116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A phantasm of brown rippled past tall grass.
It had to be a deer, but it was still shape-shifting in the flat light. Then the black nose and eyes appeared: confirmed.
“Owen,” if urgently whispered, “here comes one.” He moved with purpose and trained the gun afield. In another moment he lifted his head from the stock and looked back at me. Is that a fawn? he asked. I said yes.
He sat up and relaxed his frame. He said he didn’t want to shoot a fawn.
The small deer continued its prance towards our position and then past us it went to the north. It never suspected a thing as we were sheltered in a blind made from a repurposed bulk liquid container.
We were sheltered from driving sleet and watchful eyes. If hunting in general sets a person to thinking, then the late season for deer with a muzzleloader does so in spades.
Maybe muzzleloading rifles conjure images of Daniel Boone or regiments of Civil War soldiers. That image may have been the vision of enthusiasts and officials when they created the special muzzleloader-only season. The typical muzzleloading rifle of the day had iron sights, a fussy ignition, and a range of 50 to 75 yards for all but the most skilled.
The regulations stated the bullet had to be loaded down the barrel from the muzzle. Seeing as so many gun enthusiasts also were inveterate tinkerers, modifications commenced to exploit the possibilities of the season and the rules.
Tony Knight made the first fundamental advancement when he marketed a dependable “in-line” firing system. That was 1985. He went on to open a factory in Centerville.
Today’s muzzleloaders are race cars to the horse-and-buggy models of years past. A modern muzzleloading rifle uses high energy loads, advanced barrels and wears telescopic sights that push the effective range beyond 150 yards. I bet Daniel Boone would have loved the extra distance.
But a fundamental truth about muzzleloaders remained: you only got one shot. An apt metaphor for life as any. Accordingly, muzzleloader hunters had to be patient, choosy and sure at the moment of truth.
We sat together in a two-man tree-stand along a wooded draw bordered by a hay field in Davis County. It was a snug fit. Thankfully the weather was mild for late December so shivering was only optional for our first outing of the season.
One buck appeared behind us, atop the wooded ridge. For a second you’d have thought he was trying to be noticed. Then slowly he worked closer, pawing at acorns, aloof of urgency. We made the decision to go for a shot lest we run out of daylight.
Carefully, we shuffled positions, I think I held my breath. We weren’t careful enough. He trotted nervously back up the ridge at our disturbance. One moment he was broadside at the crest, the next moment he was gone.
The flock of turkeys that came to roost in the trees next to us was a welcome runner-up prize, at least in my opinion. My teenage partner wasn’t entertained. He had his mind fixed on wrapping his hands around some horn, not the mysterious peeps and clucks of turkeys saying goodnight.
Outing number three was in the hills north of Chelsea. Our blind was of modern design and purpose, like our modern muzzleloader. From a hilltop location we looked south along a line where a timber met picked cornfields. The deer were plentiful, but at 200 to 250 yards they were too far, even for our rig.
We heard a shot and then saw members of our party walking circles in the snow covered fields, a strange ritual when observed from afar. No doubt an astute anthropologist would have made an interesting interpretation.
Truth was, they were searching for a speck of sign to disprove the fact that someone missed. Alas, no evidence to the contrary was found. Null hypothesis confirmed.
The sunny day in early January that followed a snow event meant one thing: cold. Our last opportunity for the season, this day was destined to be an extra contemplative affair. We were in the hilltop blind looking out of the south facing porthole. A window to nature, the original high definition television.
It was too cold to play on a cell phone. It was too cold to get cozy. It was too cold to allow much hushed talk; we needed to focus on the shooting lane while allowing for brief mental travels for relief. It was a temperature in the uninsulated box to think, to ponder the past and consider the future.
Earlier, as we walked our roundabout path to the blind we kicked up a herd of deer at close range. The howling wind masked our approach. They flushed like pheasants, not 30 yards away, nervous, bouncing and probably miffed at losing their resting spots in the sun.
They were in range. But I called for the teen to hold his fire. I decided they were moving too quickly for his skill level. In the ensuing time in the blind I probably spent too much energy questioning that decision.
South of our position, once again we saw deer leave the woods, moving from left to right, to the hills of picked corn and beyond. The closest deer according to my decidedly high tech laser range finder was 174 yards.
We exchanged glances in the dim light after sunset. He had the look of purpose. I spoke first, “Sorry, it’s too far.”
No doubt I’ll be reflecting on that for the year afield to come.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and is past president of the Linn County Conservation Board.