Muzzleloader season might be your last chance to fill the freezer.
Depending on what state you live in, a good percentage of the deer that were on the landscape a few weeks ago are now residing in chest freezers. In my home state of Minnesota, that number is usually about 20 percent.
What's worse than that is the fact that the remaining deer have usually had enough of the pressure. At no point in the season are they cagier and less wiling to move during daylight than right after the end of the general firearm's season.
This also happens to be muzzleloader season, and while there is the always the chance to knock down a giant, most of us would be well served to tamp down our expectations and set our standards accordingly.
For this particular hunter, smokepole season is a venison quest. Here are three ways to add some healthy protein to your diet while toting a frontstuffer.
It would seem that if you're hunting any deer in the herd, setting up on a food source would be the right choice. That's what an awful lot of the whitetail experts will tell you to do. But what if you hunt a place that has been absolutely pounded and the average fawn is savvier than the mature bucks that those hunters protect on premier ground until they are hit-list worthy?
Then you need to back off of the food. Naturally, if it's unseasonably cold and the deer are running a calorie deficit, they might charge into a chopped cornfield with plenty of shooting light left. But probably, they won't.
They will, usually, get up from their beds a little early and browse their way slowly toward the food source. This is a bowhunter's strategy adapted to the muzzleloader's world, and it works. The key is to find the thickest, nastiest cover on your property and get as close as you can without making too much noise, or worse, allowing your wind to blow through the cover.
This may seem like an evening-only strategy, but it works in the morning as well provided you've got the right entrance route. Most of the time, you don't need to be more than 100 or 200 yards off of the destination food source to make this work.
In general, I'm not a fan of driving deer. That's probably because I grew up bowhunting only, and never took part in the traditional deer drive. I have, a few times, found good situations in which to move some deer in the right direction of a stander during muzzleloader season.
A few years ago, while hunting public land in Minnesota, I found a river-bottom that was covered in beds and deer sign. It was a narrow stretch of cover that was too thick to set up in, so I posted my dad on one end and circled wide. Within about one minute of stepping into the thick stuff I heard him shoot. Several does and fawns had trotted by, and one long-nosed doe had made the mistake of stopping 15 yards from him.
If you've got a situation where you can make a mini-push, plan it out and go for it. Just make sure to be quiet, and keep it slow and simple. It doesn't take much to get late-season deer to move, and the goal is to get them up and walking - not sprinting for the next county.
Old-School Still Hunting
I love to still hunt. This tactic, which hasn't been popular in a long, long time, is a lot of fun with a muzzleloader. I keep my eyes glued to the weather and if there some fresh snow on the way, or it's going to be super windy, I plan a sneak. Ditto for any rain in the forecast.
Conventional wisdom says you are supposed to move so slow you'll make a sloth look like Usain Bolt, but that's silly. Very few people can do that, and who only wants to see 100 yards of the woods during a three-hour sneak? I try to move slowly, and stop a lot to glass but I don't go so slow that moss grows in my beard. The key to a successful still-hunt is to hunt in a place where you have confidence the deer will be. If you believe any minute you'll spot a doe or buck slipping through the timber, you'll hunt with the wind in your favor and your eyes peeled for a flash of brown.
The first time I did this, I hunted during a crazy storm and spotted a doe and fawn 50 yards from me. I missed her clean and thought my season was over. Later, I crested a ridge and looked at the valley below me. A doe was bedded 35 yards away, oblivious to my presence. It was the only time I've ever shot a whitetail in its bed.
The key to the second shot versus the first, was that I took a careful rest while lying prone on a rock outcropping. The first I shot off-hand, which is always a bad idea. If you're going to go the sneaky route, carry a pair of shooting sticks or try very hard to remember to take a solid rest. The importance of that can't be overstated.
If you're meat-poor and own a muzzleloader, you've got options. There are plenty of ways to get a tasty doe or young buck in your sights but just remember, it might not happen on a food source like it's supposed to. You just might have to get a little creative in your tactics.