Column: Late season deer hunting

ESCANABA — As is the tradition on the first Friday following the close of the regular 15-day firearm deer hunting season, the second 10-day season of gun deer hunting opened today only for those firearms that are loaded through the muzzle end of the barrel and historically were considered primitive in style.

There have been some objections raised over the continuation of muzzleloader season given the improved guns plus concerns over this time of year after the rut when deer once again begin to interact as a social group. If snow has begun filling the range, the increasing depth starts deer migrating to lower topography forest cover to seek thermal cover, food sources that are essential habitat during this stressful time of year. Some hunters feel this hunt period takes unfair advantage of the deer.

Today’s versions of muzzleloader rifles are more sophisticated with better twist rifled barrels, true bullet projectiles versus the original round lead ball, and plastic wad inserts that replaced the original grease patch. Instead of pouring pre-measured black powder into the barrel seat, synthetic powders, some compressed and molded into cylindrical discs are inserted as the charge. Instead of having an outside side breech hammer to ignite the powder charge through an external percussion capped nipple, most guns today use a conventional primer found as the firing charge, the same product found in conventional center fire rounds. The guns have lighter weight synthetic stocks and many are outfitted with scopes. The chance of fouling and not firing or short distance sighting has been greatly reduced. Most of the muzzleloaders today are sighted for a distance of at least 100 yards.

Gun safety with a muzzleloader is important. A hunter can safely unload the conventional firearm by ejecting the shells from chamber and magazine. They can also view the breech and chamber to assure it has been emptied. A muzzleloader can only be emptied when fired or by dragging the projectile (bullet) after being snagged with a screw that is attached to the ramrod. It can also be problematic when the user could potentially double load the gun.

No matter what design round is used, it has to be loaded through the muzzle end of the barrel to be pushed and seated at the base. A general rule of thumb is to mark the ramrod to show its furthest reach into the barrel for both loaded and unloaded measure. If double loaded, the increased restriction against firing could cause damage to the barrel including explosion and injury. It is equally important to assure the bullet matches the bore. Most muzzleloaders use a .45 to .50 caliber bullet and hunters need to assure the correct matching round is used. Some of those rounds can also migrate once placed.

The sabot bullets most resemble the conventional design center fire rounds. The original muzzle loader used a round ball or maxi-ball. The difference between the two was that the maxi doesn’t used a grease patch to secure and seal the round in the barrel and between the barrel. It uses bees wax and can actually slip forward in the barrel while being carried with muzzle down. If the pack against the powder charge is reduced, it could move the powder away from the primer and cause a hang (delayed) fire or total misfire.

The rule of transport of a muzzleloader in or on a motorized vehicle in Michigan is similar to any firearm. A muzzleloader is considered unloaded for transport if the percussion cap or primer is removed from the breech. All guns and archery equipment must also be cased while in transport.

Given the overall increased deer populations in specific areas of the Upper Peninsula, some offering enhanced antlerless (doe) deer tags, a lot of hunters have decided that they will settle with a doe and use muzzleloading to fill their tag, however, November on into December in northern Michigan is an unpredictable season as the region transitions to winter.

In the area where I hunt, unless there is a rogue adult buck still in rut that has moved into the territory, most of the large antler shooters are gone. Several of the known big bucks were taken in archery season and the others throughout the firearm season. We have been seeing a renewed number of smaller legal bucks but the general rule for experienced hunters is to let them go and shoot only those of six or eight point size racks. There are exceptions in that first time youth hunters and seniors are given choice. Those who purchased a combination license that permits the taking of two bucks are bound to the six or eight rule based on antler point restrictions built into the program.

According to the Michigan DNR, “Survival of deer during winter hinges upon a delicate balance between favorable shelter and adequate food. However, the amount and availability of good-quality food invariably determines how many deer can survive a prolonged, stressful winter season in any given area.”

Those wanting to protect the base population of deer sometimes feel muzzleloader and the late archery hunting seasons take unfair advantage of the deer as they may be migrating as snowfall begins and deepens. Some hunters set up along the established migration trails to enhance the opportunity to see deer. Hunters favoring the late season appreciate the need for balance and thus take deer to reduce competition among the whitetails and assure survival of the herd. It is a subjective argument and part of the annual debate of what is in the best interest of the wildlife itself.

In the mean time, the season continues and the most important message is be safe and use your best judgement while hunting.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Trails & Tales Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.