Just as the popularity of bowhunting skyrocketed in the 1970s, so too did muzzleloader hunting in the 90s. With many states offering special seasons and bonus tags for black powder hunters, increasingly more big game hunters are opting to hunt with front-loading rifles. And thanks to technology, and other than their one-shot capability, contemporary muzzleloading rifles are every bit as effective tools for harvesting big game as the most modern breech-loading rifles or slug-firing shotguns.
Although the large and ever-increasing number of hunters opting to carry black-powder rifles is an indication of the firearms' effectiveness and reliability, a quick look at the growing quality of the trophy bucks being taken by muzzleloader hunters in recent years really drives it home. A good example is what occurred last year during New York's special late muzzleloader season, when the state record for bucks taken with muzzleloaders was smashed twice in a manner of three days.
The Radford Buck
Greg Radford, of Hemlock, in Livingston County, New York, is a firm believer in selective deer hunting. "If you take the first legal buck that presents a shot, if its a small one, you're damaging your chances at ever getting a trophy rack. Several of the farms I hunt are encouraging everyone to be more selective when shooting bucks so they'll have a chance to grow larger racks."
Radford had taken a decent buck during the early archery season, but had seen a big buck the landowner had also reported seeing. However, gun season came and went and no one had gotten the big deer, although Greg says he got a brief glimpse of it once. Then the week-long muzzleloader season opened on December 11.
"I'd won a new muzzleloader in a NWTF raffle three years ago, but I'd never taken a deer with it. It snowed several inches the night of December 14, and when I got to the hunting area the next morning, I was debating which stand I'd hunt from as I walked in. I decided to head for my favorite treestand and was happy to see there were many fresh tracks near it, including some really large ones.
"I climbed into the stand and let things quieten down. I started scanning the area, which consists of brushlots and a swale, and gave a half dozen grunts on my tube. Then I saw two deer appear in the edge of the swale, both of them looking in my direction. They were quite a distance away, so I scoped them and noted one was a buck and appeared to have a big rack. I grunted a couple more times and the buck started moving toward me.
"It angled into the brushlot and then as it got closer, I saw it was a really big buck. My knees started getting a bit shaky and I told myself to calm down and not look at the antlers again. When the buck got to within about 35 yards, it stopped. I settled the crosshairs on its chest and fired.
"The buck whirled and ran back toward where it had first appeared. I knew I couldn't have missed it, as I know my T/C rifle and Buffalo Bullet conicals shoot dead-on at such close range. But I was still worried until I saw the buck go down before it went out of sight. I flew out of the treestand and first went to where the deer was when I shot. There was hair, but no blood. I cautiously approached the buck in case it was still alive. Then I saw its head was down and I could see one huge antler sticking up. It was, indeed, the big deer several of us had seen."
Greg's massive 11-pointer later scored a whopping 166 7/8 inches, making it the largest buck ever taken by a muzzleloader hunter in New York State at the time. Greg felt both elated and very lucky, but fate wasn't quite done. Two days after Greg downed his trophy, a hunter in Cattaraugus County would see Lady Luck smile on him as well.
The Andera Buck
Daniel Andera of Ellicottville, New York, knew there was a trophy-size buck inhabiting his family's farm as well as drifting in and out of farms adjoining theirs. Several people had seen the big buck, including Dan's father, and their insurance man had even photographed it once. Dan and his dad had also found the buck's sheds in 2000, which they had scored. The sheds measured a bit over 150.
"Together with a few of our neighboring farms, we've been practicing voluntary quality deer management the past few years," Dan says. "We started out taking nothing less than six points and graduated to nothing under eight. Plus, we have one of the farms kept off-limits to hunting, which acts as a kind of refuge so some of the bucks always have a good chance to survive.
"During the gun season my dad had a shot at what he was sure was the big buck, but his shot went low, under the buck's chest. When he got back that evening, he said, 'You should see the size of the buck I just missed. I don't know how many points it has, but it's at least a 20-inch spread.'"
Dan muzzleloader hunts with an in-line equipped with a scope and shooting sabots. On the morning of December 17, the last day of the season, Dan had gone to the bank and as he was coming home, he saw some deer near a creek that flows through their property. So once home, he got his muzzleloader and, having both a buck and doe tag, thought he'd see if he might fill either.
"I worked my way along the creek, using some thick brush as cover, until I knew I was within range and took a few steps to where I could see them. One was a decent buck, so I quickly settled the crosshairs on it and fired. I didn't realize just how big he was until I walked up to where he laid. That's when I started to get really excited."
Dan's buck was, indeed, the same buck they'd seen before and that they'd found the sheds from. The 4 1/2-year-old sported 13 points and eventually scored 172 4/8 inches, surpassing the big buck that Greg Radford had taken just two days prior.
Lessons to Be Learned
From the avid whitetail hunter's standpoint, there are two important lessons to be learned from both these trophy bucks' stories. One is that quality deer management, even in heavily hunted areas, does indeed work and creates trophy-size racks in a relatively short time. You can't keep shooting every smaller legal buck you see and expect many trophy racks to appear. The bucks just don't live long enough for their antlers to reach maximum size. Most don't produce their largest racks until they're 5 1/2 to 7 1/2 years old.
The other point is that a few trophy bucks can and often do survive the hunting season. In the case of these two New York monsters, both had lived through a full two months of heavy hunting pressure, beginning with the archery season which opened October 15 and almost making it to the end of the late muzzleloader season finale, which ended December 17.
So, trimmed down to the lean, the hunter who passes up the small legal bucks he or she sees, is hunting in an area known to harbor at least one big buck, hunts hard throughout the entire season, and has a bit of good luck on their side may just shoot the biggest buck of their lives. Hey, you never know . . . as the preceding two stories have proven.