Last fall I set out on a clear, brisk Sunday morning with a hawken-style black powder rifle on my shoulder. After trying for 9 years to get a blacktail buck with my longbow I decided to try a black powder hunt because I was captivated with tradition, and it allowed me to hunt during the late fall rut—a rare opportunity here in northwest Oregon.
As I made my way down the logging road I found my first set of tracks near some reprod and a good game trail heading down the hillside. I picked a large fir tree nearby, sat down, and began a rattling sequence. Everything fell quiet and I waited for 15 minutes. Nothing. I repeated this sequence again and again as I moved from spot to spot. After two hours I had only seen one small yearling deer.
During those times of silence I would look down at the heavy octagonal barrel of my rifle and the sweeping curve of the hammer half-cocked over the percussion cap. I wondered about the significance of the invention of black powder, the mountain men of the early American frontier, and whether my gun would go “bang” when the time came to pull the trigger.
I continued hiking towards a knoll of reprod and old growth timber, referred to as “the island.” There at its base I found some buck tracks that were sharp and still wet (it had rained the night before so any fresh-looking track could only be a few hours old). I followed the tracks along the logging road until they went into some thick, impenetrable reprod that was 15 feet high. A breath of crisp air on my neck told me that the wind had switched, and I heard the “thump, thump, thump” of a deer bounding off in the reprod in front of me. Silence.
He didn’t go too far, so I spent the next hour making my way slowly around to the other side of the knoll. With any luck, I thought that by resting the area I could get upwind, go up a cat road on the other side, and rattle in the buck from the top where it was more open.
However, on my first pass I missed the old cat road and found myself back where I had started. Frustrated, tired and fighting a caffeine headache I considered going home and coming back when the weather was better for stalking deer. Maybe I’d go duck hunting instead. I started walking back uphill to the truck and paused. Well, if you don’t try, you’ll never know. I turned back and searched for the cat road that I had missed.
I found the old path, much more overgrown than I had remembered. I followed it uphill, but the last 50 yards or so were covered with branches and downed limbs—there was no quiet way to stalk into the top. So, I tried “deer stepping,” a technique I had learned from some old bowhunting books: heal, toe, heal, toe, heal, toe [stop], heal, toe, heal, toe [stop]… repeat.
Once I reached the top of the hill and had a slight breeze in my face, I sat amongst the acorns below one of the 75-foot oak trees that covered the top of the knoll. I was now perched at the lip of a steep hillside that fell away 40 yards before softening into a bench that was covered with vine maple, chest-high ferns, a sprinkling of young fir trees and then, at the far edge 75 yards away, the darkness of thick reprod.
I waited for 5 minutes for the forest to settle and was just reaching for my rattle when I caught some movement 30 yards out, behind some vine maple. An antler. I brought the hammer to full cock and shouldered the rifle as the head and back of the deer came into view. “Rhhhee, Rhhee”—the buck grunted with each step and stopped broadside at 15 yards with only the top couple inches of his shoulder exposed. I aimed a few inches below into the ferns and squeezed the trigger (with a 225 grain lead ball and 90 grains of FFG black powder I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to worry about the ferns diverting the path of the ball). “Click”—No!
“Rhhhhee, Rhhhee!” The buck kept grunting and walking uphill through the ferns towards me. I glanced down at my gun and realized I’d pulled the set trigger and now the front hair trigger would go off at the lightest touch.
I brought the gun back to my shoulder with my finger at the trigger guard and searched for the buck’s shoulder. He emerged from the ferns just 8 yards away and stopped, quartering to me. I touched the front trigger, the gun roared and a cloud of smoke filled the air. I saw some hooves fly up through the smoke and I knew I’d just taken my first buck.
I stood up, triumphant, but the buck got back on his feet. “What the **!$!” He hobbled off on three legs, crashing through the understory—out of sight 45 yards away. I pulled out a speedloader, poured my powder in, took out a patch and ball, and rammed it home. I pulled the old cap off, put another one on and cocked the hammer with my shaking hands. I walked slowly to where I last heard a crash, scanning the ground for a buck or blood. I caught an ear flick to my left and there was the buck, 3 yards away bedded down in the ferns with his head up facing away from me.
I took a couple steps to the side, put the iron sight behind his shoulder and squeezed. Another roar and cloud of smoke. The buck got up again, and staggered away. Did I just miss?!? I didn’t look at the deer, but immediately reached for my second and last speedloader. Powder, patch, ball, ram home, take cap off, put cap on, cock hammer. When I looked up, the buck was 10 yards away on the ground with his head down. His tail twitched, a shiver went through his body and then his hide relaxed. I walked up and touched his open eye with my muzzle. Dead buck.
For the first time since I caught movement, I looked at the chocolate antlers. Split eye-guards, a shovel, and small forks. The muzzle of the deer was white gray. He was gnarled and weathered. I looked at his back teeth, and they were worn to the gum line. This was an old deer. I looked down at the hawken and back up at the ancient oaks and Doug firs. The smell of sulfur still hung thick in the cool morning air. Finally, my first blacktail buck.
If you have the opportunity, I recommend trying a black powder hunt. It has a history, a tradition and a smell that are welcome companions in the late fall woods.