Many hunters with an unfilled deer tag are now anticipating the late archery and flintlock muzzleloader seasons. Both of these seasons begin the day after Christmas and end on January 12, offering 16 days of hunting as the final opportunity for those dedicated folks to put some venison in the freezer this winter.
The first archery season for deer in Pennsylvania began in the fall of 1951. The first winter archery season came in 1964 and was restricted to certain areas of the state. In 1967, this late season was expanded statewide and has been a fixture ever since.
The first muzzleloader deer season occurred in 1974. Hunting was permitted only with antique-style flintlock rifles with open, iron sights. The three-day season was restricted to just 37 state game lands, and both bucks and does were legal game. In spite of all those limitations, four bucks and 61 does were taken during that initial season. In 1975, hunters managed to take 174 deer during a five-day split season. Hunters bagged 340 deer during the 1976 muzzleloader season, which included 39 state game lands and two islands on the Susquehanna River. In 1977, 60 state game lands were opened to the muzzleloader hunt, and the harvest more than doubled to 866 deer. The muzzleloader season finally became a statewide event in 1979 when flintlock hunters bagged 2,459 deer.
I've always found those early years of muzzleloader hunting and the growing popularity of the sport to be somewhat remarkable. During those first seasons, most of the participants tended to be black-powder enthusiasts who already owned and were familiar with shooting flintlock rifles.
Many of them even donned the traditional buckskin clothing of the old-time mountain men during the special season. Back then, few gun shops were likely to have a flintlock rifle of any kind in stock. And even if they did, not many folks were willing to make the investment in such a rifle, along with all the necessary accessories to shoot and clean it, just to hunt deer for a few days in the middle of the winter on a handful of state game lands.
Another major roadblock to participation was those years were still in the longstanding era of one deer a year for Pennsylvania hunters. So even be able to hunt in the late muzzleloader season, you either hadn't taken a deer in the regular season or simply decided to wait until muzzleloader season.
Add to that the deer herd had already been drastically reduced before the late season even starts and flintlocks often fail to fire in any kind of inclement weather, so taking a deer with a muzzleloader this time of year is not a high-percentage play by any means.
In spite of all the negatives, however, hunters embraced the concept of the late muzzleloader season, and several gun manufacturers responded by producing flintlock rifles for the potentially large market Pennsylvania represented. In the late 1980s, regulations changed, allowing hunters to take more than one deer per year in Pennsylvania if they held the appropriate licenses. This allowed many more hunters to participate in the late flintlock season, either by necessity or design, and this special season continues in popularity.
I can vividly remember my first hunt with a flintlock. It was just after sunrise, and I had emerged from a small thicket at the edge of a clearing. I was stunned to see two deer heading straight toward me. I remember thinking, "This is going to be easy," as I cocked the hammer and leveled the rifle at the approaching deer.
My sights were trained on the lead doe, and when it stopped about 50 yards out, I touched the trigger. The gun fired with the characteristic hiss-boom, belching a smelly white cloud that enveloped me in the crisp morning air. As the haze dissipated, I saw the deer still standing there, just watching me, as if amused by all the noise and smoke.
Realizing I must have missed, I slid the butt of the rifle to the ground in preparation to reload. The deer continued to watch as I poured a new powder charge down the barrel. They started to move as I fumbled for a patch and ball in my possibles bag and were sauntering past me only a few yards away as I rammed the projectile home.
Of course, both animals disappeared into the thicket behind me seconds before I was able to prime the flash pan for a second shot.
That was just the first of many creative ways I found to miss a deer with a flintlock over the seven or eight years I hunted with one. That experience was a lesson in humility to be sure and gave me a large dose of respect for all those with the dedication and good fortune to take a deer this time of year with that traditional weapon.