Looking to fill the freezer before spring sets in? For an eleventh-hour whitetail, give one of these public-land deer haunts a try. (December 2008)
Smokepolers killed nearly 4,000 more whitetails in '07's season than in '06's.
Photo by Troy Huffman.
The opening day of muzzleloading season started at 5 a.m., when I headed south to what I believed was a secret hotspot. The drive was filled with anticipation. I could already envision a giant buck hanging above my mantel.
An hour later, I eased down the gravel road that led to my honeyhole. My anticipation was peaking when the reflection of another vehicle in the distance dampened my hopes for the hunt. I was going to have to share the woods with another hunter.
No problem, I thought, trying to convince myself. It's a big area. But the closer I came to the conservation area, the more vehicles I saw. As I arrived at the parking area, I half-expected a valet to meet me. The area resembled a used-car lot full of pickup trucks.
I did my best to put some distance between myself and the other hunters by walking to the farthest reaches of the public hunting area -- as far from the parking area and roads that crisscrossed it as I could get. My efforts were rewarded with a glimpse of two deer that, tails tucked and heads down, were obviously determined to put as much country between themselves and the sea of hunter orange as was possible.
Not too long afterward, I was griping to Lonnie Hansen, a Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist, about the lack of low-pressure hunting areas during blackpowder season. "If I were to seek out a conservation area with little pressure," he offered, "I'd look for the areas that only allow blackpowder hunting during rifle season. During rifle season, the conservation areas are hunted pretty hard -- even harder than private property -- and (the deer) are more than just a little skittish."
Suddenly a light bulb dimly flickered inside my head, and I began searching to find some of these areas with renewed energy.
Let's face it: Hunting during the muzzleloader season is downright tough. You're hunting deer that have been pursued furiously for two weeks already, and you're restricted to using a single-shot rifle. But don't despair: Modern muzzleloading weapons have the edge over blackpowder models from as recently as two decades ago, when 100 yards was thought to be the maximum range of a smokepole. Today, technology has brought the muzzleloader to the level of many modern rifles. The muzzleloading rifle has gone through many transformations from the sidelock replicas to the new high-tech inlines that rival most deer hunters' rifles in both downrange energies and accuracy. Today, shots out to 200 yards and beyond are a reality.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find areas statewide in which to hunt during the muzzleloading season -- areas that restrict the use of firearms during the regular firearms season, but allow muzzleloaders during the rifle season. These areas often receive less hunting pressure than do conservation areas permitting rifles. Many of these CAs are little more than 40-acre pockets, while others are great expanses of several thousand acres to scout for a nice buck. One thing to remember: In these areas, blackpowder hunters share the woods with archers.
All state regulations and bag limits still apply, including the 4-point antler rule in applicable counties. CAs allow the use of portable tree stands -- which must be marked with the hunter's name and address -- from Sept. 1, 2008, through Jan. 31, 2009; all stands must be removed by Feb. 1, 2009. Screw-in steps cannot be used on trees in CAs because of concerns about damage. Regulations in force at various CAs sometimes differ from statewide regulations; contact your MDC regional office to obtain a brochure and map and to inquire about special regulations.
As more hunters discover blackpowder hunting, harvest numbers for the muzzleloader segment are slowly increasing. Still, the number of muzzleloader hunters is not as great as during the regular rifle season. Several factors drive the lag in numbers: Many hunters have already filled their tags, or have just taken two weeks of vacation for the regular season and are unable to take additional time for blackpowder season. The "family factor" plays a role too: After taking off two weeks for deer camp, many find a line being drawn at their not being at home for Thanksgiving weekend, which coincides with muzzleloader season. Finally, many hunters just haven't begun using a muzzleloader.
The 2008 muzzleloader season begins Friday, Nov. 28, and extends through Sunday, Dec. 7. In 2009, the statewide muzzleloader season will begin in the later part of December -- which may increase the harvest, as many hunters are off for Christmas holiday. Only a crystal ball can predict the success of this change, but I've hunted a lot of late-season muzzleloader segments with much success. However, I've also noticed that some bucks lose their antlers early, which might prove frustrating to successful hunters. Imagine the feeling in your stomach as you reach down to grab an antler of a record-book buck, only to have it fall off in your hand.
MDC harvest data for deer harvested during muzzleloader season in 2007 show an increase of 3,936 as compared to 2006's total. Oregon County in the Ozark Region reported 405 deer taken by muzzleloader, followed by Osage County in the Central Region with 294 deer killed. In the St. Louis Region, Jefferson County reported 292 deer harvested for the 2007 season. Antlered deer harvest reports show that Jefferson County led the way in terms of antlered deer taken with 103, followed by Oregon County with 97 and Texas County in the Ozark Region with 82 antlered deer harvested in 2007.
It seems that many are extending their season with a muzzleloader. Not only has the deer harvest increased, but the number of bucks harvested during muzzleloader season has also increased -- and by more than 46 percent: 2,870 antlered deer harvested in 2006, the total taking a giant leap in 2007 to 4,192
PICKS, AND WHY
I chose many of the following areas on the basis of deer densities, or because the county in which the conservation area lies has made strong showings in the Missouri record book. When it comes to an area's prospects for a trophy-buck harvest, the marker of past performance offers much the same insight that it does about a stock on the NYSE: It predicts relatively little about future performance. However, it doesn't hurt to hunt areas that big bucks are known to roam.
The Northwest Region boasts 15 CAs that mandate the use of only muzzleloaders during the regular rifle season as well as during the statewide blac
kpowder season. The areas range from the 51 acres of tiny Sowards Ford Access in Worth County to the expansive Poosey Conservation Area, which covers 5,684 Livingston County acres.
Among the best opportunities is King Lake CA, 1,273 acres spanning both DeKalb and Gentry counties east of state Route 169. Why do I pick this area over the other 14 areas? According to the Archery Big Bucks of Missouri Club records for 2007, a giant non-typical that scored 246 2/8 was taken in DeKalb County by a bowhunter.
The Northeast Region contains seven CAs restricted to muzzleloaders during the regular rifle season and the statewide season. After spending an extended weekend on a guided turkey hunt in this area and seeing the potential of the bucks that live in Adair County, my pick for this region would be 1,064-acre Big Creek CA, southwest of Kirksville, or the Dupont Reservation, in Pike County near Ashburn -- a 1,320-acre area that has "big bucks" written all over it. The Missouri Big Buck record book features a number of Pike County entries, including the 269 7/8-inch Simonitch buck. For solitude, head to 3,754-acre Indian Hills CA, in Scotland County south of Memphis; record-book bucks are hiding there, but be prepared to wear out some shoe leather to find them.
Kansas City Region
North of Nevada is the Four Rivers CA, lying in both Bates and Vernon counties. The 13,732-acre tract allows you to hunt for days, maybe even weeks, without seeing anybody else in the field. The toughest part about hunting this area: picking your spot.
Sure-enough record-book-class bucks dwell in the 1,345 acres of Clay County riverbottom that make up Cooley Lake CA. This county produces more than its share of record-book deer year after year, and might well be the place in which to write your very own chapter.
Trying to narrow down a honeyhole conservation area to harvest a first-rate buck in the Kansas City Region is like searching for Christmas decorations at Wal-Mart -- they're everywhere. Look for the smaller areas overlooked by other hunters, such as Marshall CA, its 169 acres lying west of Platte City in Platte County, or Fewel CA, north of Lewis in Henry County. Henry County is no stranger to record-book bucks, and 320-acre Fewel is a safe bet.
Though the Central Region has 12 areas with a muzzleloaders-only mandate during rifle season, the Missouri record book indicates that three areas stand out above the others. The first is Smith CA, north of Centertown. Most of the 517-acre area is in Moniteau County, but part of it stretches into neighboring Cole County, which has been coming on strong for record-book bucks, including a 200-inch-plus non-typical in 2007.
Rocky Fork Lakes CA, in Boone County north of Columbia is a 2,200-acre big-buck bastion. The Missouri record book is littered with entries from Boone.
My final choice in the Central Region may surprise many readers -- but 274-acre Hungry Mother Conservation Area, south of Higbee in Howard County, gets the nod. When non-typical bucks in the 180-inch-plus class start winding up in the book, I usually start taking notice of the place producing them.
St. Louis Region
The St Louis Region contains only three CAs restricted to smokepoles during rifle season. The Kingston Access, in Washington County is located west of Washington State Park, is only 59 acres in area and, like any small tract of land, can be over-hunted easily. I wouldn't overlook it, though, especially since it's close to other counties that consistently produce record-book bucks.
Redhorse Access, in Franklin County south of St. Clair, is a 43-acre tract alongside the Meramec River. It's another tiny area, but big bucks being pursued by hunters often look for sanctuary in these types of areas.
River Round CA, a 330-acre tract in Franklin County east of St Clair. This particular county has put several entries into the record book, and I don't expect big bucks to stop growing in this region.
Barton County boasts seven conservation areas enforcing the restriction we're concerned with in this story -- and I'll take the odds on offer here anytime. Among these areas: 260-acre Bethel Prairie CA, west of Interstate 71; 1,113-acre Buffalo Wallow Prairie CA, east of state Route 43; Clear Creek CA, covering 762 acres near Irwin; Comstock Prairie, its 320 acres west of state Route 43; 163-acre Davis Memorial Forest, near Sheldon north of Mindenmines; and 3,635-acre Shawnee Trail CA, south of U.S. Route 160. Barton County has several listings in the record book, so whatever time you put in at any of these areas will be well spent.
Stockton Lake -- more specifically, the Little Sac Unit in Dade and Polk counties -- is also a good bet for a nice buck. Both the Big Sac Unit and the Little Sac Unit are open to muzzleloader hunters. However, the Little Sac Unit is open to muzzleloaders only during the regular rifle season; be sure to look at a map to determine where the boundaries are. Stockton Lake, north of Springfield, has 16,572 acres in which to pursue a buck with a muzzleloader.
Bollinger County is home to all of the conservation areas in the Southeast Region that made our list. Though not known for trophy bucks, the Southeast Region still puts out several good bucks each year. Simple deer densities put these areas on the list of those to hunt.
Dark Cypress CA's 474 acres lie to the west of Advance. Hawn Access, northwest of Marble Hill, contains 81 acres. Little Whitewater CA, west of Patton, covers 80 acres. Sank CA, north of Zelma, is 118 acres in area.
Other areas within the Southeast Region may be worth considering -- deer densities, after all, tell only part of the story.
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After the muzzleloader season closes, deer season isn't over -- the antlerless portion and a late youth hunt have yet to run. The same CAs that allow only muzzleloaders during the regular rifle season also permit them during these seasons. Same deal: little pressure, plenty of opportunity.