Article by Jim Harris
Deer hunting with a muzzleloader in Arkansas offers a chance to harvest a deer earlier than any other method other than archery. This year’s season opens Saturday, Oct. 20, in nearly every deer zone in Arkansas and will continue through Oct. 20.
Brad Carner, the chief of wildlife management for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, plans to be in the public hunting woods Saturday with his 12-year-old son like many mentors passing down the knowledge and excitement of deer hunting. “Growing up in northeast Arkansas, the season framework for the deer zone and the WMAs up there required for modern gun season that you use a shotgun with slugs or a muzzleloader, so I started out using a muzzleloader there for the modern gun season and I’ve used one for 25 years,” Carner said.
The muzzleloading season has become tradition for the Carner family, he said. Carner’s son has hunted with a muzzleloader for the last 3 years and took his first deer with the gun at age 9. Carner’s wife, who “has harvested three or four deer,” he said, took her first buck during a muzzleloader season.
“It’s a good option for hunting,” Carner said. “Deer are in their pre-rut activities and still can be locked on a food source, but you’re also starting to see some buck activity on the trees now of rubs and scrapes, the precursor of the heavy rut activity that people start to see at the beginning of modern gun season.”
Ralph Meeker, the AGFC’s deer program coordinator, says this week’s spate of wet cold weather should set up for a fine weekend for the muzzleloading enthusiast and may attract more hunters than usual. Like Carner, Meeker plans to be out among the other deer hunters with a muzzleloader this weekend.
“It’s typically one of my top two favorite ways to hunt deer, along with archery,” Meeker said. “It just provides an early season and then a late season (in December for three days) opportunity. And, it seems like you’re able to connect to the more traditional style of hunting when you’ve got one shot. You take a little bit more time, you have to be a little more patient. The range is a lot different, much shorter than a centerfire rifle.”
Both Meeker and Carner note the technological advances in muzzleloaders in the past decade that have led to guns with an average range of 75-100 yards, but which can stretch out comfortably for some shooters to 150 yards or more. Hunting with a bow, Meeker says, usually means you’re targeting a deer 25-35 yards away.
“During the early days of our muzzleloader seasons, they really were primitive weapons with limited range,” Carner said, recalling starting with a musket-like Hawken muzzleloader with an open sight and a range of about 50-60 yards. “Now, you have the inline muzzleloader and the ability to have a nice scope on there … With the technical implementations, a limited range is not necessarily the case now. The effective range has been greatly extended.”
Carner suggests a newcomer familiarize himself or herself with the firearm and all its components, and not just the powder needed and type of bullet to use, before opening morning. “Practice and know the effective range of your muzzleloader,” he said.Carner lives in central Arkansas now but often will return to where he grew up hunting deer with a muzzleloader, in northeast Arkansas. As wildlife division chief, Carner says, he likes to visit as many WMAs as he can during the hunting seasons.
Meeker says that the first weekend of muzzleloader season usually sees an average of 7,000 to 9,000 deer harvested, and about 25,000 to 30,000 taken with a muzzleloader annually, or about 13 percent of the total deer harvest. Compare that to the expected 35,000 on average that Arkansas hunters take the opening weekend of modern gun deer season.
“Our total deer harvest has kind of stabilized to a little over 200,000 a year,” he said. “We’re expecting a similar number this year. We’ve had some odd weather, a fairly wet spring and a short, dry summer, and it’s starting to rain again.”
The weather patterns, he said, have caused some problems with the muscadines, persimmons and acorns that deer like to forage. Acorns in many areas have already fallen. So, a successful muzzleloading hunter will be wise to search out a good food source this weekend, he said. “You will improve your chances dramatically,” Meeker said. “There is going to be food out there for the deer, it’s just going to be used up pretty quickly. Late-season food plots will be good. The soft mast and hard mast will be used up pretty quickly because it’s already hit the ground.”
Refer to the Arkansas Hunting Guidebook at www.agfc.com/huntingguidebook for various deer zone regulations concerning muzzleloader use and harvest limits. The number of deer allowed per hunter with muzzleloaders can vary by location. Deer zones 4, 4B, 5 and 5B are closed completely during the muzzleloader season, but muzzleloaders may be used during their modern gun seasons.