MINNEAPOLIS - Scott Talbot hunkered in the northern Minnesota woods Saturday near Park Rapids, compound bow in hand, hoping to glimpse the flash of a whitetail.
He was alone on the Minnesota archery deer season opener.
And yet he wasn’t.
Talbot, 64, of Elk River, is among 100,000 Minnesota hunters who will try to bag a deer this fall using a bow and arrow. That’s 20 percent of the state’s half-million deer hunters.
“I love the outdoors, and if you want to spend more time in the woods, archery gives you that opportunity,” Talbot said.
No kidding. The archery deer season runs Sept. 15 to Dec. 31 - 3 months. In comparison, the regular firearms deer season is nine to 16 days, depending on the area.
“You have the longest season of all the big game seasons, you’ve got an opportunity to hunt while the weather is warmer, and it’s something anyone can do,” Talbot said, explaining archery’s appeal. “You experience nature up close and personal. And it’s challenging.”
Plus, he said: “It’s something you can do the rest of your life. You can’t play hockey or football forever.”
Archery is riding a popularity wave that has swelled steadily over the past 60 years, boosted recently by favorable portrayals of archers in TV shows and movies - including “The Hunger Games” blockbuster film and book series.
“Right now, probably more than any time in history, archery has gotten so much positive PR,” said Jay Johnson, hunter recruitment and retention coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources and an avid archery deer hunter.
Minnesota’s archery deer license sales climbed from 1,700 in 1951, to 17,000 in 1971, to 71,000 20 years later. Sales topped 100,000 for the first time in 2010 and 2011. About one-third of those hunt only with archery equipment, while the rest also hunt deer with a firearm.
And the DNR’s National Archery in the Schools Program, in which schools receive grants for archery equipment, training and curriculum to teach kids the sport, has ballooned from 20,000 youths in 2004 to more than 150,000 last year.
“We have some really great opportunities for youths to get involved in the outdoors,” said Talbot, who promotes youth archery as a member of the North Country Bowhunters Chapter of Safari Club International. He’s also on the board of directors of the group and is a regional representative.
“The key is to catch them young before they get hooked on electronics,” he added.
Meanwhile, youth deer archery license sales have risen from 3,700 in 2003 to 10,000 last year.
“It’s an important and growing part of our hunter base, and we want it to continue to grow,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that the Archery in the Schools Program has probably helped fuel the growth, but there are other factors.
“Being able to bow hunt close to home and the metro areas, the 3-month season and the ease of use of modern bow-hunting equipment all are factors,” he said.
Also helping was a high deer population that spurred the DNR to liberalize bag limits.
“That allowed people to take multiple deer, so a gun hunter could also shoot a deer with a bow,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager.
But with the deer population now down and bag limits more conservative, many hunters will be able to shoot just one deer this year. Given that a rifle or shotgun gives them a better shot at putting venison on the table, Merchant wonders if some archers will chose to hunt with a firearm, instead.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if archery sales are down this year,” he said.
Archery deer hunters shoot about 20,000 deer yearly - about 10 percent of the deer harvested. Their 17 percent success rate in recent years is about half that of firearms deer hunters.
Archers help control a burgeoning metro deer herd.
“They are critical in urban hunts,” where firearms can’t safely be used, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager.
“The vast majority of deer harvested in the metro area are by archery hunters.”
Meanwhile, Talbot enjoys the solitude in the woods now, compared to November.
“I don’t have to fight the crowds,” he said.