The group of mule deer does had been feeding around us for most of the morning, while we sat and glassed the distant ridges for bucks. I had almost forgotten about their presence when out of the corner of my eye I saw one break away from the group and trot up a small hill.
At first, I couldn't see what had startled her, but then I saw the dark mahogany tips of a massive rack slowly emerge from a small draw. The tips dipped and swayed back and forth as the buck shook his head and sniffed the sweetly tainted scent that the doe had left behind.
As the four by four buck worked his way up toward the doe, I saw my partner's hand slowly slide across the tawny grass until it was on the stock of his Hawkins .50-caliber muzzleloader. Slowly he shouldered the rifle. A billowing cloud of white smoke erupted from the muzzle. The buck jumped high into the air, stumbled and collapsed into the grass. A great end had come to a great hunt.
Throughout the West more and more hunters every year are turning to the weapons of their forefathers to harvest mule deer. With flat shooting, super-accurate centerfire rifles and excellent optics available, one may wonder why someone would want to step back 150 years in time. The reasons are many, but simple. Some want more of a challenge. Some want less crowded hunting conditions. But the biggest reason is two fold. First, most primitive weapon mule deer seasons fall in the middle of the rut. Mule deer don't go as crazy during the rut as whitetails, but big bucks do come out of the woodwork in search of receptive does and lose a lot of their natural wariness and cunning. Second, primitive weapons are not quite as primitive as they once were. Muzzleloaders of today are often modern in-line, stainless, synthetic jobs complete with a scope. It is these modern models that are breathing new life into this old sport.
Now don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with a traditional Hawkins or a Pennsylvania rifle. The selection of traditional or modern muzzleloader is strictly a matter of personal preference. Traditional cap and flintlock rifles offer hunters historical nostalgia and an added challenge, while modern in-lines offer greater practical advantages such as positive ignition, the ability to shoot Pyrodex® pellets with heavy bullets, easier cleaning, and scope mounting capabilities.
The most important attributes to look for in a mule deer rifle are accuracy combined with down range energy. Since the average mule deer hunting scenario often stretches the effective range of most muzzleloaders (roughly 100 yards) these two features play a vital role in rifle selection. To achieve maximum down range energy, as well as the least amount of bullet drift at extended yardages, muzzleloading bullets (as opposed to balls) are the best choice.
In order to shoot bullets, a muzzleloader must have the correct rate of rifling twist (1 in 28 is optimal). All modern in-lines I am aware of have a compatible rate of twist for bullets while only some of the more recently produced traditional rifles are capable of accurately shooting bullets. Before selecting a load, you should check local regulations to determine what is allowed in your region. Once you've determined what, if any, limitations you have to deal with; experiment with a variety of different bullets including a selection of sabots to determine what performs the best in your particular rifle and stick with this same load for hunting.
Mule deer hunting generally involves a large amount of strenuous walking so I keep my muzzleloader kit as light as possible. To start with, I use speed loaders which decrease the amount of gear required in the field. I generally carry three speed loaders containing the appropriate charge of Pyrodex® pellets, the bullet and a percussion cap. Other necessary items such as extra nipple, nipple wrench, bullet pulling jag and extra caps can be easily stored in a small compartment of a daypack.
Most hunters accustomed to shooting whitetails at close range from a tree stand don't realize the importance of determining the trajectory of their actual hunting load. This information combined with a good quality rangefinder such as the Bushnell Yardage Pro becomes invaluable for muzzleloaders when hunting muleys in open country where shots can vary from long to very long.
Even with the most modern muzzleloader, mule deer hunters are still severely handicapped over modern rifle hunters. The country where muleys are found is usually open, rugged mountains or featureless deserts. Getting within 100 yards for an ethical shot is a challenge. However, there are several sure-fire techniques that will help hunters bring home their bucks.
First, choose your season. As stated above, big bucks are more active and less wary during the rut. Your hunting time should revolve around this period whenever possible.
Second, find the does. The bucks will spend their time finding them as well, so cut out the legwork and stake out the females.
Third, glass, glass, glass. There cannot be enough said about glassing for muleys. More muleys are killed with good optics than with good rifles. Search canyons and ridges from top to bottom then back again. Look at every bush, hollow and rock pile. Never think that there are no mulies on a particular hillside after giving it a cursory glance with binoculars. Take the time to set up a spotting scope and canvas the area for an hour or more. You will be amazed how many deer you see after the tenth pass over the same ground. It is like they simply materialize out of thin air! Once they are spotted, determine the best avenue of approach and then plan a stalk or ambush depending upon the situation.
Mule deer hunting with a primitive weapon, regardless of the model or style, is a challenging endeavor that can increase your chances of harvesting a trophy mule deer, and it will always yield great memories of times spent afield, enjoying the outdoors in the tradition of a bygone era.
Click here to check out all of our Black Powder Items