Black Powder, White Smoke and Trophy Whitetails
Author: Mike Schoby
There has always been a mystical aura surrounding muzzleloaders for me. I first felt it as a kid, with a second hand, battered .50-caliber Hawken while hunting in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. The feeling was a mixture of childhood fantasies, and an overactive imagination, but carrying that rifle through the woods invoked images of Rendezvous, mountain men and, I think, a touch of freedom.
Many years later I found myself traipsing through the woods with a primitive rifle again. This time in a totally different part of the country with a totally different kind of muzzleloader.
Mark Nelsen and I were hunting with Eight Mile Outfitters, in central Kansas, for a week of their early muzzleloader season. Initially thinking mid-September would be a prime time to be afield, before the crowds were able to put much pressure on the relaxed deer, we were now rethinking our positions as the daytime temperatures soared into the 90's, and the deer were largely nocturnal.
As if it was not bad enough to have hot days, the nights were balmy and warm as well. It was not the time for deer hunting. We would have both preferred an early frost, but that was not in the cards. Dilligently we sat on stand in the mornings and evening, hoping against all odds for a deer to show himself. During the mid-day, we occupied our time by still hunting through river bottoms and doing drives for each other. Small bucks and does were everywhere, but the antlers we had traveled so far for remained elusive.
On the third day of the hunt I was sneaking along the edge between a plowed field and heavy hardwoods. I could occasionally hear my guide, breaking twigs with each step, resounding from deeper in the woodlot. I knew the big buck was here. I had seen him leaving this woodlot to feed the night before. Heavily used trails came and went from the thick underbrush and I was convinced it was his mid-day bedding area. It was just a question of whether or not he would flush out into the open for a clean shot.
Suddenly, I heard a tremendous amount of crashing and commotion. I knew that a deer had taken flight from his bed. Quickly dropping to one knee, to more easily see under the overhanging limbs, I shouldered the T/C Black Diamond XR. Instantly, the deer was in my field of view, his head held low in a sneak position, his legs churning through the underbrush. On top of his head, sprouted a massive amount of bone. His vitals being obscured by brush, I centered the sights on his neck as he ran through the thick woods. The rifle seemed to go off on its own, and a billowing cloud of white smoke momentarily obscured the entire scene. Dropping lower to the ground to avoid the voluminous cloud, I tried in vain to see the direction the deer fled.
Not seeing any sign of the deer, I got up and fumbled with a speed loader. Recapping the rifle with trembling fingers, I started towards the spot where the deer was when I fired, to look for a trace of blood or hair. Taking no more than ten steps, I could see the buck's rack sticking up from the brush; thankfully he was expired; laying on his side.
I did not have the chance to really get a good look at the buck in the split second that he presented a shot. All I knew when I squeezed the trigger was that he looked BIG. As I approached the fallen deer, I was relieved that he didn't shrink considerably upon hitting the ground, as so many of my past deer have done. In death, he still looked as big as he did in full stride. He later proved to score 153 and some change.
For the rest of the week, I tried to help Mark fill his tag. I pushed bobcats, coyotes, does, fawns and small bucks, sometimes within feet of his hidden position, but the buck of his dreams failed to materialize. He continued to occupy different stands in the morning and evening but with a decreasing lack of optimism. If only the weather would cool down, we both thought.
Then on the second-to-last night of the hunt, he had a large buck step out of the tree line 250 yards away. With only a few minutes of shooting light left, he had to make a decision. The deer was not feeding in his direction, and he did not have the luxury of waiting him out. So with much haste, he climbed out of the ground blind and stealthily made his way towards the feeding buck, hugging the contours of a small depression to remain concealed.
When he got within 100 yards of where he had last seen the buck, he slowly stood up. The deer was still there. With the light fading rapidly, he shouldered the rifle, steadied the shaking sights and squeezed the trigger. The .58-caliber Cabela's Hawken belched out its deadly 525-grain payload of conical death. The buck stumbled to the edge of the clearing where it pitched down a steep embankment. It was dead before it hit the bottom. Examining the buck later, the bullet had expanded well and penetrated through both shoulders. While his deer's antlers had a more unique shape then mine, they scored almost exactly the same. Regardless of score, it was a buck anyone could be proud of, especially with a muzzleloader.
I came to Kansas to shoot a deer of my dreams, and this one did not let me down. While not the largest deer ever taken, he is a trophy in my eyes, taken with a primitive weapon, on his own terms - it is those memories that I will recall when looking at him for years to come.
While driving back home, my mind drifted back to the vision of a young boy walking the ridges of the Cascade Range, a smoke pole over his shoulder. The boy was now a man and the gun had changed in looks, but in spirit it was still the same. The hunt still rekindled the same feelings of Rendezvous, mountain men and a touch of freedom.
Gear Side Bar
I was using the T/C Black Diamond XR .50-caliber in-line muzzleloading rifle in stainless with a synthetic stock. I had worked up a load using the Cabela's Xtended Range Sabots and two 50-grain Pyrodex pellets. The gun proved to be as accurate as it was pleasant to shoot, clover-leafing three shots inside an inch at 50 yards with iron sights.
A post mortem autopsy proved the Cabela's Xtended Range polymer tipped sabot performed well. It had entered high in the neck, breaking the spine and continuing down towards the chest cavity where it came to rest under the far shoulder. It had expanded to twice its diameter, retained over 90 percent of its weight and penetrated well.
The early muzzleloader season in Kansas was not warm, it was hot. Luckily, I had some lightweight clothing along for just such an occasion. I like wearing scent control clothing whenever I am hunting whitetails, but when chasing trophy class whitetails in sweltering heat it is a must. I was wearing the Scent Blocker Plus 3-D LeafyLite pant and jacket combo and it worked perfectly. It's ragged outline helped break up my silhouette while the activated carbon liner prevented deer from smelling me, but at the same time wasn't too hot to wear.
On the hunt, I also used the new Bushnell Scout Laser rangefinder. Its compact size allowed me to tuck it into my shirt pocket for instant use. While I didn't need it on my particular deer, I was confident in knowing it was right at hand should the need arise.
When I was sitting in a stand, I was glassing the far tree line and brushy understory for a glimpse of a deer. As the light grew dim in the evening or before the sun popped over the horizon in the morning, quality optics were definitely appreciated. I was using the Cabela's Alaskan Guide 10x42's and their light gathering ability and overall clarity made using them a pleasure.
"Cabela's Xtended Range polymer tipped sabot performed well"
The Hunt Side Bar
We were hunting with Eight Mile Creek Outfitters. We booked this trip through Cabela's Outdoor Adventures. Due to their extensive research no one was disappointed. The lodging was first rate, the guides were knowledgeable and the hunting was outstanding. To book your own whitetail hunt of a lifetime, contact Cabela's Outdoor Adventures for more information.