There was a time when the average archer couldn't hit the proverbial bull in the butt, not if given a dozen arrows at 20 paces.



But thanks to advances in gear over the last couple of decades, compound bows can be nearly as accurate as scope-sighted rifles within the limits of their range, and archery and crossbow hunting has taken off like no other hunting sport.



The Panhandle bow/crossbow season re-opens Nov. 26-30 for bucks only. But it’s only with the coming of cooler weather in November that most hunters get serious; it’s no fun sitting in a tree stand sweating and trying not to swat at mosquitoes.



The cooler weather also puts the deer on the move—they seem to dislike exertion in the heat as much as we do, but as soon as a few 40-degree nights arrive—as they have recently away from the beach—it’s game on. Deer feed mostly at night, even in cooler weather, but they’re almost entirely nocturnal until the mornings and evenings become comfortable for moving around in their hair-suits.



Archers get first crack at the herds, which increases the chance of success; the animals are at the peak of yearly abundance, they’re unspooked, and they won’t be rattled by the steady crack of rifles that begins with the gun season. Add to that there’s only a fraction of the pressure that takes place when the regular season is underway, without the steady roar of four-wheel-drive trucks and ATV’s to run all the deer into Georgia.



Modern archery gear is good, to be sure. It includes peep sights, range-finders, string mufflers, stabilizers and dozens of other gizmos to turn Joe Sixpack into Robin Hood. One amazingly helpful device is the trigger release, a rig that fits over thumb and wrist, grips the string, and allows the shooter to squeeze off the shot with a small trigger just as in a rifle — it adds hugely to accuracy for most archers.



And crossbows function very much like a rifle once the “bolt” or arrow is in place and the weapon is cocked. But even the best "tackle" requires plenty of repetitive training shots to be sure it does what it's supposed to.



Since bows depend on muscle power, and since it takes between 50 and 70 pounds of pull at "break-over" to draw a standard hunting bow, it used to be a strong man’s game. Fortunately, modern compounds have considerable let-off in the effort needed to hold at full draw due to a system of cams, cables and pulleys; mechanics make it possible for just about any adult to draw and hold a bow with a nominal draw of 60 pounds.



But it still requires strength, practice, and calm nerves to hold steady enough to aim accurately. Many successful archers shoot daily for at least a month prior to the season to prepare — and the best practice is from the elevated stand you’ll hunt from. The angles from an overhead shot make an arrow fly very differently from the way it travels when shot at ground level, so it pays to put the tree stand up in the back yard and shoot from there for several weeks — a couple dozen arrows per day do the job once you’ve had a bit of experience.



Because most bowmen must get within about 25 to 30 yards of their quarry for an accurate shot, many go years without bagging a deer or hog. Being in a stand when an animal wanders close enough for a shot often requires endless patience, days or weeks in the woods, and the ability to remain still and silent for hours on end.



And putting the stand in the right place is a real art. Expert archers take into account bedding and feeding routes, prevailing winds, natural “funnels” that direct deer on a particular path, perhaps between two ridges or through an opening in a fence. It’s a fascinating chess game, and one, which the hunter loses more often than he wins — but it’s also addictive.



To the advantage of bowhunters, they're allowed to take does as well as bucks for most of the season. Since most deer herds have a lot more does than bucks, the either-sex rule helps a lot of hunters bring home venison.



Florida, like every southern state, has a very strong whitetail herd these days thanks to decades of tight hunting regulation. The Game Commission estimates deer numbers here at about 750,000. Wild hogs are thought to number at least 400,000 — and the commission wishes there were none because hogs, an exotic species here, tear up the woods and ruin habitat for other animals. The numbers for both species have been steady for the last 10 years.



Neighboring states, which draw many Florida archers, are over-run with deer. Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are each thought to harbor close to one million animals, and game managers there report that the hunting harvests has not been able to keep up with the increasing herds. In some areas, the animals eat themselves out of food during late winter.



While fewer than 20 percent of bowmen are likely to bring home an animal of any kind, bowhunting converts more gun hunters every year. It extends the season, and many sportsmen believe that the demands of archery make them better all-around hunters later in the year.



For full details on archery regulations, visit the FFWCC website at www.myfwc.com.