Somewhere between a traditional rifle hunt and an archery hunt lives a muzzleloader hunt. It’s a medium-range weapon for most folks, despite the outlier tinkerers who push serious high-caliber rifle range with their front stuffers.
Muzzleloader seasons also tend to fall, at least in quite a few states, after the bulk of the other weapon seasons have passed. They are mostly a late-season affair and demand attention to staying quiet, staying warm, and keeping your felt presence in the woods to a minimum.
They are also a hell of a lot of fun if you know how to avoid a few of the most common mistakes.
If you take a stroll through a big-box store aisle to buy powder and bullets, you’ll see plenty of options. From pellets and loose powder to bullets ranging in weights by 100 grains or more, there’s no shortage of load combinations. These variables make it impossible to give too much general advice about bullet trajectory, but I’ll try anyway.
My current setup really seems to like 300-grain Sabots powered by 110 grains of loose powder. I’ve owned other muzzleloaders that had other preferences, and no matter what, it has always been a learning experience shooting them at 25, 50, 100, and beyond 100 yards. The drop can be figured out with good old math, but that doesn’t allow you to practice for hold and envision where your crosshairs or sights should be on a 123-yard poke as shooting light fades.
Target shooting muzzleloaders is a pain, but getting to know your weapon is worth it. Three shots at 50 yards might get you in the ballpark at 25 to 75 yards, but it won’t prepare you for when a 140-incher steps out at 137 yards. Lots of target practice, with the right powder and bullet, is key to becoming proficient with a muzzleloader.
When I first picked up a muzzleloader to hunt, I felt like I had such an advantage over my usual archery-only endeavors. I did, but not to the extent I expected. At first, I sat stands with wide-open views to take advantage of the range, but I soon realized that I wanted the deer closer. And that the late-season deer I was hunting demanded it, because they were all sticking to the cover.
Just because it feels an awful lot like picking up your favorite high-caliber deer rifle doesn’t mean your .50-caliber is the same thing as a .300 Win Mag. The powerline sit where you can shoot 300 yards in either direction is great for the latter, but not so much for the former.
Also, if you are hunting after most of the other weapon seasons have come and gone, you have to acknowledge deer behavior. Months of pressure puts them in the cover and makes them highly intolerant of intrusion. You might have to leave the ladder stand on the edge of the clear-cut where you can see for a quarter of a mile to instead go saddle up in the swamp and kill them at bow-friendly distances.
Because so many muzzleloader seasons happen in the last few minutes of the last quarter of the game, hunters often assume it’s not going to be very good. I did this when I traveled to Nebraska several years ago. Even after looking at the overall state-wide participation numbers, which resulted in a state-wide deer kill that wouldn’t surpass the overall buck kill in some of the counties I frequent at home, I thought it was going to be a lost cause.
The truth is, not very many people muzzleloader hunt. Take a look at participation rates and harvest data in your state. It’s almost a certainty that the numbers will be much, much lower than archery or general firearms seasons.
This means one important thing—you might have a lot of land to yourself. Some of my favorite public land hunts, like that Nebraska hunt, have been muzzleloader affairs. You can find good bucks, and you can find quality hunting, largely because so few of your competitors are out there. This is an advantage many hunters don’t recognize, but it’s real.
You just have to hunt like you’re not giving up. Hunt like you still have a chance. If you do, and you understand your weapon performance and where to sit, you can avoid some of the biggest mistakes that cost muzzleloader hunters their chance every season.