By Josh Reynolds
Yes, while the rut is winding down, the bigger, dominant bucks are still looking to breed in December – just like us, when the testosterone is still flowing. They are still on the hunt.
The nicest deer I’ve ever shot happened during muzzleloader season, but before that, I was still a fan of this hunt. While the start of gun season in November is loaded with anticipation and hope, it can be a crazy time. Too many people in the woods, too few days with snow cover and too much to do at work.
Things slow down in December. The orange army has either tagged out, used up all their vacation days or grown weary of chasing the wily whitetail. December also coincides with the end of the rut, the bucks are tired from November’s frenzy and the does begin to settle down. Early December snows will trigger some last-minute feeding activity, as well as movement towards wintering areas. These changes provide some real opportunities for hunting with a smoke pole.
Modern, in-line muzzleloaders with optics are as accurate and reliable as a conventional rifle. The only limitation is a single shot, which means a little more discipline as a hunter. Have you had problems finding ammo for that deer rifle this year? A quick look at the local gun store showed plenty of blackpowder supplies on hand. So what’s your excuse?
If you are new to the sport, make sure you put some rounds through your new muzzleloader. Learn how it shoots, learn how to load it safely and learn how to break it down and clean it properly. This is key to having a reliable weapon.
Here are some tips I’ve learned through trial and error. First, start the season with a clean weapon – meaning dry. Everything must be dry as a bone. As the weather changes from day to day during the season; cold to warm, dry to humid, things can get dicey. The best way to avoid shooting problems, hang fires and misfires, is to keep your muzzloader in the garage, shed or some other place outside. Do not bring it inside. This can cause condensation and moisture to build up in the barrel and the breech, not good. I only unload – clear the gun – during the season if I’ve been hunting in rain and wet weather. On those days it can be impossible to keep things dry so its best to shoot off the round and start fresh.
If things are cold, crisp and dry outside and the gun stays dry, there is no need to clear the gun after every outing. Just keep it loaded (without a firing cap loaded of course) and keep it outside where it stays cold.
As for the hunt, key on food sources. Fields that still have greenery, mast crops, places where deer will be headed to feed. After the rut, they are all hungry. While the deer have been educated from the previous month of pressure, it is remarkable how quickly they will settle down and get back to their old habits. If you hunt the big woods, find places to hunt where deer will be wintering. Cedar swamps, fir thickets, places with a dense canopy are good bets. The open areas on the fringe of this cover are prime places to ambush a nice buck who is still interested in breading the does who are headed for winter cover. Yes, while the rut is winding down, the bigger, dominant bucks are still looking to breed in December – just like us, when the testosterone is still flowing. They are still on the hunt.
The bottom line is this: Just because you ended gun season empty-handed doesn’t mean your opportunity to tag a big buck has to end as well. Some of the best hunting is still to come! Grab the smokepole and get after it!
Josh Reynolds is the Assistant Editor of The Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].
For more articles about hunting, fishing and the great outdoors, be sure to subscribe to our monthly outdoor magazine the Northwoods Sporting Journal.
For free access to our digital magazine issues, please click here.