Flintlocks On Wheeler

The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge holds a flintlock-only primitive-weapons hunt each January. Here's a look at the hunting and a preview of what the action is like.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Water, flintlocks and deer hunting do not usually pop up in a single thought. But for hunters on the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), the three go hand-in-hand. That is because the only opportunity available for using a firearm to bag a whitetail there occurs during the flintlock-only hunt running Jan. 18-31 this month.

Wheeler NWR is very much a water-oriented location. Established in 1938, it was the first refuge ever placed on a multi-purpose reservoir and presently covers 34,500 acres of land and water spread along 40-plus miles of the fertile Tennessee River basin. Of this total expanse between the towns of Decatur and Huntsville, only 18,000 acres are open to hunting, but they feature 3,500 acres of food plots.

The NWR was basically established as a waterfowl refuge, and much of the area borders water, is most easily accessible by water, or is even under water during wet weather. That, of course, can be a headache for flintlock hunters, since they have to expend extra effort to keep their powder and weapons dry.

Last year was very wet, which exacerbated the problems and led to only 12 deer being taken during the two-week late season hunt. This means the potential exists to take a holdover buck. More bucks escaped that season, and the limestone-derived soil nutrients of the abundant food supply provide the deer the chance to grow some impressive antlers.

Recent deer studies categorize the herd as in excellent condition and approaching maximum carrying capacity throughout the tract. Deer were once concentrated on the better cropland areas on the northwestern part of the refuge. Today, however, additional fields have been put into cultivation to encourage dispersal of waterfowl, but they have also worked to disperse the deer.

A hunt strategy can be as simple as scouting by road and river to find a food plot with abundant big deer sign and then setting up a blind or tree stand and waiting with your flintlock for a rut-crazy buck to come looking for does. Gestation studies indicate that breeding starts in late November, continues into early February and in some years may peak during the last two weeks of January, when the hunt takes place on the Wheeler NWR.

By January most hunters have harvested all the freezer meat they want but are still hopeful for "that big buck." How big do they get at Wheeler?

"There are some good bucks taken every year, and if we had a quality deer management program I imagine that this habitat could produce some outstanding racks," said refuge biologist Bill Gates. "As it is, the deer are not allowed to grow big enough to produce consistently high-scoring headgear."

The best deer taken during the recent past was a 10-pointer weighing over 225 pounds. Torbin Speegle, who handles law enforcement activities at the refuge and participates in the flintlock hunt, suggests hunters let the forkhorns walk if they want to see big deer in the future.

A network of roads off interstates 65 and 565 offer land access to the NWR. Most of the water access is provided by boat launching facilities located on the south side of the Tennessee River. From east to west, these include Sunny Side, opposite Redstone Arsenal, at the north end of Talucah Road; off Sharp Ford Road on Cotaco Creek; and just west of Rolling Hills on Flint Creek. There is also a private marina on U.S. 31 in Decatur.

On the north side, Arrowhead Landing allows boating access for exploring Limestone Bay and the southern end of Beaverdam Creek Swamp. The landing is south of the community of Mooresville. Some bays in this vicinity are choked with water lilies, and a Go-Devil type of boat engine with a long tail shaft is ideal for traveling through these areas.

The Tennessee River has year-round barge traffic. These barges can swamp small boats. Exercise caution when crossing the river channel.

There are some regulations to keep in mind when hunting at Wheeler NWR. First of all, no Sunday hunting is permitted and you must wear hunter orange. It is illegal to hunt on any of the islands in the refuge that are smaller than 40 acres. No deer may be taken from the water.

Also, though the flintlock season is concurrent with the last part of archery season, you may not have both guns and bows at your stand. All flintlocks used on the NWR must be .40 caliber or larger. Guns must be unloaded and dismantled or cased when transported in boats.

During the flintlock hunt, one deer of either sex may be taken per day. Be aware that improper disposal of offal from a field-dressed deer can get you in trouble on the NWR. Leaving it on public land or in public water is an offense.

A free hunting permit must be picked up prior to hunting. These are available at the refuge headquarters on State Route 67 at Flint Creek, just east of Decatur. All deer must be reported to the refuge office within 72 hours of being harvested.

Now that we know where the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is located and what it offers, the next step is taking advantage of the resource. For the January hunt, this means becoming familiar with pursuing deer with a flintlock rifle.

The first thing to bear in mind in picking out a flintlock is to get the heaviest gun available. Even the best flintlocks sometimes have delayed ignition, and heavy barrels help keep the gun on target.

In the hands of an occasional shooter, a flintlock's effective killing range is more determined by how fast the lock fires than any other factor. When ignition is instantaneous, most people can shoot flintlocks just as accurately as percussion guns. When ignition is slow, accuracy degrades to the point that a deer standing only 40 yards away may be perfectly safe. When their weapon has good ignition and they have a rest to shoot from, most hunters are able to hit the vital areas of a deer at 75 yards. Shooters who know their guns' trajectories can extend this range by another 25 yards.

When flintlocks were used in the U.S. military, flints were expected to last for 20 shots. Many modern flintlocks are so ill-designed that they will allow just a few strikes, or sometimes just one strike, of a flint before ignition is noticeably slowed. Always use a new flint, or at least a newly retouched flint, on each hunt. It is also important to make sure the flint is held firmly in place.

Caliber and bullet style play important roles in killing power for this type of deer huntin

g. Round balls of .50 or .54 caliber are good choices out to 70 yards with 100- to 125-grain loads of FFg, but their performance degrades beyond this range.

Some more recently produced flintlocks handle elongate bullets and sabots. These projectiles can extend killing ranges, provided you know the bullet drop and wind drift for the load.

A .40-caliber round-ball load, the smallest caliber legal for deer on Wheeler NWR, is best employed at ranges of under 40 yards, and then only for perfect shots. These little lead spheres can kill at close range but lack the momentum to penetrate deer.

Probably the biggest drawback to using this small caliber is that the round ball does not ordinarily exit the deer on a broadside hit. Sometimes, even though fatally struck, the deer shows no signs of being struck as it runs off, and with lack of an exit wound there is virtually no blood trail to follow.

Since water is never far away on Wheeler NWR and in normal years January can be wet, weather proofing your flintlock hunting is important.

It is a good idea to change from FFFFg to FFFg for priming powder in damp weather. Also plan on sealing the firing pan with wax. Take a vent prick, dip it in hot wax and wipe it rapidly around the edges of the pan until it is completely coated. Finally, use a mule's knee made of oiled and waxed leather to cover and protect the action while in the field.

Another trick for bad weather hunts is to create your own portable blinds. These blinds enabled me to wait in comparative comfort for deer to move, even in showers or thunderstorms. I make one blind with a frame of black-painted 1-inch by 14-inch PVC pipe, walls of green cotton cloth, a roof made from painted canvas drop-cloth, and a see-through camouflage door. When this blind is tied to nearby trees, it is strong enough to provide shelter even during severe storms.

If you get caught in the rain without a cover for the gun, the best way to carry a flintlock is to put the lock under your armpit and cover as much of the gun as possible with a poncho. This is an uncomfortable, but field-expedient way of keeping the gun dry enough to shoot.

A balloon-like slipover rubber cover is available to keep water out of the end of the barrel. This cover is blown off by the column of air ahead of the bullet and does not interfere with accuracy. A single piece of electrician's tape will also work. Do not place other objects in the muzzle, as these may not be removed in the excitement of seeing a deer. If the gun is shot with such a barrel obstruction, the result will be a bulged or split barrel.

Finally, fire, clean and thoroughly dry the gun and lock each night. If a heating stove or radiator is available, place the clean barrel and lock on top of the heater until they are hot to the touch to ensure that they are thoroughly dry.

In addition to the usual rules regarding safety with muzzleloading guns, there are a few additional items that pertain to flintlocks. Always wear eye protection when shooting flintlocks. This is because a jet of super-hot gases, along with flint fragments, is ejected horizontally from the vent of a flintlock.

The only way to carry a loaded flintlock with absolute safety is with the hammer down on an empty pan. This is because flintlocks can be "self-priming," in that powder from the main charge can trickle into the pan as you walk or when the gun is transported in a vehicle.

* * *
For more information or answers to specific questions concerning deer hunting at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, contact the refuge office at 2700 Refuge Headquarters Road, Decatur, AL 35603 or telephone (256) 350-6639.

You can also visit the refuge Web page at http:/wheeler.fws.gov/.

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