"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Monday, October 22, 2012

From "Good Hunt" - Some Things about Muzzleloaders

My collection of Muzzleloaders

I wanted to take a moment for a little cross-promotion. As some of you know, I've been writing a hunting blog, Good Hunt, for the local newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger, over the last nine months. Really enjoy it and feel it is going well. We have covered a wide range of hunting activities in this time. In addition to my efforts, the paper's regular outdoor writing staff has contributed a wealth of information on freshwater and saltwater fishing, hunting, hiking, and environmental issues. Together, we are grouped at the Polk Outdoors website. If you live in Florida, plan to visit here or already do so on a regular basis, or just find an interest in our outdoor lifestyle, I encourage you to visit the site and bookmark it for future use. 
Below was my last post on Good Hunt. It's a little longer than I usually publish there and not as Florida-centric, and I was torn on which site to post it. Problem solved now!
Anyhow, please take some time to visit Polk Outdoors and snoop around. Hope you enjoy and feel free to drop a line with comments, suggestions, etc. 
Thank you.
Over the last 15 years I’ve hunted muzzleloading season it’s been quite entertaining watching folks trudge into camp all excited about an extra weekend or two of hunting, only to leave without their new weapons, having sold them in fits of rage for pennies on the dollar to anyone willing to take the cursed tokens off their hands. One year this camp regular, who had gone through at least a half-dozen frontstuffers that failed him in some way or another, showed with his single-shot Ruger No. 1 in .375 H&H arguing it was the same general concept of muzzleloading. Of course this was very illegal, and I would never recommend or endorse anyone to do likewise – unless maybe they’ve gone through, at minimum, 10 different blackpowder devices.
The truth is, failures with blackpowder equipment are typically the result of operator error. Though the guns they manufacture today are about as fool-proof as you can design these tools, they still require more diligence than your standard issue cartridge-fed, breech-loaded rifle.
Just wanted to run through a list of errors and issues I’ve witnessed in the past.
1. Trouble with Sidelocks – It seems most folks who first dabble with muzzleloading start with those $89.99 sidelock CVA’s. Then they buy the coolest looking sabot-ed projectiles and the Pyrodex pellets and doom themselves to disaster before they’ve left Wal-Mart. One, those sidelocks aren’t designed to use pelleted forms of powder. They require loose powder. Yes, you can get them to ignite from time to time, but reliability is severely compromised. There are no shortcuts with these guns – you must measure the loose powder. Two, those 250-grain sabots with the colorful polymer tips aren’t designed for sidelocks, either. Using the factory sights, these bullets will always hit high and usually above the target. I’ve witnessed folks – seriously – file down the front posts on their sidelocks to get sabots to print on paper. It’s depressing and frustrating to watch. You’ll need to shoot 350 – 385-grain MaxiBalls or Plains slugs, and if you can put three of those in a softball-sized circle at 50 yards, friend, you’re killing deer.
2. Care with Primers – You want to avoid handling your primers as much as possible. Your skin has oils that will ruin the caps. Percussion caps are the worst. Musket caps are a little better, followed by the 209 Shotshell Primers. If I drop a cap, I throw it out. I hunt with it once, then throw it out. No part of this process is as important as keeping your primer’s integrity intact.
3. Ramrods – Carry an extra ramrod. They are made of plastic, carbon fiber, or wood, and their job is to push a tight fitting bullet 20 inches down a rifled tube. They break. Also, once you load your rifle for the first time, cut a line or notch on the ramroad where it meets the crown of the barrel. This will ensure in the future that you have the proper seating for the load – or that there’s not another, forgotten load in there, Mr. No Fingers.
4. Realistic Inline Accuracy – As designed, inlines are inherently more accurate than sidelocks. Having said that, I’m sure someone in the Heartland has a sidelock that prints 1/2-inch MOA and if that’s the case, I would parlay that luck into lotto tickets and a trip to gamble on the ponies. Still, inlines do have accuracy issues. Let’s set a standard first – if you’re getting 2 – 2 1/2-inch groups at 100 yards, you’re in the stink. Most factory centerfire rifles barely do better than that. If you’re wandering outside of the 3-inch mark, there are some things to look at. Start back at the primer and work forward. At first, using standard 209 primers, my Knight Disc rifle wouldn’t even group, just randomly splatter shots across paper, certainly not what I had in mind when I purchased it. When used with Pyrodex or Triple 7 pellets, I discovered those generic primers left a fouling ring in the throat of the barrel that prevented proper seating by about a quarter-inch. This was enough to send the bullet astray. I switched to Remington’s Kleanbore primers and the patterns immediately tightened. The amount of powder you use is important. I use 100-grains of Triple Seven. Some guns are designed for 150-grains, but I’ve never felt the need and have heard about wild accuracy issues as the space needed for three 50-grain pellets takes up barrel space and shortens the time the bullet has to stabilize. If you’re having accuracy issues with 100-grains, back off to 90. It could be the bullet/barrel combination is more accurate with less powder behind it. Or it could be you appreciate not being violently beaten as bad in the shoulder. If you’re still having trouble, try different bullets – after that, switch to a .375 H&H…
5. Gun Function Issues – Above were mostly internal issues with muzzleloading accuracy, but, in reality, many of these guns aren’t exactly built for benchrest shooting. The triggers have the grace of a ratchet strap. Many of the cheaper models have hollow stocks, not all that much comfort when launching a .50-cal. projectile at a couple thousand feet per second. My first inline was like this. If you filmed the stock in slow motion while I shot it, I bet you’d see it crumple like a used toilet paper roll against my shoulder and the receiver actually hit me. With little weight to help brace for the recoil, it doesn’t take long for The Flinches to take control. One day I filled it with fishing weights and epoxy and that tamed the beast, though it became a bear to carry in the woods. As for the trigger – thanks to a litigious society, I’m not suggesting anything here other than to take it to a gunsmith and see what he or she can do for you. All I know is it’s hard to accurately shoot any rifle that beats you to death and requires a tricep flex in order to pull the trigger.
But don’t let me deter you. As I’ve said before, muzzleloading is a fun way to experience deer hunting. Just keep in mind they require a touch more attention than you’d put towards other firearms.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

That Old Doe

2004 South Carolina Doe

The old doe fed in a clearing between palmetto patches, munching on acorns from the sweeping live oaks that rapidly diminished what was left of the fading light. She’d come from a marsh accompanied by a younger doe and a yearling. She was a chocolate-gray color, unlike her unseasoned counterparts who still sported a pine needle red coat that had carried through the heat of the summer into the early fall. While the two other deer audibly splashed their way into the hammock like children running through the surf, she tip-toed, an almost imperceptible wet hoof-beat.  She’d walk a few steps and then stop to survey her surroundings, that long Roman nose gauging the swamp air for any hints of danger. This old doe had been around a while. Always cautious with animals like her, I was careful not to breathe, even though I was 20 feet up a pine tree with the wind in my face. I've played this game before.

Still, she never could defeat that natural wariness of hers. She sensed something. The scabs on surrounding pines from other hunters scaling the trunks in climber stands betrayed any notion that I’d tapped into a virginal hunting ground, and it was becoming more apparent with each passing moment that she’d had an unpleasant encounter prior to my visit. She’d ceased focusing on her buffet, raising her head and pinning her ears back as she’d gaze in my direction. Occasionally she’d stoop her head as if to continue feeding but immediately snatch it back up to see if she could trick anything into moving.

Finally, that old doe had had enough. She oozed back into the understory, circling through the creek to get downwind of my position. I knew, without doubt, what would be coming next. That nanny finally hit the current of air she sought. I’ll never know if she caught my scent or the fumes from the Therma-CELL, but this once-silent creature who went to great lengths to avoid being detected, raised Hell a mere 30 yards away, blowing and snorting and slapping her hooves into the water. She still did not have a bead on my location and stood exposed, broadside for 5 minutes adhering to this routine. I had never wished for an antlerless tag so badly in my life.

This was on a Special Opportunity Hunt at Lake Panasofkee last Saturday evening. An archery hunt, the rules for the property required a tag for the harvest of does. I’m not sure why I upset this doe so much; I hadn’t killed any of her relatives. Heck, I don’t think I’ve even shot a deer within 100 miles of this location, but she had it out for me. And if you’ve ever had an old doe stomp and blow at you, you are well aware that this is Taps, the 3rd strike in the bottom of the 9th. Game Over. Content with her damage, she finally trotted off into the gloaming, and that was it for the deer that evening.

That’s the way of things with those old does. They can be your worst enemy in the woods, worse than squirrels barking in your face. But just as with those obnoxious tree rats, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of their bluster to start contemplating revenge - an arrow, a bullet, a hand grenade, something to shut them up.

One of my favorite “Return to the Campfire Tales” is when a hunter reports with wild excitement how That Old Buck winded him down in the Pine Woods and blew at him all evening. I never want to spoil anyone’s big buck story with my attitude and theories, but more than likely, it was a doe calling you out. If a buck winds you, he’s outta there. Mature bucks, as elusive and crafty as they are, just don’t have it in their DNA to hang around and intentionally ruin your hunt. Plus, they have the does to warn them; no point risking their own hides when their sentries will sound the alarm. It's just good business.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it probably comes down to a doe’s maternal instincts. Bucks aren’t burdened with raising fawns and protecting them from the perils of the woods. I’ve watched does chase coyotes and bobcats and run off wild boar. Does will reliably come to a predator call – like a mouse squeaker - during the spring. I’ve watched them decoy themselves to distract attention from bedded fawns. So the fact they’d open themselves to sacrifice during hunting season isn’t all that surprising.

This isn’t to say they are easy targets - not at all. The fact this one was caught in the open was as an anomaly. In my experience, the older does hang in the woods a little longer than the younger ones, having since lost their reckless ambition over the course of several seasons. They have a knack for shielding themselves from a direct shot, and oftentimes the first glimpses you have are of those ears, ever-shifting above the brush. Then the nose is tossed in the air, and this is the truly frightening part. Those wet nostrils can calculate scents we can’t even begin to register.

If her safety checklist is met, she’ll slowly proceed into the open, cautious to the last step. If the area has been hunted before, you probably won’t be in her graces for too long. Those old does will remember stands and always keep an eye on them, often just staring in your direction daring you to move.

At this point, you are left with two options, one that is out of your hands, and the other completely under your control. You could just let her be and hope she passes through, but if she’s so inclined to stick around, know that the spotlight is on you. If you shift to relieve a cramp, pick your nose, flick a mosquito, or finish Level 20 of your iPhone game, she’ll know. If the vagaries of the wind turn on you, you’re screwed, and God help you if you inadvertently kick over a water bottle or ding a jacket zipper on a metal stand.

The other choice is to grease her. You’ll probably sacrifice your chances at a buck that evening, but when she showed, that was likely anyhow. There is no shame – quite the opposite, in fact – in taking a mature animal like this. It’s a far nobler and challenging quest than collecting any random set of antlers.
Hardee County Doe, 2001

Of the forty or so does I’ve killed, I can only think of a handful that were legitimate old-age trophies. I recall one in Hardee County that tried slipping behind me through a chute of gallberry bushes. Luckily my stand was just tall enough to fire a clear shot. I took another in Erhardt, SC in 2004 right after the four hurricanes pummeled Florida. The guide had warned me she’d be there and to smoke her if I had the chance. Seems she’d busted other hunters during the course of the immature season. And I shot one last year in North Carolina that seemed staked behind a fence of clearcut before slowly slipping out to munch on sweet potatoes.

But there is one old doe I’d love to catch up with. She’s been haunting my hammock in Manatee County for years. Already mature and noticeably large-bodied when I first met her, she had a habit of staying out of bow range during archery season, but would come within feet during blackpowder hunts when she was off-limits. She’d have no trouble patrolling that clearing, blowing and stomping and generally ruining the world. I thought I had her two years ago. Her hips had been sunken by advanced maternal age, and she seemed a tad off her game as she actually fed underneath my lock-on stand. All she had to do was clear the grating of the footstand and meander a few yards in front and she was mine.

As it turned out, a gobbler flew down and started drumming, alerting the other doe that had slipped in with the old mare. Her friend got to blowing and circling downwind and finally caught my scent, busting off for the swamp. The matron leisurely followed suit, saved by her new apprentice who had quickly learned the ways of the old doe. I'm not sure that deer is still alive, but I can't help but hope I get one last crack at her. 

And there’s another lady up in Lake Panasofkee who’ll be in mind when I return one day – hopefully with a doe tag.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Tao of Dove

I shot well Saturday. I feel it necessary to open this post with that assertion; in the near-future I’m likely to suffer further bouts of chronic wingshooting incompetence - just need to mark this period of time. A couple buddies who had not done much dove hunting asked me how many boxes of shells to bring. I told them 4 – 6 shots per bird is considered average by the hunting press. They claimed to need half of that, and I knew they were teasing me, but I still didn’t ascribe the humor to their boasts that they sought. The dove have twisted me so poorly in the past, it’s tough to be so boastful, in jest or otherwise.

Beyond my personal accomplishment, our first dove hunt of the year went OK, though fell way shy of my lofty goals. I expected the limits. A lot of work was put into the fields. The property – improved pasture, now void of cattle, surrounded by orange groves - teemed with dove throughout the year. Folks shot well; I’m not a “limit” guy but felt a tad disappointed by the collective bag.

Still, there were mitigating factors. One, we probably did not have had enough folks to keep birds flying. There were 15 shooters on 10 acres of planted field. Folks were clumped together in cliques and too spread out. Next, Florida had the edge of a front stalled off the Gulf Coast for the better part of the week, and we received a ton of afternoon rain. While we dodged the storms most of Saturday afternoon, that low pressure inhibits dove flights. Towards dark those clouds started building and the wind kicked up, and what should have been a better part of the hunt shut down as birds went to roost. And these were largely resident birds, young and small-breasted. By the second phase we should get more northerners. That’s just the way it goes. Fortunately most hunters were not as downtrodden with the results as me, and they were correct about adjusting my mood. I have been on some suck fields over the years.

A busy dove hunt is fun. The camaraderie is tops, watching buddies blast and curse at those brown missiles. Or hollering out cheers to good shots. We did the cookout thing – chicken parts and hamburgers - and brought TV and satellite hookups to watch college football while waiting field time. A few of us hung around camp a while longer and chuckled at the Eager Beavers clamoring to get in the field as soon as possible. Of course when they started shooting, it was mayhem as we scrambled for vests and shotguns and stools.

I shot my Dad’s step-father’s Winchester 1400, the only automatic I own. He sold it to me 10 years ago at a family price, just a year or so before he passed. It’s a fair bet I have put more use to it than he did - I assume he had that figured when we made the deal. The shotgun is pleasant to shoot compared to the duck and turkey guns in the safe. It came with a factory modified choke and is limited to 2 ¾ inch rounds. In a time when carrying several different tubes and choke wrenches is in vogue, the simple pleasure of this shotgun matches the sport for which it is employed. Shooting generic factory 7 ½’s, the Ol' Gal's never been found wanting; one day, though, I’d love a slick Over/Under 28-gauge for my dove gun. Maybe when it’s time to pass the Winchester down to my kids I’ll pony up the money for a Citori or Red Label.

While an O/U is an aesthetic pleasure and an automatic is at home on a dove field, I cut teeth on a pump. It wasn't until the 1600 came along that the irreverent blasting began. Atticus Finch would have been disappointed in my shotshell economy, but that  frenetic willingness to strike brass is overpowering to the young and uninitiated, and that's what leads to the 4 – 6 shot rule. I forget where I first read that figure. I could probably look it up on the Internet – but we know how unreliable that can be. You’ll just have to take my word on it. I think I shot well this hunt because I slowed down and didn't take bad shots. This seems to be another disgusting side-effect of age and experience.

Still, dove will unravel plenty of fine shotgunsmen. Over the years I've watched folks who routinely powder clays completely lose their composure on a dipping, diving dove. The ideal dove is the one at cruising speed, just about to light in the field. Miss this chance and he becomes a different beast. I’d say they “wheel” more than any other adjective of the feather and wing. They carom just as a pool ball, but more on a whim, bouncing off unseen winds.

Mourning dove are thought to be America’s most popular gamebird and rightly so. Throughout the South, families and friends honor the start of dove season as the heralding of the hunting year. This was my first event playing host, which partially describes my slight distress over the numbers taken.

But I was assured it was a fine event. Folks will want to do it again, and certainly I will. Hopefully the numbers will be a little higher – but by then I may forget to shoot again. 

That’s part of the dove hunting charm, too.