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Blackpowder Season a Missed Opportunity
By DAVID RAINER
Now that the statewide special muzzleloader season has come and gone, it appears that many deer hunters in Alabama are missing an excellent opportunity to be in the woods, which have been virtually undisturbed for the past eight months.
Everyone who has hunted deer for any length of time know how trophy deer go nocturnal quickly after the regular gun season starts on the weekend before Thanksgiving each year. Therefore, it sure makes sense to me to be in the woods those five days before the regular gun season starts with my muzzleloader.
“I’ve bowhunted all my life,” Norton said. “Anybody who bowhunts knows that you’re in the woods when there is almost nobody else out in the woods. There’s not a lot of four-wheeler traffic. The deer have not been pressured since the end of January, and they’re going about their everyday routine. As long as they don’t get in the woods where somebody has been doing a lot of walking around, they’re going to keep that routine.
“Your big deer act just like all your other deer until the first time he walks up to that field or that acorn flat and detects human activity. Then he doesn’t get up until after dark.”
Norton said avid bowhunters usually see a good many big deer during bow season, although the limited range of a bow puts them out of reach.
“Now that we’ve got this blackpowder season, it gives you a way to shoot that deer that was out of range with the bow,” he said. “With today’s muzzleloaders, you can shoot a deer at 100-150 yards.
“It just amazes me, I’ll have somebody during muzzleloader season and they say, ‘the deer must not have been moving because I’m the only one that shot that I could hear.’ I say, ‘No, you were probably the only one out there hunting.’ It’s a big missed opportunity for people not to take advantage of the special muzzleloader season.”
Norton thinks part of the blame for the low number of muzzleloaders is a lack of education about the sport these days and some misconceptions left over from a bygone era.
“I know I was the same way when I first started shooting one,” Norton said. “I had you and Cuz (Ronnie Strickland) teaching me how to load it and clean it. The old way, that was a pain, having to break one down and clean it. It would make you not want to shoot one. You used to just about have to put one in the bathtub with you to get it clean.
“Today’s muzzleloaders, it takes 15 or 20 minutes to clean. You can shoot these guns a dozen times before they have to be cleaned. Back then, after the third or fourth shot, you had to clean it or you couldn’t get the bullet down the barrel. And the accuracy back then wasn’t that great. About 50-60 yards was about as far as you felt comfortable shooting one. Now, with the Knight in-line gun I’ve got, I can shoot a three-shot group and hit a Skoal can at 100 yards. It’s unbelievable how good these guns shoot.”
Of course, there are those traditional blackpowder hunters who use only flintlock rifles and patched balls. Those hunters are avid primitive weapons enthusiasts and know the limitations of their weapons.
For the average hunter, the modern muzzleloader offers additional opportunity that, with some diligence, will expand his or her deer-hunting prowess.
“As a bowhunter, we went from shooting long bows and recurves to compound bows, and today’s high-tech compounds shoot flatter and faster,” Norton said. “You’re just increasing your odds on harvesting that animal, and you’re making a good, clean kill when you shoot.
“We just need more education. Hopefully, there will be more seminars at sporting goods stores and what not. When you watch a muzzleloader hunt on TV, it really doesn’t show you what you need to know. I’m the kind of person who is hands-on. I want somebody to show me personally how to do it. There are people I talk to who are interested in it, but I really don’t have time to take individuals and show them how. I have taken a few of my buddies out and showed them about muzzleloaders and now they really enjoy it. And we’ll even take the blackpowder shotguns out and hunt turkeys with them in the spring. It’s adds another dimension to your hunt. It’s a fun sport, but it’s not a gimme. There are a lot of variables. The guns are a lot better than they used to be, but it’s still a challenge.”
The timing of Alabama’s muzzleloader season, the five days prior to the start of the regular gun season, is one of the top reasons Norton counts it as a missed chance to take a trophy animal.
Last year was a perfect example for me. I was hunting during the blackpowder season and a beautiful eight-point walked into the green field at 3:50 p.m. The shot was true at 85 yards and the taxidermist is finishing up the mount as I write.
“Usually the first few days of the season is when you have the chance to take a big, old deer that you want to put on the wall until the rut,” Norton said. “You see them during bow season, and then the first few days of gun season you hear of people taking some really nice deer. On places that are hunted, the next time you’re going to see a deer like that is when he’s chasing doe. It takes a hot doe to pull a 125-class or bigger buck out on the green field after the season starts.
“I saw a lady take her first deer with a blackpowder gun. She shot the deer through both shoulders at 125 yards. She said, ‘That right where I had the crosshairs.’ The deer was laying in the field right where she shot him.”
However, Norton said it’s a mistake to concentrate only on planted crops for the deer during the blackpowder season.
“This is the time of the year when the white oaks are falling – all the acorns are falling good,” he said. “You can shoot a deer with a muzzleloader without getting right on top of the tree like you have to do when you’re bowhunting.”
For green fields, Norton recommends you plant early and stay away from the fields except for an occasional visit in a vehicle to check on the plant growth. Never get out of the vehicle or off the four-wheeler to walk around and check the field.
“Take a quick look from the vehicle and then leave,” he said. “Have all of your stands placed and shooting houses repaired before you plant. You want as little human scent out there as possible. We had a deer killed on the youth weekend that scored 144 and weighed 220 pounds. He walked out in a green field. We planted that field in the middle of September. We drove up to the field, saw the deer had been eating it and we left. There had been no human scent around that field since we had planted it. The deer you killed is not supposed to walk out in a green field at 3:30 in the afternoon unless he’s real comfortable.
“If you’re going to try to kill a trophy-sized deer, stay out of the woods, stay away from that field. Don’t hunt it with the wind wrong. Once that old deer hears four-wheelers and trucks running up and down the road, guns going off every afternoon, they’re moving all of their activities to after dark. You might see him chasing a doe during the rut, if you’re real lucky.”
Although hunters in most of the state have been slow to embrace the blackpowder season, Mark Whitlock of Mark’s Outdoors Sports said the hunters around the Birmingham area are catching on quickly.
“The first year or two they didn’t figure it out,” Whitlock said. “Now they have. They realized some of their buddies are out there before the masses getting into the woods, and these guys are getting a big advantage. The deer have had more than six months to calm down.”
Whitlock said even with an estimated 200,000 hunters participating in the regular gun deer season, the state still has an overpopulation of deer and he’s all for expanding the deer-hunting opportunities.
“I think it would be great if they extended blackpowder season,” Whitlock said. “Give the bowhunters the same number of days on the front end. Hunters are not going to complain when you give them more season. If you need to, make part of the season anterless deer only.
“We sell 200 blackpowder guns a year now. That’s lot of blackpowder guns. And they’re not archery people. It’s a different niche. If it helps in the deer management part, it can only be a plus-plus.”
PHOTO: The author took this nice eight-point in Choctaw County during last year's statewide blackpowder season.