Michigan deer hunters are lucky to have such long deer seasons and flexible rules regarding the use of muzzleloader rifles. You can use your black powder rifle the entire gun season statewide. This year muzzleloading seasons are Dec.3-12 in Zone 1, Dec.10-19 in Zone 2 and December 3-19 in Zone 3. In addition, black powder rifles can be used during the entire Late Firearm Antlerless Only season Dec. 20-Jan 1, 2011.
Some hunters think that after the first couple weeks of rifle season hunting bucks is a lost cause. Not so, if you understand the habits of late season bucks and use advanced hunting techniques to find and outsmart them. You can still score on the trophy of a lifetime if you give muzzleloader season a try.
Not all does are bred during the November rut. Some come into heat during December and there is nothing that will draw a megabuck from his hideout like a hot doe that needs immediate attention. In my opinion many underrate the December rut because they do not hunt during this season. The truth is that many younger bucks have been trimmed from the herd by rifle hunters, leaving only the smart old bucks to take care of does that come into late estrus. When a doe comes into heat, and usually it is a young doe that has not come into heat before, she will search out and locate a receptive buck. She actually finds a reclusive monarch that is hiding in thick brush, swamp habitat, on a sanctuary and she actually draws him from his hideout.
This time of year, old bucks have gone to nocturnal movement patterns. They have learned that if they stay bedding during daylight, they will conserve energy burned from the long rutting season and avoid encounters with hunters. But if a hot doe keeps waving her tail in front of an old bucks face he will eventually respond. However, young does are intimidated by the size of a mature buck’s body, let alone his huge rack. And because young does are confused and perplexed by the entire breeding ritual, they have a tendency to throw caution to the wind and run haphazardly throughout the woodlands and countryside. This translates into an ideal hunting scenario for black powder deer hunters; a love struck buck moving during daylight. Put yourself into this situation and you can count on fresh venison for the freezer, pronto.
Several other variables contribute to a successful muzzleloader hunt. First, there is often fresh snow on the ground providing a white blanket that outlines brown deer and makes them easy to spot. Second, most of the leaves, ferns, tall grass and oak leaves have fallen to the ground making it easier to spot deer. However, the most important variable is the absence of human interference. Small game hunters are finished, deer hunters are out of the woods and local deer have cooled down after the long season and they begin to increase movement patterns.
But there is more to taking a dandy buck during muzzleloader season, some hard work and specialized hunting tactics must be used in order to score. Most savvy hunters keep an eye on their local herd. They quickly notice that deer in December are very nocturnal. Most are bedded before dawn and movement during daylight is very confined to thick underbrush or appropriate cover to conceal any activity that could draw attention from hunters. December deer develop a pattern that is easy to identify, they frequently begin night activity by standing up late in the afternoon and milling around just before dark. By sundown they are frequently on their way to feeding areas. This offers the savvy hunter an opportunity to scout feeding habit, set up a stand and intercept deer headed for the dining room. Sounds simple, well, actually it is, if you do your homework and understand the feeding patterns of deer in your area.
The secret to buck hunting success requires that the deer do not know when you are on stand. If deer know they are being hunted they quickly vacate the area. The secret to success often hinges on how sneaky you are. The trick is to avoid detection by matching your camo to the environment, using cover scents and not over-hunting a particular stand. The smart late season hunter waits until the wind is ideal and he stalks his stand without alerting deer to his presence. After the hunt, he waits until no deer are in the area to witness his exit. This requires advanced hunting skills, patience and a good understanding of deer and their ability to detect and avoid hunters. If you are taking stand in December and not seeing deer, they are on to you; time to give the area a rest and move to a new hunting location.
Northern deer hunters often concentrate late evening hunts in areas where there is food, usually oak ridges. Northern deer tend to congregate in thick underbrush that offers sweet saplings for food and around tall grass or cedar trees. When snow and cold weather arrives bucks tend to prefer cedar swamps, tamarack thickets and locations where conifer trees block wind and offer shelter.
Southern Michigan deer are usually hitting corn stubble fields or bean fields where they search for food. Once you have found good numbers of deer and located a good buck, place a tree stand on runways leading to the food. Take stand late in the afternoon and wait until deer are done feeding and move back into the underbrush before you climb out of my stand. Many hunters make the mistake of hunting too close to food sources and when it gets dark they allow the deer to see them as they leave stand. This costly maneuver will force animals into nocturnal feeding patterns and bucks will become impossible to see.
Gain permission on multiple properties and you increase your chances of scoring and you can use several hunting tactics in a single day and not burn up your spot. One strategy that has proven effective is to take stand during the low light of early morning and drive small brushy plots mid-day, then take stand late in the afternoon.
If there is fresh snow, scout for large tracks made by a mature buck. My Father was an expert at tracking deer. He could look at deer imprints in the snow and immediately identify the size and sex of the animal and determine what the deer was doing. He taught me that a buck chasing a doe will leave tracks on top of the smaller doe prints and usually rutting deer leave plenty of running tracks, ground scrapes and rubs. Feeding deer leave tracks that meander through the countryside. A big buck often will drag his feet in the snow leaving hoof prints my Dad nicknamed “sweepers.” Dad’s most impressive gift was the ability to follow deer tracks, spot bedded animals and harvest bucks that are bedded or jump-shoot them as they scampered from his snail-like, slow approach..
Tracking bucks and catching them snoozing takes practice, patients and advanced hunting skills. Most stalkers like to move cross or up wind and they keep their head up, constantly surveying the woods for the tell-tale sign of a deer. Sounds easy, but it requires hard work to watch deer tracks while constantly looking for a small brown patch that could be a monster buck. I’ve stalked hundreds of deer in my lifetime. Some have been trophy bucks and I must admit that most I’ve missed with gun or muzzleloader. One thing is certain, stalking a big deer in fresh snow is ultra-exciting, time goes by very fast when you can see the footprints of a 300 pound buck. Few outdoor adventures make your pulse quicken like knowing with your next step a huge buck could jump up and run helter-skelter. This was the case on a southern Michigan hunt.
I followed the huge tracks in the fresh snow across the stubble corn field, through a thick swamp, onto an acorn ridge, through more brush, until I noticed a small brown spot next to a tree 100 yards away. A look through my scope confirmed it was an adult buck. To his right there were three does on a ridge. I got behind some large oak trees and used them to block my approach as I slowly stalked the resting buck. At one point a doe was looking at me. I think she detected my shadow made by the noon sun, when I stood still she relaxed and rested her head on her back. The buck seemed fast asleep, his eyes half open, ears laid back. I moved from around the tree.
Now, I was in the open, but wearing snow camo, with the muzzleloader resting against the tree. My heart was racing; I could feel my pulse pounding in my fingertips. But the buck stayed put, unconcerned, and half asleep. All of a sudden the brute slowly stood, stretched his muscles, urinated, and began walking directly at me. I put the crosshair on his chest and squeezed the trigger. When I saw him kick for the sky like a mule, I knew I had a good hit. Ten minutes later I sat in the snow with the downed buck. I admired his rack and thanked God for the opportunity to hunt Michigan’s muzzleloader season bucks.
I hope you have an opportunity to give deer hunting a try during muzzleloader season. Landowners are likely to give permission this time of year. Few other hunters are in the woods. It is a perfect time to harvest deer and hang the meat until it is fully cured and tender for eating. Who knows, you may even score on a big buck.