During the 2014-2015 seven-portion deer season, hunters tagged 258,341 deer, 91,460 of which — 35.4 percent of the total overall harvest — fell on opening weekend of the November firearms portion of the season. At the other end of the spectrum, trailed only by the antlerless and late youth portions, the alternative methods portion produced 11,067 deer — only 4.3 percent of the total harvest.
Why the huge disparity? It’s not a lack of deer. While isolated pockets of severe overharvest unquestionably exist, using the most conservative estimates, hunters remove less than 20 percent of the preseason population. The problem — although I can’t imagine calling it one — is a lack of hunters. It is, in fact, far more surprising to find another vehicle in a public land parking lot during the alternative methods portion than it is to find it empty.
These days “alternative methods” means virtually anything potentially lethal enough to dispatch a deer except a centerfire rifle that shoots cartridges charged with smokeless powder. If you intend to go afield armed with an air-powered weapon, archery tackle or an atlatl-chucked spear, I’m going to assume you already have had — and certainly should have had — prior experience with your choice.
Muzzleloading rifles are also legal during the alternative methods portion. Anyone with prior experience with modern firearms and who can beg, borrow or buy one can become an “instant” muzzleloader shooter if he or she learns and follows a few basic principles of the sport.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to assume that the muzzleloading rifle in question has an inline ignition system. (Shooting replica sidelock rifles with percussion cap or flint ignition systems can become a fascinating hobby in and of itself, but becoming even semi-proficient with one in less than two weeks isn’t possible.)
Inline ignition systems using #209 shotgun primers will handle loose blackpowder, loose blackpowder substitutes like Pyrodex® or premeasured pelleted blackpowder substitutes equally well. Stick with loose powders if the rifle’s ignition system relies on #11 percussion caps. Experimenting with different powder charge and bullet combinations is a big part of the charm of shooting muzzleloaders, but now isn’t the time to do it. If you’re borrowing a rifle, it’s probably already been sighted in for a specific load, so don’t try to reinvent the wheel. If the rifle hasn’t been sighted in, the most universal load for a .50 caliber rifle is 100 grains of loose powder or two 50-grain powder pellets behind a 240 to 290-grain sub-caliber bullet inserted into a sabot made for that particular bullet. (My favorite bullet, the Powerbelt®, has a built-in sabot.)
Assuming you’re not hopelessly sure of yourself, you’ll want to be able to shoot more than once during the course of a day’s hunt. There are a wide variety of plastic contraptions on the market designed to transport a premeasured powder charge, a bullet and, in some cases, a primer. I have several of most of them, and, while I’ve come to the conclusion that simplicity is a virtue, all of them work reasonably well.
Every experienced muzzleloader hunter carries some type of “possibles bag” to carry the various items he or she might need during the course of a hunt. In addition to spare ammunition and a miniature multi-tool, my possibles bag includes a small plastic bag of solvent-soaked patches, another bag with dry patches, a patch puller and a cleaning jag to attach to the end of my ram rod. Whenever it’s practical to do so, I run one soaked patch and one dry patch down the bore between shots. This step is very important when using sabots. That said, I skip cleaning and reload immediately if getting a quick second shot is a possibility.
Blackpowder and its substitutes are hydroscopic, which is a fancy way of saying they’ll draw moisture at the slightest provocation. A loaded and primed rifle should be moisture proof under fair weather conditions, but covering the end of the barrel with black electrician’s tape will help keep your powder dry when the weather’s less cooperative. Don’t worry. A single layer of tape poses no danger and won’t adversely impact accuracy.
Even if it’s only been fired once, a muzzleloader must–and I do mean must–be disassembled and thoroughly cleaned at the end of the day. If the rifle wasn’t fired, the weather was dry and the loaded rifle can be stored safely without being brought into a warm house, most inline rifles will fire reliably the following day.
By now many of you are muttering, “Using a muzzleloader sounds like a lot of work.” When compared to using a rifle that fires a smokeless powder cartridges, it is. On the other hand, sharing the state’s deer habitat with nearly half a million other hunters is a lot more of a hassle than sharing that same habitat with a few thousand other hunters. If, like me, you’d rather rely on skill than luck to set your sights on a big buck, I think you’ll agree the trade off is more than worth it.
This year’s alternative methods portion runs from December 19-29. Check the MDC’s deer hunting pamphlet or website for complete regulations.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]