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Huntin’ the Muzzleloader Rut

When November rolls around, the rut will be taking shape, and bucks will be on the move. Black powder hunters that are up for the thrill will have a narrow window of opportunity to encounter whitetails gone wild!

This 5 ½ year old Amelia County management buck became known as “Fat Albert.” Google Earth revealed that the buck was shot over a mile away, as the crow flies, from where summer trail camera pictures were captured. Outside of the rut, these free ranging mature bucks rarely move during legal shooting hours! Photo by Allen Wells.

By Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA

Being patient and willing to sit long hours is a commitment that few hunters often make. Having confidence that a shooter buck will show up within gun range, at any time throughout the day, during the rut, is what keeps me going back. This was the case in November, during this past muzzleloader season. After watching a straight stretch of road on our hunting lease for over 11 hours, and passing on two bucks that didn’t make the grade, a wide, heavy antlered buck stepped out; later measured with my rangefinder at 126 yards. My shooting lane was only about ten yards wide and joined a standing corn field. This shot opportunity had been played out in my mind numerous times throughout the long hours on stand. Without hesitation, my shooter instincts shouldered the muzzleloader, set the scope’s crosshairs behind the buck’s shoulder, and the smooth trigger pull echoed a booming roar from my smoke pole!

The smoke had barely cleared when my cell phone buzzed with a text message from my hunting buddy Nick Hall, Sr., “How big is he?” Our club has a sign-in policy to indicate where everyone is hunting, and Nick had pinpointed the location of my shot. My text message response was, “He’s Big – had no time to waste. Had to Fish or Cut Bait. Hopefully, I made a good shot; have no excuses.” I climbed down from my stand and walked to the spot where the buck was shot, found a fresh blood trail crossing the road and felt self-confident. It has always been my belief to delay tracking a wounded deer whenever possible to avoid the risk of jumping the animal and losing the blood trail. When Nick, Jr. showed up we closely examined the blood in the road and discussed our next move. First hand experience has proven to me a deer that has been shot and mortally wounded will go down within 200 yards. The animal will more than likely bleed out within an hour if not pushed by an overanxious hunter. Nicky has been hunting with his Dad and me since he was old enough to tag along, and today, I consider him to be an accomplished hunter in his own right. Knowing that time was on our side, I made the decision to wait one hour before going after my buck. However, our tracking skills were never tested. We followed a heavy blood trail that guided us about 75 to 80 yards to where the buck had crashed.

Virginia introduced their first muzzleloader season in 1973, following the general gun season west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This primitive weapon season allowed only single shot flintlock or percussion ignition rifles. The new season saw many hunters dressed in buckskins and wearing coonskin caps, while reliving the early days of the American frontier. Photo provided by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III.

It’s a statement of fact that big, mature bucks are survival experts. These older age classes of free ranging bucks rarely make mistakes and very often live right under our noses without being seen. When a hunter takes a mature buck on the animal’s own turf under fair chase conditions, he beats all odds. Hunting with my muzzleloader during the early season, has given me this opportunity numerous times, and I’m very grateful for this challenging experience!

Fine Tune Your Muzzleloader Performance

Knowing your muzzleloader and having confidence in how it will perform under hunting conditions is something that I take very seriously. It has always has been somewhat of a mystery to me why so many hunters spend so little time shooting in the off season. I’ve even talked with hunters who, by their own admission, said they had someone else sight their rifle, which makes no sense to me. In my opinion, few hunters shoot their muzzleloaders enough to really know the rifle. Not having your rifle dialed in will often result in a clean miss or poorly placed shot that simply doesn’t get the job done.

Big whitetails can be hard to stop. The 5 ½ year old management buck that I shot this past season, was no exception. My shot placement was text book. The load hit him hard in his “Boiler Room,” shot through both lungs, and left a very extensive exit wound. Good bullet placement should always be considered the key to making a clean kill on big game animals.

Having the right bullet and powder load is a must for taking long shots with modern in-line muzzleloader rifles. The rifle that I’ve been hunting with since 1993 is a .50 caliber Knight MK85. This rifle has taken many whitetails, and the reason it’s still my number-one muzzleloader is simply because it never lets me down.

The Hodgdon Powder Company manufactures Triple Seven, which is a black powder substitute. This product cleans up with water, and you don’t have to worry about strong smells. Triple Seven comes in pellets and granular powder. I have tested both of their products and found I get the best results from the granular powder. The load that has given me the best and most consistent results is 110 grains of Triple Seven 3F.

It seems that most hunters favor the pellets over the granular powder simply for convenience. The fact is that the granular powder delivers higher velocity for flatter, more accurate shots, and the 3F load that I shoot delivers even more velocity. With speed loaders, the use of the granular powder is not an issue. It’s my suggestion for our readers to try the granular powder to see if the results outweigh any inconvenience. You may be surprised.

Over the past ten plus years, I have been shooting bullets made by Parker Production. My first experience was with their Jacketed Hydra-Con 250 grain projectile. These bullets performed extremely well in my rifle, and I took a big 8 pointer that made the Longhunter Society Record Book with the Hydra-Con.

The first time I met Bob Parker and talked with him about muzzleloader hunting and his newly developed bullet design I could tell this man knew his business. Over the years, I’ve talked with Bob numerous times when working up loads for friends. He’s never too busy to help and other hunters have told me they have experienced the same friendly customer service. Finding a bullet manufacturer who will take time out of their busy schedule to be of assistance is priceless.

Today I’m shooting the Parker 250 grain sabot Ballistic Extreme Bullets. The Ballistic Extreme with the polymer tip design will shoot consistent 1½ to 2-inch three shot groups at 100 yards in my muzzleloader. The buck I shot this past season at 126 yards, could not have been hit any harder if he had been shot with my 30.06. I have shot many of the different bullets that are manufactured today, and Parker’s Jacketed Ballistic Extreme is the best I’ve found for performance and accuracy that does the job every time.

When my muzzleloader is loaded with 110 grains of Triple Seven FFF and the 250 grain Parker Ballistic Extreme Bullet that’s fired by a 209-shot primer, it’s dead on. Chronograph tests have revealed that my rifle’s muzzle velocity ranged from 1945 to 1980 fps. This load, which I have been using for over ten years, has taken whitetails out to 150 yards. The rifle is capable beyond that range, and my comfort zone that follows extensive testing will reach out to the 200-yard mark. Several years ago, Chris Hodgdon agreed to use the same load that I shoot and run a test with a different muzzleloader to see how things compared. The results were amazing and comparable to my test. When Chris recorded an average muzzle velocity of 1941fps, I was completely satisfied with my test results from back in the day. It’s obvious to me that the Hodgdon Triple Seven powder and Parker Productions Ballistic Extreme Bullets set a high standard of excellence for the muzzleloader industry.

How The Season Has Evolved In The Old Dominion

The first muzzleloader season in Virginia took place in 1973 and followed the general gun season west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This was truly a primitive weapon season that only allowed single shot flintlock or percussion ignition rifles. Black Powder hunters took only 24 deer the first year.

This new season found many of the hunters reliving the days of the American Frontier. Hunters not only enjoyed the challenge of hunting with their primitive weapon, but dressed in buckskins and wore a Coonskin Cap like Davey Crockett and Daniel Boon.

This Chesterfield County 11-pointer was taken on the last day of Virginia’s first statewide special early muzzleloading season, in 1990, before the in-line muzzleloader mania. The 6 ½ year old buck, taken on November 17, was rut crazy. This date has proven to be somewhat of a milestone when you consider that the buck featured in this article was taken 26 years later, on November 17, 2016. Take advantage of the muzzleloader season it’s a great opportunity! Photo by Donald Allen.

Hunting with muzzleloader rifles never really took off until the state enacted a special early statewide season in 1990. This was the first time a muzzleloader license was required. When the season opened, 38,793 hunters took their black powder rifles for six days of deer hunting with one deer tag in their pocket.

The regulation allowed a single shot flintlock or percussion muzzleloader rifle .45 caliber or larger, with open or peep sights only. Hunters were required to use at least 50 grains of black powder or black powder substitute. When the first season ended, hunters had taken 10,116 whitetails, and modern-day muzzleloader hunting began to take shape.

This was my first muzzleloader season, and my rifle was a Thompson Center White Mountain Carbine. During the summer months, I spent long hours working up the right load for my muzzleloader in hopes of taking a big buck in the fall.

My little carbine shot 80 grains of Pyrodex RS with a 380 grain Maxi-Hunter Conical Bullet fired by a No. 11 percussion cap. With iron sights my groups would hold within a 3-inch circle at 80 yards, and this was my comfort zone.

Every day of the six-day season, I hunted hard and was getting a crash course on how tough it was to get a buck within range of my black powder rifle. Saturday morning would be my last chance, and it had rained overnight. I felt luck was on my side.

After climbing into my stand at first light and watching a big clear-cut, I spotted a buck with antlers like I’d never seen before, chasing does just out of range. However, one of the does that he was doggin’ ran right by my stand, and he followed her in hot pursuit. That feeling of good luck on my side played out when he came to a sudden stop at 40 yards, giving me a broadside shot that put him down. This is one hunt that I’ll never forget and a story I will always be proud to share.

In 1993, the season was extended to two weeks east of the Blue Ridge. Hunters were also allowed to use sabots. One of the biggest changes that proved to be somewhat controversial came in 1995, when scopes were allowed. Hudson Reese, a game board member at the time was quoted in a column by Bill Cochran that ran in the Roanoke Times stating, “I can’t see well enough to be sure where I am placing my shot. So, it raises the question in my mind whether I should even be in the woods carrying a weapon with open sights.” There were hunters that opposed this regulation change and made a case before the game board. I was also quoted in the same Cochran column saying, “As hunters, the most important and basic premise we should strive for is a safe, quick, humane harvest of whatever game animal we hunt. Anything short of that is disrespectable to the animal,” and I still stand by that statement today. The VDHA lobbied for this regulation change, and it was quite satisfying to see that common sense prevailed. The new regulation was voted on and passed.

Hunters continued to demand better and more effective muzzleloaders, and the regulations were upgraded to allow copper jacketed bullets in 1999. Jacketed bullets such as the Parker Ballistic Extreme are far more effective than the solid lead bullets that we started with.

Today modern in-line muzzleloaders have moved to another level with rifles built to shoot smokeless powder, which was legalized in 2006. Some of my friends hunting with these muzzleloaders see muzzle velocity that exceeds 2700 fps. This new age of muzzleloader hunters and shooters is growing in popularity. I know of several gunsmiths that are building after market rifles which are precision tuned for long range shot that we never would have thought about when the statewide season was first enacted.

Changes continued to take place when the early season was extended to two weeks west of the Blue Ridge in 2008. The bag limit was also changed in 2009, removing the one buck bag limit for early western muzzleloader season.

In 2014, muzzleloader pistols were allowed. The blaze orange law was also added at that time. Today, blaze orange is required for every muzzleloader deer hunter and every person accompanying a muzzleloader deer hunter, except when they are physically located in a treestand or other stationary hunting stands. Safety should always be our number one priority. Blaze orange will save lives with no negative effect when hunting whitetails.

Conclusion

I think our readers will agree that muzzleloader hunting has come a long way over the past 40-plus years. The statewide season in 2016, had 83,585 hunters that took 47,947 whitetails with muzzleloader rifles.

There have been a lot of pioneers throughout this long haul, and my friend, the late Tony Knight, was the industry leader, in my opinion, who started the modern-day muzzleloader mania. It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again, “Tony Knight was to muzzleloader hunting what Fred Bear was to Bow Hunting.” Tony was quoted in a column by Lee Graves in the Richmond Times Dispatch saying that he had three principles in mind when he started, “Safety, reliability and accuracy.” The results were his in-line MK85 muzzleloader that was renowned and set a high standard for gun manufacturers throughout the country.

Muzzleloader season opens on the first Saturday in November, and the rut should be heating up, with bucks on the move. If you don’t already own a muzzleloader rifle, visit your local gun dealer and ask those folks for a recommendation. If you already own a rifle that you’re satisfied with, get out to the range and make sure it’s dialed in. One very important point is to always refer to the owner’s manual that comes with every muzzleloader to ensure safe handling of the rifle. Never load your rifle without first checking to see what the manufacturer recommends.

The challenge of muzzleloader hunting can be a rewarding experience. Don’t let it pass you by. There is no better time than the early muzzleloader season in Virginia, to find a big buck that has let his guard down within range of a black powder rifle!

©Virginia Deer Hunters Association. For attribution information and reprint rights, contact Denny Quaiff, Executive Director, VDHA.

  • October 31, 2018