Whether you hunt smokepole bucks on familiar ground or explore new territory, this expert advice on muzzleloaders will help you bring home some venison.
December's muzzleloader deer season means different things for hunters in different parts of Minnesota. Our whitetail country is at least as diverse as the deer habitat in any other state or province in North America, possibly more so. Consider that idea for a moment.
Imagine a hunter climbing into a tree stand at frigid dawn in our southeastern hill country, settling in to survey a view of cut cornfields and oak woods with the trees still clinging to most of their russet leaves. That outdoorsperson is going to have a very different experience than the still-hunter sneaking down a snowy northern trail in the late afternoon, looking for the horizontal silhouette of a whitetail stopped in midstride in an aspen thicket in hopes of letting danger pass.
Picture a hunter in far western Minnesota walking into a small-town café, meeting a handful of buddies for coffee and a planning session, then heading out with those partners to team up and "push" frozen cattail sloughs far from anywhere in hopes of flushing whitetails out for a shot.
Compare that approach to a Metro-area hunter taking an afternoon off from work to climb into a stand overlooking a wetland edge while rush hour traffic buzzes by on a county road just a couple of hundred yards away.
More about Muzzleloaders
Think about a hunter situated in a ground blind along a ribbon of riverside cover in wide-open southern Minnesota farmland somewhere near the Iowa border. That's a very different vista and viewpoint than a counterpart hunting a couple of hundred miles to the northwest, where cornfields and hay ground mix with spreads of aspen timber.
No matter where you hunt in our state, a Minnesota muzzleloader hunter has one goal at this stage of autumn's progression of deer seasons: Put some venison on the ground! It's great to hold out for a big buck, if that's your style. But truth be told, anyone taking on the one-shot muzzleloader challenge should be proud of any whitetail he shoots — whether it sports big antlers, little antlers, or no antlers at all.
The job now is to notch a tag and fill the freezer. Let's take a look at muzzleloader success in our state, see where the top areas are, explore some new places to hunt, and put together a frontloader hunting game plan for each region of Minnesota.
2016 HUNT RESULTS
2016 was a good year for Minnesota muzzleloader hunters. A total of 53,097 hunters bought muzzleloader permits, the most since 2012's 58,263 smokepole hunters. The increased interest probably reflects heightened interest and opportunity as Minnesota's whitetail herd continues to rebound.
It should be noted that Minnesota's muzzleloader hunting fraternity grew exponentially in 2008. That's when the state began allowing hunters to use their muzzleloaders if they so wished and had the appropriate tags after firearms season. Way back in 2007, the muzzleloader hunt was attracting about 10,000 or so shooters; in 2008, we had more than 60,000. The number has hovered in the 50,000 range since.
In 2016, we shot 8,250 deer in regular muzzleloader hunting seasons around the state. That might not seem like a lot, but it was almost 5 percent of Minnesota's overall whitetail harvest, and it reflected a hunter success rate of 15.5 percent — a nice clip. Last season's harvest was the highest muzzleloader deer harvest on record since 2012.
The harvest breakdown reflects hunters' harvest preferences at this time of year: Putting venison in the freezer. While 3,092 bucks were shot, 5,148 antlerless deer — 3,773 adult does and 1,375 fawns — dominated the bag. Some hunters likely save their lottery and bonus antlerless tags through firearms season as they wait for a buck, then use them during muzzleloader season.
In addition, 139 deer were shot in special muzzleloader hunts held in a selection of state park, city (Tower and Grand Rapids), and wildlife management area hunts.
The top muzzleloader harvest areas in Minnesota are as follows. In the 100 series units, 157, 172 and 184 led. In the 200 series units, 213, 215 and 241 dominated. It's noteworthy that unit 242, that area north and east of Highway 10 from just east of Motley to Detroit Lakes and then over to Park Rapids and Bemidji, beat all comers statewide with 426 muzzleloader deer harvested. Down in the southeast, units 342, 346 and 349 took top honors.
2017 HUNT DETAILS
This year's muzzleloader whitetail season begins Saturday Nov. 25 (the Saturday after Thanksgiving) and runs through Sunday Dec. 10. Any hunter can buy a muzzleloader license, including people who have purchased a firearm license. The muzzleloader license is valid for either-sex deer in any hunter choice, managed, or intensive area. In lottery areas, you must have applied for and hold an unused either-sex permit to take an antlerless deer.
Note that licensed youth hunters aged 10 to 17 are approved to take deer of either sex statewide, except in permit areas designated buck only. This is a great opportunity for a young hunter to take on the one-shot challenge of muzzleloader hunting and have a decent chance at connecting.
SOUTHEAST HILL COUNTRY
The southeastern 300-series units contain some of our most productive whitetail range, but that area of the state can be challenging for gaining access to private ground — for archery and shotgun seasons, that is. But come muzzleloader season, a deer hunter will find more landowners willing to let smokepolers have a shot at the ample remaining whitetails.
The Whitewater WMA (28,000 acres of prime habitat, mostly in Winona County) is a great public-land option.
In the southeast, the name of the game is proper stand selection on a travel route between bedding areas and feeding spots. Morning hunting is tough because you usually can't get in without spooking deer. Afternoon-to-dusk hunts are best, where you can sneak between the deer and the feed to intercept traveling whitetails.
BIG NORTH WOODS
There's endless national forest and state forest land to explore in northern Minnesota. The Chippewa National Forest offers over 666,000 acres to roam. Look into the Deer River, Blackduck and Walker areas. Most of Minnesota's state forests fall in that zone; check out hunting options at dnr.state.mn.us/state_forests/map.
Sitting and waiting can work there. But a better plan may be to get out on foot and still-hunt along, covering ground slowly while always keeping an eye ahead for moving deer or just the flick of an ear, the twitch of a tail, or the horizontal belly or back line of a deer. Northern deer must feed hard at that time of year, and they'll be out moving at any time of day.
Minnesota's transition zone — that wide swath running from the Metro and St. Cloud to the northwest corner of the state — offers plenty of whitetails and ample places to hunt. WMAs are king there, as are state forests pushing the west side of the northland. Private land access is possible now that landowners and their guests are largely done hunting. Two big National Wildlife Refuges — the Tamarac and Agassiz — also offer plenty of wild space.
A well-chosen stand or a carefully planned still-hunt can work in the prairie transition zone. Find some farmland and set up in areas where whitetails stage before going out to feed in the afternoon. Morning and midday, still-hunt thickets and bedding areas.
There are whitetails out in our "Big Wide Open" and no shortage of hunting spots. The west-central and southwest sections of the state offer the biggest concentration of WMAs we have. Walk-In Access lands offer 25,000-plus additional acres; bird hunters use these lands, but deer hunters sort of forget about them. Another great hunting land resource here is the Waterfowl Production Areas.
In prairie and farm country, the deer "push" is king. Sure, hunting from stands produces deer. But where cover is limited you know where the whitetails are, and teaming up with a small group of friends can put venison on the meat pole. Grasslands and cattail sloughs are always going to hold deer for hunters willing to work a little to get them.
Similar to our western prairies, southern farmlands feature WIAs and WMAs (although in lower densities) to hunt if you don't have access to private land.
Here, you should be working river and stream corridors, along with small tree claims — the available deer cover. Smartly planned pushes can move deer to waiting hunters. Or, set up in a ground blind or tree stand in feeding areas and wait for hungry whitetails to arrive.
METRO EXURBS AND WOODLOTS
The Metro area is rich with deer. But it's not rich with public lands to hunt. The trick to muzzleloader hunting there lies in your getting permission from a landowner or two. Friends of friends are a great "in" to access here, to make the initial introduction. It's worth the effort, and could net you a few hunts in productive areas close to home if you're a Metro resident.
Metro muzzleloading calls for a sedentary hunting approach, due to the limited acreage of most parcels. Your best bet is to set up a tree stand along travel corridors and then sit tight.
There's nothing worse than pulling the trigger and hearing an empty "click" with no BOOM!
Muzzleloading gear can get cantankerous in the cold and snowy weather of Minnesota. Traditional flintlocks experience the biggest challenge in igniting, followed by caplocks and then modern primer-and-pellet muzzleloaders. Fortunately, you can help make sure your shot comes off by taking the following steps.
- Use alcohol to de-grease all the gun's moving parts of oil and gunk. Give everything a light spray of Teflon oil, and then wipe dry with a clean cloth.
- Make loading easy: Use a lubed felt wad between powder or pellets, and the bullet.
- Place a piece of electrical tape over your muzzle to keep snow and moisture out. Shoot right through.
- Wear gloves with the fingertips cut off so you can manipulate all the little pieces and parts — primers, nipples, nipple picks, powder measures — that go with muzzleloading.
- Expect some hang time between trigger pull, ignition, and bullet-out-the-barrel. Consciously will yourself to hold on-target.
- If the weather has been nice and dry, leave your firearm outside in the cold at night, but protected in a vehicle, woodshed, barn or outbuilding. Don't bring your muzzleloader into a warm house or cabin where condensation can occur. If there has been precipitation or fog of any kind, bring your rifle in and give it a thorough cleaning and drying before loading next time.
Minnesota's muzzleloader season is not an easy hunt to tackle. Conditions steadily move toward — or perhaps have already entered — winter mode. That makes it tough to stay warm if you're going to sit still, and hard to figure out just what to wear if you're going to be on-the-move doing pushes or still-hunting on your won.
The other wild card is the whitetails themselves. They've been hunted some, and are keen to hunters' intentions.
But you hold a couple of aces in your own hand of cards. You can predict where whitetails will be — in thick thermal cover near food, on their way to the food, or on the food — and you hold a highly effective hunting tool in your hands.
Join the fun: Take Minnesota's one-shot challenge this season.