Lighted Nocks and Wounding

Sponsored by: HECS STEALTHSCREEN, IMB OutfittersCobra Archery, Heartland Wildlife Institute, ATSKO


By: Dr. Dave Samuel

Recently some bowhunters in Washington tried to get lighted nocks legalized there. They are legal in most states, but not Colorado, Oregon, or Washington where no electronics are allowed in hunting. The Pope and Young Club also does not allow animals taken with lighted nocks or other electronic devices to be entered in their records.

This column is not about whether one likes or uses such nocks or not. I’ve not used them, but I know some that do and like them. Understand the purpose here is not to question your use of such nocks or whether they should be legal. The purpose is to question the horse they rode in on in Washington. The major supporter in Washington, a bowhunter, cited the fact that bowhunters there may lose 2-3 percent of the animals they hit and lighted nocks may reduce that. I’ll come back to this in a minute but let’s look at the history of the bow wounding issue.

You don’t hear much about bow wounding any more, but years ago, in the 1980’s and early 90’s, it was a major issue. Back then I served as Vice President of the American Archery Council, a committee of representatives from all major archery, shooting, and bowhunting organizations in the world. In the early 80’s the Council started getting letters and calls from bowhunters having to deal with antihunting situations, so we formed the Professional Wildlife Management Committee to provide answers to those questions. I chaired that committee from 1986-2003 and my first order of business was to chose people to serve on the committee. Our criteria to serve on that committee was that you; (1) were a wildlife biologist, working for a state wildlife agency (though we did have 3 professors on the committee), (2) were a bowhunter and (3) had a special knowledge about antihunting issues.

This photo shows a Firenock to the target.

I’ve served on a lot of committees during my life, but this one was the most exciting, energetic and knowledgeable group with which I have ever worked. The members (over those 18 years) included: Jay McAninch, deer biologist from Minnesota; Keith McCaffery, deer biologist with the state of Wisconsin, Lonnie Hanson and Eric Kurzejeski, deer and turkey biologists, Missouri; Herman Griese, wildlife biologist, Alaska; Dwight Guynn, wildlife biologist, Montana; Lee Gladfelter, wildlife biologist, Iowa; Bob McDowell, wildlife biologist, New Jersey; Ken Mayer, wildlife biologist, California; Howard Kilpatrick, wildlife biologist, Connecticut; Ben Peyton, wildlife professor, Michigan State University; Robert Warren, wildlife professor, University of Georgia.

What a committee. Jay McAninch went on to run the Congressional Sportsman’s Foundation and now is head of the Archery Trade Association. Keith McCaffery realized that the terminology on wounding was a mess (anti hunters and scientists referred to “cripple” losses, but seldom do arrows “cripple”, so via scientific papers given or published our committee got the terminology of “bow wounding” used). Lee Gladfelter was killed in an auto accident on his way to a bowhunt, and the Pope and Young Club now memorializes Lee via their top Conservation Award. Ken Mayer is now head of the Nevada wildlife agency. Howard Kilpatrick is the most knowledgeable scientist on using bows in urban situations to control deer. Bob Warren is extremely knowledgeable on using contraceptives, and the Humane Society of the United States commonly tells citizens to use contraception rather than bowhunting to control urban deer. Under Bob’s leadership, our committee showed wildlife agencies that contraception just doesn’t work. No state uses them to control deer though the HSUS still says it works. Sorry. Only in very small areas or pens.

Back to wounding. Back in the 1970’s few state biologists were bowhunters. Most were bird hunters. So, in the early 1980’s when the HSUS said that 80 percent of all deer shot with an arrow went off and died a slow and painful death, our committee was concerned. As bowhunters and biologists, we knew this was poppycock. But some state biologists (not bowhunters) bought into that data. So, in a state like Michigan where bowhunters shot 100,000 deer a year, there would be an additional 80,000 deer left in the woods. At least that is what HSUS said. And the general public didn’t know any better so wounding with arrows became a major problem for the future of bowhunting. Anytime any state tried to implement an urban hunt, or any new deer hunting program, all you read in the newspaper was that there was an 80 percent cripple loss. Wrong terminology, wrong information.

Our committee spent two years designing a study to get the real answers on wounding. Over $200,000 was raised (much of that from archery clubs, etc.) and with Jay McAninch handling the field work at the Camp Ripley National Guard training area in Minnesota, and me handling the Master’s Degree training of the students at West Virginia University, the thermal imaging data were collected. The end result was that finally we had good, solid, data showing that bow wounding losses were very low; not the 80 percent touted by HSUS—not even close. We gave papers on this at major wildlife conferences, and the state agencies bought into our data because it was real science.

And that ended the bow wounding issue. The HSUS and other antis still talk about it and we knew from the get go that they’d never use our data relative to bow wounding. But the agencies that set the regulations understood that a loss of 2-5 deer per every hundred taken was not a biological issue. This doesn’t mean that we ignore wounding. No bowhunter ever wants to wound an animal; no automobile driver does either; no one wants to wound animals. But, it happens.

OK, that brings us to the Washington situation. In part because of the wounding issue, the state bowhunter organization there supported legalizing lighted nocks as did a state coalition of hunting organizations. In essence then, the bowhunters out there, at least some, were saying to anyone who would listen, we wound too many deer and can reduce that with lighted nocks.

My response is maybe yes, maybe no. There are no data. It would take a half million dollars and a major study to determine if lighted nocks reduce wounding loss. Even then, I’m not sure it could be done. Let’s say you lose 2-3 percent of all animals shot in Washington with bows, and let’s just say that lighted nocks would cut that in half (remember though, we have no such science to show that), but even so, you really haven’t done much.

Let me be very clear on this. I am not saying we should not use lighted nocks. I am saying that using the wounding issue as the justification for using lighted nocks doesn’t help bowhunting. Lighted nocks may reduce wounding, but some say they may cause bowhunters to shoot when it is too dark and maybe this increases bow wounding. Who knows?

Use them if you like them and if they are legal. Have fun with them—they do appear to be interesting on the TV hunting shows. But don’t start up the bow wounding issue to justify their use, because in the end, you can’t win with the public. “See, you have to use electronics to recover your game.”

How did this all end up in Washington? The Game Commissioners turned down the request to legalize lighted nocks there and apparently the question of bow wounding was part of the reason for that denial. In addition, they still don’t want electronic devices used in hunting seasons. No electronic duck decoys, no lighted nocks, no electronics.