Smokepoling In Mississippi

The primitive weapons season for deer opens in the Magnolia State this month. What sort of action is in store for this year? (December 2007)

Photo by R.E. ILG.

Back in 1979, I was hunting the opening morning of primitive-weapons season on a private tract of land adjoining the Homochitto National Forest in Jefferson County. Not yet having acquired the luxury of a tree stand, I cleaned off a spot at the base of an old hickory tree overlooking a red oak flat along Hurricane Creek. Acorns littered the ground, and a number of scrapes were visible along the creek bank. From my vantage point on the end of the finger ridge, I could easily spot any deer moving through the bottom.

Retrieving a No. 11 percussion cap from my possibles bag, I seated it firmly onto the nipple of my new Thompson Center .50-caliber muzzleloader. Having loaded the gun back at the pickup, I took care not to let the sidelock hammer slip from my frozen fingers as I lowered it down onto the copper cap. I then slowly pulled the hammer back until I heard the soft click that let me know it was locked in the set position. All that was left to do was sit back and wait for daylight -- and for the buck that had been making those scrapes.

As so often seems the case with greenhorns, that first morning out I encountered what had to be the biggest buck in the county. He was slipping through a cane thicket and quartering away when I pulled the trigger on my smokepole. With a slight hesitation the muzzleloader belched thunder, lightning, and a giant cloud of blue smoke. The explosion was still reverberating down through the creek bottom as I clambered to my feet and fanned an opening in the cloud of smoke before me.

After several moments, I was finally able to make out the body of the giant buck. But instead of being piled up on the bank of the creek, he was just standing there, staring back at me: Somehow I had missed!

Frantically, I attempted to reload my smokepole. With speed that would have made Daniel Boone envious, I poured a fresh charge of powder and rammed home a Maxi-Ball in record time. But that's when things went south. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, I made the mistake of glancing up to see if the big buck was still there -- which he was! In the meantime my now-trembling hand found, but dropped three of the small percussion caps before finally getting one out of the possibles bag and seating it on the nipple. Still fumbling with the hammer, trying to get it cocked, I looked up -- just in time to see that buck of a lifetime disappear into the thicket.

To say I was frustrated and disappointed would be the understatement of the century. However, that unfortunate event served a good purpose, in that I learned a great deal about loading my rifle properly. That aside, the mischance set me ablaze with enthusiasm for hunting whitetails by means of blackpowder rifles.

WHY BLACKPOWDER HUNTING?

Advances in modern-day weaponry enable a shooter to take a deer easily at 200 or even 300 yards. So why in the world would any sane hunter choose to reduce effective killing range by using a muzzleloader? Ask a dozen smokepole hunters this question, and you're apt to get at least as many different answers. However, after talking with hundreds of Magnolia State muzzleloader enthusiasts, I've come to the conclusion that, when you get right down to it, two types of hunters shoot primitive weapons.

The members of one of these groups view primitive weapons solely as a way to extend deer season. By taking advantage of the Magnolia State's two primitive-weapons seasons, they can stretch out their pursuit of whitetails by 28 days in Zone 1 and by a month and a half in Zone 2. These folks couldn't care less about the method -- or more about getting in more time afield. And in a state with a severe deer overpopulation problem, that may not be such a bad thing.

The other type of blackpowder hunter looks at the muzzleloader from a nostalgic point of view. For these romantics, hunting with a smokepole keeps alive the spirit and the craft of a long-vanished era. Sure, they want to put venison in the freezer, but to them, the way in which that goal is met is far more important that the meat. The appeal lies in a combination of the lure of history and the challenge of hunting at a far simpler level of technological development. They relish being able to harvest a whitetail with essentially the same rifle used by the likes of Jim Bridger and Daniel Boone.

Plenty of us fall somewhere between these two types. I have an old college buddy who hunts solely with a flintlock, and to him, any more advanced firearm isn't a true primitive weapon. While he's never come down too hard on me for using a caplock, I'd never consider showing up at his camp with one of my modern in-line muzzleloaders, complete with scope. And I'm quite certain that if I showed up with one of the now-legal breech-loading cartridge rifles, my friend would go into instant cardiac arrest.

Being an avid archer as well as a high-powered rifle enthusiast, I've found muzzleloading hunting to be an excellent way to combine the two passions. While nothing's more exciting than taking a buck by means of archery tackle, I still enjoy making a well-placed 300-yard shot with my .300 Remington Ultra Mag. By hunting with a muzzleloader, I can experience the best of the world between those experiences.

In order to harvest a deer with a muzzleloader, you must get much closer than you do with a high-powered rifle. And much as is the case with bowhunting, you must know the game better, and be more conscious of the wind and your scent. In opting for a muzzleloader, you're making a conscious decision to hunt as our forebears did. While you'll have to overcome greater handicaps, the heightened sense of satisfaction makes it worth the effort.

When you decide to hunt whitetails with a blackpowder rifle, three major hurdles must be taken into account. I can think of no hunting method that requires you to carry more accessories afield than does muzzleloader hunting. A properly stocked possibles bag should contain such items as powder, bullets, patches, lubricant, primers, solvent, a bullet starter, a powder measure, cleaning jags, a ball-pulling worm, a capper and a nipple wrench. Also, when it comes to a blackpowder possibles bag, organization is the name of the game. Knowing where each item is and how to access it at a moment's notice is crucial when quickly reloading for a second shot becomes necessary.

The second obstacle is one of the most difficult for the blackpowder hunter to overcome: All of those extras that you're carrying into the woods have their own very strong scents. If you thought your body odor was tough to conceal from the wary nose of the whitetail, you should be aware that this set of aromas is far more difficult to obscure. With all these additional smells floating around, you have to be much mor

e conscious of the wind and its ability to carry these unnatural fragrances to the deer you are hunting.

The final obstacle, and the one most overlooked, is that muzzleloader hunts are typically one-shot events. Modern-day rifle hunters have been conditioned to think in terms of multiple shots, and are accustomed to the idea that they can always get the deer with a second or third effort -- even a fourth, if need be. Many find it difficult to make the mental transition from a multiple-shot scenario to a one-shot deal, but the fact of the matter is that with a muzzleloader, one shot is the rule, so you'd better make it count.

Because there's no possibility of a do-over in most cases, muzzleloader hunters need to be extremely careful not to settle for anything less than a solid kill shot.

IN-LINE AND BEYOND

Tony Knight reinvented the in-line muzzleloader in the 1980s. These rifles had been around since the American Revolution but had never caught on with military or sporting shooters. This new persona for the rifles was introduced to help eliminate many of the frustrations of traditional designs. The spark from the primer in an in-line muzzleloader travels in a straight line to ignite the powder from behind, increasing the rifle's dependability, a removable breech plug greatly simplifies the cleaning process, and the enclosed action of many in-line models makes them almost waterproof as well.

In just more than two decades in-line muzzleloaders have come to dominate the blackpowder market. Prior to 1985, almost all primitive-weapons hunters carried traditional sidelock muzzleloaders; today, more than 95 percent of these hunters tote in-lines.

Madison County also boasts the top typical muzzleloader buck in the Magnolia Records with a 180 2/8-inch brute taken in 1996 by Stephen Greer. Ross Brown's 165 1/8-inch Pontotoc County buck taken in 2004 holds down the No. 2 position. Closing out the top typical muzzleloader bucks is the 163 7/8-inch beast shot by William Carpenter Jr. in Carroll County in 2000.

(It's worth noting that bucks taken with breechloading rifles don't qualify as muzzleloader kills for the Magnolia Records.)

When it comes to public-land muzzleloading opportunities in Mississippi, there are four locations that stand out above all the rest. Those are Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Yazoo County, St. Catherine Creek NWR in Adams County, Twin Oaks Wildlife Management Area in Sharkey County, and Mahannah WMA in Issaquena County.

Special hunting regulations and requirements apply at these public hunting tracts. For more information on WMA opportunities and regulations, go to www.mdwfp.com. Similar information on the national wildlife refuges in the state can be found at www.fws.gov.

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.