Hunting with a smokepole

Posted by Dan Carlson on Dec 4th 2020

Hunting with a smokepole

The mule deer buck stood still as a rock staring right at me. Members of his seven-doe harem glanced nervously my way and then back at the buck as if waiting for his cue to flee. The range was 300 yards and the buck’s rack dwarfed that of any other buck on my wall. Had it been rifle season, a single shot would have dropped the deer where he stood and sent me home with a new personal best trophy. But the gun in my hands was not a centerfire rifle. It was my CVA Optima in-line muzzleloader with open sights and the big buck was 200 yards beyond my self-imposed range limit. After what seemed like several minutes but was in reality seconds, the group of deer decided I was a threat and bounded off into thickening fog. I went home empty-handed Christmas Eve morning but was happy nonetheless. Some days I get the deer. Some days the deer gets me. That’s especially true when hunting the old-fashioned way.

Dan's Muzzleloaders

I own two muzzleloaders. One is the modern in-line Optima I mentioned and the other is a sporterized replica of a .50-caliber percussion side-lock Hawken that, apart from the adjustable sights and rubber recoil pad, is basically identical to what the mountain men of the mid 1800s carried. Both are legal where I was hunting in Nebraska, but I’d chosen the Optima that morning because it’s easier for my aging eyes to see both the front and rear fiber-optic sights. I really like shooting my Hawken replica, but it’s harder for me to line up the old iron sights with a target in low light and it was foggy.

At the risk of taking a controversial position, I have chosen not to mount a scope on my muzzleloaders for two reasons. The first is personal choice. For me, much of the fun of muzzleloader hunting lies in the challenge of sneaking up on game,closing the distance to 100 yards or less and dispatching the animal with a single shot. The second is a practical matter. Many states don’t allow anything but open sights during muzzleloader seasons. Some don’t even permit modern in-line guns but require percussion or flintlock models be used. My two smokepoles ensure that I am equipped to hunt in any state’s muzzleloader season where I draw a tag.

Muzzleloader technology continues to make incredible advances. Modern propellants teamed with the latest projectiles and good optics have made humane kills at ranges of 200-300 yards quite attainable with practice. Had I been outfitted with such a setup on my hunt, I’d be telling you about the monster buck I took down. It isn’t my place to be critical of anyone using legal and ethical methods to harvest big game. If you’re blessed to be the owner of one of these long-range modern muzzleloading setups and it’s permissible to use your weapon during the muzzleloading season where you hunt, more power to you. But just as there are those who question whether crossbows should be permitted during archery season, something that is permitted in nearly 20 states now, there are muzzleloader traditionalists who believe the season should be limited to percussion, flintlock or even more primitive matchlock and wheel-lock weapons. As an owner of both modern and traditional muzzleloaders, I try to stay neutral in such arguments but personally lean toward a more traditional approach and limit myself to open sights.

I’ve suggested that some game-management agencies consider adding special “primitive weapons” seasons in which only traditional muzzleloaders, bows, crossbows, spears and knives be allowed. Those last two will raise eyebrows, but the use of such weapons for hunting in some parts of the nation is on the rise. I’d like to see a special season for hunters who have to get up close, at least inside 100 yards, to have any chance of success.

But for now I’ll continue to stalk through the Sandhills and draws of western Nebraska hunting with my smokepoles the way it was done 160 years ago. It will mean missed opportunities, but when I have been successful it’s been among my most gratifying hunting experiences.