Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Meat In The Freezer

I love hearing from those of you who visit this blog and the NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING web site. That's especially true at this time of the year, when many of you want to share your hunting experiences - and how well your rifles and loads are performing on big game.

Please...Keep It Coming!

For me, the 2009 season here in Montana has been pretty lackluster - when it comes to taking game anyway. I've enjoyed every outing during the course of the state's five-week "General" firearms season, and I have had the opportunity to pass on seven or eight different bucks. So, it's not like I did not have an opportunity to fill that tag. Twice during the season, I saw bona fide shooter whitetail bucks. But never where I could get a shot.

My girl and I did put a couple of big, fat and tasty does in the freezer - so it's not like we'll go without venison. Her's was the first game she had ever tagged with a muzzleloader. Last year, she sort of adopted my short and fast handling .50 caliber MDM QuicShooter as "her" muzzle-loaded hunting rifle. She liked the way it came up and held...so I set out to work up a light recoiling load for her - one that could still shoot with exceptional accuracy...and deliver the wallop needed out to 100-125 yards. That load turned out to be 70 grains of Blackhorn 209 and an experimental 240-grain version of the Scorpion PT Gold that I had convinced Harvester Muzzleloading to put together for me. At 100 yards, the bullet (set in the slightly tighter fitting red .50x.45 Crush Rib Sabot developed for the Savage "smokeless muzzleloader") would group inside of 1 1/2 inches. And thanks to the improved aerodynamics of the light polymer-tipped spire-point, this mild load would still hit with around 850 foot-pounds of energy at that distance - still enough to cleanly down deer-sized game.

On the third morning of the season, following a light layer of fresh snow through the night, Christy got her chance to fill her tag. A 70 yard shoulder shot put the big doe on the ground - quickly. And muzzleloader hunting has now gained a new follower. That's Christy, with her doe, in the photo at the top of this post.

I was hunting with the short and light .54 Green Mountain "Brush Rifle"...going for the high shoulder shot (shooting Harvester's saboted 400-grain "Hard Cast" bullet), and will recap the shots taken at the end of the season. All I'll say at this point is that the accurate custom .54 in-line, load and shot placement used works well!

With meat in the freezer, and a fairly long 5-week firearm season to enjoy, I spent most of my time looking for game. The presence of elk usually becomes more predominate once there's a few feet of snow in the high country. And an elk is what I really wanted to take with the Green Mountain .54 rifle.

The area I hunted this season is a relatively wide, mostly wooded, flat valley set at 4,000 to 4,500 feet. Lots of waist high grasses provide lots of winter feed - usually pulling the elk down once the snow begins to fly. Unfortunately, following those elk are now quite a few wolves. The area is home for three known packs...and more than likely a few lone individual wolves. And they keep game extremely stirred up and spooked these days.

I spent a big part of the third week of season hunting the area, camping alone with my two dogs - Bob and Tully. Despite morning temperatures right at 10 degrees, we kept our tent warm and dry, thanks to a small propane heater. Still, on the last night in camp, the dogs were nervous all evening - constantly watching down a Forest Service road we had camped next to. And by the time I had rustled up a hot evening meal, the dogs were ready to turn in - which is kind of unusual. Once into my sleeping bag, with an extra heavy comforter thrown over the top, due to the day out in the cold, I fell asleep quickly. A couple of hours later, I was awakened as both dogs nosed their way in under the comforter - and not because they were cold.

Even before Bob and Tully settled down, a wolf howled...followed by another...then another...and another. And they weren't more than 150 yards from camp. I reached over and made sure my Ruger .44 magnum Super Blackhawk was within reach...and tried to go back to sleep. But, that was impossible. For the next two hours, the wolves covered every inch of the timber surrounding camp, howling every few minutes. Finally, about 2 a.m. in the morning, they apparently moved off and things were quiet.

With just a couple of hours of sleep, I was up about an hour before first light. After several cups of warmed leftover coffee, I put the dogs in the truck (for their safety)...shouldered my .54 Green Mountain rifle...and headed on down the Forest Service road, to a swampy area 3/4-mile from camp. A couple of inches of fresh snow had fallen through the night, but I did not cut a single fresh deer track. Every hundred yards or so, there was a set (or two) of wolf tracks crossing the roadway and snowmobile trail I eventually followed into where I planned to hunt. Most morning walks into the area would produce sightings of a half-dozen does and fawns, and occasionally the glimpse of a buck. But, not this morning.

By late morning, I still had not seen a single deer - in an area where I usually see seven or eight during the course of a morning sit on my stand. So, I climbed down and decided to still hunt back in the direction of camp. About a quarter-mile into the slow walk back, several wolves howled again - on a small section of high ground about two miles away. I had a wolf tag in my pocket, and I'd had my fill of wolves. I hurried back to my truck, jumped in with the dogs and drove around to another Forest Service road. I knew that's where the wolves were, and quickly headed down the roadway...topping a small rise just in time to watch a big black wolf dart across the road. I jumped over to a nearby pine, and took a leaning rest - hoping another wolf would step out.

Not one, but three wolves appeared on the roadway - so I yelled to get them to stop. And they did, offering a perfect broadside opportunity. I guessed the range to be
200 yards. The carbine length .54 "Brush Rifle" had been sighted in to print "dead on" at 100 yards. And I knew it put the big 400 grain lead slug a full 7 to 8 inches low at 150 yards. So, I put the crosshairs about 10 inches over the back of the largest wolf (probably a 110-120 pound animal) and squeezed off the shot. I watched as snow and mud flew in the air behind the wolf. I had apparently sailed the bullet right under the wolf. I thoroughly checked for signs of a hit - nothing! And when I pulled my laser rangefinder from my pack and took a reading on the pine tree I had used for a rest, it was 231 yards away. I had miscalculated the drop of the big heavy bullet and the range.

I spent the rest of the morning tearing down camp, then drove around to four other camps I knew in the area to talk with other hunters. All shared the same feeling - the wolves had pretty much run all the game out of the area. Four or five of the hunters I spoke with that morning had been hunting the area for 20 or more years, recalling when it was nothing to see 20 or 30 deer a morning, and encounter a small herd of elk at least several times a week. One group of five had been hunting for six days straight, and had one small buck hanging on their meat pole. No one had seen a single elk in nearly a week of hunting - nor had they seen any elk tracks. And this in an area where ten years ago they often had two or three elk on the meat pole.

"The game is not here any more...it's either been pushed out or killed by those damned wolves," proclaimed one hunter.

Not one of the 20 or so hunters I spoke with that morning had anything good to say about reintroduced wolves - or what Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was doing to correct the situation. Several of those hunters strongly felt that the state's wildlife agency had sold them out over the course of the past decade, so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could "successfully" complete their so-called "Wolf Reintroduction Project". Now, big game populations in the area are disappearing quickly.

And those are exactly the same feelings voiced by the several hundred other Montana hunters I've spoken with through the past year. All are now realizing that wolves are making a strong negative impact on big game numbers, especially on the elk population. Likewise, not one of the hunters I spoke with that day, or since, think that the token Montana wolf season, and unreached 75 wolf quota, will have any impact on the situation. In fact, most hunters feel that, due to the natural growth of wolf numbers next spring, come fall 2010 we'll have close to 20-percent more wolves - and even fewer elk and deer to pursue.

On my 15-mile drive out to the highway that day, just a half-mile from the pavement, movement off to my left caught my attention. I rolled to a stop on the gravel and grabbed my binoculars. The movement turned out to be 19 elk - 1 spike bull, 17 adult cows, and 1 calf. They were running helter skelter back and forth. All had crossed a fence, except the calf. And the cows were frantically trying to get the calf to jump the fence. So, I scanned the area...and in short order saw the reason why. A huge gray wolf was following them...just waiting for the chance to pick off the last remaining survivor of that herd's spring calf crop. And that's where wolves are making their biggest impact on the future of elk hunting in the Northern Rockies. These apex predators are totally wiping out future generations of elk.

Hunting in the West is at a crossroad. We have a dire situation that can no longer be put on a back burner while questionable wildlife managers twiddle their thumbs...guessing how all of this will end. Sportsmen need to demand action now.

For more on the wolf problem, go to the following links for the LOBO WATCH website and Wolf Hunt Update blog.



Toby Bridges

Save An Elk Herd...Kill A Wolf!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Green Mountain's Short & Sweet .54 Brush Rifle

The last time that I was a real fan of the .54 caliber bore was during the early 1980s, when I spent most of the summer to build a very authentic percussion half-stock "Hawken" rifle. And, appropriately, the rifle featured a slow turn-in-66 inches rifling twist - for shooting a patched round ball. The nearly 10-pound rifle, stuffed with 120-grains of FFg black powder and a tightly patched 230-grain .535" diameter soft lead ball, was super accurate and deadly on big game out to about 75 yards.

When I made the switch to Knight's MK-85 in-line ignition rifles, and saboted bullets, during the late 1980s, I pretty much abandoned the .54, going in favor of the .50 bore. I simply found the .50 to be far more accurate, thanks to sabots that allowed me to shoot a bullet that was closer to the diameter of the bore. From time to time, since then, I have played with a few .54 caliber rifles, but always returned to a .50 caliber in-line rifle. And, as it turned out, I wasn't the only one to abandon the .54. From 1992 thru 1997, I headed up Market Development for Knight Rifles. When I first went to work there, close to 30-percent of the rifles produced were of .54 caliber...and about 10 percent were .45 caliber. The 50 caliber bore represented 60-percent of all the rifles the company produced. By the time I left the company, the .50 caliber accounted for right at 90-percent of all Knight rifle sales.

Other in-line muzzleloading rifle manufacturers experienced the same demise of .54 caliber rifle sales. And I now know of just one company that currently offers an in-line ignition rifle in that bore size. And that is Green Mountain Rifle Barrel Company, and the rifle is their short 20-inch barreled "Brush Rifle", a slick custom version of a Knight DISC Extreme.

I have been shooting one since the rifle was first offered. In fact, my rifle is serial number 0001.

And thanks to some improvements in sabot technology and bullet selection, I have truly enojoyed shooting and hunting with this fast handling, hard hitting close cover muzzleloader. The buck in the above photo was taken during the 2008 season, at just 15 or so yards - dropped where it ran - by a big 325-grain Barnes all-copper Expander MZ hollow-point bullet. And recently, I have discovered an even harder hitting load built around Harvester Muzzleloading's saboted 400-grain Hard Cast lead bullet.

More on this short and sweet .54 in-line muzzleloader at -


When Knight Rifles introduced their .52 caliber bore back about 2000, they developed new .52x.458 and .52x.475 sabots for the new bore size, and came up with some new choices for the muzzleloading hunter - with bullets ranging from 275- to 375-grains. Many of those who own...shoot...and hunt with a Knight .52 consider these rifles the finest shooting and hardest hitting big game muzzleloaders ever offered. While I agree that the .52 has been a remarkable shooting and energy retaining long-range big game muzzleloader, I also feel that if the same effort had been spent to come up with more compatible sabots and bullets for the .54, that bore size would still be alive and well today. As great as my .52 DISC Extreme has shot with the saboted 375-grain spitzer .475" diameter hollow point, I can only imagine how well a 26 to 28 inch barreled version of the same rifle in .54 would shoot had there been a .54x.475 sabot available.

Barnes makes the bullet...and offers saboted bullets for the .54. With easily 200,000 to 300,000 .54 rifles still out there, you would think that someone would at least make an attempt to revive the bore size. And that would start with several new sabot-bullet combinations.

Toby Bridges

Monday, September 28, 2009

My 50-Cent Shooting Box

I'm sure that I'm not the only person who muzzleloads who also loves to get up early on Saturday morning, when the snow's not flying, and drive around looking for yard and garage sales. I love a great bargain, and much of my hunting, fishing, and especially camping gear comes from these front and back yard extravaganzas. Some of my outstanding recent buys include a set of insulated chest waders...still new in the box...in my size...for just $10. And I was just about to head on over to the local sporting goods store and pay $130 for the same thing. (And the price sticker showed that was exactly where these came from!) Another great deal was a set of top quality Motorola camouflaged hand-held radios...again like new. And when I asked the price, the guy looked me in the eye and said..."How about a dollar?" After I handed him the buck, and had the radios and chargers in my hands, I asked him what was wrong with them. He simply said they wouldn't charge. I took them home, plugged in the chargers, set the radios in...and they charged just fine. In fact, they stay in my truck, sometimes for a month or more, and they hold a full charge.

I could name plenty more great buys...but I don't want to create too much competition for those unbelievable bargains.

Of all the things I've bought at yard sales this summer, one has easily been used more than anything else. It's an old hand-made wooden carpenter's box - which I bought for 50-cents. That's it in the photo above...being used as a shooting box. I keep it and a few other old tool boxes (also bought at yard sales) to keep shooting supplies in - powder, bullets, sabots, primers, several tools, loading equipment, cleaning supplies, you name it - all ready to head to the range. This particular "shooting box" is for the more recent in-line rifle models I use as my regular test rifles. And it sure makes getting ready to go to the range easy. I just slip a rifle or two or three into the truck, and grab this box - and I'm set.

I'd have to say that was the best half-of-a-buck I've ever spent.

What do you use to haul your shooting stuff to the range?

Toby Bridges

Thursday, September 24, 2009

United's Skies Not So Friendly

Do you have a long-range hunt this fall or winter, one which will take you a thousand or more miles from home, and requires you to fly by a commercial airline? If so, and you already have tickets and/or reservations, you just might want to call to insure that you'll be able to bring back the trophy you hope to hang your tag on.

I was contacted today by my good friend Ed Beattie, who handles much of Cabela's Adventure Travel, who shared that United Airlines has recently adopted a "verbal policy" of refusing to accept antlers as checked baggage - no matter how they are packed. Ed pointed out that United does not mention this policy on their website, nor will they supply anything in writing to Cabela's.

So, it just kind of comes as a surprise when you try to check your trophy as baggage, and they refuse to accept it.

"The other major airlines all mention on their websites that they will accept antlers or horns - if properly packed," states Beattie.

Cabela's currently has over 300 whitetail hunters booked to Canada this fall - and see's this as a real issue.

If you are planning to use United Airlines to fly to your hunting destination, perhaps you should call them right now. For that matter, you might even want to call any other airline you might be flying. The last thing you need, following a long and successful hunt, is to have an airline agent tell you that your trophy rack or horns cannot be checked as baggage...just a couple of hours before you are scheduled to fly home.

While larger trophy racks, like moose or elk, are normally shipped, it has been very common practice for successful deer, antelope, mountain goat, and sheep hunters to carefully pack their trophies, and bring them home as checked baggage.

Toby Bridges

NOTE: Since this was posted, Cabela's has heard back from Untied Airlines. THEY WILL NO LONGER ACCEPT ANTLERS OR HORNS AS BAGGAGE. So, if you are headed out on a muzzleloader big game hunt, or any kind of big game hunt for that matter, and must fly - DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME WITH UNITED.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Early Hunting Seasons...Just A Walk In The Park!

Here in Montana, there are four "wilderness areas" where the big game seasons open on September 15th. Last year (2008), I was not yet a resident of Montana and missed the deadline to apply for a non-resident elk or deer tag. But, I went into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area with three others, just to spend a week or so "In The Bob". One of those hunters, at age 75, took the 62nd elk of his life - a good 6x6. And I was there to help him pack it out.

Anyway, this year was different. And with a resident elk, deer and wolf tag in my pocket, I headed into the Bob Marshall for a day-long hunt, and tagging along with me was my good friend, and fellow muzzleloader hunter, Will Moore - who owns a small piece of Big Sky Country in the Bitterroot Valley.

We left my truck at the trailhead in the first light of morning, then made the 5 mile walk, from 5,500 feet to the pass at 7,500 feet. It is a good trail, and that hike took about 1 1/2 hours. At that point, we were in the wilderness area, and the hunt began. On the way in, we had spotted about 20 elk - including a good bull.

Will and I decided to follow a shelf that ran along the side of an otherwise steep mountain slope, which paralleled a heavily wooded valley - with a nice open meadow here and there. Elk sign was everywhere - with the ground so tracked up it looked as if it had been plowed. And in several places a small pine or spruce didn't have a chance, and all had been nearly ripped out of the ground by bulls doing a little antler rubbing and perhaps practice sparring. Several times, our cow calls were answered by a half-hearted squeal from a bull. But, by noon we had not seen another elk.

It was dry, with none of the usual springs running up high. So, we decided to drop down a thousand feet or so and hunt the grassy meadows - where I knew a clear running mountain stream ran freely. Not surprisingly, we found lots of older wallows, a lot more tracks and dozens of major rubs. But, we still did not see any elk. By the time we stopped for lunch, around 1 p.m., we had already covered close to 10 miles of extremely rugged mountain country.

We hunted the series of meadows up to the head of the valley, and with afternoon temperatures in the 80s, we never heard another elk that afternoon. Fresh wolf tracks here and there told me we ought to try calling - to see if one of us could be the first modern day Montana hunter to take a wolf with a muzzleloader. Relying on a multi-sound Knight & Hale deer call, I started with a series of doe bleats...putting just a bit of distress into the calls. Within 5 minutes, something was right behind us, stomping and snorting. Through the trees and low brush, I could see it was a mulie buck, but could not get a visual on the rack - other than it looked heavy and tall.

Will brought his rifle up several times, but never shot. The deer finally turned and bounced back into the heavy cover.

With all of the commotion, I decided to switch to one of the Knight & Hale rabbit distress calls, hoping that a wolf nearby just might charge in for an easy meal. I had made a couple of squalls, when my partner brought his Traditions Pursuit up, and was aiming once more - in the opposite direction. Then, suddenly, the deer was back, less than 20 yards behind him...stomping and snorting once again. Will turned and aimed at the deer for a few seconds, then turned and aimed again 180-degrees the opposite direction. The deer finally ran off, and whatever it was in the opposite direction had also slipped away.

It turns out that he could have shot the buck, knowing it was big and heavy - but never getting a good look at the rack. And his other "target of opportunity" had been a big old dog coyote that had run to within 50 yards of where he sat - 25 or so yards to my right. We enjoyed a few laughs, and with a good 5 hour walk out, we headed for a trail we knew would take us back to the main trail and down to the truck. In the dim evening light, we stopped occasionally to glass mule deer and a few whitetails - but no elk. We did hear one good bull bugle, but never managed to get a fix on his position - since it bugled just once.

We ended up walking the last 2 miles of the trail in total darkness. And with a long day and close to 20 miles of tough walking under our belt, the ride down the mountain to camp was a quiet one. It had been a great day, even though neither of us had snapped a cap. Fortunately, I had a very good woman waiting for me at camp, with a good fire and a hot meal. Sleep came easy that night...after a day's walk in the park - a very, very big park.

Toby Bridges

Monday, September 7, 2009

Montana Ignores The Popularity Of Muzzleloader Seasons

Depending on who's information one chooses to trust, there are now between 3 1/2- and 4-million muzzleloading hunters in the United States.

Likewise, every state in the country now offers a "special" muzzleloader season for those hunters - every state except one. And that state is Montana.

Sure, big game hunting is extremely popular in this state. And, if you live in this state and truly want to hunt with a muzzleloader - you can. But not during a season specifically for muzzle-loaded guns. In Montana, if you want to hunt with a muzzleloader, you'll have to do it during the 5 week general season - or other seasons set for hunting with a modern cartridge rifle, handgun, or shotgun. There simply is not a "Muzzleloader Only" big game season or hunt,

Montana Fish,Wildlife and Parks does absolutely nothing to promote hunting with a muzzleloader.

The incentive for hunting with a muzzleloader in other states has been seasons that have been established especially for the muzzleloading hunter. In fact, more and more states are now conducting several muzzleloader seasons each fall and winter - commonly an "early season" that takes place prior to the modern firearm seasons...and a "late season" which runs some time after the modern gun seasons have closed. Where states tend to offer just one muzzleloader season, it seems the majority are of the late variety - following the general firearms big game seasons.

Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is not only cheating big game hunters in this state out of a special season that is extremely popular with hunters everywhere else in the country, this game commission is also cheating the Montana fish and game agency out of a very valuable management tool - and an opportunity to bring in additional revenue through muzzleloader hunting permit sales - just as it does for bowhunters. In this state, bowhunters get first crack at big game during an early 6 week archery season.

Montana muzzleloading hunters are forced to hunt side-by-side with center-fire toting big game hunters, packing super long range rifles in calibers like .300 Winchester Magnum or 7mm Remington Magnum. There is absolutely no incentive to hunt with a muzzleloader in this state. And consequently, few modern rifle big game hunters here know anyone who does hunt with a muzzleloader.

The state's whitetail populations are busting at the seams in some regions of the state, and need additional harvest. Several times, the NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING ASSOCIATION has suggested that the state schedule a late muzzleloader season just for whitetails - but it has fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps the state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks is afraid of a muzzleloader season because no one within the agency truly understands muzzleloading and muzzleloader hunting - and to conduct a season they might just have to learn a little more about it. One thing is for certain, if they did they would quickly realize how many hunters really would like to hunt with a muzzleloader - just as game departments in other states have already come to realize.

What are your thoughts?

Toby Bridges

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Traditional Or Modern..And Who Decides?

There are two very distinct sides to the sport of muzzleloading, or more appropriately these days, muzzleloader hunting. On one side, you have the traditional extremists who scowl at the thought of anything that deviates, even if just a little bit, from what "they" deem a traditional pre 1860s muzzleloader, load or sight. On the other side, you have the modern day muzzleloading hunter who has simply gotten into muzzleloading to enjoy the extra hunting time provided by the special muzzleloader big game seasons. And the rifles preferred by this side of the sport can be extremely modern in-line ignition designs, incorporating hot No. 209 primer ignition, shooting hotter modern black powder substitutes and better performing aerodynamic saboted bullets that can easily shoot inside of 1 1/2 inches at a hundred yards...thanks largely to a magnifying scope sight (preferred by most).

And there's not a lot of gray in between. Today's muzzleloading hunters are pretty much either extremely traditional...or extremely modern in their way of thinking, and what they use when going after big game during a "Muzzleloader" season.

So which side should have the most say so when it comes to regulations that define what can or cannot be used during these seasons?

There are somewhere between 3 1/2 to 4 million muzzleloading hunters in the U.S. today - and the only state that does not have a muzzleloader big game season is Montana. The sales of ALL muzzleloading rifles indicate that more than 90-percent of those who hunt these seasons swing in favor of the modern in-line rifles...modern muzzleloading powders...saboted bullets...and telescopic sights (scopes). Less than 10-percent of ALL muzzleloader sales are for traditionally styled muzzle-loaded guns.

The rifle in the photo at the top of the page is as traditional as any other muzzleloader of pre 1860s styling. This particular rifle, a fast-twist Pedersoli percussion half-stock, rifled to shoot elongated conical bullets, is fitted with a period correct 6x 1850s style riflescope...and can shoot with great accuracy and big game knockdown power out to and slightly past 200 yards. Still, it's not legal to use in 11 states - because of the very traditional, very period correct scope. And even though the rifle is fully capable of shooting modern saboted bullets, which definitely perform better on big game (for cleaner, quicker kills), it is illegal to use them in several states. Likewise, conical bullets dating from about 1840 on into and through the mid 1860s were commonly 2 1/2 to 3 times their diameter in length (weighing upwards of 500 grains)...this rifle loaded with such a projectile would make it illegal to use during the Colorado muzzleloader seasons...even without the scope...because of the bullet length???

A dozen or so state wildlife agencies continue to enforce such regulations, favoring restrictions that they claim "discourage" (or greatly reduce) hunters from taking shots at long range (greater than 100 yards). But, do they? Or do such regulations simply increase the amount of wound loss, due to hunters (especially those over age 50) who cannot see open sights well enough to precisely place their shots...or do mandated ineffectual hunting projectiles, like the patched round ball that cannot retain enough energy to insure a clean kill much past 50 or 60 yards, also result in the loss of game?

Such regulations side in favor of the minority traditional side of the sport. Should the modern-minded muzzleloading hunter have more voice in what is allowed, or not allowed, during the muzzleloader seasons? After all, they out number traditional muzzleloader hunters 9 to 1.

Toby Bridges

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Are Muzzleloader Seasons In Danger Of Being Eliminated?

The biggest threat to hunting are the anti-hunting organizations that tend to hide under the cloak of being concerned about the environment or protecting animals. You know, groups like the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Earth Justice, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center For Biological Diversity, plus more than a dozen others. Well...they just may have found a way to put an end to hunting as we know it. And that is by pooling their financial resources and keeping another, seemingly not so related, issue tied up in court. And that issue is managing an ever growing number of wolves in this country.

The gray wolf was successfully reintroduced into the northern Rocky Mountains in 1995-96, with 60 or so Canadian wolves first released into Yellowstone National Park. The goal of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was to bring wolf numbers up to 300, then turn managing the wolf population over to the state wildlife agencies in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. And when the wolf population reached that level, in 2000, guess what happened...nothing. The same organizations who have always fought hunting went to court to fight removing the western gray wolf from the Endangered Species List...and wolves continued to receive Federal protection for another 7 years...then were delisted. But not for long, thanks to the combined efforts of the same "environmental" groups...taking it back to court again, and having a Federal judge put the wolf back on the list. Then, earlier this year, the wolf was pulled from the Endangered Species List again. But, guess what, those same organizations have now filed another suit to prevent management of a wolf population that is now 8 or 9 times more than the targeted goal.

And, it takes a lot of deer and elk to keep 2,000 to 2,500 or so wolves fed. In fact, some very knowledgeable game managers have established that in the northern Rockies, each wolf accounts for 20 to 36 elk kills a year. Or, in other words, these apex predators are now pulling down between 40,000 and 90,000 or so elk annually - and their impact on huntable elk populations is beyond belief.

In Idaho, before the wolves had gotten a solid toe hold in every area of the state's top elk units, hunters annually harvested around 25,000 elk. Last year, the harvest was right at 15,000. Idaho's elk population is now easily 30- to 40-percent below what it was just 7 or 8 years ago - due to wolf predation. And next door in Montana, this spring wildlife biologists recorded the lowest cow-to-calf ratio EVER...and found that at such low calf numbers it would be impossible to sustain a huntable elk herd. And down in Yellowstone Park, where the northern park herd once numbered right at 19,000 elk...fewer than 6,000 are there now - again due to wolf predation. (2011 Update - This spring, that herd has dropped to 4,400.)

We have our muzzleloading big game seasons because they were implemented as game management tools. These popular seasons (with close to 4-million U.S. muzzleloader hunters today) gave wildlife managers another tool to help keep wildlife populations in balance with habitat and food sources. And when wildlife populations drop to dangerously low levels - hunting seasons will be curtailed or eliminated altogether.

In most states, muzzleloading hunters were the last to get a season of their own. We're the low man on the totem pole. And when hunting opportunities have to be cut back, we'll be the first to feel that tightening of the belt.

What do you think needs to be done to prevent the loss of our muzzleloader seasons?

For more on this, go to http://namlhunt.homestead.com/MLhuntfuture.html

Toby Bridges


2011 Update - Since this was written back in July 2009, wolves have continued to destroy big game herds in the Northern Rockies. Yellowstone's elk herds have been pulled down by more than 80-percent...and many hunting opportunites outside of the park have been eliminated already. The same is happening elsewhere in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Now the wolves are beginning to spread into Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado. Without management of wolf numbers, hunting in the West is doomed. Likewise, the Upper Midwest is now home to between 6,000 and 7,000 wolves across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan - where the average wolf kills around 25 deer for food, and about the same number for "sport" (eating nothing) EACH AND EVERY YEAR! Add in the wolves of the West, easily 4,000 now, and it's easy to realize the damage 10,000 wolves can do to our wildlife resources. With each killing 50 animals annually, we are losing right at 500,000 elk, deer, moose, bighorn sheep, and other big game animals to wolves EVERY YEAR! For more on this, go to www.lobowatch.com .

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Getting Ready For Elk...

Some of the earliest muzzleloader big game seasons are the elk hunts offered in the West. Some of these hunts begin as early as late September. And if you've drawn one of the muzzleloader hunt tags...and haven't finalized the load you intend to use...time is ticking away. This is being written on July 26th...and next week this time it will already be August.

If you've never hunted elk before, keep in mind that they are big animals. One bull I took in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah back in the mid 1990s easily topped 900 pounds on the hoof. So, it stands to reason when you are hunting an animal this large (even if it weighs "just" 700 pounds), it's going to take more knockdown power to get the job done than when going after even a big whitetail. Most hunting experts agree that it takes a minimum of 1,200 foot pounds to consistently put elk down quickly. And that is at the distance of the target, not at the muzzle.

If you're headed for Colorado, where the majority of muzzleloader elk hunts are held, keep in mind that you're faced with a few ridiculous (and non-supported) muzzleloader hunting restrictions - one being that you cannot hunt with a modern saboted bullet. Here, a very unknowledgeable state wildlife agency mandates the use of a less effective patched round ball or bore-sized conical bullet. While I personally feel it is great that the hunter who wants the challenge of "getting very, very close" and taking his or her elk with an old style muzzleloaded rifle and patched round ball has that opportunity, I also feel that it is not only wrong but unethical for a game department to prohibit the modern day muzzleloading hunter from going out with the most efficient rifle and load possible for cleanly taking game - especially game as large as elk.

For those who aren't all that muzzleloader ballistics savvy...did you know that a .50 caliber round-ball-rifle, stuffed with a 100 grains charge of FFFg black powder and a patched 183-grain .495" soft-lead round ball is good for 1,928 f.p.s. at the muzzle of a 28" T/C Hawken barrel, with 1,509 f.p.e. at the muzzle. By the time that aerodynamically inferior sphere gets to 100 yards, it has slowed to 1,095 f.p.s. - and hits with just 485 foot-pounds of punch. That's not enough for taking a 600 to 900 pound animal. In fact, such loads drop below the accepted 1,200 foot-pounds minimum energy level at only about 30 yards. At 50 yards,the rifle and load are good for only 834 f.p.e. - enough for deer, but not enough for elk.

Still, the Colorado Division of Wildlife condones the use of such loads during the muzzleloader elk season, while prohibiting the use of more effective saboted bullets that would greatly reduce wound loss. Take a load I've been playing with lately - shooting a T/C "Triumph" primer-ignition in-line rifle with 120-grains of Blackhorn 209 behind a saboted 325-grain .458" Hornady poly-tipped FTX bullet (loaded with a Harvester Muzzleloading "Crush Rib" sabot). At the muzzle of "this" 28-inch barreled rifle, this load is good for 2,017 f.p.s., with 2,935 f.p.e. At 100 yards, this big bullet would plow home with around 2,080 foot-pounds of big game taking knockdown power.

Which of these 28-inch barreled .50 caliber T/C rifles do you think would put a big ol' bull elk on the ground the quickest and most humanely?

Weigh in on this topic and share your thoughts about muzzleloader elk loads...and backward regulations that seem to be geared more toward wound loss than the clean harvest of such a great game animal.

(For more on the Hornady 325-grain FTX go to http://namlhunt.homestead.com/ProductReport.html)

Toby Bridges

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hot Weather Shooting

This is being written in late July, and even here in the Missoula Valley of western Montana it gets hot this time of year. Today, the high will be in the mid 90s.

When it is this hot, after just a few shots the barrel of a muzzleloader will heat up and holds that heat - especially if you're shooting from an uncovered position. And once a barrel gets heated, accuracy with plastic saboted bullets goes right out the window. A barrel that is exceptionally hot to human touch will make those sabots soft and less resilient. When loaded ahead of hefty hunting charges, a sabot that has been in the barrel for as little as a minute, or less, can become so soft that it simply cannot stand up to the pressures created by the burning powder charge - and it's not uncommon for the sabot to exit the muzzle in bits and pieces. Needless to say, the bullet it held at the moment of ignition is not going to shoot with any degree of accuracy.

One solution to this problem at this time of year is to only shoot during the first hour or two of daylight early in the morning. This is the coolest time of the day, and where humidity is high, temperatures can already be in the upper 70s-lower 80s before the sun even pokes up over the horizon. Maintaining accuracy even for such a short shooting period will still mean giving the rifle at least 10 minutes of cool down time (in the shade) between shots. But to load and shoot any faster is simply a waste of powder and bullets...not to mention your time.

Let's get a discussion going on this topic and see what others have to say. I have a lot more to share, and I'm interested in learning from some of you.

Toby Bridges
North American
Muzzleloader Hunting


In the past, we have tried to establish a blog several times...but for one reason or another, they just didn't work out.

This time, we're doing it with a little support from Thompson/Center Arms.

Now, that does not mean that the topics and issues we cover here will ONLY be related to shooting and hunting with a Thompson/Center muzzleloader. The information shared here by myself or anyone else will not be brand specific. Sure, we'll all share what we tend to favor, but whether or not the products discussed are Thompson/Center products, or the products of any other NORTH AMERICAN MUZZLELOADER HUNTING Web Magazine sponsor, will not matter.

Our goal here is to share information in a forum which allows other muzzleloading shooters and hunters to join in, and from which everyone stands to benefit. As always, there will be differences of opinion...so let's keep it nice.

The 2009 hunting seasons are just around the corner, which means that many of you will soon be trying out a lot of new powders, bullets, sabots, primers, scopes...or maybe even a brand new rifle. If there's something you're not sure about, sign up and post a comment on what you'd like to know. Among us, we surely have the answers to just about every muzzleloader problem.

Toby Bridges
North American
Muzzleloader Hunting