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Flintlock season presents greatest challenge for hunters

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Gene Nagel with a Lyman Great Planes rifle, a copy of the original 1875 Hawkins in his shop, Cooperstown Trading Post, in Valencia.  Jasmine Goldband  |  Tribune-Review
Jasmine Goldband
Gene Nagel with a Lyman Great Planes rifle, a copy of the original 1875 Hawkins in his shop, Cooperstown Trading Post, in Valencia. Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review

Hunters this week get the chance to tackle what is perhaps the biggest challenge on Pennsylvania's sporting scene — Taking an antler-wearing buck with a flintlock.

If history holds, about 125,000 people will take part in the three-week, post-Christmas flintlock deer hunting season.

Combined, they'll spend about 450,000 days in the woods.

And, if all goes well, only a little more than 1 percent will kill a deer sporting antlers.

Last year, hunters managed to kill an estimated 127,540 bucks over the course of all the hunting seasons. Just 1,440 of them were taken with a flintlock.

In unit 2A, for example, Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates show archers took 1,950 bucks last year, rifle hunters 5,100.

Flintlock hunters, by comparison, took 50. In unit 2C, archers took 2,450 bucks while rifle hunters got 5,700; flintlock hunters took 50. In only two units did flintlock hunters even manage to reach triple digits in buck harvest. They got 150 in 5C and 100 in 2D.

“It's not easy, there's no doubt about that,” said Eugene Nagel, owner of Cooperstown Trading Post, a muzzleloading shop in Valencia. “The late season can be tough.”

There are a number of reasons for that.

One is that the pool of bucks is smaller in flintlock season — the last deer season on the calendar — than at any other time. Chris Rosenberry, chief deer biologist for the Game Commission, said just 60 percent of the bucks that were roaming the landscape at the start of fall still remain.

A portion of those bucks would not be legal for harvest, either, given that they wouldn't meet minimum antler restrictions.

It's also true that the later into the season, the greater the number of bucks that will have lost their racks. Rosenberry said most will drop their antlers in January and February, but some lose them earlier, even during the rifle season.

“I know in the rifle season I saw a couple of half-racks already. And I heard from quite a few guys who experienced the same thing,” said Glenn Fisher, owner of Mountain Main Sports Shop near Somerset.

Flintlock hunters can legally shoot bucks without antlers, said commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. But when they do, it's technically recorded as an “antlerless” deer.

“We don't expect guys to be able to tell if a deer without antlers is male or female. That's why the general backtag becomes an either-sex tag in flintlock season,” Feaser said.

Of course, the fact that flintlock muzzleloaders are such primitive firearms makes taking any deer, let alone a buck, a challenge.

“They're capable of killing a deer out to 100 yards, but the thing is, you're shooting with open sights,” Nagel said.

“You can shoot at that distance, but that's all you're doing, shooting. You're not shooting at the heart or anything specific.

“Myself, I like to keep things under 75 yards, and 50 is better.”

The weather can also be a factor, Fisher said. Flintlock hunters spend a lot of time trying to keep their powder dry in snow, sleet and freezing temperatures.

The later into the season it gets, the less willing some hunters are to brave those conditions, he said.

But the season is also a time of family, fun and tradition, Nagel said. Muzzleloader licenses sales aren't at the peak they were in 2004 and 2005, Rosenberry said, but they're still double what they were throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

“It's a sport that seems to be going pretty strong,” Nagel said.

“I think it's because of the timing. Kids are off school, parents have some time, and they all go into the woods. It's a bonding time.”

That's whether anyone shoots a deer with antlers or not.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-838-5148.

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