Article contributed by Managing Editor K. Slye.
For the past five years I’ve been attempting, but failing, to harvest my first deer with a flintlock. It hasn’t been for lack of trying! I’ve experienced misses, misfires, and misfortune in most of my muzzleloading misadventures. But there is a romance I have with the ol’ smokepole, one with visions of Jeremiah Johnson and other mountain men hunting with their Hawken rifles on the snowcapped mountains of the west. It is these attempts to connect with the woodsmen of yesteryear that motivate me to continue to hunt with this primitive weapon, frustration and all.
The late season in Pennsylvania is open from the day after Christmas to the second Saturday in January for most of the state. There are several factors that stack the odds against the hunters in favor of the whitetail. First and foremost, the deer have been dealing with hunters in the woods since early October, they are skittish and easily spooked. Secondly, temperatures are dropping and it’s difficult to sit for hours, waiting for a deer to walk by when the thermometer has difficulty getting out of the single digits. Lastly, the iron sights and inability for follow up shots mean effective ranges for the flintlocks are limited.
My hunts from previous years have mainly been from a tree stand or on the ground still hunting, but this year my friend Jeremy organized a group of us to hunt a section of the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. There were six people total, four carrying flintlocks, and two just there to join the fun and help push the deer. Jeremy, and our friend Tony, know a section of the ANF well and have learned where the deer like to hold, so we decided to put on a few deer drives in this area.
We met at Jeremy’s house and followed him to the property where we were going to hunt. Driving along on the snow covered roads and seeing our convoy of vehicles heading to hunt was exciting, my anticipation for the day was at an all-time high. Once we parked and got the details of the first deer drive, Tony and I headed down an access road, littered with fresh deer and coyote tracks, separating a field from a ravine, thick with cover, to get set up. The walk down the access road was propelled with the hope of what the day had to bring. It was that hope and anticipation that kept my fingers, aching from the cold, clutched around my flintlock. It was that hope and anticipation that helped me ignore the icicles forming on my beard, created by the moisture from my own breath. It was that hope and anticipation that made me abandon the warm and comfortable bed to brave the frigid elements.
Once we made it to the end of the access road, Tony and I split up to go on opposite sides of a small clearing, and as I made my way to a spot that overlooked the ravine, movement caught my eye. A coyote was sneaking through the cover, I quickly cocked the flintlock and fired a shot offhanded. If there’s one thing I have learned over the few years of hunting with a flintlock, is that it is absolutely necessary to have a rest for an accurate shot. I checked for signs of the coyote but found nothing, so I went back to the top of the ridge to watch for any deer the drivers might kick up.
I was tense as my eyes strained while picking apart the snow covered hillside below, looking for any signs of movement. The sudden gunshot startled me and brought my attention to the bottom of the hill. Within a few seconds I caught a glimpse of movement, a doe cut to the bottom of the hill then disappeared. Moments later, a driver, Jason made his way to where I was standing and we joined the other members of our group.
Jeremy had taken a shot will pushing through the ravine and was following the blood trail of the deer he shot. As I was about to take off down the hill to offer assistance, he called Tony to tell us to keep hunting, as he had the trailing job under control.
So, down one man with knowledge of the area, Tony explained to me and Jason where to set up for the next drive. Jason and I were to walk across the field and into the woods on the far side, where the hillside leveled out some to create a bench. I set up on a point, overlooking a small gulley to my left and down the hill through a stand of hemlocks. Jason moved farther into the woods along the bench and out of sight.
My mind started to wander when I caught movement in the trees where the gulley spilled out onto the hill below me. A deer was heading straight at me, but then it disappeared behind a tree. With my flintlock rested on a shooting stick, I intently scanned the area looking for any more signs of movement. For what felt like an hour there was nothing, thinking the deer had reversed course and went back down the hill I relaxed a bit. But just as I relaxed, three deer appeared from behind the tree and made their way in front of me. With a steady rest I squeezed off a shot at one of the doe. As the smoke cleared I was struggling to see if my shot had connected, but three deer trotted by me then stopped. As I cursed my impatience for not waiting for a better opportunity, which may have not come, and fumbled with my speed started to get another shot loaded the deer alertly, but slowly, headed off towards Jason, and my chances at a follow up shot along with them.
The amount of frustration and disappointment I felt at that time was unreasonable, but in the moment felt justified. As I was cursing myself for flubbing the opportunity and wasting the time of the friends that were driving the deer, I heard the sounds of hooves hitting the ground, heading in my direction. I readied my gun against the tree I was standing next to, and watched as two deer were moving quickly through the hemlocks below me. I did what many hunters have done before me and let out that familiar call, “Meh!” The sound got the doe to stop, but with the vitals perfectly behind the tree, I had to wait a few, extremely long and painful, seconds for it to take another step to offer me a clear shot. As soon as that happened, I let the smoke fly and they were gone before the air was cleared. At that point I had no idea what happened, but I was convinced it was another miss. I struggled to reload, as this was the third time I had to do so, the barrel was well fouled from the black powder, making it difficult to ram the patched round ball into place. As I was jamming the ball down the barrel I could only watch as a third group of deer came through the hemlocks, offering a broadside shot at a mere 50 yards away. But, all I could do was watch as she continued through the woods and disappeared behind the trees. A few minutes later I heard whistles, as the drivers filtered through the trees, trying to get a bearing on my location.
I stayed where I had shot from and pointed the guys to the locations where the deer were standing when I took the shots. As I was telling Tony, to go a little farther to his left I saw him and Jason crouch down and Tony pull up his gun. I couldn’t tell what they were doing, but they were focused on something. They slowly made their way along the bench, picking their steps carefully, all the while Tony’s gun was at his shoulder, ready for action. As they disappeared behind the hillside I heard the distinct sound of “crack-kaboom” of a flintlock. I abandoned my post and hurried down the hill to figure out what happened.
As I came into view of Jason and Tony, they were standing over a downed deer. Tony’s first words were “nice shot Kory!” I had no idea what he was talking about.
After looking at the downed deer we had a better idea of what happened. The second shot I took of the drive connected on the doe at about 85 yards, it was far back but it was a lethal shot. The deer ran just out of sight and bedded down. As I was directing them where to go to search for signs of a hit, Jason spotted a deer flick its tail. As Jason and Tony attempted to sneak up on the deer, they realized it was hit, and were able to walk up to it and Tony shot to quickly dispatch it.
I didn’t believe that I hit the deer. “Are you sure I hit that deer,” I kept asking? My doubt was erased when we field dressed the deer and found an entrance and exit hole in the hide, behind the ribs. The shot penetrated a lobe of the liver and intestines, a classic gut shot. High fives, back claps, and group pictures were aplenty as the spirits of the group were high.
After tagging and gutting the deer, we checked in with Jeremy and found that he was in search of a kayak. He had trailed the doe he shot more than half a mile, where it crossed a small section of Allegheny River and was bedded on a small island. While he was procuring the kayak, we left my deer lay and made one last drive on a section of forest that bordered the river to see if Tony or Jason could connect.
The drive was uneventful so we retrieved my deer and dragged it to the bottom of the hill to a parking lot where Jeremy was waiting for us, kayak at his feet. The deer he had been trailing was bedded on the island and still alive, but he could not get his flintlock to spark and go off in order to dispatch the deer. With all of us in tow, Jeremy led the way to the edge of the river, where we had a good view of the island. Through the brush, we could see the deer bedded on the opposite side of the island. Borrowing Jason’s gun, he took a shot at the deer in an attempt to end the chase. After that shot, the deer disappeared from view, and we had no way of knowing if it was still alive. Jeremy strapped on a life vest and made his way across the small, but swift flowing channel, to get to the island. As he was doing that, the rest of us positioned ourselves along the riverbank, at the head, midsection, and tail end of the island in the event the deer try to make an escape. But another shot was not needed, and using a rope and three grown men, we quickly pulled her from the island to the safety of the shore. So ended a six hour long escapade that took Jeremy on a half mile journey over woods and water and ended with a funny story and a freezer full of venison.
When you picture a group of hunters sitting around a campfire or kitchen table, it is these kinds of stories they tell. The failures, the successes and the triumphs, the inexplicable, the bizarre, and the funny are all what make the hunts memorable. Sharing this hunt with five other guys is what hunting is really about, the venison is just a bonus.