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My muzzleloader slump is over.

Muzzleloader season is my favorite deer season. The weather is ideal, deer numbers are at their highest, and deer are in various stages of the pre-rut phase, making it an excellent time to encounter a mature buck.

I've already explained my disdain for morning hunting, but my afternoon and evening hunts were fruitless. Part of that was my fault.

On Oct. 23, I hunted a stand with an unscoped muzzleloader which limits my range to about 75 yards. At sunset, a big-bodied deer and a smaller deer appeared in a lane about 130 yards away. The bigger deer looked like a buck, and I believed I saw the glint of antler once when it dipped its head.

It so happens that I have a pop-up blind about 15 yards from where they were. I slipped away well after dark and hunted the pop-up the day after.

When I sat down, I noticed a little oak tree that posed an obstruction. I got out and tore it down, which of course made a lot of noise. I zipped the blind closed when I got back inside, which also made a lot of noise.

No sooner was I back in the seat when a doe trotted out of a nearby draw. She was oblivious to my presence until she looked at the blind. The open window creates a big, black blot on what previously was an unbroken camouflage structure.

"That window is open," her eyes seemed to say. "It wasn't open the last time I was here."

With that, she spun and walked stiffly back into the draw, and she didn't return.

From then on I hunted another stand in a hollow. Deer had cleaned up an abundance of acorns, but I didn't know if they visited in the day or night. A nearby camera had photographed two bucks. One was a spike, and the other had a tall, wide six-point rack. The pine thicket to the south was thinned last year. It is thick and brushy, and that entire expanse of woods looks very "deery."

I arrived Sunday afternoon, the last day of the season. To pass the idle hours, I read John Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez, a gift from my friend Connie Meskimen. I highly recommend it.

As the sun dipped, the woods grew darker. Night sounds began to fill the air. The season would be over in about 30 minutes, and I would console myself on the long walk back to camp with the thought of not having to spend the night processing a deer.

I've missed five deer with a muzzleloader since 2015, so my confidence was very low. I shoot muzzleloaders great in practice, but when I shoot at a deer, I jerk my head to try to see around the smoke plume.

As I considered leaving, I heard a twig crack behind me. My ears had already been enraptured by a squirrel and armadillo, but this was different. It sounded "deery."

Moments later, a big body drifted through the trees. I steadied my stock on a rail. As the deer stepped into the clearing, I noticed a one long main beam of an antler with four tall points. I centered the crosshair right behind the shoulder and told myself, "Head down!"

I squeezed the trigger and watched the smoke plume fill the scope. Instead of the sharp jolt I feel when I flinch, I felt the strong, steady push of a proper follow-through. The buck was gone when the smoke cleared, but I knew I did it right.

Far in the distance, I heard a big body go down hard.

I found no hair nor blood, and I slightly misjudged the direction of the collapse. On the ground, amid the tangle of brush and vines, I couldn't get my bearings. I searched for hours in the dark and finally decided it was futile to continue.

At first light I returned. I covered the area where I thought the buck went and then coursed an area farther north. I found him 110 yards away. The shot was near perfect, but I found nary a drop of blood.

He was a pretty 8-point with a 13-inch inside spread. His beams measured 17 3/4 inches and 16 3/4 inches, with 4- and 3-inch circumferences. He was a good piney woods buck that Mike Romine estimated to be about 3 1/2 years old.

One of his backstraps graced Miss Laura's Halloween chili. I think it was her best yet, the perfect supper to end my best October in many years.

Sports on 11/02/2017

Print Headline: Last-minute buck ends slump

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