Muzzleloading doesn’t have to be Rocket Science
By Craig R. Turner
Bear Hunting Magazine
Nov/Dec 2010 Issue
A deep thump and a cloud of smoke. Slowly the smoke lifts and…
That’s the experience I was looking for as I considered taking up muzzleloader hunting.
Loose or compressed powder? Conical bullets? Sabots? Primers – ML versions vs. regular 209? These are just a few of the myriad questions that came up when I decided that my next bear hunt was going to be with a muzzleloader. Rather than answer them all immediately (I have a full-time job you know) I took a different approach that I’ll share with you.
I had considered adding a muzzleloader to my gun cabinet for a while. There are a lot of really good reasons to do so like extended and early deer seasons are offered in many states for muzzleloaders. My reason was not so well considered though, I just wanted to try something different and wait for the smoke to clear!
Several months ago I made a decision to hunt in the spring of 2010 with Gil Quintin at Domaine Le Pic Bois in Eastern Quebec. I have worked with Gil for a year or so with his outfitting business advertising and really enjoyed our conversations. He is easy going, serious about his bear hunting and absolutely dedicated to providing his hunters a quality experience at a reasonable price.
So now, about three months before trekking to Quebec, I decided that this would be the time to add that muzzleloader to the gun cabinet. Just like me, you’ve probably read Chad Schearer’s regular column in the pages of Bear Hunting Magazine on muzzleloader hunting and seen his face on all the CVA products. I contacted Chad with some questions and it only made sense to get a CVA rifle; I chose the Optima and it’s a slick and affordable rifle.
Now, back to all of those question about muzzleloading that I started with. I had read all of Chad’s columns and a lot of other information on the web. I even watched the Muzzle Loading 101 series on the CVA website, which is great for the mechanics and the safety aspects that just cannot be overlooked. With all of this background information, I knew that I had hours in front of me trying different bullets, powders and combinations. I wasn’t trying to short circuit the process, but a long, drawn-out science project was not what I had in mind. For this hunt, I was looking for the accuracy that any creature, and especially a beautiful black bear, deserves.
Fine Tuning & Fun
I decided that my approach was going to be different from the detailed processes that I had read about. I picked two bullets (300-grain), one in a premium line and another, less expensive one that I found at our local outdoor big box. Then two powders, one of the compressed products and a loose powder that claims to shoot cleaner and is formulated so that you use less power for your regular and magnum loads. There was to be no variable on the primers, a national brand in their ML (muzzleloader) variant.
One neat thing about the muzzleloader is the ability to alter the charge from regular to magnum. I started with the regular load. A couple of shots at 25 yards told me that I did a decent job of mounting the scope and I made some basic adjustments. Then the target went out to 40 yards, the longest expected on my hunt. The Optima shot great and the combination of the regular loads and a great factory installed recoil pad made the shooting fun. Even my wife, Laura, joined in. I learned how many shots you can take before you can’t force another bullet down the tube, about four with the compressed loads and double that with the “cleaner” powder. I learned that cleaning a muzzleloader is no problem at all, but a little more trouble than my trusty cartridge rifle, and I learned that the smoke rising up after you shoot is really cool.
After shooting over the course of three weekends I found that there was really very little difference in accuracy between the components, not totally unexpected at only 40 yards. The accuracy differences that did exist were not consistent and I wrote them off to my shooting inability! I picked the Powerbelt bullets, while the holes that they cut in the target were not as pretty as the others, I knew they would do a great job on a bear. As for the powder, accuracy was similar but I chose the less fouling “cleaner” brand.
I have the utmost respect for the game I hunt and do everything within my power to ensure a quick and clean harvest. I will certainly do more work at greater distances before a deer hunt, but I was ready now for a bear!
It was Memorial Day weekend in the states and I was off bright and early Sunday morning for Quebec. The Thousand Island Bridge, Montreal and Quebec City all passed as I headed east. Finally I reached Baie-St-Paul and shortly thereafter turned north into the Laurentides Wildlife Preserve. Gil, the outfitter, had told me to go about 35 miles and I’d see his sign on the left. Now I’ve been lost once or twice, some say that I have elevated getting lost to an art form, and I recognized those directions as a recipe for disaster. Surprisingly, I drove right to his sign and down the long driveway that runs the length of a peninsula in a beautiful lake.
The lodge, a place he has rented for his bear hunts for years, sits right at the end of the peninsula and is gorgeous. Built in 1927 the lodge is a large log structure with a huge great room, towering stone fireplace and a beautiful dining room. While it will comfortably sleep 16, Gil had just seven hunters and three staff in camp and we had all the room and comfort you could ask for. Though wired for electric, propane was the “power” of choice, it was piped everywhere for lighting and the slight hiss from the fixtures added to the experience.
Life at bear camp was great and the meals bordered on opulent. Our groups would arrive back between 9:30- 10:30 each evening to a long dining room table set with a four course French meal. I am pretty much a “meat and potatoes” kind of guy, but I have to tell you, these meals were great. I ate everything (except pea soup) and enjoyed it all. Steve, the dedicated camp chef, enjoyed what he did and he did it all well.
One of the great aspects of an outfitted hunt is the other hunters that you meet in camp and this trip represented quite a cross-section of the world. Let’s see, we had Jerry and Peter from Belgium, Vincent and Steve from New Hampshire (a chiropractor and private investigator, respectively) Joe and Jesse (our resident film crew from The Archer’s Choice) and myself, an ad sales guy in the outdoor arena. I could write a book on each of these guys as we enjoyed each others company and learned a little about world geography and politics, too. Weapons in camp were diversified as well with four bow hunters, two rifle hunters and me with my new muzzleloader.
Monday morning found us in a gravel pit of sorts to check the scope on my muzzleloader. Many of us shot and had a great time. Mid-day was filled with a great meal and a visit from the provincial game wardens. They were there to stress safety and, honestly, to make sure that was the only time that we had to see them. They shared the local game laws and told us that sundown was 8:30 p.m. all week. In Quebec you are allowed 1/2 hour after sundown, but I was to find that it really didn’t matter. These are deep woods and there is little or no opportunity to shoot past nine. Walking out of the woods was interesting because a flashlight was required in the woods, but when you broke free of their grasp there was still plenty of daylight.
Denis was the master guide and has devoted his lifetime to Quebec’s woods and the game that inhabits it. He’s a trapper and, of course, seasoned bear guide. Denis and Gil work together pretty much year-round. Outside of bear season they have a bear observation business that allows them to share their “bear knowledge” with over 600 people annually. This business has provided Denis with an unparalleled opportunity to learn from and about black bears.
Monday afternoon found Denis telling me to follow a path marked with ribbons to the tree stand. He was going to take a different path to the bait, re-bait it and make sure that I was all set. I found it interesting, and logical, that he used separate paths for himself and his hunters; he wanted there to be no connection between the stand and the bait. Remember my comment earlier about my finely honed ability to get lost? Well, I didn’t get lost, but lets just say that I took a round-about way in. Honestly, I think they had marked my trail with the last foot of tape that they had with them at the time. Denis remarked the trail on his way out and I think I owe him a roll of the tape! My afternoon and evening in the woods was glorious, and bear-less. Amazingly, bugs were not a problem and I watched the squirrels work the bait, I think they carried half of it away one piece at a time. Your mind really works overtime in a treestand when it’s the only thing that can move. Did you know that a six inch long squirrel, carrying a piece of bait 50 yards to eat it, is like me eating dinner and walking six football fields between each bite?
Tuesday was a repeat of Monday right up until about eight o’clock when a black ghost broke from the woods. I am a novice bear hunter and my initial take was that this was a relatively small bear. I had a knot at waist height on the tree by the bait and I’ll be darned that when that bear approached the tree his shoulder was right at the knot, maybe he was bigger than I thought. By this time I was watching him through my scope and slowly cocked the hammer on my muzzleloader, the bear looked at me instantly. At this point I guess my mind fell back to what it has experienced numerous times in the whitetail woods. When a deer looks at you like that you know that the game will end, somehow, very, very soon. I had this beautiful black bear absolutely broadside, my muzzleloader cocked and him with his brief whitetail imitation. Then, there was a deep thump and a cloud of smoke. Just like I had imagined, as the smoke slowly lifted, there was a gorgeous black bear piled-up right where he had stood a moment before.
The author wanted to hunt with a muzzleloader and wait for the smoke to clear on a Quebec bruin. He had his chance and made it count.
I got down and slowly approached the bear. As I pulled him away from the tree I found the log that he had stood on to get his shoulders up to that knot on the tree. He was not as big I had thought, but had a beautiful coat and a white “V” shaped blaze on his chest. He’ll live on as a prized trophy in our house and a reminder of a lesson learned in the bear woods.
As this is one of the few, perhaps only, areas in Quebec with a two bear limit I was able to hunt through the rest of the week, though I did not shoot another bear. I did enjoy a visit in my tree stand from a porcupine and watched a snowshoe hare just absolutely thump the tar out of a squirrel. Luckily the hare stayed at the bait and ate, sparing me the math calculations.
Our week was great, seven hunters in camp and seven bear. Jerry from Belgium took two with his bow while one of the Archer’s Choice guys always seemed to have the camera in his hands when the bears came in. Some of the bear were small, some where larger and the biggest ones got away. They were all trophy’s in the eyes of the hunters and I got to see that blast of smoke clear, revealing my first muzzleloader bear!