Keep Your Powder Dry
Two public areas stand above the rest for hunters who like to take advantage of the state’s generous muzzleloader season.
|Photo by TOM EVANS|
Muzzleloader hunting is growing in popularity in the Bayou State as hunters seek to extend the amount of time they can spend in a stand holding a rifle.
I was hunting with good friend Luke Lewis on a hunting lease that is adjacent to Jackson-Bienville Wildlife Management Area south of Ruston. Lewis, a wildlife biologist, planned to video me taking a deer on video, and was all set to preserve my special moment for my grandchildren to one day enjoy.
As a warm and damp dawn broke over the food plot in front of the box stand where we sat, we watched intermittent rain showers come and go. Admittedly, it was not an ideal day for deer hunting in Louisiana, especially when your weapon is a muzzleloader.
I was lost in thought when Lewis touched my arm.
“There’s a deer right under the stand,” he whispered.
Peering out the window, I saw her — a nice fat doe. The land we hunted was in the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), and a big part of the management scheme was to take antlerless deer. I was only too happy to oblige.
“Let me get some footage of the deer first; really, it’s not quite light enough to get the best footage — just get ready, and wait until I give the signal,” Lewis whispered.
I was enjoying the show, watching Lewis video the deer when he nodded it was show time. Easing the barrel of my 50 caliber in-line muzzleloader out the window and nudging the safety, I lined the sights on the doe’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
The gun responded with a weak “pop.” Only the primer ignited, and I watched in disbelief as the doe bounded safely away.
My problem? I had loaded the rifle two weeks earlier as muzzleloader season opened in Louisiana. Not seeing a deer to shoot, I placed the rifle behind the seat of my truck where it remained, without the primer of course, for two weeks, enduring typical cool/warm, wet/dry Louisiana weather. The Pyrodex pellets had accumulated enough moisture to refuse to ignite.
Since that embarrassing fiasco several years ago, I have managed to take several deer with my muzzleloader, including the heaviest deer I ever shot, a big-bodied 8 point that tipped the scales at 215 pounds.
The buck I took on a private hunting lease, however, pales in comparison to a number of eye-popping buster bucks taken in recent years around the state with muzzleloaders. Surprisingly, several of these trophy bucks were taken on public land.
Two of the prime public areas where some of the most impressive black-powder bucks were taken are Lake Ophelia National Wildlife Refuge and Camp Beauregard WMA, both located in central Louisiana.
“Lake Ophelia has produced several really big bucks over the years,” said David Moreland, head of the Wildlife Division with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “Basically, there are two reasons for this — the area features some good bottomland habitat with fertile soils that grow plenty of nutritious food for deer.
“In addition, this area doesn’t experience the hunting pressure some of the other public areas see since the only type of hunting allowed on Lake Ophelia is archery and muzzleloader. The absence of a regular gun season means there are fewer hunters out there, which takes the pressure off the deer.”
Michael Willis of DeVille had a memorable experience during the 1997-98 deer season on Lake Ophelia. He took a buck with his muzzleloader that for four seasons sat atop the state’s big-game list for black-powder bucks with an official score of 168 5/8.
“The day I killed my big buck was the first day I’d ever hunted Lake Ophelia,” said Willis. “My brother-in-law and I got a map before the day of our hunt and studied it carefully, picking out the area where we felt we wouldn’t encounter other hunters because of difficult access. We scouted the area and found quite a bit of deer sign.
“The morning of the hunt, we checked in at the gate, and headed to the spots we’d found. I had a good feeling because I didn’t see any flashlights coming through the woods, so I felt maybe I’d have this place to myself.
“Daylight came, and I could hear deer running through the water near me, I assume pushed along by hunters entering the woods. I heard something walking quietly through the water behind my stand and assumed it was another hunter, so I stood up so he could see my hunter orange vest. However, it was not another hunter; it was a huge buck.
“He stepped into an opening at 15 yards, and I shot. He ran about 25 yards and fell, but it was not until I walked up to him that I realized what I had.”
Willis’ trophy buck had 14 scoreable points, was 20 3/8 inches inside, weighed 265 pounds, and was determined to be 6 ½ years old.
Lake Ophelia produced another eye-popping black-powder buck on Dec. 1, 2001, for Rudy Bonnette of Cottonport.
“I loaded up my pirogue, and headed for Lake Ophelia. Soon after I got there, I could hear deer moving around in the water, so I took my pirogue and paddled as quietly as I could, checking the ridges for deer.
“The first two ridges I checked, I didn’t see anything. As I approached the third ridge from about 65 yards, I noticed three logs bunched together in 5 feet of water about 10 feet from land. I was surprised to see this big buck lying down on two of the logs with his head resting on the third. His eyes were closed.
“I eased out of the pirogue and began sneaking toward him to get close. I stepped on a stick, it snapped, and the deer opened his eyes and lifted his head. When I saw the white of his throat as he looked at me, I put the sight on that spot and fired.”
Estimated live weight of the buck was approximately 250 pounds. The buck carried nine typical points along with nine non-typical tines, and green-scored 183.
On the same day Bonnette was basking in the success of bagging his monster buck on Lake Ophelia, William Jordan Jr. was hunting on Camp Beauregard WMA, less than 50 miles from where Bonnette was hunting. Jordan waylayed a buck that would nudge Michael Willis’ record holder off the throne.
Jordan lives less than 400 yards from the property line of Camp Beauregard, and knows the area like the back of his hand.
“My brother-in-law, Eddie Feazell, had invited me to hunt with him that morning. I got up well before daylight, and was about ready to leave the house when Eddie called to say his daughter was sick and he couldn’t go hunting,” Jordan said.
Jordan decided to hunt alone, and when he got to the area he had planned to hunt, he saw several flashlights of other hunters who had beaten him to the area.
“I decided to loop around these hunters and head for the other end of the same ridge. I hadn’t scouted this area, so I just had to take ‘pot luck’ and hope for the best,” Jordan continued.
Around 7:30, Jordan heard something moving and caught a glimpse of a buck about 120 yards away. The deer stepped into a clearing, too far to shoot with a muzzleloader.
Jordan finally spotted the deer again, so he put the scope on the its shoulder and was dismayed to notice that his scope had fogged up.
“I couldn’t see a thing. I used my orange vest to clear the scope, and couldn’t believe it when I saw the buck still standing there broadside at 60 yards.
“I squeezed the trigger and at the shot, the buck took off, running right under my tree. He was running hard like nothing was wrong, so I assumed I’d missed.”
However, when he walked to where the deer was standing, he saw evidence of a hit.
“I didn’t see the deer until I stepped around a big tree, and there he was,” Jordan said. “His rack was massive, and he was a big-bodied deer.”
The non-typical buck weighed an estimated 235 pounds, sported 16 points and officially scored 198 4/8 on the Boone and Crockett scale. Jordan’s buck easily eclipsed the record muzzleloader buck taken by Michael Willis in 1997.
According to Moreland, the principal reason for Camp Beauregard’s success in producing impressive muzzleloader bucks is the absence of hunting pressure.
“The regular gun season is short, leaving the majority of the season to archers and black-powder hunters,” said Moreland.
A check of the state records for muzzleloader deer hunters adds credence to the premise that black-powder hunters should concentrate on public hunting areas for the best chance at a big buck.
Thirty-five bucks are listed in the records in the muzzleloader category. Of this number, 19 — that’s over 54 percent — of these bucks were taken on public lands. Leading the list is Lake Ophelia with nine record-book, black-powder bucks. In fact, five of the top 10 bucks taken by muzzleloader came from Lake Ophelia.
Camp Beauregard comes in second with five book bucks, while Thistlethwaite WMA has placed three black-powder bucks in the records. Alexander State Forest and Pomme de Terre WMAs have each produced one muzzleloader buck for the book.
Louisiana hunters who have taken a liking to hunting with “front-end stuffers” are fortunate. Over most of the state, the regular gun season is bracketed at both ends by a week of muzzleloader-only hunting. Although a few areas have somewhat different regulations for black-powder hunting, the majority of the state sees a week of muzzleloader hunting prior to gun season opening, and another week for black powder the week following the close of gun season.
While the areas we’ve highlighted feature some of the best muzzleloader hunting in the state, there are other areas of public land where hunters can be successful.
One is the massive Kisatchie National Forest, featuring over half a million acres of public hunting. This is where Slidell’s Randy Catchet downed a genuine trophy, complete with an 8-inch drop-tine, this past hunting season.
“I was hunting with my dad on Oct. 23, and since he’d dropped me off, I had no choice but to wait on him to complete his hunt and come pick me up,” Catchet explained. “It was warm, and the mosquitoes were eating me alive. Believe you me, I was ready to go in. However, dad said he’d come pick me up at 11:30, so all I could do was sit and sweat and swat.
“At 11 a.m., I saw something move, and this big buck stepped out at 65 yards. I got my sights on him, shot and he ran like there was nothing wrong with him. My heart sank, and I’m thinking, ‘Here I’ve sat all this time, and have just missed the biggest buck I ever saw in my life.’
“But when I walked over to where he was standing when I shot, there was evidence of a good hit. He didn’t go far at all where I found him piled up.”
The buck was indeed a trophy, sporting 12 points, which included the impressive drop-tine, and green-scored 165 5/8. The weight was relatively light, 165 pounds, due to the buck’s advanced age. Biologists who aged the deer agreed that it was at least 8 ½ years old.
The 2005-06 muzzleloader season is upon us. Hopefully you’ll be smarter than I was and keep your powder dry when the opportunity presents itself. For sure, my grandchildren have a video of my hunt to watch, but I always sneak out of the room when they switch it on.
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