“Is Early Season Muzzleloader Worth It?”

By Joel Johnson

Would you rather swat mosquitos, wear a head net, and wring sweat from a boonie hat? Or is layering up, packing some “hot hands”, and freezing your butt off waiting for that buck of a lifetime more your style? This is the dilemma deer hunters face as the 2017 season fast approaches. There are pros and cons for hunting the early vs late muzzleloader season and both have their merits.

First and foremost, weather is the most significant driver for whether one hunts the early vs the late season. Depending on the year, temperatures during mid-October are usually quite pleasant with cool nights and warm days. This can be a boom to the cold-blooded hunter or someone taking a child out on their first hunt. The only things that can break the tranquility of these crisp mornings and balmy evenings are the hordes of mosquitos and no-see-ums that seem to rise like a plague from fall rains. On exceptionally bad days any exposed skin, especially the hands and fingers, are certain to draw a persistent swarm of blood suckers, and bug spray and Thermacell units are your only defense. On the flip side, while the late season hunter never worries about bugs, frost bite and hypothermia can be serious threats, especially when hunting on the ground or exposed in a tree stand. These situations create one of those “pick your poison” moments as a deer hunter.

The second biggest influence to hunting early vs late season is access to private or public land. In my part of the state, other than an occasional squirrel hunter, public lands face very little early season pressure. As a result, they can be gold mines for harvesting a fat doe for the freezer or surprising a whopper that came to the same green field one too many times.

During the late season on public land, even the larger tracts with good cover and food sources can be ghost towns for deer, especially mature bucks. Many times these areas have seen bow hunters, early season muzzleloaders, pumpkin parades of shotgun hunters, and even mobs of pheasant hunters and their dogs. To quote an acquaintance, “…these areas can be flat worn out by the time late season comes around.” As a result, access to private ground with less hunting pressure can make the difference between tagging out or eating tag soup.

The third most important factor in deciding to hunt early vs late season is available food sources on the land you hunt. Before the pre-rut begins in earnest, big bucks can sometimes be the most predictable, especially if the right mix of security cover, protein packed greens, and water are available. Clover, alfalfa, cereal grains, and brassica plots can be magnets for big bucks in October as they put on their last serious feed before the rut. Scouting likely spots from a good distance with binoculars or a spotting scope can provide key insights on when and where to plan your ambush.

During the late season, food is king, and standing beans, corn, and mature turnips will draw incredible numbers of deer to your property, sometimes from miles around if no other significant food is available. Scouting these pressured deer from a safe distance is even more critical during late season, and to maximize your success, focus on hunting during weather extremes. For example, an approaching arctic blast or blizzard can trigger the deer to strap on the feed bag. Conversely, a couple days of above average temperatures after a long stretch of extreme cold can get the deer on their feet and easier to kill.

Two additional factors to consider when deciding to purchase an early or late season tag are season length and availability. While the early season typically only lasts a week, the late season can run more than three weeks depending on the calendar. Moreover, there is a capped number of tags issued during the competitive early season purchase period, whereas the late season is only subject to county doe tag quotas and firearm season regulations.

The final aspect to hunting early vs late season is the quality of deer you are looking to harvest. During the early season bucks are still on full feed, have maximum body mass and condition, and are simply more numerous. In contrast, during the late season mature bucks have been pursued for almost 3 months while rutting. There are thousands of quality bucks harvested during this time as well as thousands that are wounded that die or go completely nocturnal to recover from their injuries. There are also those that succumb to the rigors of the rut and old age. Consequently, the overall pool and average quality of deer available to harvest in late December and January is smaller. Adding insult to injury, depending on the deer and the severity of the weather, bucks can start dropping their horns between Christmas and New Years, further reducing the number of antlered deer available to late season hunters.

The point of this article isn’t to tell you which muzzleloader season to hunt. Rather, it is intended to compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of both seasons to help you make the best decision for your style of hunting. Personally, I hate bugs, and the only time I appreciate sweating while deer hunting is when I am dragging one out of the woods. I have had great success focusing on food and frigid temps. during the late season to harvest mature bucks in west central Iowa. However, digging into snow banks in subzero wind chills, shivering in elevated blinds, and trudging through deep snow are not for everyone. On the other hand hunting in a t-shirt and not having to worry about bringing a cold gun into a warm house and causing a misfire sounds more attractive the older I get.

Whatever muzzleloader season you decide to hunt, just remember to practice your aim, keep your powder dry, and take a kid hunting this fall. Best of luck to you all!