Maine’s muzzleloading season in the bottom two-thirds of the state runs through this coming week and closes a half-hour after sunset Saturday. For details, please check mefishwildlife.com or pages 21 and 22 in the “Maine Hunting and Trapping” booklet.
A handful of young does are in estrous now, so bucks may wander after them, but don’t bet the 401(k) that deer move much in daylight at the moment. Early December offers muzzleloaders long odds for success, unless unseasonable cold dominates and snow coats the ground for easy tracking. Even snow helps little, though, when deer hunker in thickets all day.
By now, bucks have run their bodies ragged through the 10-day November sex-a-thon, when most does breed. It’s such a grueling period for bucks that a few of them have trouble bouncing back, and in extreme cases, some die because they’re too weak to survive the year’s coldest, leanest time — late December and January.
Last week and this coming week, tired monarchs satisfy their hunger with herbaceous forage along stream banks, but the woods are more empty of people now, so as the month progresses deer become more comfortable getting into the open before dark. They eventually feel comfortable enough to hit open hardwoods, clear cuts, abandoned farmlands and eventually working farmlands in daylight, often at dawn, dusk and even noon.
An avid deer hunter, Bill Woodward of Monmouth, recently told me that deer are walking all over his garden plot at night, so tracks dot the soft earth there. I’ve seen lots of deer signs in my woodland rambles, too.
Deer target leftover soft mast on working farms or even abandoned ones, so after dark they hit such areas through the regular deer season and in early December, as Woodward noted.
This week, one of my favorite hunting plans begins by driving down a narrow gravel road until reaching a bridge across a stream or small river. More often than not in this hilly state, the streambed runs down a narrow valley filled with balsam-fir, white-spruce and black-spruce thickets, alder jungles, leatherleaf runs, hemlock stands and occasional oaks. Oak and beech groves may grow on ridges above the conifers and shrubs.
Moist soil in riverine habitat grows abundant ground plants, good whitetail forage through the day, and occasional oak and beech in the lowland produce nuts for dessert. (In my humble opinion, acorns produce more dependent mast than beechnuts.)
Before dawn, I quietly park my vehicle, slowly ready myself for a day’s hunt, close the door in silence and slip into the woods without banging doors or even coughing, noises that seemingly travel forever on late fall morns.
I hunt on one bank and usually walk upstream through the dense thickets, which allows me to walk downstream on the trip back. Two sneaky steps at a time get the job done, and snow falling from trees or rain helps cover inadvertent noises, as does a brisk breeze.
Sooner or later in a stream bottom, hunters usually pass oak or beech ridges in the near distance. From 11 a.m. to early afternoon, a game trail between the stream and hardwoods makes a great spot to sit downwind of a heavily used deer byway, because these animals often start moving at midday. They ate before daylight, lay around through the morning and now fill their four-chambered stomachs again.
In early afternoon, hunters can hunt back downstream on the opposite bank, timing the arrival at the road for just after dark. Hunting requires ultra-slow walking, and between these bouts of still hunting, hunters can sit downwind of bottomland trails or of byways to the hardwoods.
Muzzle-loaders in conifer thickets seldom see deer over 50 yards, an easy shot for a 50-caliber sidelock with a Maxi-ball and open sights. Folks with an inline scope and sabot can reach far beyond that range.
Other than a single shot, black-powder rifles have little disadvantage in thickets, an easy comment to make until a deer walks by during rain or snow. Then, after aiming carefully and squeezing the trigger, the shooter hears a loud, metallic click without the “ka-boom.”
When a muzzleloader hunter removes the percussion cap from the nipple, the firearm is legally unloaded despite the powder and projectile in the barrel.
In my humble opinion, the leading cause of a misfire begins and ends with taking a muzzleloader from frigid air outdoors and into a warm room, which allows condensation to form inside the barrel, wetting powder if the hunter has left it in the barrel.
When my muzzleloader has powder and ball in it between hunts in season, I store it in a gun case in a truck body or in an unheated room to avoid condensation. This plan has worked for me — except once.
Eventually, each good muzzleloader figures out a system to keep powder dry to avoid misfires, and it goes without saying, veteran shooters swear that a fresh reloading every morning works best.
You be the judge of what works in your muzzleloader. Just remember that most misfires occur when a deer is in the sights.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at: