And where in the Show-Me State should you go for some of December 2007's finest deer hunting? We've got some suggestions. (December 2007)
Photo by Troy Huffman.
You don't have to think back into history very far to remember the best days for deer hunting in Missouri with a muzzleloader. The good ol' days? They're now!
Smokepole hunters have their own season, which offers them 10 days of prime whitetail hunting in the Show-Me State. That Missouri's deer population is at an all-time high, and that many public hunting lands are open to archery and muzzleloading hunting only, can only mean a double dose of good fortune to the muzzleloader hunter.
Lonnie Hansen is the Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist whose main job focus is the management of Missouri's deer herd. "Late-season muzzleloader deer hunting is by no means easy," he said. "We get complaints from muzzleloader hunters that the season is too close to the end of the November portion of the firearms deer season and that the deer are still spooked."
Despite those complaints, Missouri muzzleloader deer hunters tele-checked 10,013 deer during the 2006 smokepole season. The top region in deer harvest during the muzzleloader season last year was the Ozark Region, with a total of 1,499 deer taken. The top five counties in the region were Oregon (197), Howell (185), Phelps (175), Texas (167), and Dent (147).
Statewide, the top 10 counties in deer harvest during the muzzleloader season last year were Franklin (226), Osage (218), Ste. Genevieve (212), Oregon (197), Howell (185), Phelps (175), Crawford (172), Texas (167), Jefferson (160), and Gasconade (159).
Interestingly, all of the top 10 counties are south of the Missouri River. Why? It could be because many of these areas are not open to hunting during the antlerless portion of the firearms deer season. Hunters in these southern counties know that the muzzleloader season is their last chance to kill a deer with a firearm.
"From a management standpoint, the muzzleloader deer season really is not adding a lot more deer to the harvest," Hansen said. "If they (deer) weren't taken during the muzzleloader season, they would probably be killed anyway during another portion of the season. A lot of times, I will pass on a deer during the regular firearms season knowing that I can still shoot one later during the muzzleloader portion of the season."
Blackpowder hunters will be happy to know that some public hunting areas allow only muzzleloader and archery methods as ways of taking deer. "We have several public-use areas scattered throughout the state that are open to deer hunting with archery and muzzleloader only," said Hansen. "These areas are off-limits to the big crowds of centerfire rifle hunters, and some of these areas have evolved into some really good deer hunting areas."
The MDC began micromanaging individual public use areas for whitetails in 2005. This practice was implemented to help maintain healthy populations of deer while providing high-quality hunting experiences. Biologists carefully evaluated the effects of deer hunting on all areas owned or managed by the MDC. The result of the evaluation led to many area regulation changes. Thus, many areas were closed to modern firearms deer hunting and were left open only to archery and muzzleloader hunting.
This practice ruffled a few firearms hunters' feathers at first, but was generally welcomed by deer hunters who frequently hunted public lands. The increased numbers of deer on these areas are already apparent.
WHERE TO GO
Here's a look at two of the best places to go to for blackpowder deer in Missouri, including details about habitat, deer numbers and more from the MDC wildlife biologists who manage these lands for deer.
Rocky Fork Lakes CA
This 2,199-acre conservation area in Boone County offers muzzleloader hunters some diverse habitat and a lot of room to roam while deer hunting.
"This is an area that has not been open to centerfire rifle deer hunting for some 20 years," said Jim Loveless, an MDC wildlife management biologist. "And, it has only been open to muzzleloader firearms hunting for the last five years or so."
The above statement by Loveless should flip a switch in the minds of deer hunters that this is a great place to harvest a whitetail. The hunting pressure here has been minimal for years, allowing deer numbers to flourish and bucks to grow into older age classes.
Before this area was purchased by the MDC, it was mined for coal by the Peabody Mine Company. The spoils of the mining operation have left this area's terrain extremely rugged. Broad ridgetops and steep hillsides are common. About 1,150 acres of the area have been strip-mined. About 70 percent of the stripped land has been replanted with a mix of trees and shrubs. About 150-200 acres remain in native timber. The area also contains several food plots.
"We probably plant upwards of 25 acres of winter-type foods for wildlife which includes wheat, milo, sunflowers and millet," Loveless said. "We do our best to scatter these food plots throughout the area.
The sections of this area that have more forgiving terrain and are more characteristically described as gently rolling hillsides were planted in fescue. There are also plenty of watering holes for deer on this tract.
"We've got about 70 different water bodies on this area," Loveless said. "Some are very small in size, but we have one very deep lake."
Considering that this area is only six miles from Columbia, one might guess that it would be hunted hard. Not so. "We've got a good deer population here and some nice bucks," Loveless said. "But, this area only gets moderately hunted."
Tim James, another wildlife biologist for the MDC, suggested that hunters look for deer away from the main lake and in the open areas of the property. "We do a lot of habitat work up there," he said. "There is quite a bit of prairie grass and we do a lot of burning and thinning, which promotes the growth of forbs."
These management efforts are designed to encourage herbaceous plants' growth, which in turn offer deer more green browse.
"I would suggest that deer hunters get away from the main area near the lake and head off into more remote sections," James said. "Look for opening in the cover, the places where the natural prairies exist. These open areas are where I see most of the deer there."
These grassy plots are evenly distributed throughout the area. Hunters should also keep in mind that Finger Lakes State Park, which is not open to hunting, borders Rocky Fork Lakes CA on parts of its northern and western boundaries. Hunting near these borders may be a good option, as the state park can serve as a huge deer sanctuary.
An unmanned shooting range gets lots of attention from shooters in nearby Columbia. The range is open from daylight until dark. Hunting is not allowed in or around the perimeter of the range. Five different parking lots on the area, three of which are clustered around the main lake, and a network of trails, offer hunters good walk-in access throughout the area.
The habitat at Rocky Fork Lakes includes 400 acres of old fields, 400 acres of grasslands (non-prairie), 200 acres of savanna, 840 acres of forest, 300 acres of lakes and ponds, and 60 acres of cropland.
Rocky Fork Lakes CA is seven miles north of Columbia on state Highway 63 and one mile east on Peabody Road. For more information or an area map, call the MDC at (573) 884-6861.
Indian Hills CA
With nearly 3,900 acres of prime deer habitat in Scotland County, the Indian Hills CA has plenty to offer muzzleloading deer hunters.
Darlene Hoffman, an MDC wildlife management biologist, has been helping manage Indian Hills CA for wildlife since 1990. She has seen how the area evolved from a place with a lot of deer to a place with too few deer.
"In the late 1990s, deer numbers began slacking off here," Hoffman said. "In February 2005, we flew over the area in a helicopter and counted only 17 deer per square mile. That just wasn't acceptable on an area like Indian Hills, where we want to see 30 to 40 deer per square mile."
Too many hunters taking too many deer from this area led to the MDC changing this area to an archery and muzzleloader only area. "We're already beginning to see more deer," Hoffman said. "Our permittee farmers are reporting more deer as well."
The MDC is currently conducting a pilot trail camera study on the area to help them estimate deer numbers there. "We will have a total of 24 trail cams on the area -- about one camera for every 160 acres -- which we think will help us estimate the deer density here," said Hoffman.
In 2006, the MDC had only six trail cameras at Indian Hills CA. The additional cameras should be a great asset in helping biologists determine deer numbers there this year.
"Using helicopters to fly over the area is very expensive and not very practical," Hoffman said. "Also, the helicopter surveys can only be done after the hunting season is over and when there is sufficient snow on the ground."
Hoffman has been surprised at what the cameras have already revealed at this conservation area. "What really surprised me is how the bigger bucks were very nocturnal from the beginning of our study," Hoffman said. "Once the slightest pressure from hunters began, they completely disappeared from our cameras. We can only guess that they moved to more remote regions of the area. We hope to learn more about this by setting out additional cameras this year."
With the elimination of centerfire firearms hunters from the area, some management goals are already being met. The formula of reduced numbers of hunters simply equals more deer. "Before the regulation change, we would have over 100 vehicles in our parking lots during the deer season," Hoffman said. "Now we are in the neighborhood of about 40. I'm really surprised at how quickly the deer numbers have responded to fewer hunters."
Indian Hills CA is a deer hunter's dream in terms of habitat, containing a mix of old fields, cropland, timber, grassland and some wetlands. "Generally speaking, we have about 1,000 acres of row crops, and another 1,000 acres of timber," Hoffman said. "The timber is scattered throughout ditches and timbered draws and offers plenty of funnels and squeeze points that put deer in front of hunters."
This method of management provides a great variety of habitat, generating a mosaic pattern of food and cover. The differing habitats at Indian Hills CA include woods, fields and some river bottom timber areas. According to Hoffman, the largest crop field at Indian Hills is about 47 acres and the smallest 5.
Blackpowder hunters will be happy to know that some public hunting areas allow only muzzleloader and archery methods as ways of taking deer.
The MDC's future plans include another aerial deer survey, which is scheduled for winter 2011, plus additional hunter attitude surveys.
Indian Hills CA is eight miles south of Memphis on state Highway 15, three and a half miles west on county Route T, and then one mile south at the area sign. For a map or more information, contact the MDC at (660) 785-2420.
James Harrison of Hillsboro said that Missouri offers a lot of great places to hunt deer on public land, especially during muzzleloader season.
"The first thing I do is get a topographic map of that area I am hunting and begin my scouting on the map," he said. "I look for secluded valleys and saddles that are hard to reach," Harrison said. "Of course, finding a food source and determining a feeding pattern will go a long way in helping you fill your tag, especially at this time of year, when the deer are trying to replenish winter fat reserves after the rigors of the first rut."
Harrison cautioned that by December archers and centerfire riflemen have already hunted the deer hard. White-tailed deer are paranoid at any time of year, and in December their stress level is at an all-time high.
"I am religious about keeping my human scent down to a minimum," Harrison said. "I use scent removers and wash my clothes with scent-proof soaps. I wear rubber boots and make sure I don't fuel up my truck in my hunting gear the morning or evening of the hunt."
Harrison is a master at game calling, and knows how to call deer during this late season period. "I like to grunt for deer during the late season," he said. "However, I keep my tending grunts soft and subtle and not overly aggressive at this time of year, because many of the deer have been called to a lot already."
When it comes to scents, Harrison uses a doe-in-estrus scent, sometimes accompanying it with a little dominant-buck lure. "In the cold weather and snow, I like to set a ground blind up on a sunny hillside or ridgetop," he said. "The rule of thumb is: The colder it gets, the later I start hunting in the morning."
Another favorite set-up site of Harrison's is near a known bedding area. The deer are generally spooked at this time of year, and by setting up near a bedding area he can catch deer moving to a feeding area or just getting up to stretch their legs and browse around.
"Missouri hunters have a great chance of ki
lling a deer on public land with a muzzleloader," Harrison concluded. "Most folks think that every deer has been killed or chased off these areas by the time muzzleloader season rolls around, but that's just wrong. What you will find is that you will often have an entire public area all to yourself."
Missouri's muzzleloader season begins on Friday, Nov. 23, and lasts through Dec. 2.
Other good December blackpowder deer hotspots include Earthquake Hollow in Callaway County (85 acres), Hungry Mother in Howard County (274 acres), Big Creek in Adair County (1,199 acres) and DuPont in Pike County (1,320 acres).
For maps of these areas, contact the MDC at (573) 751-4115.
Find more about Missouri fishing and hunting at: MissouriGameandFish.com