Maine’s muzzleloader season for deer begins Monday and runs through the rest of the week across the state. A second week of muzzleloader hunting is available in select wildlife management districts from Dec. 7-12. Travis Barrett photo

With another regular firearms season in the books most Maine deer hunters have called it a year, being either tagged out or worn out. A few brave souls will endeavor to persevere, enduring the deep cold of late, late season for one last chance at venison.

Some hunters even prefer the late-season muzzleloader hunt. I don’t, partly because it means I’ve been hunting for two months and still don’t have a buck, but mostly because front-end loaders can be frustrating.

I began hunting with smoke poles before in-line muzzleloaders were invented, when it was called “primitive weapons season” for a reason. My first gun was a Thompson-Center Renegade caplock smoothbore that fired a patched round .56 caliber ball. My first opportunity to take a deer came on a chilly morning when I spied a fat doe slowly feeding toward me through 18 inches of snow. She stopped at 60 yards and I took careful aim and fired. If I had tried I could not have made a more perfect shot. My .56 caliber round ball hit dead center – on a .60 caliber sapling.

That’s when I learned one of the peculiarities of muzzleloader hunting. For some strange reason deer don’t react the same to the sound of a shot as they do the sound of modern centerfire ammunition. That doe looked up, flicked her tail and continued slowly walking away, vanishing into the thickets just about the time I finally got my gun reloaded with powder, patch and ball.

My next hard lesson came in the mountains of Virginia, where I’d spent the better part of a morning sitting on the point of a hardwood ridge listening to gray and fox squirrels scouring the forest floor for acorns. The rustling was unending and monotonous, until I detected a subtle alteration in sound. As the forest floor was littered with corn flake crispy leaves I slipped off my shoes before slowly, gradually inching my way toward the sound just over the ridge top.

Somehow I made it close enough to see a band of does and a nice buck feeding not 75 yards away so I eased my gun up and prepared for a shot.

Those old hammer guns have a two trigger system that is quite effective when used properly. In the rear is a set trigger that when pulled, takes weight off the front trigger, making the latter a hair trigger. As I lowered my sights toward the buck’s vitals I applied steady pressure to the set trigger, at least what I thought was the set trigger. It wasn’t. The gun went off sending a round ball a foot over the buck’s back. Neither he nor his harem flinched, offering a potential second chance if I could reload at 75 yards, in open hardwoods.

As slowly and quietly as I could I eased the hammer back and put a cap on the nipple. Then I fumbled around in my possibles bag until I found a patch and ball, started the ball, pulled out my ramrod and drove the ball home, all with the deer still feeding well in range. Raising the gun I noticed the cap had fallen off. More fumbling found another. Again I raised my rifle, this time being sure to have my finger on the proper trigger.

The sound of a percussion cap going off is about as loud as a .22 short round, more of a pop than a bang. And it has roughly the same effect on deer as a full charge of black powder. The deer seemed a little more nervous, but not enough to leave the area. Anxiously I retrieved another cap, wondering why the gun didn’t fire. If you were paying attention, you already know. I fired two more caps before the deer finally left, then sat wondering what could possibly have gone wrong as I went over each step: cap, patch, ball… forgot to put gunpowder down the barrel.

I have since experienced some level of success, with modern in-line muzzloaders. While a handsome stag taken during the regular firearms season has afforded me the luxury of sitting out the remainder of this season, bonus permits have allowed me the option to continue. For old times sake I dusted off that old Renegade and put her back into service. Perhaps this time she and I will perform a little better.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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