebuck. And trust me I tried hard.  By the end of the month I had enough intel to prepare a game plan. On one occasion I could video a fairly decent buck but with low light conditions I couldn’t really make out specific treats. The season closes end of May and reopens the 15th of July, which is just before the rutting starts. The rut is something special and most years it all comes down to a 2-3-day window where big bucks will lose their wit chasing females. Too hot and the action will move to the middle of the night, too wet and the does will lose interest all together. But when you are in the right spot and the right time, things will appear magical. Calling bucks is another skill and most of the time this works for small bucks since the big guys smell a fake from miles away. They don’t grow big by being dumb. In the last days of the rut. It’s frustrating at times, battling the hours ticking away, knowing that your chances are dwindling away with every day the rut gently is ebbing away. So after doing a lot of stalking and calling with some younger bucks coming in, I changed to the treestand in the last moments of rutting activity. Older and mature bucks will use these last moments to catch maybe a female more and sometimes that makes them just a little less aware of their surroundings. So, you reduce calling and waiting is the way to go.

And on what I presumed to be the last day of the rut, a buck with the features of the one I caught on camera beginning of the season, steps out in the clearing in front of my stand. A short whistle, mimicking a fawn calling it’s mother, is enough to move him into bow range. 30m he turns broadside and my arrow, in a graceful arch, disappears in his vitals. Startled, not really knowing what just happened, he jumped a few meters from the spot, dropping down. Hunting is a game of highs and lows and after all the work you have put in, the sense of accomplishment outweighs the many times of despair you sometimes felt. A clean shot offers no loss of venison what so ever and most butchers would rather process game shot with a hunting arrow than a high-speed rifle calibre. The protein from a free-range animal is just an added bonus for my family and me.

From the beginning my friends and I got involved in the bowhunting culture and we started up a bowhunting organisation. It has become one of the most complete platforms for everyone who is seeking information and education regarding bowhunting. Our federation has several instructors who teach IBEP (International Bowhunters Education Program) classes to anyone who wants to learn the basics on bowhunting.

Since a lot of Belgian hunters end up bowhunting in France we have had very good contacts with the French bowhunting federation from the start. They gave us the opportunity to become official JFO instructors, JFO (Journée de Formation Obligatoire or mandatory bowhunting course). And besides the IBEP we now, since several years, have been teaching this course in English to an international audience of avid bowhunters.

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