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Muzzleloader Lessons

Muzzleloader Lessons

Hunting open-country deer with an inline rifle can be a humbling experience.

By Ralph M. Lermayer

Northwestern Kansas is crop country. To the drive-by observer, it’s nothing but flat, tilled fields of corn, milo and wheat stretching from horizon to horizon. What you don’t easily see are the canyons, bluffs and rolling hills hidden amongst that prime farm country. Breaks and canyon lands that create ideal deer cover near endless feed is a formula guaranteed to grow 
big deer.

Over the last five years, I’ve had three opportunities to hunt whitetails or mule deer with a muzzleloader in this area, possibly the finest deer hunting country in the states. In each case, the hunt was a unique adventure that taught this longtime muzzleloader hunter a valuable lesson. I’ll share both the adventures and the lessons with you.

Both mule deer and whitetails inhabit the north Kansas farm country, and the technique for hunting them varies. Whitetails tend to favor the river bottoms and heavily timbered brush pockets, although the chances of spotting one out on the flats is high, since, like the local mule deer, they travel to and from bedding areas to the standing or cut crop fields to feed. Hunting in stands or blinds is the most effective technique if a mature whitetail is your goal.

My passion is big mule deer, and for them, it’s a classic spot-and-stalk game. Cruising the country in a four-wheel-drive truck and making ample use of binoculars and spotting scopes is the best technique for locating big muley bucks. Once located, it’s park and hike to get within range.

A Shot Too Late

Getting on top of a high rise before first light, pulling your warm clothes close, pouring hot coffee and glassing through the open windows is a typical hunting scenario in northwestern Kansas. On this day, temperatures outside were hovering near zero as the sun began to creep over the horizon. Isolated groups of deer began to appear as the light allowed, some singles, some groups, but mostly does, moving from feeding areas to the bluff and canyon country to bed. Here and there, I spotted headgear, some fair, but mostly juveniles and younger 4x4s — nothing worth a hard pursuit.

I had thousands of acres to cover, and almost everything I could see from that high vantage was within my boundaries. Almost is the key, since one quarter-section (160 acres) of privately held bottomland was off limits. In that quarter, several does and two very respectable bucks — one an exceptional non-typical — were engaged in rutting action under a grove of trees. I spent an hour of precious first light waiting and hoping they would leave. Apparently there for the long haul, they bedded, so I fired up the truck and headed for the canyon country.

The day delivered two unsuccessful stalks and one dumb miss at less than 30 yards. I’d found shootable bucks, but nothing in the class of those forbidden private-land deer. Cold and tired, I began driving off the property with the sun setting and only 40 minutes of legal hunting time left, enough to allow me to hunt as I drove out.

As I slowly passed the last terraced field of cut milo on the edge of the property, a small group of deer passed in front of me, heading for the terraces. The big non-typical was bringing up the rear. I bailed out of the truck and hustled for about 500 yards to try to get ahead of them. I kneeled behind a clump of brush and waited. The light was fading fast, but eventually he appeared, topping the terraces about 150 yards away.

His broadside silhouette and my fading crosshairs merged, and my .45-caliber Winchester X-150 sent a 300-grain conical his way. I heard a reassuring thwack, and he went over the top. I waited, but within minutes, the light was gone. Decision time. Not knowing where he was hit, I had to decide if I should grab the flashlight to go after him and risk pushing him into the next county. Or should I let him lay, stiffen up, and return at first light? It was 200 yards to the top of the terrace, and I had no idea what lay beyond. I chose to wait, which led to an agonizing and sleepless night.

At first light, I topped the rise and found my buck just yards over the top. I wasn’t the only one that had located him. Coyotes had devoured both hindquarters. Several ran off as I approached. Another 30 minutes and my trophy, as well as the rest of my meat, would have been lost.

Lesson: It’s the rare muzzleloader shot that drops an animal in its tracks. Most move off a bit. Unless you’re absolutely sure of where your bullet will strike, avoid last-light shots with a muzzleloader. Anything but a perfect shot can result in lost and wounded game. I was lucky, but I’ll take no more “hope and pray” shots without some tracking light, or at least enough light to determine where the animal is hit.

The better way: That buck had been in the area all day. In the fading light, I should have let the bunch go and tried to find them the next day. Chances were good they’d still be there and provide a better shot.

A Shot Too Far

I was a mile away when I saw them. The 60x spotting scope showed several deer, including what appeared to be one very respectable buck leaving the flats and heading up to bed down at the base of some tall bluffs. With the sheer vertical walls of the bluff at their back and a panoramic view of everything below for miles, they could feel secure. Nothing could reach them without them knowing about it.

Muzzleloader LessonsI knew that bluff and that I could drive to an area behind it. Hiking about a mile from there would get me to the top. With luck, I could pop out on the back end of the bluff, ease across the top and shoot almost straight down at the bedded deer. About two hours later, I topped the bluff’s back end. Three hundred flat, coverless and very windy yards separated me from the southern edge, under which they should have been bedded. I capped the T/C Pro Hunter, shed my pack and eased toward the other end. I thought I was being quiet, had a howling wind in my favor, but never made it to edge before they somehow busted me.

Below me, on the flats to the west, running away in a straight line, were a dozen deer. In the middle was the buck I was after. I dropped to my knees, pulled out my shooting sticks and put the crosshair a deer’s length in front of his nose. They were more than 200 yards out. At the shot, he fell, but he was not finished. His legs were trying to gain a foothold. I reloaded, ran to the edge as close as I could get and shot again. I missed. The buck was down but not out. I needed to get closer — fast!

I found a very precarious hand-over-hand way off the bluff, all the while trying to keep him in sight. Finally, at about 100 yards, I was able to put another bullet in to finish him. My first shot, an amateurish Hail Mary, had just barely hit the spine. Only dumb luck delivered that magnificent buck. I could easily have wounded and lost that trophy.

Lesson: While today’s muzzleloaders are capable of accurate long shots, never take them at anything but a still target, off a solid rest, and only when you’re reasonably sure of where your bullet will hit. Running shots are iffy at best, and I was foolish to attempt it.

The better way: From my high vantage, I should have watched them until they stopped and most likely bedded down again. Knowing where they were bedded would have given me a good chance at a less-frenzied shot.

A Shot Too Close

Opening morning had me welcoming the rising sun high on a ridgetop. An hour of intense glassing showed nothing worth pursuing, so I fired up the truck and headed for another glassing area on the far side of the ranch. Topping a rise overlooking a flat basin that bordered a series of canyon tops, I spotted a large herd, about 20 deer, mostly does, about a half-mile off. With the mob were two very respectable bucks. More than 20 sets of eyes were intensely staring at my pickup. I waited, not leaving the truck, salivating the more I looked over those two bucks. They were huge.

They had the canyon tops at their back, me in the front and basin country on both sides. The stare-fest lasted for over 20 minutes, and then the bunch began to move off to my right. The two bucks peeled off and dropped into the head end of a canyon that fell off to some open country below. While the does moved off, one of the two bucks kept his head above the canyon wall, staring at my truck. The other disappeared into one of the crevasses. Eventually, the second buck dropped out of sight, too.

Time to move. I grabbed my rifle, binocular and a pocketful of quickloaders and moved to my left, toward the deep end of the canyon, where, hopefully, they would be bedded. Coming at them from the bottom end kept the crossing wind in my favor. I stayed high, walking a few yards, and then eased toward the edge to peer into every nook and cranny below. I was confident both bucks were in that steep canyon. I just didn’t know where.

It was creep and peek for almost an hour, and then I spotted movement across the draw. One of the bucks, the lesser of the two, was moving unhurriedly on the other side. As I watched, he went around a rock ledge and bedded down, well out of range and with no reasonable approach to get me muzzleloader-close.

I was nearing the head end of the canyon. Within 100 yards, it would narrow and top off. Common sense told me the other buck had also moved on, but with only 100 yards to go, I kept up the sneak and peek to take it all the way to the end and then head for the truck. At my last look, less than 20 yards away from the end of that cut and barely 20 feet from me, that big buck stood up. He’d bedded on a little flat spot just off the top. My shot was less than seven yards away at a standing, stunned, broadside monster!

I fired, he pivoted and ran over the top, disappearing over a little rise. I was dumbfounded. There was no way I could have missed, yet he showed no sign of impact. And when I dashed over to the spot, there was absolutely no blood.

I reloaded, totally immersed in the feeling of disgust that usually covers you when you pull a bonehead shot like that, but I thought I would ease over that little rise and maybe see where he was headed. My hopes were low, but it was in the general direction I had to go. As I approached the rise, I spotted just the tips of a set of antlers skylined, coming toward me!

Subscribe Today!I dropped to one knee, cocked the hammer and waited. Suddenly, the head, neck and shoulders of the same buck I just missed were skylined about 80 yards above me. He was heading back to the draw to bed down again. Nobody deserves a second chance at a buck like this, but there he was. My next shot found the heart. Later that afternoon, as I caped and pulled the hide off the buck, I discovered where that mysterious first shot had gone. A hole clear through, about 2 inches up from the brisket, had barely nicked the bottom of the rib cage.

Back home, I set up a target at 20 feet and decided to see where my rifle, set to strike about 11/2 inches high at 100 yards, would impact at less than 10 yards. Three shots told the story. For some reason, my shots were hitting almost 8 inches low. The combination of the low point of impact plus my hurried offhand shot meant a low hit.

Lesson: Muzzleloaders, even the most modern inlines, have a rainbow-like trajectory. You must learn where your muzzleloader bullet is hitting up close as well as far away.

The better way: With the challenge of one-shot muzzleloading comes the need for caution and discipline. It’s a firearm with limitations that often call for knowing when not to shoot. In this instance, knowing the close-range trajectory would have made the difference.

Those of us who hunt with all types of firearms sometimes think the modern inlines are like a centerfire rifle in our hands. They’re not. We need to understand the muzzleloader and live within its limits.

Reprinted from the August 2008 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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