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WILTZ: What's a muzzleloader like? Come with me


The Daily Republic 

It seems no matter what I’m after, I do it with the same degree of passion. Ice fishing for seven-inch bluegills is done with the same enthusiasm as trolling for monster pike. The same is true whether I’m pursuing an elk in Idaho or a ringneck pheasant a few miles east of town. So it wasn’t surprising to me that I was as excited about my coming South Dakota muzzleloader hunt for antlerless deer as any hunt I’ve been on. Perhaps my priorities are all mixed up, but that’s the way I am.

My $20 muzzleloader tag was good through Jan. 15. It had been uncommonly cold, but the weather forecasters predicted mid-40 degree temperatures for Jan. 3. I knew the deer would be out when the weather makes a pronounced change, so I needed to be out there on the third, following the sub-zero temperatures.

Because of the heavy whitetail kill attributed to the 2012 Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease outbreak, I couldn’t hunt my usual haunts in Bon Homme or Charles Mix counties. I decided on Gregory County, and I picked up the phone.

“Bob, this is Wiltz. Hey, how ya doing? I’ve got a muzzleloader tag for an anterless deer. I don’t know whether or not the deer in your area were hit hard by the EHD, but if they weren’t, I’d like permission to hunt. If numbers are down, I understand completely.”

“We’ve got some deer,” answered Bob. “When would you come over?”

“How about Friday? It’s supposed to be warm, and the deer will be out.”

“Sounds good,” replied Bob.

“Is early afternoon OK?” I asked.

“See you then,” said Bob. “I’ll be somewhere around the yard.”

Friday morning, I took my .50 caliber Thompson-Center Hawken out of the safe. I had bought the rifle in kit form, and my dad put it together for me, making the gun priceless in my eyes. Then I worked on my ditty bag: 35 mm film cans filled with 80 grains of triple-F black powder, a tin full of percussion caps, patches, a small can of paste lubricant, a film can of .50 caliber lead balls, a ball starter, a nipple wrench and my knife.

Except for placing a percussion cap on my Hawken’s nipple, I loaded my rifle in the kitchen before I left. It’s like a drill. Fire a few caps to burn the oil out of the nipple. Pour 80 grains of powder down the barrel. With the rifle upright, set a lubricated patched ball on the muzzle. Start it down the barrel with a ball starter, trim the patch and drive the ball to the breech end of the barrel with the ramrod. Insert the ramrod back into the rifle’s stock and I was ready to go.

An hour later, Bob took me to a harvested bean field. Near the west edge sat two artificial large round bales. They were actually well-constructed blinds. Bob entered the north most blind, opened the windows and got it ready for me. He then wished me good luck and drove away. He returned after sundown.

Two folding chairs occupied the blind, as well as the Bog Pod tripod I had brought along. I needed to decide where to place the chairs, and then dope out a system where I could fire from any side with my tripod as a rest. I wouldn’t dare make a sound as I moved into position. I went through a mock drill until I had my routine where I wanted it. I also practiced cocking my rifle’s hammer without making a “click” sound. Finally, I placed a percussion cap over my Hawken’s nipple.

Two things troubled me. First, a mild wind blew out of the south. With both south and north windows open, a deer on the north could catch my scent. Second, with open windows on all sides, a deer on any side could detect motion in the blind as a light source was behind me. I would hope for the best, but I knew the south side would be my best bet.

I hadn’t been there 15 minutes when I saw a legion of turkeys coming single file from the southeast. When they were 100 yards south, they crossed the fence just west of me and poked around in a long-abandoned farmstead. Eventually, they passed just inside the fence within easy range.

Looking back to the southeast, I now spied about a dozen deer milling about in some standing corn about 300 yards out. Even without binoculars, I could see one was an exceptional buck. They moved out onto the bean stubble and played deer games for an hour before disappearing in the corn. I could see an elevated stand behind the corn. Bob had mentioned both a bobcat and a mountain lion had been seen earlier in the season by archery hunters beneath that stand.

Perhaps an hour had lapsed when random deer began to show up on all four sides. They kept their distance, however, well out of my comfort range of 50 yards with the muzzleloader. As sunset approached, deer numbers increased dramatically. One buck in particular knew that something was up with the blind. He was straight south of me, 100 yards out. His eyes were riveted on me, and he stomped the ground as wary deer will do. He no doubt detected my movement in the blind.

My best opportunity then came from the north. She was within 50 yards when she heard me bump my rifle on a chair. She retreated. In the meantime, a more or less broken stream of young bucks, does and fawns were passing south of me after jumping the west fence that separated me from the old buildings. I set my tripod for a shot to the south. Unfortunately, their accustomed trail was 100 yards out. They wouldn’t come any closer.

At sunset, I realized that if I wanted a deer, I would have to consider the deer south of me. I nestled my rifle into the yoke of the tripod. It was solid. A particularly large doe had stopped broadside on the south side trail. With the 100-yard plus distance, I put the front sight a bit high on her back just behind her neck. I cocked the hammer and set my rear trigger. At the touch of the forward trigger, an orange blaze of fire belched from the muzzle. When the rich blue smoke cleared, the doe was lying on the snow. I whispered a prayer of thanks, not just to God, but for guys like Bob.

Percussion caps as a firearms ignition system came into vogue around 1820. The cap replaced the flintlock system. The first really popular self-contained cartridges, the same as the ones we use today, made the Model 1866 Winchester popular. In 1873, the Model 1873 Winchester, as well as Colt’s Single-action Army pistol, or the six-shot peacemaker, made the percussion caps obsolete.

What does my Hawken rifle look like? Pay close attention the next time you watch Robert Redford’s “Jeramiah Johnson.” See you next week.