by Bill Cooper
A cloud of black, sulphur-smelling smoke blocked my vision. I had just pulled the trigger of my CVA Optima muzzleloader, while looking down the barrel at a respectable 8-point buck.
Deer seasons for muzzleloader hunters now abound, affording ardent deer hunters the opportunity to extend their days in the woods. Many are still looking for that big buck, while others are hoping for one more deer in the freezer.
Deer may be scattered after the rut and the pressures of regular archery and rifle seasons. However, plenty of animals are still available. Bucks are looking to replenish their energy and fat supplies for the long winter ahead.
Ray Eye is primarily known as a pro turkey hunter, but he is just as proficient in the deer woods. Eye deer hunts at every opportunity, including Missouri’s muzzleloader season. And I can testify that he works uncanny magic in the kitchen or on the grill with venison.
“I have a rich tradition with muzzleloaders,” said Eye. “I hunted both whitetails and turkeys with original black powder guns long before replicas of the 1970s and the current modern muzzleloaders.”
Eye often hunts the steep Ozark ridges like his ancestors. On a recent muzzleloader hunt he selected a stand site up high on a very steep ridge close to its narrow end.
“Just above an acorn flat, my stand was in a slight saddle where the ridge narrowed. It provided a real pinch point, and I knew from lots of experience that any deer traveling through would pass right by my stand.
“This is real deer hunting,” Eye said. “These sleek, heavily muscled, ridge running, acorn eaters make the mistake of leaving lots of sign of their presence. The old bucks are smart, but not smart enough to know that this is how I learned to deer hunt as a boy. I followed my Grandpa and Dad all over these Ozark hills hunting for our winter supply of meat. I had generations of deer hunting knowledge passed down to me.”
Inheriting decades of deer hunting knowledge is indeed a great advantage. However, every deer hunter can learn from Eye’s words when it comes to hunting bucks in the late season.
“Food sources are key late in the year,” he quickly pointed out. “Acorns are the staple food source for deer here in the heavily wooded Ozarks. Find the white oak acorns, and you will find the bucks.”
Many of the relatively new corp of late season muzzleloader hunters, myself included, will argue that the late season usurps the rut as the best time to hunt bucks. During the craze of the rut it is difficult to pattern a big buck.
“They are chasing does,” says Eye. “They will be here today and gone tomorrow.”
Bucks are different animals during the late season. When the cold winds blow and temperatures drop, big bucks become predictable and can be patterned again. In fact, all deer can be patterned in a given area. They will be congregated around high-energy food sources.
They have to put on weight, after the strain of the rut, in order to survive the winter. Food sources like corn, soybeans, winter wheat and late-season food plots with brassicas will become ultimate deer magnets. Deer in the big hardwood forests will be digging for acorns. Find the best white oak trees and you will find the deer. A good idea is to fertilize a couple of good trees to increase their acorn production next year.
Shots in the big woods are ideal for muzzleloader hunters. Seldom are shots over 75 yards, because of the thick cover. Muzzleloader hunters in other climes will face differing conditions, however. The woodlots and tree-lined fields of north Missouri and corn fields of Illinois, Iowa and Kansas may contain long, linear fields, food plots and other green fields. They each provide important sustenance for late-season bucks. They will be there and often.
Shots in the open fields and woods can stretch the limits of muzzleloaders. On the other hand, most modern muzzleloaders, equipped with a low-power scope, are capable of taking deer at 200 yards.
Deer hunters taking the long shots should spend ample time on the rifle range dialing their smoke poles into tight-shooting groups. There are some very big bucks left in the late season, and missing one because of lack of time with your rifle will quickly make you regret the mistake.
Some hunters may feel that they are at a disadvantage with a muzzleloader.
“Not so,” says Browning gun expert Steve Felgenhauer. “With the technology in the new modern muzzleloaders, black powder hunters no longer have to feel like they are limited. Many modern black powder rifles rival centerfire deer rifles in both accuracy and knock down power.”
Late-season deer hunting can be brutally cold.
“You can be comfortable and effective at the same time,” Eye closed. “Today’s ground blinds are incredible. Put one of those babies on a good food source and you are out of the wind and into the big bucks.”
The cold wind made my eyes water from my position high in my tree stand. When the smoke cleared, my 8-point buck had experienced ground “swellage.” It was an 11-pointer.
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