Smoke poles in the Sand Hills: Muzzleloader Hunting in Nebraska
Article contributed by Field Staff Writer G. Thurman.
“I didn’t even know there was a national forest in Nebraska.”
This was the start of a conversation that would lead to a hunting trip that I now look forward to every year. I have a good friend and hunting partner that always comes up with, as he calls them, little adventures. Where I am the type of hunter that, when planning an out-of-state hunt, I spend a lot of time pouring over data, maps, talking to wildlife biologists; this friend of mine will look at a state find something on a map and say, “You know what? That looks fun let’s go!” It’s always a great time no matter what, but sometimes it turns into a very productive and fun hunt.
Two months after that initial conversation my friend Lance, brother-in-law Chris, and I headed to hunt the Nebraska National Forest. Situated in the northwest portion of the state, it is 90,000 acres of rolling sand hills, pine forested draws and steep canyons. We decided to go during the December muzzleloader season, which was a perfect way to end our hunting year.
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That time of year is very unpredictable for weather especially in that part of the country. Most mornings the temperature hung around 0 degrees with snow falling but by afternoon could be well in the upper 50’s. The first morning out everything was covered in a thick frost; Deer were up and moving all over browsing and looking for food. We realized that the deer that made this place their home had a fairly rough existence as the closest crop fields were many miles away. The main source of food for them was browse off of the small shrubs and sporadic patches of grass. Mostly we were seeing mule deer, small bucks and large groups of does. As we would drive and glass from the road it became apparent that anywhere that we drove through groups of trees we would find whitetails.
After finding a good looking spot to park we split up and still hunted a large transition zone where the pine forest met the vast sand hills. It did not take any time at all when the still morning calm was broken by the loud bark of a muzzleloader. I made my way over towards Lance, I could still smell the scent of triple 7 black powder as it hung in the air. He said he had made a good shot on an eight point whitetail buck down in the draw directly below him. We quickly recovered the buck and got to work skinning and quartering the deer. The deer were definitely smaller in both body and rack size compared to the farm ground whitetails and mule deer we were used to hunting back home in Kansas. This buck still stands as the best one any of us have taken over the years of hunting this area.
We still had several tags to fill after getting the buck into a cooler so off we went down the forest service road looking for more deer. I had the guys drop me off into a large pine forest that had deer trails everywhere. After still hunting a mile and a half into the trees I came upon a large group of mule deer casually browsing through an area of low brush. There was a 3×3 buck in the group that I would have been more than happy to take. As I made my way around a small hill to get into a good position the buck disappeared into a deep draw. I never did find that buck again but the majority of the does had fed out to about 120 yards in front of me. My love of venison knows no bounds so I picked out the largest doe in the group, settled the crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. Something I love about muzzleloader hunting is the big poof of smoke that hangs like a curtain after the shot. Once all cleared I could see my doe had dropped in her tracks. As I do with all animals I thanked the old girl and began butchering. There is a great satisfaction of bringing out a heavy pack full of meat back to the truck to your waiting hunting partners.
We had a wonderful trip that first year and have been back many times since, always with a degree of success. This has always been a low key hunt where enjoying the whole experience outweighs any trophy potential but we always come home with venison. From then on I always perk up a little bit when my friend calls me and says, “hey you want to go on a little adventure?”