Fall's Fly Fishing Frenzy

By Michael D. Faw

Brown Trout

Predatory browns earn their "bruiser" reputation during the fall fishing season.

Quick, before that first snowflake flies, it's time to do some serious fly fishing. You'll face hungry trout, find faint insect swarms, and wade into cooler waters that can possibly mean more active fish. And if you take the time to glance up, you'll see colorful leaves and scenic fall vistas. So, what are you waiting for?

When it comes to fly fishing, fall is the "forgotten season." Most folks with an outdoors bent start hunting, and others head to organized sporting events. The great news is that this leaves the rivers nearly vacant and many trout eagerly awaiting your offerings. And the less hectic fall fishing pace means a more enjoyable trip. And did I forget to mention that those trout have added inches over the summer -- in both length and girth -- and are now large bruisers that can fight back and tug your line until the reel screams?

With absent crowds and few anglers, you'll find numerous rivers to wade into and cast over. Some rivers that have been crowded on summer days are now void of action altogether. If you're planning to hire a guide, plan ahead. Many guides head back to other jobs after the Labor Day weekend madness. Trout are also a much different opponent during the fall.

Fish that have been lethargic because of high summer temperatures -- or secretive because of constant angler pressure -- are now ready to begin the serious business of eating. These fish are looking for anything that will help them build the needed reserves that will mean survival through the leaner winter months ahead. The bigger trout now become eating machines.

Don't overlook this exciting opportunity.

To ensure survival through the lean winter months, trout become eating machines throughout fall. The Trout Takers

Fall is the period when big fish -- a foot long or better -- become aggressive and prowl far and wide. You'll find browns out of their hiding spot and feeding in pools, riffles and under foam-covered eddies. And in an effort to be more energy efficient, these prowlers look for large foods that deliver more energy for effort extended. In most cases the big trout are looking for small fishes that are now out of the side channels and pools and swimming in the mainstream. Predatory browns earn their fame during the fall fishing season.

Obviously, the first consideration in the "what to cast" category is anything that looks like a small fish or a larger morsel. To imitate the small fries, concentrate your fishing efforts with streamer patterns and fish imitators like the Hornberg. Woolly buggers and muddler patterns can also earn their place in your fly box in the fall months. Flies that imitate leeches will also solicit strikes. The heavier conehead patterns also offer advantages; they dive deep and deliver an attractive flash with a brass head. Zug Bugs can also be noticed -- and attacked. Again, think big food sources, and big hungry trout.

Fall Fly Box

Fall fly boxes should include streamers and popular insect patterns in a variety of sizes.

And while big is in, don't overlook the region's popular insects and other food sources on warmer fall afternoons. You'll still spot local hatches of mayflies, and that occasional grasshopper. Most insects are out and about until the first prolonged and serious deep freeze in the region. Walk along the river and through the nearby grasses, and take the time to look around and take note of what insects are near the water. You'll note that as a rule, late season insects tend to be somewhat smaller. This will require possibly forgoing a size 12 Blue Wing Olive and tying on a size 18 or 20 BWO. The insects will be there if the air and ground temperatures are warm, you'll just need to search with diligence.  The fish are searching for -- and noting -- the insects and other food sources.

Should you cast over waters where fish are around that spawn, egg patterns in the fall can be deadly. This is especially true in rivers like the Brule in northern Wisconsin where salmon move up and spawn. Hungry trout seek the eggs, and gobble them up. Pink and orange eggs get noticed. Egg sucking leeches are hot there on most fall days.

Remember, fall is a season of change. So what works in the morning might not be as readily noticed on a warmer afternoon when other food sources are out and abundant. Don't overlook some of the popular summer patterns, but carry more of the streamers. And just like the many colorful leaves that are streamside, you'll need to have a colorful fly box with large, medium and small flies.

What to Wear

It's a fact, fall days mean colder water and chilly air temperatures. You'll need to change your angling wardrobe to stay warm and be more functional in the cold temperatures. For some anglers, breathable waders seem too cool and possibly clammy. Those anglers make the switch to thicker neoprene waders. Just be certain that you can walk safely and comfortably should you apply numerous layers under these less forgiving waders. And anything added on the outside can also restrict your mobility.

Fall Fly Casting

Fall is generally a season when it's best to switch directions and fish downstream.

While chest packs helped body heat escape on hot summer days, a full-sized fly fishing vest can now be worn for added comfort and more body heat retention. The standard angler's ball caps can now be replaced with beanie or watch caps. If you'll face a very frigid morning, Under Armour's Heatgear watch cap or the one offered by Heatmax with pockets for air activated warmers will keep the frost off your ears. Additionally, the proper garment underlayers can now mean more comfort and the option to fish for longer periods. Your body will spend less energy staying warm, which means more energy for casting. Inner layers of synthetic clothing like RedHead's Enduraskin, then fleece that's covered with a barrier shell, or lined with Gore Windstopper, will keep chilly winds at bay. And consider pulling on thin, waterproof neoprene gloves with rubber-faced exteriors so you can grip the small stuff and comfortably control your rod on casts.

Staying warm in the chilly fall means keeping moister -- including river water and body sweat -- away from your skin. Wicking garments can help you stay warm, dry and comfortable. And several thin layers are easier to manage than wearing a cumbersome parka. It's a good idea to look at the weather forecasts for the region -- and altitude -- where you'll wade and fish. There's a big temperature difference between the prominent cities where more forecasts are given and the higher altitude locations like those encountered in Yellowstone National Park and other popular fly fishing destinations. And plan to tread carefully.

Fall Fly Fishing

Fly-fishing vests help retain body heat.

While the same felt-soled wading boots worn in summer can help you grip and go on slick rocks in the fall, studded wader boots might help you negotiate that occasional icy patch on the trail or atop a rock. Ice happens, and expect it on frigid fall mornings. And if you are wondering how cold it is outside, and whether ice might be problems, pack and study a thermometer to be properly prepared.

The Top Trout Taking Tactics

Now that you are properly dressed and have some good leads on what the trout are consuming, it's time to go get them. Before you wade in, however, note that fall fishing tactics are much different than spring and summer when you finessed flies onto the water's surface. Heavier flies or streamers now mean your fly line and rod is moving more mass, so you might want to move up from a 6- to an 8-weight fly rod.

Once you have the best rod in hand, where should you cast? Fall is a season when it's best to generally switch directions and fish downstream. Brook and brown trout can often be found in the back of pools as spawning is underway. A best practice is to cast down along the side of a pool and pull the fly or streamer across in a sweeping J-pattern. Cast in an ever widening arch to cover the areas where a trout could be -- or be watching from. Hungry trout will move ahead a few feet to grab what they perceive to be a minnow that's spotted them and suddenly turned to flee. And fall is a season of generally clearer waters, so you'll want to go unnoticed as you cast into the trout faces.

A top tactic is to keep low and concealed as much as possible. Kneel down upstream and on sandbars or behind walls of vegetation. Remember that most trout lie facing upstream to watch for foods that wash by, and they'll be watching you if you move too close. Trout that have been pursued all summer do not want to encounter more anglers -- they just want to eat.

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Turkey Hunting Clothing Basics

By Don Sangster


It's said that a wild turkey has such keen vision that it can instantly perceive everything within its field of view.

Turkey hunting is one of the most exciting pursuits that a sportsman can undertake. But specialized clothing is needed to fool a sharp-eyed gobbler and lure him into shooting range. Here is what you need to know to get started in this thrilling sport.

 

It is said that a wild turkey has such keen vision that it can instantly perceive everything within its field of view. In addition, unlike many of the other game species that hunters pursue, turkeys can see color. This means that not only should unnecessary movement be avoided, but also that full head-to-toe camouflage is necessary to blend in with the surroundings and to help mask all necessary movements. Let's start at the bottom and work our way up.

 

Boots


The type of boots you need will depend largely on where and when you are hunting. Since 49 States and three Canadian Provinces have a spring turkey season, and 42 States and the province of Manitoba have a fall season as well, the terrain and weather conditions can really vary.

 

For the most part, spring-time temperatures are fairly mild wherever turkeys are hunted. As such, lightweight, uninsulated or lightly-insulated boots are the most popular choice. Although many hunters opt for high rubber boots in lowland areas, especially in the Deep South, hunters out west may want boots with a little more support for the rugged terrain that typifies much of the west. As autumn temperatures, can be much cooler, something with a bit more insulation is in order, although some hunters simply choose to wear warmer socks instead. Light weight should still be a prime consideration though, as walking several miles a day in search of birds is not uncommon in turkey hunting.

 

If you choose short boots, or pull your pant legs over your boots, you can get away with non-camouflaged boots. If, however, you wear high boots or tuck your pants into them, camo boots are a good idea.

 

If snakes are a problem in your area, you should consider high snake boots or snakeproof gaiters to protect your lower legs.

 


A camouflaged turkey hunting vest is another essential item for most turkey hunters.

Pants

Much of the same considerations for boots apply for your hunting pants as well. Although different pants for different conditions is best, some hunters simply opt for a light pant for most situations, with the option of wearing warm long johns underneath on those cold mornings.

 

Since turkey seasons can be relatively short in some places, and hunting opportunities are always too few, many hunters can't afford to stay home because of spring showers. Although wild turkeys may seek heavy cover during torrential rains, they are often out in open areas and huntable during lighter drizzles. As such, waterproof pants, or perhaps a pair of camouflaged rain pants, allow you to hunt rain or shine.

 

Burr-proof or cactus-proof pants can also be handy in areas where such annoying vegetation is found.

 

Shirts and Jackets/Coats

Again, environmental conditions should guide your choice of garments for your torso. However, as with most outdoor activities that can involve varying amounts of physical exertion, spanning a range of temperature fluctuations, layering is often the best way to go. This allows you to add warmer clothes as needed, such as while sitting early in the morning, and yet shed some layers when the sun comes up or if you are on the move. A small camouflaged daypack or knapsack allows you to carry any extra clothing you may need.

 

Of course, camouflage is mandatory, even for your shirt. Although this may seen unnecessary considering that your jacket or coat will be camouflaged, keep in mind that late spring temperatures can get very warm in some areas, especially in the south, and you may find yourself hunting in shirt sleeves. Many hunters even insist on camouflaged undershirts.

 

A camouflaged turkey hunting vest is another essential item for most turkey hunters. The key feature of a good turkey vest is the number of different pockets that it contains for storing all manner of different turkey calls. A turkey vest can also have a built-in back and/or seat cushion, as well as a game pouch for carrying your turkey.

 

Head, Face, and Hands

The face and hands are two areas of the body that hunters sometimes ignore when it comes to concealment. In fact, these areas probably require more concealment than all other areas. A shiny human face can look like a big, bright beacon to a wary gobbler. Similarly, a hunter's hands will likely be moving more than any other part of the body, whether while calling or preparing to shoot. As such, gloves and some type of face covering are essential.

 


Facemasks or head nets are used to cover the hunter's face. These camouflaged masks are usually made of a very thin, see-through mesh.

An assortment of light, camouflaged gloves are available for turkey hunters. Some are thin enough to feel the pull of a trigger or a bow release, while others are thicker but have the finger tips cut off for dexterity. Whichever you prefer, carry an extra pair with you at all times, in case you lose one or it gets wet.

 

Facemasks or head nets are used to cover the hunter's face. These camouflaged masks are usually made of a very thin, see-through mesh. They are available in different lengths, ranging from full, pull-over style head nets (with or without holes cut for your eyes, nose and mouth), to half-masks that start below the eyes. They all have either an elastic opening or a drawstring to keep them from falling down.

 

If you are not comfortable with anything covering your face at all, camouflage face paint works just as well, but does require more time and mess to apply and remove.

 

A light, camouflaged ball cap is the most popular choice of head covering for most turkey hunters. Some even have a mesh facemask already attached. Again, however, cooler temperatures can warrant something a little more substantial. Something with a wide brim is also useful for keeping the sun and rain off your face.

 

One of the newest things to come along is camouflaged glasses. Before you laugh, think about how many times a deer or other game animal has turned tail and ran as soon as you made eye contact. When a wary gobbler is in close, he can see the whites of your eyes, but not if you're wearing dark, camouflaged glasses. Besides, shooting glasses are a good idea whenever firearms are involved.

 

About Camouflage


We've talked a lot about the need for full camouflage on all of your clothing, but not all camouflage is the same. Old army surplus jungle camouflage might be better than nothing, but there are myriad superior camo patterns available to turkey hunters today. Whether you hunt in evergreen forests, hardwood river bottoms, southern swamps or western plains, a camo pattern that matches your hunting area will do a better job of breaking up your outline and concealing your movements.

 

Camo patterns can change seasonally as well. During the early spring, when new vegetation and leaves have not yet sprouted, a pattern with more browns and greys is more effective than one that is predominantly green. This is also true for fall turkey seasons. However, as the spring season progresses, a green-based pattern blends in much better. Try to match your camo pattern to the time of year.

 

Safety


As always, a word on safety is in order.

 

Never wear any visible article of clothing into the turkey woods that contains the colors white, red or blue. Not only will turkeys spot you, but these colors are associated with the head of a male turkey, and that can make you a target too.

 

Be particularly careful about making sure that you cover the top or sleeves of your t-shirt, the tops of your socks, or a neckerchief or bandana, if they contain these offending colors. Better still, don't wear anything at all that contains either of these colors.

 

Clothing that you use for other forms of hunting may be suitable for turkey hunting too, but as you become more avid about the sport, you will appreciate more specialized articles. They will not only make the experience more enjoyable, but they'll make you a more effective hunter as well.

 

Browse Bass Pro Shops' complete selection of Turkey Hunting Gear.

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Pro Advice for Your First Muzzleloader

By Jerry Martin

Q: I plan to hunt with a muzzleloader this season. What is the best gun for a beginner, and which load should I use for whitetails?

 

 

A: Frontstuffers have become popular because of advancements in dependability and accuracy, and because many states offer special black-powder seasons.

 

Modern muzzleloaders are different from their ancestors. With in-line muzzleloaders, the primer is placed behind the powder charge, which promotes consistent firing. In-lines are also less likely to misfire from moisture, and many models have actions similar to conventional center-fire rifles.

 

Many in-lines use a 209 shotgun primer, which provides 12 times the heat of a traditional No. 11 cap. Another option is a hefty musket cap that is four times hotter than a No. 11.


I recommend a .50-caliber gun because it is adequate for all North American big game. I also prefer a 22- to 24-inch barrel with a 1-in-28-inch twist and quick-detach scope mounts, which let me switch to fiber-optic sights where scopes are illegal. My gun is sighted 1 inch high at 100 yards, which ensures accuracy at almost any distance. Two-inch groups at 100 yards are reasonable for a muzzleloader out of the box.

 

Essential Loads


For whitetails, I use conical, saboted 200-grain copper bullets, which provide more velocity, flatter trajectory and plenty of kinetic energy. When using a gun designed for 209 primer caps, I prefer Pyrodex pellets. These premeasured powder pellets are the most accurate and convenient way to load or transport a powder charge. I usually use three pellets, which is equivalent to 150 grains of powder. Always follow the manufacturer's load recommendations because not every barrel can handle the pressure of 150 grains of propellant.

 

One end of a Pyrodex pellet is darker than the other because it contains a small strip of black powder. Make sure you place this end down the barrel first. If I'm shooting a gun that uses a musket cap or No. 11 primer, I use loose black powder. Pyrodex burns much cleaner and is easy to use, but it has a 700-degree ignition point. Black powder burns at 350 degrees. However, Pyrodex produces more chamber pressure and more energy.

 

Necessary Accessories


Buy an aluminum ramrod if your gun doesn't include one. Aluminum is lightweight and sturdy, which makes it essential. Also, consider purchasing some inexpensive plastic speed-loaders and a sturdy shoulder strap. I also carry a few dry patches and some patches that have been premoistened with cleaning solvent for quick gun cleaning.

 

Get to know your muzzleloader. You'll probably be amazed at the capabilities of what once was considered a primitive weapon.

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Field Test

By Brenda Valentine

In 1985, the in-line muzzleloader opened a door of opportunity in the shooting industry. The design, which places the primer directly behind the charge, decreased the chance of misfires, which increased hunter confidence. Gun manufacturers have perfected the design, creating models for every taste, situation and pocketbook.  Here's some help for choosing your next front-stuffin' firearm.

 

Cost Factor

In-lines are a buyer's market. I found guns from reputable companies from $100 to $1,000. Beginners often buy lower-priced guns with the intention of upgrading. Also, many buy shooting kits, which include a gun, tools, ammo, cleaners and lubricants. Stock options affect price. Sleek laminates, rich walnut or exotic textured wood cost more than synthetic stocks.

 

After that, the choices become more confusing. Most muzzleloaders are available with three ignition options. No. 11 caps are the original standby. However, you shouldn't use them with pellet propellant, which generates less heat. Musket caps are similar in design yet larger than No. 11s. They produce adequate fire for all powder types and are easier to use with cold or gloved fingers. Most shooters prefer the 209 shotshell primer. A few guns have interchangeable nipples to accompany all three ignitions.

 

Action is perhaps the greatest difference between in-lines. Most in-lines replicate center-fire actions, but the big news is pivot-action muzzleloaders. All actions are reasonably dependable in wet weather. However, the pivot action can be cleaned easily. Just pull the breech plug and swab the barrel.

 

There's only a few calibers to choose from. The .50-caliber can be used for all big game. The popularity of whitetails is largely responsible for the introduction of the .45-caliber, which has less recoil, higher speed and flatter trajectory, but less knock-down power.

 

Barrel Selection

In general, barrels measure 22 to 28 inches. Theoretically, longer barrels use propellant more efficiently and fire a more stable projectile. Rifling, or twist, ranges from 1-turn-in-24 inches to 1-in-30 inches. Stainless and blued steel are still preferred barrel materials. The weather conditions where you hunt will determine which steel you'll need.

 

Magnum barrels have extra-thick walls to accommodate combustion pressure from extreme loads. A magnum load is anything more than 100 grains of Pyrodex, with 150 grains considered the maximum. 

 

Fluted barrels, smoothbore shotgun barrels with custom chokes, and even barrels with muzzle-brakes are available. Interchangeable barrels, which convert from a single-shot break-action shotgun to an in-line muzzleloader, are popular.

 

Almost every barrel includes factory-mounted fiber-optic sights and predrilled and tapped placement for scope mounts. Some states regulate the use of magnifying optics, so check regulations first. Other features include swivel studs, a quality recoil pad, and an aluminum or extra-tough ramrod.

 

With average weights of 6 to 8 pounds and lengths of 41 to 45 inches, in-lines are made to fit every hunter. However, it still boils down to one shot.

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Antelope Spot and Stalk Prep Guide

By Alyssa Haukom

The antelope is often referred to in the west as a "speed goat" and for good reason.

Ready to spice up your bowhunting with an antelope spot and stalk hunt?  Then be ready to boost your skills up a notch by  preparing months in advance for perhaps one of the most challenging, exciting, and frustrating hunts you'll likely encounter.

  

The antelope is often referred to in the west as a "speed goat" and for good reason.  It's the fastest North American animal with recorded speeds of up to 70 mph on the open prairie. 
Additionally, their eyesight is superb; comparable to 8-power binoculars, making a stalk extremely difficult on arid land that offers, at most, thigh-high grass, sage brush or cactus for cover.

 

As you approach, be aware of wind direction being careful to keep the wind in your face.  You'll also quickly learn to use the land's natural features to conceal your approach using the buttes and valleys to your advantage.  If antelope spot you - even at great distances - you're spot and stalk hunt usually ends instantly; so be prepared to begin stalks up to a mile away on unwary goats.

  

Excellent optics are a must - plan on using a spotting scope of  15-45x60mm power, (waterproof , compact with rubber armoring for protection) for locating goats and a pair of lightweight, compact binoculars in 8X42 or 10x42 magnification held closely to your body with a harness system while executing your stalk.

   

Here a bowhunter hides amid the sagebrush before glassing the area behind her for antelope.

Keeping gear out of your way but quickly assessable is imperative.  Count on wearing binoculars and a backpack quiver (if you shoot without a quiver attached to your bow) on your upper body,  a rangefinder, water bottle and knife on your belt, a license, cell phone, toilet paper, compass, flashlight, and snack bars in your pockets.  You must equip yourself to be mobile while keeping yourself as invisible and silent as possible.  Portable decoys are a key element to getting in close in open terrain.  Use antelope decoys which are lightweight to carry, quickly assembled, and easily held upright with just one hand, leaving the other hand free to tote a bow during a stalk.

  

You will cover miles on any given day; wear extremely comfortable, breathable and lightweight boots for long treks on rocky, dry terrain.  A cap or head net is a must for concealing your face from both the antelope and the elements.  If excessive heat is a factor, which can easily happen even in September, consider wearing a 3D suit or camo bug suit with shorts and t-shirt underneath.  Other alternatives are cotton-poly "tropical" weight camouflage pants and shirt, although these lighter weight fabrics will not give knees and elbows the protection you may desire when crawling along the ground. 


Wearing lightweight knee and elbow pads is an alternative to consider for making crawling approaches more tolerable when wearing lightweight camo.

  

By far, the single most important factor in preparing for an antelope spot and stalk is preparing yourself mentally and physically for the shot.  Gear typically used for whitetails will work equally well on the similarly sized Pronghorn which averages 100 to 125 lbs. in weight.   It's imperative that several basic guidelines be followed:

  • Shooting practice begins months in advance of your hunt
  • Shooting is done regularly, and
  • Shooting to much longer distances than normal is mastered.

     

On the open prairies, the lack of obstacles makes bow shots to long distances easily executed.  The key is executing the shot quickly and accurately as even a small movement by an antelope 50 yards away can really mess up a shot.

  

Use antelope decoys which are lightweight to carry, quickly assembled, and easily held upright with just one hand, leaving the other hand free to tote a bow during a stalk.

Mastering shots up to 60 yards is ideal, keeping in mind your abilities and your bows kinetic energy.  If unable to execute accurate shots with the required energy for a humane kill shot, then practice to 50 yards - or whatever you determine you can confidently and accurately achieve on a routine basis.  Know your limits and don't exceed them!

   

You'll be mildly surprised at the regularity in which antelope are encountered at distances of 50 to 100 yards and how challenging it is to creep undetected closer than 40 or 50 yards.  Distance estimation skills must be superb.   Expect to use a rangefinder constantly even if you estimate distance well.  The wide open prairies make it very deceiving for guessing distances and if unaccustomed to hunting this type of terrain it compounds the problem.  Don't chance blowing a shot after stalking for several hours! 


Take a few seconds, range the distance, then shoot.  You'll find a variety of excellent compact and lightweight rangefinders that can be carried easily on a belt during a stalk.

  

Keep in mind that both bucks and does sport horns (yes horns; their horn sheaths are shed annually and horns grow continuously throughout their life, unlike antlers).  Does or younger bucks are usually easily identifiable as their horns generally do not protrude above the length of their ears (about 2 to 4"), with the mature males sporting horns generally 12" or longer with curved prongs on the ends.  Both sexes move sporadically during the day making endless opportunities for a stalk possible.  Once bedded down for the night, however, they will not usually move again until daybreak.

  

Proper gear and excellent shooting skills are keys to a successful spot and stalk.  Start early by preparing yourself mentally and physically and you'll be ready for this most challenging bowhunt!

 

Gear Checklist:


Count on carrying this gear with you at all times, you never know when a stalk may begin and it could last for several hours.

  • Bow, arrows and quiver (backpack quiver if necessary)
  • Spotting scope
  • Binoculars and Harness system, compact and lightweight
  • Rangefinder, compact
  • Antelope Decoy, lightweight & easily carried long distances
  • Water 
  • Knife
  • Cell phone or 2-way radio
  • Compass
  • Toilet paper
  • Food/snacks
  • Belt or fanny pack to carry smaller, essential items
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Muzzleloader Buyer's Guide

By Don Sangster

As whitetail deer populations continue to soar in many parts of the North, East and South -- often near populated areas -- more and more jurisdictions are adding primitive-weapons-only seasons. Out West, most states offer muzzleloader-only tags for elk and mule deer that are often much easier to obtain than modern rifle tags in the same areas. As a result, savvy hunters across the nation are taking up muzzleloader hunting in order to take advantage of these enhanced hunting opportunities. Other sportsmen are simply attracted to the added challenge that these short-range, single-shot weapons provide. Still others enjoy using traditional weapons for Civil War re-enactments or just collecting them as a hobby. Whatever your interests, here is what you need to know to get started in the world of muzzleloaders.

Inline Muzzleloader

Modern muzzleloaders are available with the latest synthetic stocks, including thumbhole designs and camouflage finishes and with stainless or nickel actions and barrels.

 

Muzzleloader Rifles: Modern Design

The first thing you will notice when browsing a website or catalogue is that most of these "primitive" weapons don't look that primitive at all, and they certainly don't look like what Daniel Boone might have carried. You are, in fact, looking at the modern, inline muzzleloader. While "traditional" muzzleloaders are still available, these modern versions account for about 95% of today's market, and for good reason.

The biggest drawback of traditional style muzzleloaders, which we will also cover here, is that they can sometimes fail to fire under damp or wet conditions. This is not usually a problem with inline muzzleloaders. Accuracy tends to be significantly better with inline muzzleloaders as well.

muzzleloaders share a common trait: as their name implies, they are loaded through the muzzle, rather than through the breech as is the case with modern smokeless firearms. Both powder and projectile are pushed or poured down the barrel toward the breech, where the powder is ultimately ignited and burned, causing the projectile to be discharged down and out the barrel. Where the various types of muzzleloaders differ is in the means and location of the ignition.

"Inline" refers to the fact that the igniter is directly behind and in line with the powder charge, which results in more efficient ignition and, thereby, consistent energy and accuracy. These weapons are available in various action types, including bolt action, break action and lever or pivot action, and the biggest advantage that they all offer over traditional muzzleloaders is that their ignition systems are generally completely protected from the elements, ensuring reliable ignition even under adverse hunting conditions.

Most of these muzzleloaders now use #209 shotgun shell or muzzleloader primers to ignite the powder charge. When the trigger is pulled, an external or internal hammer falls, or a plunger-type firing pin is released, striking the primer. These primers create much more spark than the caps used to ignite traditional muzzleloaders, also improving the reliability and efficiency of ignition. As an added bonus, most newer inline muzzleloaders have removable breech plugs, allowing for quick and easy cleaning or removal of an unfired bullet and powder charge at the end of the hunting day.

By far the most popular caliber of inline muzzleloader for big game hunting is the .50 caliber, but .45 and .54 calibers are also available. Some models will be referred to as a "magnum," which isn't a distinct caliber but simply denotes a muzzleloader that can handle a powder charge of up to 150 grains.

Many of these modern muzzleloaders are available with the latest synthetic stocks, including thumbhole designs and camouflage finishes and with stainless or nickel actions and barrels.

You will notice that most inline muzzleloaders have barrels indicating a rate of twist of 1-in-28 inches. This refers to the rifling in the barrel and how quickly one full turn is achieved. One-in-28 inches is a fast twist and is the optimum rate of twist for stabilizing the saboted bullets and other modern projectiles most commonly used in these guns. With these muzzleloaders and bullets, using fiber-optic sights or a scope (most inlines come drilled and tapped for scope mounting), exceptional accuracy out to 150 yards or more is a reality. (Some states have strict rules governing the use of scopes and the caliber and types of muzzleloaders, bullets and primers that can be used during special primitive-weapons-only deer seasons. Be sure to check local regulations.)

For the value conscious shooter or hunter, some inline muzzleloaders are sold with an interchangeable shotgun barrel as a combo, or in a starter kit with powder, bullets, tools and some cleaning equipment.

Muzzleloader Rifles: Traditional Design

Before the advent of inline muzzleloaders in the mid 1980s, flintlock and percussion muzzleloaders were all that were available. Flintlock muzzleloaders, which date back to the Revolutionary War and are the most primitive type of muzzleloader available today, use a piece of flint on an external hammer to strike a steel plate, creating a spark that ignites a charge of very fine powder in a flash pan, which then ignites the main powder charge.

Percussion Muzzleloader

Flintlock and percussion muzzleloaders were all that were available before the advent of inline muzzleloaders in the mid 1980s.

 

Percussion muzzleloaders, also known as caplocks, were invented around the time of the Civil War. They are similar to a flintlock, except the hammer strikes a nipple on which a musket cap or #11 percussion cap sits. The cap creates a spark which travels down through a hole in the nipple and into the powder charge.

Since flintlocks actually require the ignition and burning of two separate powder charges before the bullet is actually fired, they tend to have a bit slower "lock time" or firing time than percussions. They are also more prone to ignition problems due to moisture reaching the powder in the flash pan (hence the saying, "keep your powder dry").

When it comes to stocks and overall designs, most traditional muzzleloaders are either long-barreled and full-length stocked Pennsylvania or Kentucky rifles, or short-barreled and half-stocked Hawken or Plains rifles. In a mix of old and new, some Hawken styles are available with synthetic stocks and stainless barrels, while do-it-yourselfers can choose from unfinished, build-it-yourself kits.

In addition to the standard big game models ranging from .45 to .54 caliber, traditional muzzleloaders are also available in .32 or .36 caliber versions, which should only be used for small game hunting or plinking.

In keeping with their more traditional roots, these smokepoles are most commonly used with either conical bullets or patched round balls. Accordingly, they typically sport 1-in-48 inch or 1-in-66 inch rate of twist barrels, which optimize the performance of each of these two types of projectiles, respectively.

Pistols

Although not as popular as rifles, muzzleloader pistols are actually available in a greater number of different styles.

Muzzleloader Pistol

Colt-style revolver

 

Single-shot inlines in .50 caliber are basically miniature versions of their rifle cousins and are suitable for hunting deer. Traditional flintlock or percussion models in calibers ranging from .32 to .50 also operate the same as their long-gun versions, but lack the power needed for big game and should be restricted to small game or recreational shooting.

In addition to these, Derringer-style single-shot or double-barreled, small-caliber pocket pistols are also available for plinking, while various models of revolvers, mostly in .44 caliber and shooting round balls, are a lot of fun to shoot and are popular with shooters looking to recreate a bit of Old West history. Revolvers are available in either Colt-style or Remington-style, with the main difference being that the Colts lack a top strap of steel over the cylinder.

A Word on Blackpowder

Although muzzleloaders have traditionally been loaded with blackpowder, many hunters and shooters today use blackpowder substitutes such as Pyrodex or Triple Seven, particularly with inline muzzleloaders. This is because these other powders are less corrosive and cause less fouling (thus requiring less cleaning) than blackpowder. In addition, they are available in convenient pre-formed and pre-measured pellets, with 50 grains being the most common weight. These pellets eliminate the need for measuring and pouring powder, thus greatly reducing the amount of time required to load or re-load.

Despite the advantages of these modern blackpowder substitutes, muzzleloaders must still be cleaned after every few shots. Be sure to follow the firearm's and powder manufacturers' recommendations in that regard. In addition, some blackpowder substitutes may not be suitable for all muzzleloaders. Again, always follow the firearm's manufacturer's recommendations and warnings. Finally, never, EVER, use modern smokeless powder in a muzzleloader.

Make no mistake, today's modern replica muzzleloaders, especially inline versions, are "primitive" weapons in name alone. You can now have many of the modern technological advantages of smokeless, centerfire cartridges and rifles, while still connecting with our shooting and frontier heritage. Enjoy.

Click here to see our full selection of muzzleloader gear.

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Hunting Gift Guide

By Keith Sutton

Searching for the perfect Christmas gift to give a friend or family member who enjoys hunting? This can seem like a daunting task since such a great variety of products are available, but this guide to holiday shopping can help you get started. Here are some hot items you'll certainly want to consider gift-wrapping this year.

Guns

If you really want to make an impression, you can't go wrong with the gift of a new rifle, shotgun or handgun. Most veteran hunters already own one or several, yet all will tell you there's always room for a new caliber, gauge or style in the gun cabinet. A matched pair of collectible British doubles might set you back $40,000 or more. But more budget-conscious shoppers can find firearms that will long be treasured by the lucky hunter starting at just a few hundred dollars.

Archery and Blackpowder Equipment

MuzzleloaderIf you know someone interested in bowhunting, you might ask them to make a list showing some of the specialty items they'd like to find under the tree Christmas morning. The possibilities are almost endless, everything from a brand new bow or crossbow to a new set of arrows or accessories such as broadheads, bow cases, targets, sights, quivers, releases and stabilizers.

The blackpowder enthusiast will probably have some great gift ideas as well. Give something truly special like a new muzzleloading rifle, shotgun or handgun, or keep them well-stocked with commonly used items such as powder, caps, bullets, lubricants and patches. Accessories such as powder measures, flasks, speed loaders and cappers make great stocking stuffers.

Clothing and Footwear

It's hard to go wrong in this department because every hunter always can use a new shirt, pants, outerwear or other item of clothing made especially for hunting.

Cold-weather ApparelCold-weather apparel always is appreciated, anything from a complete insulated waterproof parka system and bib overalls to more moderately priced items such as thermal underwear, gloves, face masks, caps and hats. And the first time they get caught in a downpour, they'll be glad you thought about a gift of new rainwear.

There's clothing made especially for waterfowl hunters and turkey hunters, and specialty items such as scent-control apparel that will put a smile on the face of any big-game hunter. For upland hunters, consider a new vest with game bag and shell holders. And what outdoorsman wouldn't be thrilled to find a new pair of boots or waders under the tree?

Don't forget the ladies and youngsters in the family either. Clothing made just for them is available in a wide variety of camo and blaze-orange patterns.

Treestands

TreestandIf you have a budding deer hunter in the family, he'll surely appreciate a new treestand where he can get a bird's-eye view of his hunting territory. And hunters who already have stands may need upgrades that include safety features unavailable on many early models.

Choices are many. Ladder stands, which are simply leaned against and secured to a tree, are preferred by many. But climbing stands, which tend to be more compact and lightweight, may be the best selection for those who hunt backcountry or public areas where stands must be carried out daily. Also available are big comfortable tower stands that are more permanent in nature and ideal for hunters who regularly pursue deer on their own property or lease. With prices starting around $70, there's something for every budget. See the "Treestand Buyer's Guide" for more.

Optics

A good set of binoculars or a spotting scope aren't necessary for many types of hunting, but they'll be appreciated anyway as they'll provide hours of enjoyment watching wildlife outdoors and at home.

Rifle ScopeA new rifle scope makes a great gift as well, and many hunters wish they had but don't yet own a red-dot or holographic sight for their handgun, slug gun, turkey gun or muzzleloader.

Rangefinders are one of the hottest gifts for today's hunter who wants to improve accuracy on the range and in the field. And your loved one is sure to love you even more if he unwraps a package and finds one of the many new game cameras inside that will capture great photos of deer and other animals on the trails he hunts.

Electronics

Handheld GPSThe newest technological toys are big hits when it comes to gift giving, even for hunters. Near the top of list would be a handheld GPS unit that will help your hunter get into and out of the backcountry without getting lost, and help him navigate to prime hunting spots on return visits. See "Choosing a Handheld GPS Unit" for more info.

Other electronic options include two-way radios for outdoor communication, electronic predator calls and accessories, electronic collars for hunting dogs, hearing enhancers and weather-alert radios.

ATV Accessories

Does your gift recipient own an ATV? A wide variety of ATV accessories are available, any of which might make a great Christmas gift. Choose from items as diverse as winches, gun racks, bow racks, cargo/storage bags, camouflage covers and tree-stand transporters.

ATV accessoriesOther add-ons include drink holders, halogen trail lights, spotlights, cell phone holders and carts. You can even purchase a passenger cart for some models that permits the rider to carry extra friends or family on a single ATV to their hunting blind. See "Outfitting Your ATV" for more.

Calls and Decoys

Nowadays, there's a call and decoy made for just about every type of game, from deer, elk and predators to waterfowl, turkeys and squirrels. Calls make wonderful stocking stuffers, and when you gift-wrap a dozen duck decoys or a full-body deer decoy, you'll have the gift recipient wondering what that huge package is under the tree.
     
Hunting and Shooting Accessories

KnivesIf you can't decide on one or two gifts for your favorite hunter, consider buying a daypack or travel bag and stuffing it with a variety of small hunting accessories. Some items to consider include a hunting knife, pocketknife or multi-tool; hunting scents and scent eliminators; ammunition; targets; hearing protection and eye protection; gun-cleaning kitcompass; flashlight or headlamp; first-aid kit; water purifier or shooting glasses.

Books and DVDs

Hunters always are looking for ways to improve their skills, and instructional books and DVDs are very helpful in this regard. Scores of titles are available for hunting sports of all sorts, from bear hunting and waterfowling to archery and dog training. Gift subscriptions to hunting magazines also make superb Christmas presents that will be appreciated year-round.

TentCamping Gear

If none of the above is inspiring, consider camping-related gifts. Options include a new tent, sleeping bag, cot, sleeping pad, lantern, cooler, backpack or camp chair.

Cookery items will be appreciated as well, with much to choose from. A new camp stove can get your chef started, and a camper's kitchen is great for keeping everything organized. Coffee pots, grills, cooking utensils, cast-iron cookware and accessories such as roasting forks, mugs and cookbooks are just a few of the many other items from which to choose.

A Hunting Trip

Big Cedar LodgeFor that really special someone, think about booking an outdoor hunting adventure with a reputable guide or outfitter. The cost may be more affordable than you think, and many options are available, from big-game hunting in remote wilderness areas to family affairs where hunters can spend time with their loved ones enjoying a variety of activities together. A visit to Big Cedar Lodge in the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri, is one option your whole family is sure to remember for years to come.

Gift Cards

And finally, if you still can't decide on the just-right gift, let your hunter make the selection. A gift card stuck in a stocking shows you really care and makes the perfect present for someone who seems to have everything. You pick the dollar amount, and the recipient can redeem the card for online purchases, catalog orders and purchases made in the store. And if you're one of those last-minute shoppers, you can even purchase an E-Gift Card to send a gift almost instantly to your favorite outdoor enthusiast.

This doesn't begin to cover all the hunting-related gifts you'll have to choose from when making selections this holiday season, but for most hunters, it's the thought that counts anyway. No matter what you give this Christmas, you know the person who receives it will be thinking good thoughts of you when they use it.

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Binocular Buyer's Guide

By Don Sangster

Porro Prism Graphic

In porro prism binoculars, the objective or front lens is offset from the eyepiece. Porro prism binoculars provide a greater depth perception and generally offer a wider field-of-view. Because of the simplicity of this system, some of the best values can be with a porro design.

On any big game hunting trip, and on many outings for small game and waterfowl, next to your weapon of choice, a good pair of binoculars may be the most important piece of equipment you bring. Although most hunters today have scopes on their rifles, it is simply irresponsible and dangerous to use a scoped rifle to glass something you see off in the distance. Remember, there's a rifle sitting underneath that scope, and what you are pointing at could be another person. Don't do it. There's simply no need for that when there are so many good binoculars available today at reasonable prices. But since there are so many different models of binoculars to choose from, selecting the right one for you may seem difficult. Here's what you need to know, including some of the terms used in the optics industry and what they mean for you.

Binoculars come in a wide variety of sizes, magnifying powers and features, but they all utilize either a Porro prism system or a roof prism system, which refers to the type and configuration of the internal prisms used to magnify and transmit light through the binocular to the eye. Porro prism binoculars can be recognized by the fact that the front or objective lens is offset from and not in line with the eyepiece or ocular lens. Porro prism binoculars can provide a slightly clearer, more three-dimensional image with greater depth perception, and generally offer a wider field of view (F.O.V.), or the actual width of the sight picture at a specific distance. Due to the relative simplicity of the Porro prism system, they generally cost less than similar roof prism versions, however, they tend to be bigger, bulkier and heavier.

In roof prism binoculars the internal prisms overlap closely, allowing the objective lenses to line up directly with the eyepieces. The result is a slim, streamlined shape, with less bulk and perhaps a bit more ruggedness than Porro prism designs. For these reasons, roof prism models tend to be a bit more popular with sportsmen. If this style is your preference, look for a model with phase correction, which is a feature that prevents interference when the path of light crosses over itself while being reflected off of the various surfaces of the internal prism.

Roof Prism Diagram

In roof prism binoculars, the prisms overlap closely, allowing the objective lenses to line up directly with the eyepiece. The result is a slim, streamlined shape in which the lenses and prisms are in a straight line. 

You will notice that the specifications of a typical binocular are usually stated as 7x35mm, 8x40mm, 10x42mm, or some variation thereof. The number before the "x" refers to the magnification, which means that the object will appear that many times closer or larger than it actually is. Although a higher magnification will mean a better look at the object, the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view, which can make scanning for game more difficult. Most hunters prefer 8x or 10x, which provides a good balance of magnification and field of view, but some will go as high as 12x. Anything more than that will not only have a small field of view but will likely be too difficult to hold steady without the aid of a tripod or other support, as the higher power will magnify the unsteadiness of your hands to the point of making prolonged viewing nearly impossible. The vast majority of binoculars are fixed-power, whereby the magnification is permanently set at a given level, but a few are variable-power, which can be adjusted or zoomed within their set range.

The number following the "x" refers to the diameter of the objective lens, expressed in millimeters. The larger it is, the larger the field of view will be at any given magnification setting, but also the more light the binoculars will gather and brightness is one of the most important features to look for in binoculars. High-quality binoculars have the ability to gather available light in through the lenses and utilize it in such a way that you can actually see better during low-light conditions while looking through the binoculars than you can with the naked eye. The benefit of this to hunters is obvious. The key term here, however, is high-quality, but what makes a high-quality binocular? Unfortunately, large objective lenses do not automatically translate into a bright image.

A binocular with 40 mm objective lenses can actually be brighter than one with 56 mm lenses. It all depends on the quality of the glass used, the overall construction of the unit, and particularly on the coatings used on the internal glass. In order to reduce glare and the amount of available light lost during transmission from the object to your eye, special chemical coatings are applied to the surface or surfaces of a lens. The quality, number and position of these coatings determine how much light is transmitted. Here are the options available and what they mean:

    Coated -- a single layer is applied to at least one lens surface
    Fully-coated -- a single layer is applied to all air-to-glass surfaces
    Multi-coated -- multiple layers are applied to at least one lens surface
    Fully multi-coated -- multiple layers are applied to all air-to-glass surfaces

As mentioned, the overall brightness, as well as the sharpness and clarity, of a pair of binoculars depends upon a lot of factors, but one way to compare the inherent brightness from one model to another is to compare the diameter of the exit pupils. This refers to the size of the circle of light visible at the eyepiece of a binocular, when pointed at a light source and held about a foot away, but really means how much light is available to the human eye. The larger the exit pupil measured in millimeters, the brighter the image, everything else being equal. To determine that number, divide the objective lens diameter by the magnification (an 8x32 model has an exit pupil of 4mm). Full-sized binoculars should have exit pupils at least in the 4-5mm range. Anything larger than that is typically larger than the pupils of an adult human's eyes, meaning that there is more available light than the eye can use, at the expense of lugging around bigger and heavier lenses. Anything smaller than that and the image is likely not as bright as it could be.

Dioptre Adjustment

The Dioptre Adjustment is a "fine focus" adjustment ring usually located around one eyepiece to accommodate for vision differences between the right and left eyes.

The exception to the 4-5mm exit pupil rule is in regard to compact or pocket-sized binoculars. These models are usually 7x or 8x magnification, with objective lenses usually less than 30mm in diameter. As a result, they tend to not be as bright as full-sized models, but this is offset by the convenience of a small, lightweight binocular that you can carry in your pocket or in your glove box. A quality compact binocular that is always with you when you need it is far better than a heavy, bulky model that you always leave back at camp or in your vehicle.

In terms of cost, top-quality binoculars are not cheap. However, perhaps more so than with any other piece of your hunting equipment, you do get what you pay for when it comes to optics. Expect to pay anywhere between $200 and $2,000 for quality binoculars. The rule of thumb when it comes to optics is to buy the best that you can afford. You won't regret it. Not only are high-quality optics clearer and brighter, but they won't cause headaches or eye fatigue from hours of glassing the way that cheap optics can, and they will last several lifetimes.

What else do you get for this money? Many binoculars are rubber-armored, to provide some shock absorbing protection against scratches and bumps in the field, and it also makes them quieter to carry and more comfortable to hold. Top quality models are waterproof, fogproof and shockproof, through the use of O-ring seals and nitrogen gas filling or purging.

Many models also offer a dioptre adjustment, which is a fine focus adjustment ring usually provided around one or both eyepieces, rather than just the standard center focus wheel, to accommodate for vision differences between the right and left eyes. Other features such as roll-down or twist-down eye cups for eyeglass wearers, lens caps and neck straps are common on most models.

Now that you are armed with this knowledge, the best way to actually pick a binocular that is right for you is to try as many as you can in your price range. Examine each one and look through them all, preferably at distant objects, for a few minutes each. If you start to feel eye strain or fatigue, try another pair. Everyone's eyes are different, so you may have to try a few before you find one that feels good in your hands, offers that perfect level of brightness, sharpness and clarity, in a package that is not too big, heavy or hard on the pocketbook. Once you find it, you'll wish you'd done it sooner.

Shop Bass Pro Shops' complete selection of Binoculars.

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Rangefinder Buyer's Guide

By Don Sangster

Archery Rangefinder
Some rangefinders allow you to switch between rifle and bow modes, giving you the best readings for whatever weapon you choose.

Binoculars, riflescopes and even spotting scopes have been around for a long time and have become standard equipment for most hunters. But one piece of optics that is relatively new and growing in popularity is the laser rangefinder. Technological advances have made them smaller, more accurate and more affordable than ever before, such that no hunter should be without one anymore. Here's what you need to know to choose one that's right for you.

Rangefinders function by emitting and bouncing a laser beam off your target at the press of a button. Then the rangefinder's high-speed digital clock measures the time it takes for the laser beam to reach the target and return to the unit and instantly calculates the distance to within +/- 1 or 2 yards. The range is then displayed in yards or meters on an LCD display built into the lens. The entire process is so fast that less than a second elapses between pressing the button to generate a laser beam to the time the exact range to your target is displayed.

One of the first things you will notice when comparing different models is their maximum effective range. This will vary from 500-1500 yards. When making these comparisons, make sure that you are comparing apples to apples, as the maximum effective range of a rangefinder is partially determined by the reflectivity of the target. Hard or reflective targets such as a rock cliff or a vehicle can be measured at greater distances than soft-surface targets such as a deer. Ranges for moderately reflective targets, such as trees, fall somewhere in the middle. The specifications of most rangefinders will indicate their maximum ranges for these various types of targets.

Although laser rangefinders were originally developed for long range rifle shooting, many manufacturers have introduced models recently that are designed for the bowhunter. Some people may wonder about the need for a laser rangefinder for shooting distances that rarely exceed 40 yards, but serious bowhunters realize that knowing the range to the target with precision is crucial to making accurate bow shots. These archery models excel at providing super-accurate measurements at short ranges, usually a maximum of 100 yards and often in fractions-of-a-yard readings. Some newer rangefinders even allow you to switch between rifle and bow modes, so you can get the best readings for whatever weapon you choose.

Leupold RX 1000 TBR Rangefinder
Some rangefinders provide accurate aiming information, matched to the performance of your rifle or bow, by calculating the incline, line of sight range to the target, and a projectile’s ballistics. The shown here is an example.

Likely the next difference you will notice among various models is that some are oriented vertically and can be used with just one hand, while others function horizontally and require both hands to operate effectively. This difference is largely a matter of personal preference, but many vertical models are so compact that they will fit in a shirt pocket, while the horizontal models tend to have longer ranging capabilities.

Another recent innovation in the industry is the introduction of a feature known as "true horizontal distance," or some similar term. Bowhunters who hunt from treestands or rifle hunters that have attempted long uphill or downhill shots know that the degree of incline or decline to the target can have a significant impact on your shooting. This is because the distance to your target is actually less than it would be on level ground, and thus gravity's downward pull on your projectile is lessened. Models with this feature factor in the slope and calculate the actual horizontal or ballistic distance to your target, rather than just the mere straight-line measurement to your target. Some of these models will even provide ballistics compensation by displaying the bullet or arrow drop or indicating a holdover aim point or adjustment for that particular distance.

Regardless of what type of rangefinder you choose, they all provide a certain level of magnification, just like binoculars, to assist you in sighting and ranging your target. Most will vary from 4x to 8x magnification. The number before the "x" tells you how many times closer or larger the object will appear than it actually is. Although a higher magnification will mean a better look at the object, the higher the magnification will also mean a smaller field of view (FOV), or the actual width of the sight picture at a specific distance (usually 1,000 yards). A small field of view can make locating your target through the rangefinder more difficult.

The specifications of a rangefinder will also indicate how the lenses are coated. In order to reduce glare and the amount of available light lost during transmission from the object to your eye, special chemical coatings are applied to the surface or surfaces of a lens. The quality, number and position of these coatings determine how much light is transmitted. Here are the terms used in the optics industry and what they mean:

Archers Choice Rangefinder
Rangefinders designed for bowhunting often compensate for extreme shooting angles such as those encountered when treestand hunting.

    Coated - a single layer is applied to at least one lens surface
    Fully-coated - a single layer is applied to all air-to-glass surfaces
    Multi-coated - multiple layers are applied to at least one lens surface
    Fully multi-coated - multiple layers are applied to all air-to-glass surfaces

The more and better quality the coatings, the brighter -- and more expensive -- the rangefinder will be. However, the overall brightness, as well as the sharpness and clarity of a rangefinder, depends upon a lot of factors. One way to compare the inherent brightness from one model to another is to compare the diameter of the exit pupils. This refers to the size of the circle of light visible at the eyepiece, when pointed at a light source and held about a foot away, but really means how much light is available to the human eye. The larger the exit pupil, measured in millimeters, the brighter the image, everything else being equal. This number is determined by dividing the objective lens (the one that is pointed at your target) diameter by the magnification (e.g. a 4x20mm rangefinder will have an exit pupil diameter of 5mm). A larger lens will generally mean a brighter unit, but because you will not be spending long periods of time looking through a rangefinder the way you do with binoculars, this should not be a big consideration. Larger lenses mean more weight and bulk, and possibly a rangefinder that will often be left back at camp or in your vehicle.

In terms of cost, expect to pay anywhere between $150 and $1,000 for a laser rangefinder, with most being under $400. The exception to this is rangefinding binoculars. These premium models combine a high-quality binocular of 7x to 10x and a laser rangefinder with a maximum range often exceeding 1,000 yards. These are perhaps the ultimate optics for the serious big game hunter, eliminating the need to carry two separate units in the field and ensuring that neither one is ever left behind. This luxury comes at a price, however, in the neighborhood of $3,000.

What other features are available? Many models are rubber-armored, to provide some shock absorbing protection against scratches and bumps in the field, and it also makes them quieter to carry and more comfortable to hold. Top quality models are also waterproof, fogproof and shockproof, through the use of O-ring seals and nitrogen gas filling or purging. Other features such as a camo finish, roll-down or twist-down eye cups for eyeglass wearers, lens caps and neck straps are common on most models.

Now that you are armed with this knowledge, the best way to actually pick a rangefinder that is right for you is to try as many as you can in your price range, and Bass Pro Shops offers a wide selection to choose from. Examine each one and look through them all, preferably at distant objects. Everyone's eyes and tastes are different, so you may have to try a few before you find one that has the features you are looking for and feels good in your hands, offers that perfect level of brightness, sharpness and clarity, in a package that is not too big, heavy or hard on the pocketbook. Once you find it, your days of guessing or estimating range with the naked eye will be over forever.

Shop Bass Pro Shops' entire selection of Rangefinders.

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RedHead EnduraSkin Performance Base Layer

By Clint Craft

EnduraSkin ShirtHot and sweaty is a sensation most hunters try to avoid. While whitetail enthusiasts and avid big-game hunters will tout the odor-controlling capability of EnduraSkin (and it does do a great job of stopping odor), it's the garment's ability to keep you cool in warm-weather conditions that makes this performance base layer exceptional in the spring turkey woods. 

A 30-degree temperature swing is normal throughout a day of hunting spring turkey in the Midwest, and a 40-degree temperature difference from the day's high and low is not uncommon. Mornings often start in the low 40s with afternoon temps reaching the upper 70s. While these temperatures are not "extreme," proper layering is still crucial to remain comfortable throughout the day.

EnduraSkin garments are constructed using a unique odor-controlling and temperature-regulating fabric called VisaEndurance. This unique fabric helps insulate for warmth during the coldest part of the day, while moisture-wicking technology pulls sweat away from your body and toward the garment surface for quick evaporation to keep you cool and dry.

EnduraSkin ShortsIn addition to superior comfort, EnduraSkin also keeps you from getting winded by game. Using special antimicrobial technology, VisaEndurance keeps sweat from making you and your clothes smell. This is achieved via the garment's durable silver ion-based finish, which prevents the growth of odor-causing bacteria.

EnduraSkin garments are available in relaxed-fit and form-fitting versions. Form fitting EnduraSkin garments fit snuggly next to your skin, making it the least bulky option for a base layer. Relaxed fit EnduraSkin shirts feature a looser cut, similar to a normal shirt, and may be preferred by those who intend to use the shirt specifically as an outer layer when hunting in extremely hot, muggy weather.     

It's tough to imagine a garment you'd want to wear in all hunting conditions, but EnduraSkin clothing you will. It fits well, feels good next to your skin, and is easy on the wallet to boot. I wear mine as a base no matter what the forecaster says. From freezing cold to blazing hot, EnduraSkin provides odor protection and comfort unmatched by any other base layer on the market today.

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Browning Tactical Hunter Hunt Master Flashlight

By Clint Craft

Browning Hunt Master Flashlight
The Hunt Master’s large head houses three bright, unbreakable LED bulbs rated for 100,000 hours of use.

"Browning?" uttered my hunting buddy as we trudged away from the truck toward our deer stands. He had just asked me who made the exceptionally bright flashlight I had been wielding back at the truck and, apparently, my answer seemed suspicious.  Rightfully so, I suppose, given that the vast majority associate Browning with shotguns and rifles more readily than flashlights. Over the past few years, the Buckmark has found its way onto all types of outdoor gear, and the Hunt Master is evidence that Browning's venture into the highly competitive arena of high-performance flashlights has proven to be a successful move.

Most people shopping for a serious hunting flashlight are going to be drawn to the Hunt Master for its 300 lumen output, which is precisely what attracted me to the light during my initial search. No other pocket flashlight under $100 boasts such an output, and the few pocket lights that do reach the 300 lumen mark are priced well out of reach of most hunters, except for those who rely on such a light for their livelihood. With the Hunt Master Flashlight, Browning has essentially taken guide quality gear and made it accessible to the average hunter.

Other than the obvious draw (again, the 300 lumen max output), the Hunt Master has some really cool features advantageous to hunters and other serious outdoor types. First is the adjustable focus. The adjustable head of the Hunt Master allows you to fine-tune the projected beam. The beam can be constricted for focusing on solitary subjects up to 150 yards away, or it can be widened for broader area coverage.  At the widest setting, the beam is four times as wide as it is when fully constricted and has a 60 yard maximum range. 

Browning Hunt Master Flashlight

Since CR123A batteries aren't cheap, I like being able to select the level of light intensity the flashlight emits using the unit's High-Low switch. Instead of the typical end-cap switch found on other lights in Browning's Tactical Hunter lineup, the switch on the Hunt Master is located near the head of the light. Pressing the switch once turns on the flashlight, which defaults to the highest setting. Press the switch a second time to activate the low setting, which equates to 100 lumens or 30% of the high setting. Pressing the High-Low switch a third time turns the flashlight off.

Run time is another impressive feature of the Hunt Master. At the 300 lumen maximum output the Hunt Master has a 3.5 hour run time. It has an 8 hour run time on the low power setting. Again, while it's nice to have when needed, I don't always require that whopping 300 lumen output, so I try to conserve battery life whenever possible.

As for construction, the body of the Hunt Master is made of lightweight aluminum. At 6.6 inches, the Hunt Master is smaller than a 2D flashlight, and it fits comfortably in the palm of my hand; yet, due to the larger head design, the Hunt Master feels a little bulkier in my pocket than my other pocket lights. The larger head is necessary, though, to house the light's three bright LED bulbs. These high-powered LEDs are rated for 100,000 hours of use and are unbreakable (under normal use, of course), as is the adjustable lens. As mentioned previously, the Hunt Master is powered by three CR123A batteries, which are included.

All in all, the Hunt Master has performed well throughout its first season in the deer woods, and I'm still astounded each time I press the switch to release that 300 lumen beam of light, especially knowing the source is a lightweight, pocket-sized flashlight. And while none of my shots this year required that I track an animal at night, the Hunt Master sure made those long walks in and out the dark deer woods a heck of a lot easier.



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1606542_i-773362-t.jpg Browning® Tactical Hunter Huntmaster LED Flashlight
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Blackpowder Cottontails

By Monte Burch

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 Keep a watchful eye for perfectly still rabbits while stalking.

The brown form crouched in the knee-high grass was statue still -- except for one black eye. If the eye hadn't blinked I would have stalked right past the bunny. I slowly eased forward a bit, dropped to one knee so I could get a better shot, pulled back the hammer, gripped the gun tightly with both hands and pulled the trigger. I missed -- the slug plowed into the sod 6 inches behind the sitting bunny. Evidently the rabbit was as surprised as I was about the entire affair. He remained sitting. Or maybe he thought he was safe. I quickly thumbed back the hammer again and took careful aim -- this time a bit in front of the rabbit, and fired. Through the cloud of smoke, amazingly the rabbit was still sitting, this time with a furrow plowed right in front of his nose. I thumbed back the hammer for the third time, and just as I took aim he spurted out of his hidey-hole at full speed. I swung ahead of the speeding rabbit, fired and watched in amazement as he tumbled head over heels and piled up against a small brushpile. Two misses at a sitting rabbit and one lucky shot at a speeding rabbit. My average was going up. I had missed another rabbit three times, but I was having fun.

I was shooting a Navy Arms replica blackpowder-burning .44-caliber revolver. Patterned after the 1858 Remington Army Revolver, it is one of the more accurate Civil War replicas and deadly in the hands of an expert shooter. As you can guess, I'm not a hotshot handgunner. I do love to hunt with blackpowder handguns and cottontail rabbits are one of my favorites for several reasons. They're easy to locate, fun to stalk, easy to knock down with a light load and great tasting.

I like to hunt rabbits with modern guns, bow and black powder. They're fun with rifle, shotgun or handgun, and numerous hunting methods are fun and productive. You can follow a pack of lively beagles, drive rabbit patches with a bunch of hunting friends, or stalk them slowly on a one-on-one situation.

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 Right after a fresh snowfall is the best time to handgun for rabbits -- they sit tight and are easy to track and locate. 

The latter is one of my favorites and I especially like the challenge of stalking bunnies with a blackpowder handgun. It's not only challenging, but exciting and sometimes quite productive. You can't help but get excited when you make a good shot at a speeding rabbit with a blackpowder handgun.

In fact, blackpowder handguns are a heck of a lot of fun to shoot, and hunting with them just adds to the pleasure. There are three types of blackpowder handguns, cap-and-ball revolvers, in-line and the old fashioned pistols. The former, although often called muzzleloaders actually load through the front cylinder. Cap and ball revolvers offer the advantage of several shots loaded and ready to go. Kentucky-style pistols are also fun in either flintlock or percussion cap. They are loaded from the muzzle and are true muzzleloaders. A number of in-line models are now available. 

A wide variety of both types are available in replica models and part of the fun is shooting the various types. They do not require a FFL to purchase and are reasonably priced. You can further reduce the cost by purchasing one of the kits on the market and assembling your own blackpowder handgun. It's fun and fairly easy for anyone with just a bit of woodworking experience.

Pistols, revolvers and handguns are available in a variety of calibers with .44 and .45 the most common. These provide plenty of knockdown power for all types of small game.

Muzzleloading handguns are loaded and fired just like their long-barreled counterparts. Pay special attention to safety rules, as the shorter barreled guns are quite easy to point in the wrong direction.

Cap-and-ball revolvers are loaded and fired somewhat differently. First place a cap on each nipple and fire the caps to dry out the chambers. Then place the hammer in the half-cock position so the cylinder can rotate. Using a powder measure, pour a charge of powder into one chamber. Place a bullet or ball in the mouth of the chamber, turn the cylinder so the bullet lines up with the loading lever, and use the lever to firmly seat the ball or bullet in place. It should be firmly seated on the powder charge and at least 1/16 inch below the front surface of the cylinder. Then load the additional four chambers in a six-shot gun, or three chambers in a five-shot gun, always leaving an empty chamber for the hammer to rest on.

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 Blackpowder pistols come in a wide variety to suit any handgunner.

One problem that can occur with revolvers is "chain-firing," or when fire from the powder of one chamber starts a chain firing action in the other chambers. The solution to the problem is to coat the end of the chambers, covering the seated bullet or ball with a dab of vegetable shortening or commercial revolver sealant. The final step is to cap the nipples, then carefully let the hammer down on the empty chamber. Cocking the hammer on a single-action gun will turn the first loaded chamber into position.

With the wide variety of blackpowder handguns available, loads vary a great deal. Information booklets that come from the manufacturer with the handgun indicate the proper loads and with any type of muzzleloader using the proper load is the first step in not only safe shooting, but accuracy as well. In fact, lighter loads often provide more accurate shooting in all muzzleloading, and that is even more evident in pistol shooting. That's another plus for hunting rabbits, as it doesn't take a lot of knockdown power for a bunny, and a light, accurate shooting load is the best choice. Twenty grains of black powder is considered a good starting place. Or you can substitute 16 grains of Pyrodex. I prefer the latter because there are less fouling problems, more shots in the field between cleanings, and it's easier to clean the gun.

Regardless of what type of gun and caliber you choose, the first step is to test fire it with a wide variety of loads to determine the best load. You should also test fire at different distances, starting at about 30 yards and moving up to about 15 feet, which is probably both the outer and inner limits of rabbit hunting shots.

Most states also have wildlife management areas primarily for upland game hunting, and these also offer excellent rabbit hunting situations. Such areas are usually extremely good in the latter part of the season, when most hunters have gone home for the winter. Contact your state game and fish department for details on locations and best spots.

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 Fresh snow makes tracking bunnies easy.  If you find the sign, you'll find the rabbits nearby.

Once you master the techniques of blackpowder handgunning and find a place to hunt, it's all downhill from there. Hunting rabbits is easy and fun. The simplest method is to walk through, stomp on and kick every brushpile, weed clump or briar patch you can find. You're going to find rabbits that way, but usually they'll be going faster than the proverbial "speeding bullet." It's mighty challenging shooting with a blackpowder handgun. A better method is to stalk these covers slowly and methodically. Hunt early in the morning or late in the afternoon with the cover between you and the sun and you'll often be able to silhouette sitting bunnies for easier shots.

Right after a fresh snowfall is the single best time for blackpowder handgunning for rabbits. They'll sit tight and are easy to track and spot in the snow. But regardless, if you're looking for exciting hunting and challenging shooting, try blackpowder handguns and cottontail rabbits. You won't be sorry!
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Try the Woodcock Challenge

By Keith Sutton

American woodcockEvery autumn, when the weather man announces the first cold front blowing down from the North, we get timberdoodles on our minds.

Last year it happened in mid-November. The phone rang at 6:30 p.m.

"Did you hear the weather report?" Jim asked, a twinge of excitement edging his voice. "There's a blue norther coming down. The timberdoodles are probably flocking into Lost Pond already. I'll pick you up at 5 tomorrow morning. You bring sandwiches, and I'll bring the coffee. Patterson's going with us."

At 7 a.m., we were making our first push through a tract of bottomland timber along east Arkansas' L'Anguille River. Like most woodcock hunters, I prefer that you don't know the exact location of my hunting spots, so I'll call this one Hugh's Hollow.

This particular covert is a classic woodcock hospice of dense sweetgum saplings and honeysuckle thickets. A beaver slough slashes the edge, feeding water into the spongy ground beneath the canopy of oaks and tupelos. The territory is thick and uncivil; it's hard to find space between the tangles of vegetation to set down your feet.

As we waded into the thicket, I saw the first signs that our timing was right: white splatters on the leaves and little holes in the mud, like someone had been poking around with a stick. Then 10 yards out front, from the depths of the sweetgums, came a sharp, ascendant twittering. A brown, fist-sized bird spiraled skyward through the branches.

I lost sight of the bird almost immediately in the crisscross of leafy limbs, but by some fluke of luck, it presented Jim an uncommonly clear shot, and he killed it. The shot rumbled. The woodcock fell at his feet.

"In case you didn't know, boys, this is what we're looking for," he said, holding the timberdoodle for us to see.

The second bird came out low and fast. I shot, missed, and it flew into the nether reaches of the covert. After it we went, and when it flushed again in characteristic fashion, Gregg mounted, swung and fired in one quick fluid motion. A detonation of feathers showed he had found his mark.

Gregg found the woodcock in a patch of honeysuckle. Jim came over, and we admired the singular beauty of this unusual woodland ghost. Its bill was like a knitting needle, its legs weak and squatty, the tail just a little tuft of stubby feathers. The soft plumage was a warm earthy brown flecked with black and cinnamon. Broad black bars passed over the crown between big ebony eyes.

As we stood, another timberdoodle put up in the cover beside us, whistling away through the bottoms.

The timberdoodle, as it is often called, goes more properly by the name American woodcock. The birds are quail-sized, cryptically colored and hide in dense cover. Many hunters aren't even aware of their presence.

To top it off, woodcock hunting is anything but easy. Gunners must brave the gnarly thickets and boggy bottoms woodcocks frequent. And while buried to the ears in a latticework of vegetation, they must try to snap-shoot a crooked-flying, brown-feathered blur that has the nerve-jangling habit of flushing directly underfoot. Tough hunting like that discourages many people, which may account for the fact that relatively few hunters pursue woodcocks.

Hunting them is challenging and fun, nevertheless. And those who have tried it almost invariably become addicted.

Recognizing good woodcock habitat is one key to successful hunting, for these coverts tend to concentrate the birds and provide consistent shooting. This is usually moist bottomland near waters surrounded by low, heavy brush cover about 8 to 15 feet tall. Look for damp, loamy soil along creeks, springs, sloughs and beaver ponds where woodcocks can probe the soft ground for earthworms, their favorite food.

The most common sign of woodcocks, except for the birds themselves, is the chalky whitewash of droppings they deposit on the forest floor. Normal weather quickly obliterates this, so finding it indicates birds are, or recently were, nearby. Watch, too, for probe holes in soft earth around ponds, creeks and other waters. These are made by the woodcock's long bill when it probes the ground for worms.

The best hunting in many parts of the country is provided by large influxes of migratory or so-called "flight" birds. Hunters intercept these woodcocks as they pass through on their migration.

Weather reports offer clues on when to expect the migrants. Major influxes of woodcocks usually precede strong autumn cold fronts pushing down from Canada and the northern United States. Most woodcocks will move out well in advance of snow or ice that locks out their food supply.

To avoid frustration, it's very important to remember that many woodcocks are just passing migrants. If you time your hunt properly, coverts may be bristling with birds. But miss them by a day, and the only trace of timberdoodles will be their white "splashes" on new-fallen leaves. Several likely coverts should be located in order to increase your chance for finding timberdoodles on any given hunt, and you should visit these coverts several times during the season before giving up on them.

Fortunately, woodcocks usually return to the same coverts year after year. If this year's scouting proves fruitful, you'll have several known coverts to hunt again next season.

For most of us, woodcock hunting is a jump-shooting sport. The trick is to locate a likely-looking area, then work the cover meticulously. Rather than flying, a woodcock much prefers to sit on the ground and let you walk right past it. To foil this instinctive gambit, adopt a walk-then-stop pattern of hunting, pausing a minute or so every 20 feet as you walk through cover. Woodcocks are a nervous lot, and won't sit still long if a hunter stops nearby and looks around.

Dogs are another element in many successful hunts, the favored breeds being close-working dogs such as Brittany spaniels and German short-hair pointers.

As far as equipment is concerned, hunting woodcocks is essentially the same as quail hunting. Most hunters prefer short-barreled, improved cylinder shotguns for quick snap shooting and easy maneuverability in tight, brushy quarters. Low-brass shotshells with No. 7-1/2, 8 or 9 shot work great; the birds are easy to bring down if you can hit them. Other items of equipment you should have include hunter-orange cap and shooting vest for visibility to other hunters; shatterproof shooting glasses for eye protection in brush; and shooting gloves and tough, canvas-fronted brush pants to fend off briars and thorns.

My friends and I wound up our morning of woodcock hunting with a grand total of eight timberdoodles, an average of almost three apiece. That doesn't sound like many, and it's not. But like most woodcock fans, we don't measure the success of our hunt by how many birds we shoot.

Back at the truck, we admired our harvest. "You know," Gregg said, "leaning against the pickup. "I've done a lot of hunting in my time, but nothing more fun than I had today. It just doesn't get any better than this."

Jim and I agreed. It's a demanding sport, this woodcock hunting. You wear yourself out fighting through brush, hoping to find some little brown birds that may be there and may not. And if they are, if you're lucky this time, then they'll flush right under your feet, and you'll twist yourself into a knot trying to shoot them before they spiral away through the timber. You'll kill a few, and miss a lot more. But next year, when the weather man talks about that first blue norther heading your way, you'll get woodcocks on your mind, and the next morning, you'll be out there trying again.

Many hunters consider woodcock hunting a folly -- a waste of time, energy and too much ammunition. For others, though, the sport is addictive.

Discover the truth for yourself. The real allure of woodcock hunting must be experienced to be understood.

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12 Tips for Rabbit Hunters

By Keith Sutton

 rabbit2

 Rabbit hunting is a great way to get afield and put some good-tasting meat on the table.

Although most rabbit hunters bag a few cottontails or swamp rabbits on each trip afield, certain techniques can bolster your success.  These 12 tips should help you better enjoy the experience of rabbit hunting this season.

Leapfrogging

 

As farming operations and urban development encroach on prime rabbit hunting areas, large contiguous blocks of hunting territory are harder to find.  This has caused many rabbit hunters to abandon the traditional method of hunting all day in one large swath of brushy territory.  Instead, many now opt for "leapfrogging, " where hunters cover one brush patch or overgrown fencerow in an hour or so, then drive on to another rabbit hideout. By leapfrogging throughout the day, hunting first one spot then another, chances are good you'll locate more rabbits.

 

Farm help

 

Savvy rabbit hunters know that farmers are an invaluable aid for finding cottontail concentrations.  Since they work their land daily and see rabbits regularly, farmers know where huntable populations are likely to be.  Most are eager to keep cottontails thinned out so they don't cause crop damage.

 

It's a simple matter to cultivate your own contacts in farm country.  Remember these things.  Ask permission before hunting, every time you visit.  Follow all rules the landowner asks you to abide by, like passing up shots at the coveys of quail he's nurturing.  Leave everything just as you found it, and always take time to thank the farmer personally.  Offer to share your game, and follow up with a thank-you note and a token of your appreciation.  Make these easy-to-follow guidelines part of all your farm visits, and you'll always have prime rabbit lands on which to hunt.

 

Sunrise and sunset scouting

 

Driving rural roads near dawn and dusk is another good way to find potential hunting sites.  Cottontails are most active early and late in the day, especially along the fringes of fields and roadside cover, where briars and thickets provide sanctuary near favorite feeding areas.

 

Drive slowly, and note any spot where you see several cottontails.  Then inquire at nearby homes for the name of the landowner so you can request permission to hunt.

 

Dress for success

 

Most good cottontail thickets have one thing in common -- thorns.  Whether you're hunting behind dogs, kicking up rabbits yourself or retrieving downed game, some type of sticker will be clawing at your ears, fingers, thighs and other tender parts.  Wearing protective clothing can do wonders to make your trips afield more enjoyable and less painful.

 

Blue jeans are preferred by many rabbit fans, but offer little protection.  A good pair of briar-busting breeches with thorn-proof material covering the front should be considered essential equipment no matter where and how you hunt.  It also helps to wear a briar-resistant hunting coat, gloves and some type of hunting cap with flaps that can be pulled down over your ears.

 

Remember the orange rhino

 

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 A good pair of briar-busting breeches with thorn-proof material covering the front should be considered essential equipment.

A buddy of mine often describes dense rabbit cover by saying, "You couldn't see a blaze orange rhino in there."  In some locales we hunt, this is darn near true.  Cover is so thick, you can only see a few feet.  For this reason, we wear hunter orange hats and bodywear on every trip.

Safety should be the foremost consideration on all your rabbit hunts.  Remember the orange rhino, and make hunter orange clothing a must for everyone in your party.

 

Barrels and bullets

 

When stomping for cottontails in thick cover, use a shotgun with an improved cylinder choke and No. 6 or 7-1/2 shotshells.  Since cottontails jumped in thick cover usually are close and moving fast, a wide, yet sufficiently heavy, shot pattern is needed to put a rabbit down without excessive damage to the meat.

 

When hunting cottontails with beagles, you may want to switch to a modified or full choke.  A pack of dogs will push rabbits across fields and woodlots, and the shots you'll make are usually farther than those presented when you flush rabbits yourself.  Use the tighter patterning choke and increase your shot size to No. 4s or 6s.

 

Icy weather equals hot hunting

 

Cold, miserable days often provide the best gunning.  Rabbit fur has poor insulating qualities, so rabbits are forced to take shelter from the weather, making them easier to find and less likely to flush wildly.

 

To find bad-weather bunnies, think like a rabbit.  Where would you go to escape the cold if all you had to wear was a light jacket?  Hunt places that are sheltered from wind and open to warm rays of sunshine, then move to other locales offering protection from adverse conditions.

 

Look 'em in the eye

 

Stalking rabbits as they sit in their forms is great sport, especially when hunting with youngsters not yet adept at bagging running rabbits.  The trick is to spot the rabbit before it spots you.  Considering the rabbit's superb camouflage, this can be tough.

 

Old hands at this endeavor have a rule: look for their eyes instead of their whole bodies.  A rabbit's round, dark eyes look out of place against the crisscross of cover, and are easily spotted by a hunter who walks slowly, carefully examining all brush and weeds.  You may overlook rabbits huddled in their forms, but you'll also bag a few at close range after spotting the eye.

 

Watch over your shoulder

 

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 Look for cottontails and swamp rabbits in brushpiles, honeysuckle patches, fallen treetops, cane brakes and other forest cover.

In isolated patches of cover, a cottontail may head directly away, disappearing from sight, then circle well behind the hunter.  Others sit tight until the gunner passes, then squirt out behind.

Look over your shoulder every few minutes, and you'll glimpse some of these renegades before they make good their escape.  Snap shooting is a must, so be careful to identify your target before shooting.

 

Stop-and-go hunting

 

A veteran nimrod taught me a rabbit hunting technique that has proven very effective over the years.  It's based on the idea that rabbits are highly nervous animals, and suspense is something they can't handle very well.  It works this way.  Enter a covert and begin walking very slowly.  Walk ten paces, then stop for at least a minute, then repeat the process.  The sound of the approach is sometimes enough to make cottontails flush, but it's just as often the silent period.  Apparently, the rabbits think they've been detected and decide to make a run for it.

 

Woodland rabbits

 

Most hunters think of thickets and field edges as the places to go for a rabbit race.  Some fail to realize woods harbor rabbits, too.  Look for cottontails and swamp rabbits in brushpiles, honeysuckle patches, fallen treetops, cane brakes and other forest cover.  Because such areas usually receive less hunting pressure, they often hide extraordinary numbers of rabbits.

 

Take a kid hunting

 

To get the most out of your next rabbit hunt, take a kid with you -- a son, a daughter, a niece, a nephew, a grandchild or maybe a neighbor's child.  It was in the cottontail fields most of us were trained as young hunters.  We may have dreamed of deer or more exotic game like grizzlies and lions, but with cottontails, we learned the crucial basics about hunting, nature and ourselves.

 

Share these things with children.  Share the fun and excitement, the triumphs and disappointments, the barrage of wonderful sensations experienced on a rabbit hunt.  Our heritage of hunting is a priceless treasure.  Do your part to pass it on.

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Hard Lessons on Gun Safety

By Keith Sutton

Looking into the barrel of a loaded shotgun is as horrifying as gazing into the maw of a rabid dog. Looking into the barrel of a loaded shotgun held by your son is more horrifying still.

     

Had I not turned when I did, this transgression might have gone unnoticed. My son did it unintentionally. He was hamming it up with his brothers while we were squirrel hunting with a friend and his dogs, and during a moment of inattention, my son pointed the loaded 20-gauge at my head. I turned to look at the four boys who were laughing about something one of them had done, and when I did, I found myself staring into the gun barrel.

     

At almost the same instant, I found myself staring into my son's eyes. A look of total horror blanched his face.

     

I did what I felt I had to do. I took the shotgun and unloaded it. "Go to the truck," I said. "And stay there until we're finished hunting."

     

Tears welled up in his eyes ... and in mine. Without saying a word, he turned and headed back up the hill, sobbing uncontrollably. The other three boys fell silent.

     

My friend looked into my watery eyes and shook his head. He and I both knew we would continue hunting, but the joy was gone from it.

     

I've stressed the need for gun safety since my boys started hunted with me. Always identify your target before pulling the trigger. Know what's in the vicinity of your target and beyond before shooting. Use your gun's safety. Never cross obstacles with a loaded gun. Never place a loaded firearm in a vehicle. Use extreme care when loading and unloading firearms. Avoid horseplay when handling a gun. And keep your barrel pointed in a safe direction.

     

The boys, I'm proud to say, have been good students. They're safe hunters. The incident related earlier is the only time I remember any of them making a big mistake. It was a mistake, however, that could have led to tragedy, and the boys were well aware of the consequence for such actions -- sitting out of the hunt to contemplate what happened.

     

What my sons didn't know was that I made the same mistake when I was fourteen. I, too, had been taught all the rudiments of gun safety. And rule number one was never point a loaded gun at someone -- not briefly, not in jest, not accidentally, not ever.

     

I did it one day though. While hunting rabbits with an uncle and several of his friends, I unintentionally swung my shotgun barrel toward my uncle's face. When he turned and saw my gun barrel pointed at him, my eyes caught his. I knew instantly I had screwed up in a huge way. Tears welled up in my eyes.

     

He took the shotgun and unloaded it. "Go to the truck," he said. "And stay there until we're finished hunting."

     

The hunt had scarcely begun when this happened. I had six hours to sit in the truck and contemplate my mistake.

     

When the hunters returned, my uncle said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. He knew, and I knew, I would never make the same mistake again. My uncle also knew that because I had learned that lesson, the chances of me ever accidentally shooting a fellow hunter were now infinitesimal.

     

During the next three decades, I discovered that many hunters have not benefited as I did from the tutelage of conscientious elders, and as a result, I would see two men escape death by the narrowest of margins.

     

The first incident happened while I hunted squirrels with a school teacher and his elderly father. Several times, the father haphazardly pointed his shotgun at his son or me. The teacher found it necessary to point out his father's carelessness. The father, however, paid little attention.

     

We had stopped to listen to the dogs when it happened. The old man set the butt of his shotgun on the ground. The gun discharged and blew away the bill of his cap. He fell to the earth in a heap. I thought he was dead. Fortunately, he was unscathed. He had only fainted.

 

Years later, I watched, horrified, as a friend was shot by a fellow pheasant hunter. Several of us were driving pheasants toward a line of "blockers." When the pheasants flushed, they usually flew straight up and could be safely shot well above the blockers' heads. One pheasant didn't rise, however; it zoomed away just above the stubble. An overeager hunter beside me fired on it and shot my companion who was in the line of blockers. Again, I thought I had seen a hunter die. And again, thankfully, I was wrong. My friend sustained relatively minor injuries from shot pellets that penetrated his scalp and fingers.

     


Only one of my sons made a mistake that day, but four sons learned a lesson. We still go over the rudiments of safety every time we hunt.

The incident that affected me most was one I read in an accident report. It was the opening day of deer season. A 42-year-old man and his 10-year-old son were climbing into their stand. In his haste, the father tied a hoisting line to the muzzle of his bolt-action rifle. With a quick pull, the gun would be in the stand in an instant, no trouble at all -- or so he thought.

     

The rifle hung on some unseen object, causing it to discharge. The bullet struck the man under the jaw and exited explosively through the back of his head, killing him instantly.

     

Imagine what it must be like to watch your father die from such a careless act. The thought is too horrible to contemplate.

     

When I told you that looking down the barrel of a gun held by your son is horrifying, that's what I meant. It's not horrifying because you're afraid of dying. It's horrifying because you wonder how your son would be affected if you were accidentally shot.

     

My own son will never forget the humiliation of being sent back to the truck on that hunt. I will never forget the morning my uncle sent me to the truck for the same reason.

     

Humiliation, however, is a far kinder teacher than death. It broke my heart to treat my boy that way. It's an act I'll never forget. I did what I had to, however, and I don't regret it. I'm sure my uncle had similar feelings.

     

Only one of my sons made a mistake that day, but four sons learned a lesson. We still go over the rudiments of safety every time we hunt, but I'm proud to say I've never again looked down the barrel of a gun carried by one of my boys. I don't expect I ever will.

     

This article may not have been full of great stories of wonderful hunts, but hopefully it is a reminder that we all need to be safe out there and to pass that knowledge onto the next generation of hunters. 

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Preparing for Your First Elk Bowhunt

By Alyssa Haukom

Elk Cow
While preparing for your elk hunt, focus on two things: bowhunting skills and elk knowledge.

Wapiti ... Monarch of the Mountains ... Cervus Canadensis ... Elk. Whatever name you choose, dreaming about an elk bowhunt sends chills and waves of adrenaline throughout a bowhunter's body. And that's just thinking about bowhunting for elk.

Put yourself on a mountain, 10,000 feet above sea level, amid pines and rock and fallen timber. All is quiet as you step gingerly past a recently-used wallow and continue to follow the fresh elk tracks left in the mud. You whisper to your hunting buddy as you pick your way further down the mountain, and then an earth-shattering bugle explodes from beneath you, 300 feet down. Both your heads snap upward, and then you stare wide-eyed at one another until the echoes from across the valley subside and your pounding heart floods your ears. 

Be Prepared

Months before you step onto that mountain, you need to prepare for the moment described above. Here are some helpful tips on how to do so.

You've decided to head out for your first elk bow hunt. To begin, make lists -- lots of lists. Organize what you need and what you already have for your hunt. Compile separate lists for clothing needs, camping/lodging needs, and hunting gear needs.

Clothing Essentials

Learning to identify key signs such as elk rubs and wallows is essential. Camping? 

If you plan to camp, your packing list will be extensive. You'll need all the basics for shelter along with insulated sleeping bags, pillows, cots, plastic tubs for storage, lanterns, flashlights, heaters, generators, gas, cook stove and propane, coolers and ice, water carriers, cooking utensils, and pots and pans. You'll also require everything necessary to process and store fresh elk meat such as rope, game bags, freezer paper and zip-loc baggies. Don't forget to bring plenty of garbage bags -- you'll need to pack out everything you bring in.

If possible, consider taking an upright freezer, which can be run by the generator and used to freeze and store meat. The generator can also be used to run a heater at night if needed. Bring extension cords and a power strip. Don't forget your scent-free wipes, soaps, shampoos, and a shovel and toilet paper.

Hunting Gear

Your bow should be perfectly tuned and secured in a good, strong bow case for travel. If driving, make sure to secure bows in a place where they won't shift during the long journey. You'll be entirely self-sufficient and must be duly prepared, especially if you're camping out and not using the help of a guide or outfitter.

Hunting Essentials

Preparing for the Bowhunt

Once you've made your lists, you'll know exactly what you have and what you still need. But the next step is crucial. Preparing yourself and honing your skills for the actual hunt can mean the difference between coming home with an empty cooler or coming home with fresh elk to share with your friends.

Elk Calls

Learn to imitate a cow call and bull bugle.

While preparing for your elk hunt, you'll need to focus on two things: bowhunting skills and elk knowledge. Figure out what you know about elk and what you need to learn. Have you hunted elk before? Can you imitate a cow call? A bugle? Do you know where the kill zone on an elk is? Do you know how they move on a mountain? Do you know how to field dress an elk and prepare the meat for freezing?

For your first elk hunt, you must flood your mind with everything elk. Watch TV shows and videos about elk hunting. Read articles. Search the internet for information about their feeding habits, mating habits and territorial behaviors. Learn about elk sign and habitat. Study their anatomy. But most importantly -- get to the target range and practice shooting your bow every week, every day, if possible.

If necessary, work on increasing your draw weight for better penetration and kinetic energy for shots taken in the field at longer distances. Know your shooting abilities with your bow and stay within your pre-determined limits for effective kill shots. Be sure your 20-, 30-, 40- and even 50 pin is right on.

Be sure to shoot well from different positions: standing, squatting, kneeling, and sitting on a log. Shoot in the open and shoot in the darkened woods amid brush. Practice judging distance in both places and check yourself with your rangefinder. Focus on your skills and your confidence using your bow.

Since many of us are not used to the large size of an elk in the wild, it's best to practice shooting at the largest 3D target you can get your hands on. The tremendous size of elk can be startling and throw-off your range estimation when they suddenly appear, so always verify yardages with a rangefinder before shooting. Be sure to check the regulations and hunting laws for harvest information and for determining what a legal bull in your hunting zone is before you arrive at your destination.

Conditioning for the Hunt

Start preparing yourself for hiking and hunting at high altitudes by starting months in advance. The air is thinner, your heart will pump faster, and your legs will ache as you climb up and down mountainsides, so the earlier you begin your training, the better off you'll be.

Game Processing

Trip preparation should include learning how to field dress an elk and prepare meat for packaging and storage.

Start walking and/or running with your lightweight tennis shoes on, increasing the intensity and duration of your workout as your ability and endurance increases. It's very hard to train for elevation, so the best solution may be to add weight training to your workout routine and add weight to you're walking or running routine to be sure your body and lungs are conditioned. Begin by wearing your backpack during your workouts and gradually add weight to your pack. Start wearing your hiking boots for the added weight, but also to ensure that they're well worn for full days of hiking on a mountain.

It's essential when hunting at elevation to remain hydrated; drink lots of water throughout the day, increasing fluids in warmer weather. 

If you have a headache, take note: this may be a sign of elevation sickness. Headaches are common for many people for the first day or two as their bodies acclimate to the thin air at elevation. Treat it, but pay attention to your health and to the health of others in your hunting party. Learn more about elevation sickness and its signs, and watch for them throughout your trip. If elevation sickness strikes someone, it's best to move them to a lower elevation as quickly as possible and seek medical care.

Planning, organizing and training months before your departure date will help you avoid mistakes while also increasing your chances for success once you embark on your long-awaited elk adventure. Get in shape, educate yourself about elk, sharpen your shooting skills, and pack carefully for your first bowhunt -- then you'll be ready for a trip of a lifetime!

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A Bird in Hand: Locating Downed Birds

By Tom Goldsmith

Double GrouseIn a perfect world, our dogs would be steady, our upland birds would flush to the open, and all of our shots would be passing shots with time enough to lead the bird correctly. At the shot, the bird would fall dead within easy viewing. The retrieve would be as simple as a short walk, or nicely delivered by your flushing dog or pointer. The reality, however, is that we seldom hunt in the kind of classic situations made so memorable by the great sporting artists of our time. No, we must go to where the birds are, and the ones I hunt don't seem to have much appreciation for art.

Made to Disappear

As a rule, upland birds never stray too far from thick protective cover. The grouse and woodcock that collectively compose the bulk of my upland experiences live in thick, almost impenetrable coverts, where you're lucky to see a flushing bird, let alone knock one down. This kind of cover can create optical illusions with regards to distance. I am often surprised to find a bird only fifteen yards from where I took what seemed like a twenty five yard shot.

Once the bird has fallen in this kind of cover, recovering that bird can be a trick in its self. A dead grouse or woodcock can blend in so perfectly with the leaves and brush that they can seem to vanish, even when standing just feet away from them. One need only be along on a hunt or two with a seasoned retriever who delivers a bird that was thought to be a clean miss to illustrate just how many birds are potentially left on the forest floor each year. In these places, where the action is often screened by the autumn foliage, with or without a dog, you owe it to yourself and your quarry to follow up on any shots taken. A little extra effort after the shot can pay off.

A single piece of a tail feather may indicate that you were behind the bird. The Shot

So up to this point, you've done everything right. At the flush you planted your feet and shouldered the gun correctly. You kept both eyes on the bird through the flush and the shot, and just as you touched off, the bird is enveloped by the cover. This is a scenario that repeats itself so many times each fall to many upland gunners. Ultimately, the question of whether you killed that bird or not can only be answered by a thorough search, even in the face of little or no evidence that you connected. A well thought through strategy can mean the difference of a fist full of feathers or an empty game bag.

Stay Put

In the thrill of the moment, when you think you have successfully downed a bird, your instincts will push you to rush over and simply pick it up. No matter how obvious the fallen bird's position seems, take a minute to make note of your exact location. This is where you will base your search from, however long or short that quest may be.

Down Feathers

A puff of feathers at the shot usually signals a solid hit.

While in that moment, veteran grouse hunters keep sharp and alert to the possibility that there might be a second bird in the vicinity. The first bird was in that location for a reason -- likely a good food source -- and there is no reason he had it all to himself. These second birds have an uncanny knack to wait until you have broken your double gun to make their escape, thus robbing the less than diligent of an honest double.

Look

The first thing a shooter should do is look for feathers floating to the ground. Take into account the wind. Feathers floating on the wind might indicate that you should move your search a little more upwind. Notice the amount of feathers too.  A puff of feathers at the shot usually signals a solid hit. Conversely, a single piece of a tail feather may indicate that you were behind the bird. With that said, any feathers in the air or on the foliage is a strong case for a thorough search.

Listen

The fuel that surges a bird's frantic flight forward takes a minute to extinguish. Grouse in particular have a tendency to continue to flap their wings despite being solidly hit. Listen carefully for the thumping on the forest floor as the bird goes though it death throws. If the bird is lightly hit, you may be able to hear it scurrying through the leaf litter. Stay alert, and let your ears do what your eyes are incapable of. 

A dead grouse blends in so well with the leaves and brush that they often seem to vanish. Mark Your Position

If hunting alone, mark the location you shot from with your blaze orange cap. Or better and safer yet, a piece of trail tape. From the tape position, one can simply walk the line of your shot to the area of where the bird may have fallen. This way you can check back to that spot as often as required.

If you are fortunate enough to have a companion along, the search can be easier. The shooter simply stays where he was when he made the shot, and from this position directs his buddy to where the bird should be.

Circle Search

Once either you or you companion are in the area of where the dead bird is thought to have fallen, look around. Remember to keep your eyes open for signs that the bird was there, even if you don't see it. A few pulled feathers can ignite hopes that the bird is down.

From the spot where the bird should be, start searching in a methodical way.  A wounded bird can cover a lot of ground in a hurry, but when it comes to grouse and woodcock, they tend to only run as far as the first bit of concealing cover. Widening your search in tight circles will ensure that you have covered the entire area in a very thorough way.

Look Up

On more than one occasion I have found my birds cradled in the limbs of a sapling or bush. If a good ground search comes up empty, simply walk a straight line from your marked position to where you suspect the bird may have come down. Remember to look up into the branches of the forest. Your bird may just be hanging around waiting to shaken loose like a ripe autumn apple.

The Canine Factor

I have left this area of discussion to a category all its own. I believe it is not only more enjoyable, but also a good conservation move to hunt with a reliable retriever, or at least a dog that will point dead. There is no doubt that a dog can greatly reduce the incidents of lost game.

Hunter Directing Dog

A good dog can greatly reduce the occurrence of lost game.

The truth is, though, we often get shots at birds when -- for one reason or another -- the dog is not around or misses the shot, or the dog is unable to mark the bird down due to thick cover. In these situations I still make a point of marking my position. Then when I get a handle on my dog, I can send him to hunt dead from the position of the shot. Sometimes these few moments to collect the dog can have an added benefit. Often the bird is "air washed" and much of its scent has been lost in the action of the flush and the flight. In this situation, a few minutes lying on the ground can help disperse the birds scent and make finding it easier for the dog.

Parting Shots

Our days afield are too few, and good ones are rarer still. Now I am not the kind of guy who measures a days worth by the heft of a game bag, but nor will I deny my hopes for a flushed bird that presents itself for a shot. Ultimately, that is the motivating force that puts me in the uplands each autumn. When this happens, I think it only responsible to take the final steps after the shot. To those who invest a little time and patience, it can, more often than you might think, reap the rewards.

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Walk Up a Buck

By Michael D. Faw

Concealed Buck
This buck is using the shadows to help him hide.

Each year, more and more deer hunters are discovering that sometimes the best hunting strategy is to abandon the stand, get on the ground and go after your deer. Walk-and-stalk hunting can put a deer in your rifle sights if you follow the guidelines. Fail to adhere to the rules when walking up a buck, however, and you'll probably only see a white tail waving good-bye.

Most deer hunters have nothing against treestands and own and use several each season. The problem is that, after hours spent perched on a small platform, most hunters will feel the urge to move. If the deer aren't moving, then it's definitely time to go after them. Don't be fooled, however, into thinking you can simply walk along and spot and shoot a deer. Mother Nature gave deer keen defenses: a top camouflage coating of hair that blends in with the leafy forest to avoid your detection, big ears to hear your approach and eyes that can keenly spot your movement in all light conditions. To white-tailed deer, you are simply another predator in a long list that they've learned how to avoid.

If you are tired of waiting around in a stand, maybe you're ready for one of hunting's biggest challenges. The thrills and rewards are second to none in the hunting world when you get on the ground and hunt deer at their level and on their rules. When successful, you'll become a top predator in your hunting region. You'll also need to be prepared, alert, stealthy and quick before starting. Now start walking and get your deer.

Prepared for Success

Before your step out on your quest to walk up a buck, you'll need to prepare. In this situation, you're working to avoid detection by a deer's senses, so think about the things you'll need to do to overcome those keen detection systems. Your first obstacle is their hearing.

Whitetail buck
Stay alert and be quiet and you could spot a buck like this as you sneak around in your hunting region.

A deer's ear surface is roughly 4x8 inches, or 32 square inches of radar-like surface that can hear a twig snap at 100 yards on a calm day. Any unnatural noise instantly receives full attention and puts a deer on edge. Those ears can be overcome.

The first consideration is the boots you'll wear. While you'll want traction in rough and uneven terrain, you'll also need a less aggressive tread that permits you to walk in a near whisper mode. Some hunters like rubber knee boots and others like the boots with multiple "bobs" on the bottom. Boots designed for upland bird hunters can also permit more noise-free steps.

Next, rub the sleeve of any outer garment against your side. If you hear rustling or scratching, you'll need a wardrobe change. To whitetails, that subtle "scratch" of cloth against cloth means "hunter approaching." Fleece and similar soft fabrics mean hunter success when worn on the exterior. Should you have to don rain wear, be certain that it is also quiet when any surface-to-surface contact is made. Cordura, rough nylon and similar materials have their place, but trying to sneak up on a deer isn't one of them.

One other garment that should be studied, obtained and worn is gloves. Consider thin leather shooting gloves. They are durable, repel briars and permit instant firearm operation. Heavy insulated gloves can keep you from placing a finger inside the trigger guard and pulling the trigger. You have no time to pull a glove off your hand when a deer is near and alert. Gloves do, however, protect your hands when you have to push aside briars and brush to quietly walk through an area. Gloves also hide your hands, which often become flags alerting deer of your approach.

Deer like to lurk back in the brush; you'll need quality binoculars to peer in.Before You Go

Since you'll be on the ground and needing to spot a whitetail before it spots you, you'll need to ratchet up the level of your observation powers. Obtain and use the best binocular you can afford -- period. Place the binocular on a shoulder harness, and keep it handy and ready. Use it often. In fact, look more than you step.

Remember, binoculars are for spotting game, and this optical instrument is more comfortable to use than a single-barrel riflescope and much more "eye-opening" when used to scan and search. The golden rule in hunting optics is "you can't shoot what you can't see." Riflescopes are solely for shot placement and you severely limit your ability to spot game if that is your only optics. And then there's the safety issue of looking at someone through a riflescope in case that "object" seen moving morphs into a human. Avoid this situation.

Stealth Mode

When it's time to start moving on deer, think like a snail. They don't get there soon, but they get there. When you enter an area with deer around, you should plan to move slowly from point to nearby point. The last thing you'll want to do is walk like the average hunter and make that rhythmic "crunch, crunch, crunch" that means a hunter is walking.  

You should move about 10 feet from tree to tree and bush to bush, or slowly down valleys and s-l-o-w-l-y up to ridge tops. You want to keep your body concealed while you peer over, around and beyond for a deer. Remember that bedded deer like to lay by logs, deep inside tall grasses or under bushes and rock ledges. You'll need to peer in with binoculars and also look for antler and ear tips. The object is to spot a buck before it spots you.

Buck
Don't expect to see a buck standing in the open like this, but be prepared in case you do.

Another factor that can help you move close is bad weather. When heavy rains fall and whippy winds howl, most hunters dash for the cabin and a warm fireplace. Deer are still outdoors, and you should hunt them. Move slowly and use the noisy forest and field to hide your approach. Walk into the wind and also use it to your advantage. During brisk winds deer sometimes like to hide in cornfields, so go there and sneak from row to row and press your head between standing stalks to study lanes before you enter. Don't be surprised to see a deer. Also pause to study dense brush on windy days. Deer also like to crawl into the nastiest mess of brush they can find and hide inside, much like a rabbit. For the best view it is often necessary to kneel to peek under the brush. Use your binoculars again to peer in and inspect the brush well before you step near.

Deer also like to bed on the side of ridges or near the tops (but not exactly on top) and look downhill, so walk from the top to the bottom of hills when possible. Before moving into place to shoot after spotting a deer, remember: where there's one there could be more, so scan carefully before you make that next move.

If you know where the deer trails and beds are in your hunting area, then move so you can observe them from the side and do not walk in trails. During the fall, and especially during the rut, deer will bed off a game trail but stay in a position where they can observe other deer possibly moving through the area.

Deer in dense brush
Look closely and you'll see this hidden deer.

As you move, your muscles generate heat. If you are sweating, you are moving too fast. Think slow and remember the snail. Dressing in layers can also help. Wearing the right camouflage pattern to match your surroundings can also be beneficial. Also, be honest with yourself about your hunting clothing. If your camouflage is a couple seasons old and faded so that it casts a mostly light -- or bright -- hue, it's time to make a new camouflage clothing purchase. Wearing a ball cap or hat with a brim over your face can also cast a shadow that hides your shiny face from an alert deer.

The odds of spotting and killing a deer are actually in your favor. Deer are plentiful, abundant and over-populated in many regions of North America. Your odds of spotting one are high if you'll only look ahead, study the terrain and move slowly.

When Not to Walk

The most important rule when walking up a buck is to be seen by other hunters. Wear blaze orange clothing and a cap so that you stand out in the dark forest. On private property, let other hunters in your party know you'll possibly be on the ground and hunting. Avoid areas where other hunters are hunting, and on most public lands this means not walking on the season's opening day. On public lands on other days, the safest times are often between 10 a.m.  and 3 p.m. when most hunters have abandoned the woods and gone to restaurants. In fact, some of the largest bucks killed each season are shot near high noon.

Maybe it's time for you to start walking up a buck!  

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Goose Hunting: Small Steps to Big Success

By Steve Galea

Goose Hunting Blinds, Hunters
Well camouflaged layout blinds and a good decoy spread fool them every time.

There are goose hunters and then there are goose-hunting experts. The latter are die-hards who live, breath and sleep the sport. They're the ones who always know where the big flocks are, where they go, and how and when to hunt them. Their gear is top notch; they've got great decoy spreads; they have the skills and experience to consistently put goose breasts on the grill. 

Blair Whyte of northern Ontario is one such hunter. A Drake Waterfowl Field Expert, he scouts almost every day of the season and hunts for geese and mallards approximately 40 days each year.  His knowledge of flight patterns, feeding areas and new flocks in his area is uncanny.

Over the last ten years, Whyte has devoted himself to being a field-hunting specialist -- one of the best I've ever had the privilege of hunting with.

I spent three days hunting with him near New Liskeard, Ontario, and we shot a lot of mallards and geese. Along the way, I was reminded that success in goose, or any other type of hunting, is born of solid fundamentals.

Goose Hunting
Quality optics are critical when glassing fields. Here, guide Blair Whyte checks out a big flock.

The Value of Scouting

The most important things that sets the expert apart from the average goose hunter is the effort put into scouting and procuring huntable property in the on- and off-season. "It's a no-brainer," he says, "the more options you have, the better."

During the season, he spends countless afternoons driving back roads and glassing fields for flocks of feeding geese. That's because he knows that geese will often return to those very spots in the morning.

When glassing, Whyte evaluates flock size, where new arrivals are coming from, and where they go to roost. This helps him decide which field to hunt come morning.

He also considers the urgency of the situation. "If the flock is big and the field is small, we try to hunt it quickly, before they eat everything in that field and move on."

Spot within the Spot

Once you've decided which field you are going to hunt in the morning, you need to pinpoint the spot within the spot. We're talking about the exact location that the flock is using. The reason is simple: generally, when birds return, they'll continue feeding near where they left off.

Whyte relies on good binoculars to observe feeding flocks and notes their exact locations within the field relative to field edges, trees, crop boundaries etc. If a flock was situated approximately one hundred yards out and thirty yards west of the big tree in the background, for instance, he'll use that as his starting point when setting up in the morning. When he gets to that approximate location, he and everyone in the group will use headlamps to find feathers, goose droppings, prints, and other sign that indicate where the flock last fed. He then sets his decoy spread upwind of that location.

Goose Hunting
Having a good spread of realistic decoys is one way to up the odds in your favor.

The Right Rig

When it comes to goose decoys, experts like Whyte rarely settle for second best. Their decoys are in excellent repair, properly painted, and absolutely without shine. Whyte prefers decoys with flocked heads and bodies; he's convinced that they work better than anything else he's seen thus far. When you look at his decoy spread, even from a few feet away, it's hard to believe that they're not real. 

Whyte is meticulous in their care. Each decoy is bagged separately and kept in a separate compartment of a proper decoy bag when not in use. And, at the end of each hunt, he cleans blood off of decoys that might have caught splatter.

When it comes to numbers, his philosophy is "the more the merrier." He adds more decoys to his spread every year.

"We use mostly full bodies but we also use silhouettes to fill in the holes in the spread. Generally, we set up family groups with most feeding into the wind. Overall, our spread is crescent shaped into the wind with landing holes in front of each of the layout blinds."

A Little Motion

Whyte makes his decoy spread even more convincing by providing the illusion of movement. He and his hunting partner routinely flag distant geese and also use a couple of motion decoys for mallards as well.

"These are great tools but you have to use them with care. It's all about reading the flock as they approach. You take your lead from their actions. When it comes to flagging and motion decoys, they either love it or hate it. It's easy to overdo it, so you have to be careful."

Pick up your birds as soon as they are down. A good dog is something no serious waterfowler should be without.

No Shine, Good Camo

Good goose hunters try to remove all shine from their set up. Whyte won't abide it on decoys, in blinds or on the ground. He's meticulous about picking up spent shells after each pass.

Camouflage is something he's serious about. He makes sure his layout blinds don't appear out of place. He adds foliage to the loops of every layout blind; the same kind that's in the immediate area. And he makes sure hunters cover glare from skin and eyeglasses with camo caps and facemasks.

And, after everyone is hunkered down, he'll take a quick walk down the line to ensure nothing is out of place.

"There's no point getting the right place and set up if the hunters stand out like sore thumbs."

Calling

It's no revelation that calling is a critical component to goose hunting success. Having said that, Whyte is constantly amazed by hunters who don't put in the time and effort to get proficient at it.

"It takes lots of practice before you can be good with a goose call. One of the best things a hunter can do is listen to geese year round. Then get yourself a quality call and practice mimicking those sounds." Instructional DVDs also help

Once you are competent, you need to apply those skills in field conditions. "A good part of calling is reading the birds and knowing when to be quiet. Call hard if they're leaving; go easy if they are coming in. Watch how they react to your calls and keep giving them what works."

Good shooting and attention to details resulted in this limit of mallards and geese.Adjust

It happens more frequently than we plan on; the wind shifts slightly or the birds are not keen about the landing zone you had set up for their use. That's when it pays to adjust your decoy spread.

"You might move a small group of decoys further out, fill in the spaces where you don't want them to land with more decoys, or move decoys to open up the landing zones even more," says Whyte. "Sometimes you have to change facings because of a wind shift too. These little things make all the difference."

As a case in point, on our second hunt with Whyte, because of a slight wind shift, the first two flocks of birds landed slightly wide of the spread. We got shooting, and dumped a couple, but they weren't coming exactly where he wanted them. So he moved a few decoys to block that spot, opened up the zone in the center more, and the next flock came in to exactly where he wanted, like puppets on a string.

Calling Your Shots

Of course, the object of all this is getting birds into gun range. Even, in this matter, pros like Whyte have definite objectives.

"I want to bring birds within point blank range, about 15 yards, right in front of the gunners," he says.

Because of this, Whyte recommends more open chokes than the ones most goose hunters are used to. On our hunts, I used an improved cylinder choke and steel BBs to very good effect. But Whyte says #2s will also do the trick at these ranges.

Interestingly, he prefers not to let flocks circle too much. "I'd rather have a flock come straight in. The more they circle, the greater the chance of them realizing that they're being duped. If they're not committing and in range, it's best to shoot on the next good pass."

Another useful, albeit time-honored, piece of advice is to pick one bird and concentrate on dropping it.

"A lot of inexperienced hunters get flustered by a whole flock of birds in their sights -- so they don't pick a specific target. But, if you pick one and follow it, you'll do better. Once that one is dropped, pick another and do the same."

Needless to say, Whyte's also keen on time at the gun club. "Hunters who shoot year-round tend to do a lot better, especially when they are called upon to shoot from the awkward positions you find yourself in during a goose hunt."

A Final Word

The message here is that the pros are fussy about how they hunt. They have learned through hard experiences that little things count. They know that it pays to fine tune. Judging from the hunts I had with Whyte, I'd have to say they're onto something.

Shop all Goose Hunting Gear.

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