Muzzleloader hunt provides walk in the autumn woods

A couple of weeks ago, I took my 54-caliber in-line muzzleloader for a walk in the late-October Warren County forest. I wasn’t really serious about hunting that day, to be honest. I’m not an archery hunter, and October seems way too early in the season to be killing a deer. My inline’s wood stock is plaingrained and its barrel is heavy and short. It looks more like the old Mossberg bolt-action shotgun I used for rabbit-hunting as a kid than a deer rifle or a primitive weapon. But the gun and the season were good enough excuses to be out in the woods during autumn, and I’ll take that opportunity anytime.

My brother Billy entered the game-lands fire trail with me just before daylight, displaying a higher intensity of interest than mine. He has taken three deer in the past five years during fall muzzleloader alone, while I’ve shot one muzzleloader deer in my entire career, a doe I dropped four years ago in January with my Thompson Center 50-caliber flintlock.

Billy and I had a plan that morning. We’d hike the first mile of the trail in the predawn dark together, then he’d climb the steep slope to his favorite deer-hunting boulder, a massive rock that hangs out over the top of the hollow 800 yards above the trail, while I would continue another mile west and then angle up on a
high ridge and drive back toward him.

Shortly after we split up, daybreak dawned, and I noticed a number of shagbark hickories growing along the edge of the fire trail. I was just thinking how much squirrels like hickory nuts when I spotted one, a deep-woods black squirrel as big as a house cat bounding acrobatically through the treetops. I watched him disappear down the mountainside, waited a moment, then started up again.

Huge sandstone boulders rose above me on the high side of the trail, some of them 30 feet high and 50 feet wide, all of them deposited here on the mountainside during the last ice age 10,000 years ago. They’ve remained here apparently unfazed and unchanged while the history of western civilization has throttled by. We deer-hunt from a number of these boulders every year, and I wondered that morning how many Native Americans, countless years before us, did the same.

I kept moving on the trail, and suddenly I noticed how I was holding my muzzleloader. Normally when hunting I carry my rifle or shotgun in a position of readiness at port arms, but this day I had it angled back up over my shoulder like a kid playing soldier in his back yard. Shows you how un-serious I am about fall muzzleloader deer hunting, I guess.

But I was enjoying my morning in the woods, and an hour later I climbed up on top of a certain boulder I often use for rifle deer season. It’s strategically placed on a heavily-wooded high escape bench just below the mountaintop plateau and just above the steep bedding ridge.

I looked all around at the familiar terrain. My imagination took me back to last November, when a fine eight-point buck followed a doe into the shooting lanes above my rock at 7:25 a.m., and I
stopped him in his tracks with one shot from my bolt-action 30.06. And I remembered opening day from the year before, when a hefty seven point passed laterally below the boulder, and I took him late in the day and dragged him out in the dark.

But this day I saw nothing in the woods but trees and rocks and leaves. If you really look at trees, I thought, you can see their struggle for prosperity as their trunks and branches twist and wend their sometimes straight and sometimes crooked ways upward, yearning for the sun. Their dying foliage looked beautiful on that late October morning.

I gazed out at the three-dimensional mosaic of bronze, golden, and scarlet leaves, leaves within touching distance, leaves far down the mountainside, leaves in the canopy and the understory, leaves on the ground. It was fine, it was pure outdoor pleasure to be out there among them.

At the end of the morning, I clambered up onto Billy’s rock and listened as he told me about the two does he saw meandering through the forest above him just out of shooting range a half hour after daybreak and the six-point buck he watched for 10 long minutes as it fed on acorns down in the hollow.

“You see anything?” he asked.

“Not much,” I answered. “I guess I’ve been daydreaming some.”

Your mind tends to wander, I thought, when you’re just out taking your gun for a walk in the woods.

“The Evening Campfire” from The Herald, November 4, 2007

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