White-tailed deer and wild turkeys are the two most commonly hunted species in North America, but plenty of other game animals roam the country. In fact, there are 29 recognized species of big-game animals, from elk and moose to mule deer and bears, and plenty of small-game species, too, like squirrels, rabbits, grouse and pheasants. In many places there are also offseason bowhunting opportunities. Matt Zirnsak, co-owner of The Push Archery, said bowhunting year-round has multiple benefits.
“I know a lot of bowhunters in my circle don’t touch their bows after the big-game season comes to a close,” he said. “Bowhunting small game or invasive species keeps you and your equipment sharp through the offseason. It helps hone your skills, like stalking and still-hunting, not to mention shooting. Shooting at the smaller animals and targets makes aiming at a deer so much easier. Everyone should branch out into bowhunting other species.”
Zirnsak is 37 and has 15 years of bowhunting experience. Like most bowhunters he primarily hunts deer and turkeys, but he branched out into bowhunting hogs, sika deer, rabbits, squirrels and groundhogs, and he hasn’t looked back.
“What I like most about hunting these oddball species is most of the time the bag limits are large, the game numbers are plentiful, hunting hours are pretty liberal, and the days and dates that the seasons are open make it really easy to sneak out and get a quick hunt in wherever you can fit it into your schedule,” he said.
Zirnsak found groundhogs offer the best bowhunting opportunities near his home base in western Pennsylvania. There, they’re considered a nongame nuisance species, so the state doesn’t have a bag limit on them and they’re available to shoot year-round, except for a short span between Nov. 27 to Dec. 12.
There’s a learning curve when hunting any new species, so be patient. For example, Zirnsak said groundhogs have incredible eyesight. He was also amazed by their use of vocalizations, their hibernation cycles, how they use trees for lookout perches, and how paranoid they get after they’ve been pressured for a while.
What was most surprising to Zirnsak about groundhog hunting with his traditional archery equipment was how much he liked it.
“One of the biggest things (I didn’t realize) is how worked up I can get when drawing my bow back on a groundhog after I low-crawled for 20 minutes to get within range,” he said. “I never thought I’d be so passionate about groundhog hunting during the offseason, but it works me up. I get all shaken up and stuff; it’s great.”
Zirnsak is proof you might enjoy something in person a lot more than you think you will when you’re reading about it on paper. In other words, keep an open mind and don’t limit your options based on preconceived notions. Remember, bowhunting other species allows you to extend your hunting season, improve or maintain your archery skills, and learn more about the land you’re hunting.
Ready to embark on a new bowhunting adventure? Visit your state wildlife agency’s website to check season dates and bag limits for animals in your area. Zirnsak recommends taking your time and scrolling through the list slowly to view your options. Then, once you have a few species in mind to pursue, he suggests knocking on doors to ask for hunting permission.
“Here in the East, I’ve found that local farmers and landowners will allow access on their properties if you’re asking for permission to hunt small game or invasive species way more readily than big game,” he said. “Once you have your foot in the door, the chances of you getting permission to hunt big game is a whole lot greater.”
Aha! Yet another benefit to bowhunting other game animals. Visit your local pro shop for equipment and hunting tips. And share your bowhunting adventures on the Bowhunters United Facebook page. Good luck!