By P.J. Reilly
With the flexibility to be used in several seasons, smokepoles are gaining ground on other firearms.
The hammer falls and a high-pitched crack melds into a thunderous boom. The crack-boom is mashed together, but it's clearly two separate sounds. White smoke then spews from the barrel, and the scent of sulfur hangs in the air.
Even if you're shooting the latest, ultra-modern model, there's something primitively magical about hunting deer with a muzzleloader. Perhaps it's the knowledge that you’ve realistically got only one shot to get the job done. Or maybe it’s the personal relationship we have with the powder, bullet and loading process.
It takes more to ready a muzzleloading rifle for duty than simply stuffing a cartridge into the chamber and closing the bolt.
You carefully measure how much loose powder, or how many pellets, to drop into the bore. Next you push a bullet or ball into the bore and work it all the way down the barrel with a ramrod. When your projectile hits the powder, you give just a little extra push on the rod to make sure it’s firmly seated. Satisfaction abounds.
I love muzzleloading, and so do many of you. According to the Quality Deer Management Association’s 2014 Whitetail Report, muzzleloading deer hunters across North America increased their take of the total deer harvest by 1 percent between 2002 and 2012. They claimed 13 percent of all deer in 2012, as compared to 12 percent in 2002.
So now you’re saying, “One percent? Big deal.”
Consider this: During that same period, rifle/shotgun hunters lost a significant amount of ground. In 2002, they claimed 73 percent of the total harvest. By 2012, that figure had dropped to 65 percent. Bowhunters, on the other hand, boosted their take from 15 percent in 2002 to 21 percent by 2012.
At least muzzleloader hunters didn’t lose any ground over that decade. And that 1 percent increase is continent-wide. In some states, the blackpowder harvest increased substantially.
In Iowa, for example, muzzleloader hunters claimed 13 percent of the state’s total deer kill in 2012 compared to 9 percent in 2002. And in Rhode Island, that figure jumped from 45 percent in 2002 to 51 percent in 2012. Half of all the deer shot in Rhode Island in 2012 were taken with muzzleloaders.
“We’ve seen a definite increase in muzzleloader use over the past decade,” said John Windau, wildlife communications specialist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. “As the technology has advanced and muzzleloaders have gotten more accurate and more resistant to weather, we’re seeing more of our hunters pick them up.”
Brian Stephens was carrying a muzzleloader on the opening day of Ohio’s 2009 firearms season when he spotted a monster buck on his family’s 180-acre farm in Highland County. In the afternoon, he shot that 18-point buck, which has a Buckmasters Trophy Records score of 2253/8. The Stephens buck ranks 18th in the Blackpowder Irregular category.
“In many instances, modern muzzleloaders are more accurate and have better range than shotguns,” Windau said.
When you look at the different blackpowder categories in the BTR record book, a couple of states jump out. These are the places we consider to be muzzleloader’s paradise.
The Hoosier State is the undisputed king for world-class blackpowder entries in the BTR, with 108 bucks across all categories. That’s more than any other state or Canadian province.
Among top-five positions, Indiana bucks hold three spots (Nos. 2, 4 and 5) in the perfect category, the No. 4 spot in the semi-irregular category, and Nos. 3 and 4 in the typical category.
Indiana offers hunters a 16-day firearms season beginning in mid-November, followed by a 16-day muzzleloading season that begins in early December, about a week after the firearms season closes. While Indiana is not a true shotgun-only state since some centerfire guns are allowed, many popular deer calibers, such as the .30-06 and 7mm magnum, are not legal. So it’s not surprising to see so many hunters carrying muzzleloaders during the regular firearms season.
About 60 percent of the top bucks were shot during the regular gun season, and the rest during the muzzleloading season.
Phil Bloom, communications director for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, theorized selectivity is the reason Indiana has been so productive for trophy bucks.
“We’re about 10 years into our program where hunters can take only one buck per season,” he said. “And what we’ve seen is hunters holding out for bigger bucks than they used to.”
The Sunflower State offers the rare opportunity to chase whitetails with a firearm when deer are still on their summer patterns. This year, Kansas’ muzzleloader season is scheduled for Sept. 15-28. That’s one of the earliest deer seasons in the country. Heck, many states that don’t even start bow seasons that early.
“The bucks often are still in their bachelor groups, and they’re on pretty predictable feeding and movement patterns,” said Lloyd Fox, big game program coordinator for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. “Our muzzleloader hunters are getting first crack.”
Kansas is one of the few states where most muzzleloader trophies are taken in the muzzleloading-only season. There aren’t a lot of hunters carrying muzzleloaders during the general gun season. Of the top 20 Kansas bucks taken with muzzleloaders in the BTR record book, all but one were shot during the muzzleloader season.
“Bucks are pretty visible around here in September, and there are no secrets,” Fox said. “We have a road just about every mile, and hunters have trail cameras in a lot of places in between.
“If there’s a big buck out there, somebody usually knows it and tries to take advantage of that early season to get after it.”
Gun hunters rule the Bluegrass State, claiming 73 percent of the harvest in 2012, according to QDMA. Kentucky is one of the few states where muzzleloader hunters bagged about as many deer as bowhunters in 2012.
In the BTR record book, Kentucky muzzleloader hunters own the Nos. 2, 9 and 19 spots in the irregular category, the Nos. 9, 10, 11 and 14 spots in the perfect category, and Nos. 11 and 20 spots among Typicals.
“We’ve got a good mix of ag and forest across the state,” said Gabe Jenkins, private lands deer biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Our deer numbers are fairly low, so there’s no overbrowsing and over-competition for food. That means we can grow big deer.”
Couple those facts with the rule that allows Kentucky deer hunters to take only one buck per year, and Jenkins said those hunters tend to be more selective in what they shoot.
For the muzzleloading crowd, Kentucky offers two hunts. This year, they will be Oct. 18-19 and Dec. 13-21. Although it lasts only two days, the early hunt seems to be a good one for taking big bucks. Nine of Kentucky’s top 20 bucks taken with a muzzleloader in the BTR record book were shot during October, including Troy Wilson’s monstrous 303 4/8-inch Irregular. Wilson tagged his trophy in 2001 in Gallatin County.
The Hawkeye State is where a then-15-year-old Tony Lovstuen used a muzzleloader to shoot the second largest buck ever taken by a hunter with any weapon. Lovstuen tagged his 319 4/8-inch brute in Monroe County on Sept. 30, 2003, during the state’s early youth season.
In the BTR book, there’s only one buck bigger than Lovstuen’s taken by a hunter. That one scored 321 7/8, and was shot by Tony Fulton with a rifle in Mississippi in 1995. Lovstuen’s buck is far and away the highest-scoring buck ever shot with a muzzleloader.
Iowa offers two muzzleloading deer seasons. The nine-day early hunt in mid-October is open only to state residents. The late season that runs from late December through early January, however, is open to all who manage to secure licenses.
“Our late season can get really cold,” said Tom Litchfield, deer project biologist with Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “When it gets down to single digits, our deer go into survival mode; that can bring the older, mature bucks out to feed while there’s still daylight.”
The Buckeye State holds the top muzzleloader spot in both the perfect and typical categories within the BTR record book. The No. 1 Perfect scored 172 5/8 and was shot by Dale Bevington in Miami County in 1996. That same year, Douglas Rhodus bagged the No. 1 Typical in Preble County. His buck scored 211 1/8.
Rhodus got his buck during Ohio’s late muzzleloader season. Bevington, on the other hand, shot his with a smokepole during the state’s general firearms season. Like Indiana, Ohio’s record bucks taken with muzzleloaders are pretty evenly split between the general gun season and the muzzleloader-only season.
The state offers a seven-day general firearms season in early December, followed by a four-day muzzleloader-only hunt in early January. According to Windau, Ohio has seen a shift in hunter tactics over the past decade, which has partially led to increased interest and participation in the state’s late muzzleloader hunt.
“With all the trail cameras out there, people know what’s on their properties,” he said. “It used to be that you went out and pushed the woodlots to find out what’s out there. Now, hunters already know, so they sit in stands just so they don’t push a big buck off their land.”
Hunting that way, if they don’t bag that trophy buck during the short gun season, they are likely to head out for the muzzleloader hunt, Windau said.
One of the most heart-pounding experiences you can have in the woods is waiting for the thick cloud of smoke to clear after you’ve taken a shot at a big buck with a muzzleloader.
In reality, it only takes a second or two for that smoke to dissipate. But in your mind, it will feel like an eternity. Get in on the excitement this year. Grab a smokepole and head to muzzleloader’s paradise.
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This article was published in the September 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.